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Lucy Carpenter

Lucy CarpenterWhat drew you to science rather than more traditionally accepted societal roles for women?

I really liked all science at school – physics, biology and chemistry and maths. Our chemistry teacher used to do a fantastic end of year display of chemistry, including burning magnesium in water and setting the string of a hydrogen balloon alight in the lab (with all us kids wondering where/ over whom it would explode!). So, I could see the power and wonder of chemistry early on and I especially liked the physical/mathematical side. I would never have made an organic chemist - I wasn’t that keen on remembering complicated reaction mechanisms or the names of molecules with more than a few carbon numbers! But I loved the problem-solving side of science and the satisfaction of solving those problems. And, having a love of nature from an early age (I grew up on a smallholding in the countryside), I was keen to put that to practice in environmental science.

I am lucky in belonging to a generation of women who didn’t have to worry about any societal stigma in pursuing a science career. Or at least, I never noticed it, or let it worry me. I do have huge admiration for those female scientists who came before and paved the way – sometimes (as I’ve learned from a few of them) putting up with quite eyewatering prejudice. Thank you for your resilience!

What were the two main obstacles you encountered in your career as a woman and how did you overcome them?

I won’t pretend it was easy raising two children at the early stages of my academic career. In fact, to be honest, I was near to giving up my career several times because I sometimes felt I wasn’t doing either job as well as I wanted. However, in the end both the children (although you’d have to ask them of course) and my career seemed to have turned out all right. Doing an equal job as parents and having “emergency” support where needed from close family really made the difference. Plus, the department was keen to support me and was very flexible in how I managed my time.

I would say the other main obstacle was just getting my academic career started, which I’m sure many/most young academics face. It felt like an uphill battle of getting my first research grants funded and a lab set up, all while trying to hone lecturing skills to vast numbers of undergraduates and tutoring no end of unfamiliar and difficult subjects. A real baptism of fire. In my case, I was the only atmospheric chemist in the Department when I started, so doing all of that on my own with practically no technical or logistical support was really tough. We are now a lab of around 80 people (including 6 other academics) with an exceptional support team around us, so it’s a different world.

What sacrifices have you had to make to get where you are today, and do you have any regrets?

I moved from full-time to part-time working once I’d had my first child, before moving back to full-time 13 years later. It was exactly the right choice for me and I have no regrets, but I was the first academic member of staff in our department to do so (to my knowledge) and, even though my head of department was very supportive, it felt like a bold thing as it could have been perceived as a signal that I wasn’t serious about my career. I’m really proud that, now, there are many (female and some male) academics in the department who work part time to fulfill their caring responsibilities.

Other than that, I guess the amount of work required at times means you sometimes miss out on other things. But the amazing opportunities that my job has offered - including going to far flung places around the world and meeting brilliant people (often at the same time) - more than makes up for that.

What advice, or encouragement, would you give to young girls and women who are considering a career in science?

It has its challenging moments, of course, but a research career in science has to be one of the best jobs there is. The freedom to pursue the research that you love and discover some entirely new bit of science that no-one else has thought of is massively rewarding. The collaborative aspect of discovery is particularly fun, when as a team you identify solutions to problems and unlock the door to the next stage. When you’ve got your head in the tunnel marking hundreds of exam papers, or battling with an experiment that refuses to work, that is sometimes hard to remember. But there are many good parts to enjoy. Finding a good mentor and ensuring you’re working in a place that fits your experience and skills (and has of course a good culture) are important first goals in any career.

What has been the highlight - or most memorable event - of your scientific career to date?

There have been many highlights, but I would pick out being chief scientist on an ice-breaking cruise in the Arctic Ocean about ten years ago. The feeling of leading the science part of the expedition to get the best out of it was incredible (or maybe appealed to the megalomaniac in me). On top of that, we were incredibly lucky to have multiple sightings of wildlife including polar bears and a narwhal among the wild beauty of the Arctic, something I’ll never forget.

It would be remiss of me not to also mention my involvement in the Scientific Assessment Panel of the Montreal Protocol (in multiple roles over the last 14 years). While there is inevitably some(!) stress, I always feel that people bring their “best selves” to this societally important effort to produce the highest quality assessments possible. For many of us, it’s the most important thing we do scientifically. It’s a real privilege to be involved and to enjoy working with the best scientists in this field around the world.