Image credit: John Houlihan

Image credit: John Houlihan

Lucy Carpenter is a Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry at the University of York. She was the recipient of the 2015 Rosalind Franklin Medal, which is awarded to an individual in recognition of their outstanding contribution to any area of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

In honour of International Women’s Day 2016, we caught up with her to discuss her life, research, and outreach.

Why atmospheric chemistry?

It offered the whole package – I could do something I felt was important, be intellectually challenged, and travel the world! The fieldwork aspect of atmospheric chemistry offered other exciting challenges, but I’ve always loved fixing instruments and solving problems on the fly. All of this allowed to me do measurements that no-one had ever done before. I still feel that buzz about it today, even though I’m now supervising the experimental work rather than doing it personally.

How did you get to where you are today?

Neither of my parents were scientists, but I was always a bit of a science nerd. My older brother had gone on to study chemistry too, so I wasn’t the first to enjoy the topic. It was an easy choice to study it for my undergrad at the University of Bristol. I was also fascinated by environmental topics from a very early age. In fact, I took a year out after university and did some work for a conservation society – I knew that I had a general interest, but I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do with it.

Some of my undergrad lecturers recommended I visit the University of East Anglia because they were doing a lot of great atmospheric science there, and some of the PhDs looked really exciting. One involved doing field work in the arctic, and building the measuring instruments for it… it looked absolutely brilliant. So I joined up and it went from there. My research now is focused more on atmospheric chemistry over the oceans, including the tropics – each region faces different challenges, but the atmosphere is truly a global system, so as you do more you realise how different parts of the puzzle fit together

Can you tell us more about the Cape Verde Atmospheric Observatory that you run?

Cape Verde is home to a one of a few dozen “Global Atmospheric Watch” stations maintained by the World Meteorological Organization. It is a UK-German collaboration – we at the University of York provide trace gas measurements, The Max-Planck-Institut or Biogeochemistry, Jena (MPIBJ) make the greenhouse gas measurements, and the Leibniz Institute for Tropospheric Research, (IfT) measure various characteristics of aerosol. All of the data collected at these observatories is added to a database, which allows us to monitor climate and air quality over long time scales and across the globe. 2016 marks our ten-year anniversary!

Could you describe a moment of discovery?

Yes, and it’s all to do with ozone. Urban areas produce the greenhouse gas, but we know that oceans act as a sink for it. Ozone naturally breaks down in the presence of sunlight and water vapour. But we showed that the experimental data didn’t match up with the existing models. After a lot of work, we proved that natural emissions from the oceans (mostly iodine- and bromine-containing compounds) sped up the destruction of ozone in those regions…. The ozone reacts with iodine on the ocean surface, which creates gases that destroy more ozone! Before then, this mechanism was unrecognized, so it was a huge step, and the most exciting thing I’ve done… but it meant that my eureka ‘moment’ was probably spread over 8 years of work!

Did you ever have doubts about your career?

Yes definitely! First of all when I made the leap from post-doc to lectureship – it’s a real challenge, and I wondered many times if I’d be up to it. For me, the next major challenge was having children while still growing my research group. My husband and I were living in Leeds, but I was commuting to York every day. Like many women, I felt like I wasn’t doing either job properly. But you eventually reach a point where you have some momentum and things get easier.

You were awarded the Rosalind Franklin prize in 2015 – what did it mean to you?

It was a huge deal for me – I wasn’t expecting it at all. It gave me a massive boost, and I feel like I still have a warm glow from it now, six months on. I really enjoyed the evening of the ceremony too – meeting members of the public, having my colleagues and family there… and I got to visit the fabled Fellows Room in the bowels of the Royal Society!

I’ve used the money from my award to set up a series of summer schools in our department. The first will be in July this year, so I am heavily into the planning stage right now! Over three days, young schoolchildren will get a taste of fieldwork – they will put their own sensors together, design mounts to hold them and then deploy them around the site. Importantly, they will manage these sensors and do all of the analysis too.

Do you have any advice for young women who are interested in atmospheric chemistry?

The field offers lots of things to lots of people… If you are computer minded, if you love being in a lab, if you love being out in the field, and have an adventurous spirit, then it could be for you. I’d recommend studying a core science subject because you will need the physical science skills for atmospheric research, and be persistent, even when things look hopeless!

Do you think things have changed for women in science in recent years?

In my own experience, I can say we’ve come an awfully long way in 10 years – things have changed a lot for the better. There’s a lot more awareness around the need for equal representation at conferences and in groups, and thanks to schemes like Athena Swan, it is embedded in everything we do. Sometime this means that as a woman in this field, you get asked to do a lot of events, but that is a symptom of things moving in the right direction. Of course, it could move faster! There’s still a pay gap and much lower levels of women at the higher levels. But generally, I think it is gradually improving for us.