Dr Tamsin Edwards

Dr Tamsin Edwards started her scientific career as a particle physicist before moving into climate science in 2006.

Now a regular pundit on radio and via her own blog, which is also hosted by the open access journal PLoS (Public Library of Science), Tamsin is a passionate advocate for science and has contributed work to the most recent assessment report for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Her primary research focus lies in quantifying uncertainty in predictions from earth system models, including climate, cryosphere and vegetation; both in the interests of understanding past changes and predicting the range of possible futures.

I can pin down being a climate modeller to two specific events. When I was about 15 my cousin David lent me A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking; I read that and loved it. So I chose to do physics at A-level when I had only been doing chemistry and biology at school. Before that I hadn’t thought physics was that interesting; people had told me the GCSE was all about measuring trolley speeds with ticker-tape - I guess I didn’t have a good idea of what physics really was. Hawking’s book really brought it to life – people had said it was really impenetrable but I loved trying to understand all the analogies about stretching balloons and stuff. I thought maybe this is something I would enjoy.

Particle physics is really worthwhile, but to me it felt like quite a luxury to do it – we were in this amazing playground of science where we were occupying ourselves thinking about different problems and it was hard to relate that to the outside world.

I wanted to do something that felt more directly like it was going to do something in the immediate future rather than many years down the line. Of course, that was before the exciting discovery of the Higgs boson!

I finished my particle physics PhD and was trying to work out what to do next; I was looking for public sector jobs or something else that felt ‘worthy’. I have a friend from school whose older brother is a climate modeller and we were all in the pub one Boxing Day when he suggested climate modelling to me.

I’d thought that maybe you had to do environmental science to get into that, but he said he’d gotten into it from astrophysics and anyone with a background in physics could learn the rest on the job. I went for the post-doc job in Bristol and was really lucky to get that in 2006.

I love being a climate scientist and the fact that it’s very broad; you learn about lots of different things. Particle physics was always really interesting but you tended to get focused on one very particular area, whereas now I’m thinking about everything on the planet, in its whole history and the near future.

In everything I do I work with lots of different people. I also enjoy going to conferences where you hear about different aspects of the Earth system, and digging up my old knowledge from school about biology, chemistry and geology.

I try to work across the modelling and data divide: I work with climate and ice sheet modellers and also the people who go out and collect the data that we test the models with.

It can be difficult to work well in very large groups, and when you have a big deadline it makes everything harder. At the moment I work in a project called ice2sea that combines 24 European universities and weather agencies. We have to give our best predictions for sea level change in time for deadlines for the project and to be included in the IPCC reports.

This involves a huge chain of global climate models, regional climate models, ice sheet models, and observations, so if there’s a problem somewhere along the line it can delay everything. It can be really difficult having such large groups of people working together to strict deadlines. Normally things are more flexible – conferences are deadlines too, but you just present whatever work in progress you have at the time.

But for this, we have no choice but to give our best possible predictions for the IPCC reports and for European politicians, even if we wanted more time. Science is very unpredictable – the whole point is that we are discovering things that nobody knows – so we could never guarantee we’d have all the answers in time.

On the positive side, it’s really pushed the science and showed us where we need to do more work, because we’ve been forced to give an answer for every single aspect of sea level. We can’t just say ‘we’ll come up with something in a few more months or years’.

In a sense we have a single, simple question – ‘what do we think the sea level change will be over 200 years for a particular scenario of greenhouse gas emissions?’. But that has a lot of different parts to it, like the different contributions from glaciers, Greenland and Antarctica, and we have to try and predict and assess our uncertainty about them all.

I’ve always enjoyed trying to explain things to people, especially difficult scientific concepts. So long as someone’s interested there’s no limit to what you can teach people. Brian Cox (my PhD supervisor) was an influence on that but it predates him. As soon as I started my post-doc job in climate I did a school talk that went down well and I really enjoyed it.

But it can be quite hard to stand up and talk about climate because it’s such a broad and controversial topic; it took me a good five years before I thought I could face any kind of question from any audience. There are still lots of times I have to say one of the most important sentences in science: I don’t know.’

The reason I started my blog was because I wanted to put a human face on science. If people are interested, and are trying to get better informed, it’s easy to have a good conversation about the science, and if people warm to you as a person that really helps too.

Arguments in climate science, just like other areas, are often made by dehumanising the opposition, so if people get the feeling they might like you then they’re going to listen more than if you were just an anonymous scientist.

I start the day walking to work, usually listening to music and tweeting at the same time. I don’t do anything in a lab; my office is my laptop which is a blessing and a curse because it means I can work anywhere. I usually have lots of things open on my laptop at once – journal and web articles to read, computer code, writing papers and blog posts, Twitter – and flit between them all.

I love the variety of the projects I work on – they all have a common theme; the uncertainty of complex systems. I’ve never been the kind of person that’s enjoyed focusing on only one thing and being the world’s leading expert. Some people are amazing at that and they’re the sort of people I go and learn from.

I like making links between different ideas: at the moment I’m applying lessons I learnt in my first post-doc job, about assessing uncertainty in future climate change, to predictions for the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets.

It’s partly about learning a bit of everything, and partly about going to experts and working with them to find the gaps in the science. For me the best way of coming up with new ideas is talking to other people.”

"I’m thinking about everything on the planet, in its whole history and the near future. I love being a climate scientist and explaining things to people, especially difficult scientific concepts."

Dr Tamsin Edwards, Research Associate, School of Geographical Sciences


Watch Tamsin discuss what it means to be a scientist in the 21st century in our new film Can science save us?

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