SOUE News Issue 9

From Engineering into Meteorology

Debbie Clifford

Debbie (née Putt, Jesus, 1999-2003) has moved from engineering into meteorology, and wrote this article to convey her enthusiasm for her new-found field of work.

Last week I found myself sat around a table with some BBC producers, exploring the extraordinary and beautiful images taken of planet Earth by satellites. They want to use these images in a television programme, and I am part of a group of scientists working with satellite data who are enthusiastically showing off what our instruments can do. At the start of the meeting we introduced ourselves, and my potted history began with my undergraduate degree in engineering from Oxford.

So how did I get here? When I left Oxford in 2003, I knew I wanted to be an engineer. I'd always wanted to be an engineer. Fate, however, had other ideas, and I rapidly became disillusioned with the "real world"; although it was a lovely company, I realised that this flavour of engineering consultancy was not something I could spend the rest of my days doing. I hastened back to academia with the idea of training in environmental science, to become an environmental engineer, aspects of which we had only briefly considered at Oxford but which interested me much more.

Here I discovered what every academic knows, which is that research is creative, stimulating and (sometimes) satisfying, and certainly a lot more fun than a real job! So I signed up for a PhD with an inspiring and enthusiastic hydrology professor, and here it was that my career properly began. My research explored how we can observe global snow cover from space, and I realised that "Earth Observation", as the field is known, combined my interest in the environment with a long-held fascination with space and technology. Maybe this story actually started a much longer time ago, with a primary school project on space aged seven... I certainly got a childlike thrill at being able to spend two weeks working at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre in Washington DC, and have proudly kept my security badge!

I am now a post-doctoral researcher, working in the Meteorology department at Reading University, funded by the National Centre for Earth Observation (NCEO). I am developing an idealised model of atmospheric convection, complete with clouds and rainfall processes, for simulating novel radar measurements and learning how to use them more effectively in weather forecasts, a process known as "data assimilation". Unexpectedly, with this project I have used more of my engineering degree than at any time since finals - solving PDEs, optimisation, radar theory, computational fluid dynamics - HLT is still in pride of place on my shelf! I really can't think of a better degree to have prepared me for my current job.

There is so much more out there in academia that is open to engineering graduates than straightforward engineering research, if that doesn't appeal. I really enjoyed my fourth year project modelling freak waves with Paul Taylor, but I wasn't ready for a PhD then. A "year in" helped me discover where my skills and interests really lay, and allowed me to approach a PhD project with greater maturity and commitment.

I also have the freedom in my job to explore my wider interests, such as public outreach and working with the media. I am a recently signed-up STEMnet Ambassador, encouraging young people to explore science-technology-engineering-maths ("STEM") careers, and am part of a team developing an outreach strategy for NCEO as a whole. Last year I also spent three months working for the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution in London, as part of a secondment scheme to give PhD students experience of the policymaking process.

In seven years my expectations for my career have changed completely. Right now, I have no idea where I will be in seven years' time. Whether scientist, policymaker, project manager, teacher, or anything else, what I do know is that I will always be an engineer at heart!

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