#WomenonWednesdays: Heather Graven

For this week’s interview we spoke with Dr. Heather Graven, a Reader in Climate Physics. Dr. Graven will teach Statistics of Measurement for first year undergraduates this year.

What was your path into Physics and your current research?

I was always interested in science and Physics but my degree was actually in Chemical Engineering. I did that at Caltech, so we did quite a bit of Physics even if I was in a different major. Then I did my PhD in Earth Science. It’s great to be here in Physics at Imperial and I do use lots of different physics in my research, which is one of the things that I think is really great about it. We use accelerators to make radiocarbon measurements, we use laser spectrometers for other atmospheric measurements, we do lots of fluid dynamics and modelling with high-performance computers.

Which other departments do you work with?

I have done projects with people in Life Sciences, Maths, and the Centre for Environmental Policy, and I also interact with people in Earth Sciences and Civil Engineering. In studying greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, I have to think about physics, but also chemistry, biology and human activities, which is really interesting to me.

How has your research evolved? What did you do for your PhD thesis and how has that changed into what you do now?

I would say that what I do now is still quite similar — studying carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the global carbon cycle. Carbon is exchanging through the atmosphere, the ocean, and the plants and soils on land, and I try to use radiocarbon measurements to get a better understanding of all of that cycling, as well as how human activities are impacting that.

In my PhD, I was mostly focused on measurements of radiocarbon in atmospheric CO2. I did a lot of measurements at an accelerator facility at Lawrence Livermore National Lab. I was based in San Diego in California, at UCSD, and then I would periodically go up to Livermore for a month or so to do measurements. My supervisor and I would run the accelerator for the entire weekend, because we’d try to run it in a special way to get very high precision measurements. We would take turns sleeping on the sofa in the control room of the accelerator facility!

I did a lot of work to analyze the data, but I realized that I needed to learn about modelling to have more capabilities for interpreting the data. I went to ETH Zürich for a postdoc for two and a half years. There I was doing atmospheric modelling and ocean modelling. I went back to UCSD for a couple of years and then I came here in 2013. Now I do both measurements and modelling in my research.

What advice would you have for yourself as an undergrad/PhD student, to help you through those long nights at the accelerator?

At Caltech, we had a lot of work, usually with assessed problem sheets due every week in every course, which led to a lot of late nights. Having to do that instilled quite a work ethic, which carried over to the PhD. In terms of culture, at least where I was working (this probably depends on where you are, I think even different places around Imperial have different cultures), we’d typically work at least one day on the weekend. It was something that I was used to, but it’s probably not as productive to be working all the time. It’s probably better to take your weekends off (which I do now), because once you get really tired and burnt out, you’re not going to be effective anymore.

What was the gender ratio in your undergrad coming from Chemical Engineering?

In Chemical Engineering, actually, in my year it was about half and half (I graduated in 2001). At Caltech overall it was about one third then. In my residence hall there was one female bathroom and two male bathrooms on each floor. They did put effort into recruiting women, they sponsored all the women they admitted to come for the open “pre-frosh” weekend.

How did you find it moving into a more male-dominated environment as you progressed? How have you generally found the experience of being a woman in science?

Where I did my PhD, it was quite balanced overall, because it was the Scripps Institution of Oceanography — the more physical aspects of Oceanography tended to have more male students and the more biological ones had more female ones. In my Climate Science program there were two women and four men.

It’s been very visible to me how the further I go along in my career, that ratio just keeps going down. I’ve definitely had experiences of sexism, feeling like an outsider, or feeling out of place as a woman. That’s an additional hurdle women unfortunately have to deal with.

It’s sort of feeling like you have to prove yourself, whereas maybe a man would be given the benefit of the doubt. I try and keep on going, I’m really enjoying my work, I’m really curious, and I do have some really great colleagues. As for the bad experiences, I just try to take them as they come and not be too discouraged.

As for that aspect of the leaky pipeline of women falling off academia as the level gets higher, what do you think has set you apart? Did you have an especially good support system, more confidence in yourself?

I don’t know! I remember feeling intimidated about becoming a Lecturer when I was a PhD student, thinking, “I’m not going to be able to do that”. But I just kind of kept going — it’s really competitive to get a Lecturer job, but I just kept applying to things and it worked out.

I never planned to become a Lecturer. I didn’t even know what a PhD was when I started my undergrad, because no one in my family is an academic.

When I started my PhD, I thought, “I’m really interested in this topic”, so I could spend some time learning about it and then maybe I would do something with government or NGOs working on climate change, but then I just kept going, and here I am.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *