Meeting your heroes

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to receive a ERASMUS+ Mobility Grant to visit one of the pillars of climate science, The University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit.

CRU is responsible for one of the most widely-used long-term climate datasets in the world, the HadCRUT record. It also has an impressively long history of historical data research. I was therefore really excited, and pretty nervous, when I got off the double decker bus at UEA on Monday morning. I was going to meet my heroes, peoples whose names I only knew from my well-thumbed copies of their papers. Eep!

My nerves were not needed. Although I was among climate giants, the “CRU crew” were welcoming and friendly, generous with their time and their wise advice. I made good progress on the project I had gone there to discuss, and now know more about just how their long-term climate series are put together. I also understand the rotten Climategate controversy a bit more, after talking to those who were directly affected.

What struck me during the week was just how normal the place was, despite its importance in the climate science community. CRU seemed like a standard, dare I say slightly aged, University science department. It had the same stacks of brown binders on the shelves that you see in science departments everywhere, the same (presumably breeding) colony of outdated computer screens in the back room, and a mildly complex morning tea routine, similar to that experienced in tea rooms around the world.

In one way this was very reassuring. It’s inspiring to know that such great science comes out of a familiar office, from patient and approachable people. But in other ways, the fangirl in me expected a tiny bit more. Where were the fancy computers, the high-faluting mentor schemes, the shiny things?

Summer break and an exodus of recently completed PhDs also meant that CRU’s normality (in terms of science department stereotypes) sadly extended to its age and gender diversity, at least while I was there. I only met two female staff members during my stay, and almost no one under forty.

This is not the regular situation at CRU, and I did meet students and female scientists at the wider department seminar on my last day. But it was a slight letdown, as I was secretly hoping to meet an inspirational female early career scientist on which to latch/model myself.

The moral of the story? Don’t be afraid to meet your heroes, they’re probably really nice. Plus, you don’t need bells and whistles to do good work: just knowledge and time. And regular cups of tea.

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