The UK’s first female professor of meteorology, Professor Dame Julia Slingo OBE (BSc 1973, PhD 1989, Hon DSc 2010) broke the glass ceiling in the world of climate science and paved the way for more women to enter careers in scientific research. This year she is the recipient of the 2022 Alumni Award for Lifetime Achievement. We spoke to her about her time at Bristol, her impressive career as a climate scientist, the gender gap in research and the future of science for a fairer planet.
On being a student at Bristol
I loved my undergraduate years at Bristol. It was a very happy time. I’d initially considered going to Oxford but after an interview at an old-fashioned all-ladies college, I decided it was not for me! My father, a headmaster, said to me that the physics course at Bristol was really good and that was that. It was the best choice I could have made.
I loved the city and the surrounding countryside. For two years, I lived in Badock Hall where I used to ride my bike every day across Clifton Downs. It was so nice to be in mixed environment after an all-girls’ school. In my final year, I lived in a flat with five other girls at the top of two houses in Victoria Square, across from where the Students’ Union used to be. We called it ‘Vicky’ Square back then and we had some great parties down the long central hall of the flat – I can’t imagine that students live in ‘Vicky’ Square now!
I spent a lot of time singing – I still do – and really found my voice in Bristol, encouraged by the music department to join the various choirs. I remember some exciting concerts in the Colston Hall (now known as the Bristol Beacon). I also loved being in the physics department and learning all about physics – even though there were hardly any girls! But we were just as good as the boys at building equipment (machine engineering) and designing experiments.
On being a climate scientist
I am a naturally curious person and there were, and still are, so many unanswered questions in my field. When I got towards the end of my physics degree at Bristol, I wanted to carry on in science, but through physics that I could see in action in the everyday world. I’d always enjoyed looking out of the window at the sky and thinking about why, for example, clouds form, and why the wind blows mostly from the west in this country – not obvious if you think about it! I decided that meteorology might be for me and so I applied to the Met Office where I was accepted as a scientist.
I arrived at the Met Office in 1972 and I was sent to work on the development of the very first climate models – computer codes which solve the basic equations of physics that explain how the atmosphere works. My job was to work out how to represent clouds and the flow of solar (sun) and infrared (heat) radiation through the climate system. This of course meant that I needed to include the effects of carbon dioxide (CO2) on the planet.
Back then we knew CO2 was rising but I don’t think we had fully grasped the impact this would have on society, making it, arguably, the greatest challenge the world faces today. I recall that the research I did then on understanding how much clouds and water vapour determine the response of the climate to a doubling of CO2 was not that far off the mark! That is what is so wonderful about research; it’s about the accumulation of knowledge, and even though science evolves, our early work is never irrelevant. I can see how my 50 years of research will go on to inform the next generation of scientists, who will then take it forward.
Although I’ve been retired for over 5 years now, I still love either working with somebody on a problem, or thinking about it myself and writing about it. Throughout my career, I have enjoyed investigating the world’s climate so much that it has never really felt like work. In my early years when I was raising my family, I didn’t really care whether I was paid or not, provided somebody gave me the computing time so I could run my model and make my experiments.
My proudest achievement has been to raise my two daughters, while building a career that took me to where I am today. I had my children 35 years ago when the idea of having a successful career as a mother of several children was not as common. The concept of part-time working or even working from home barely existed. I was very fortunate to have two amazing bosses who gave me the support and flexibility that allowed me to carry on my research when my children were small. To them I am forever grateful. I know that my daughters are proud of what I have achieved, even though they know it was not always easy.
On breaking the glass ceiling
When I joined the Met Office in 1972 there were only 2 or 3 women doing research. I became very used to being the only woman at conferences or meetings and to be honest I didn’t think about it very much. In 2000, I became the UK’s first female professor in meteorology at the University of Reading, and in 2009, the first female Chief Scientist of the Met Office.
But it’s sad to see that 50 years from when I started, there’s still such a gender imbalance in the upper echelons of science. This is despite the fact that the majority of women combine work and family these days. The Met Office is a really good example of problems that still exist. The junior positions are often more equally distributed, but once you look at the senior scientists, the majority are male.
When I mentor young women in science, I find that they often suffer from ‘imposter syndrome’; they worry that one day somebody may question their competence, they don’t put themselves forward for promotion or apply for a challenging job – especially so if they are juggling work and a family. I can recognise that in myself. When I was a young scientist, it didn’t cross my mind that I might become a university professor, let alone the Chief Scientist at the Met Office! In fact, I only applied to be the Chief Scientist because head-hunters repeatedly phoned me up and encouraged me to go for it.
So, what I say is this: Don’t let self-doubt get in the way of your career. Ignore the ‘impostor syndrome’ feelings, be bold and confident, be rigorous in your science, and believe in your research achievements; opportunities will unfold – as they did for me – and life will surprise you.
On the future of science for a fairer planet
We have some enormous challenges ahead of us. Science has always provided the solutions and today is no different. In order to build resilience to climate change, we must focus on adaptation, mitigation and low carbon technologies. These will need the best scientists, engineers and innovators to find a safe path to secure our future. We will need to collaborate on a global scale. Those of us in the Global North must support and empower those in the Global South who will feel the effects of climate change most keenly.
Solutions to the climate crisis will also only be found through interdisciplinary approaches. Interdisciplinary science is challenging and doesn’t sit comfortably in traditional university faculties and departments. But groups like the Cabot Institute for the Environment, of which I have been privileged to be the chair, can help enormously to facilitate new ways of thinking and working together. We must build a new generation of students who can tackle environmental challenges through a ‘systems-based approach’, looking at all aspects of an issue holistically, rather than exploring elements in isolation. I am convinced that this must be the way forward for creating a fairer planet, not just for us, but for all life on Earth. This is so exciting and I wish I was 50 years younger!
If you could change one thing…
If I could go right back to when I left Bristol, I wish I had chosen to become an oceanographer because I have a great passion for ships and boats. I’m never happier than when I’m just standing on the deck of a ship watching the sea. And the oceans are so fundamental to the climate!
What does the Lifetime Achievement Award mean to you?
It is an absolute honour to be chosen amongst the thousands of alumni at the University. I didn’t get a first for my undergraduate degree – I was too busy having a good time – and back then I did not regard myself as an achiever. So, it is wonderful and rather surprising to receive this recognition. It is up there with the very best of all the special things that have happened in my life, including becoming a Dame and the Chief Scientist at the Met Office – and of course a mother.
Each year, the University of Bristol recognises alumni who have made remarkable contributions to society through the Alumni Awards. From highly successful tech entrepreneurs to an award-winning journalist, the 2022 winners are all inspirational leaders in their fields. You can see the full list of our 2022 winners on our website.