Email interview: Vickie Irish, Atmospheric chemist
What made you interested in becoming an atmospheric scientist?
It was a gradual development. I loved Chemistry at secondary school and went on to do an undergraduate degree in it at university. I moved on to do my Master’s project on the atmospheric chemistry of volcanic plumes because I was super into volcanoes at that time (it was at the time when the Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, erupted in 2010). My interest continued from there and I ended up completing my doctoral degree in Chemistry and my thesis was on the atmospheric chemistry of clouds.
What are some obstacles you have faced, maybe specifically due to being a woman in a male-dominated field?
This is a big question! In the department I did my doctorate, there were not many female members of staff and it wasn’t actually a great place to work, I found the environment quite toxic and competitive. This could have been down to the fact that research is inherently competitive because of funding, but there were a group of male professors that made me feel like I was back at high school and they were the ‘jocks’ of campus, it was weird and definitely not a place I wanted to continue working. I was offered a job as a sessional lecturer there, but I turned it down because of this reason. My advice would be to find a place of work that you feel safe, listened to and valued in. It might take a while to find one, and you will likely work in non-ideal places along the way but it’s all part of gaining that experience to figure out what you want to be doing and where you want to be doing it.
A big obstacle I face right now is my worry about continuing my career if I plan to have a family. I am afraid to talk about family and career issues at work because I don’t know if that will jeopardise my future. This fear is likely unfounded because I actually work at a very family friendly place, but I’ve had this worry since before I started my career and I think it is due long-standing issues in modern work culture. Some companies are supportive of their employees planning for families, and some are not. Navigating this can be tricky, and although society has taken some steps to help women feel like they can take time away to have a family, this issue will still be prevalent for future generations.
How do you think we should encourage more young girls into the field?
Exposing young girls to science at a young age and supporting them through their journey of discovery is a very important step. I also think that the language we use when engaging young people is very important, often we unintentionally use language that either consciously or subconsciously puts young girls off doing science. The language we use may create a false stereotype, or a belief that girls are intellectually less capable, and can have deep impacts from very early on in childhood. Another thing we must try to encourage is a “growth mindset”, sometimes people are put off certain careers because they believe their skills to be unchangeable, but that’s not true! Every single person has the ability to learn more and develop their skills over time – just because you feel like you can’t do something now does not mean you won’t be able to do it a few years down the line. Which brings me to my last point – it is very important to show young girls how to embrace failure. Often we give up or start to dislike something because we think we have ‘failed’, but really it is a valuable learning opportunity. Do not be ashamed of your failures and do not be afraid to try something new because you think you will fail.
What/who inspires you and why?
My mum – because she always made the best of every situation and taught me about kindness.
Nature – there’s just something about being in the forest, or on a mountain, or in a lake or ocean that always makes me feel in awe of the world. I know that as scientists we always try to make sense of the world around us, but sometimes I like to just meditate on Mother Nature’s mysteries because they inspire me to just feel alive.
University and High School
What should a prospective STEM student start doing in high school to demonstrate their interest? What did you do?
Explore all the opportunities and passions you want to and have time for, and remember not to overload yourself. I didn’t have any ‘plan’ as such when I was in high school, I focused on being a teenager and doing what I liked to do. I didn’t do any internships or programs related to science, I was more into theatre, music, hiking, and boys! My love for chemistry was nurtured by a great teacher at my school and I knew that if I did a chemistry degree at university it would keep many career doors open for me. I know things are slightly different now, there are so many pressures on the youth of today to ‘perform’ and ‘succeed’ so my advice, if you are looking to demonstrate interest, is to be authentic and true to yourself. Look into programs or activities that you are genuinely interested in, but don’t let it take up too much of your time outside of school, take time to be yourself too.
Which schools/programs did you consider?
I figured out I wanted to do chemistry and I took French modules on the side. This allowed me to spend my fourth year of my undergraduate degree living in Lyon, France working in an organometallics lab which was great fun. I highly recommend doing part or all of your degree in another country or province that you are unfamiliar with because it gives you a chance to explore new surroundings and discover new experiences.
What was your first internship/job experience like?
My first ever job was cleaning the loos in my village pub in England when I was 14 – and I’m sure you don’t want to hear too much about this job, but it actually taught me a valuable lesson – make friends with the people you work with. I started chatting and being friendly with the kitchen staff and they suggested I talk to my manager about being put on the dishes and waitressing, and a few weeks later I didn’t have to clean the toilets anymore which I was very happy about. My most recent internship was with Environment and Climate Change Canada, it was a good experience because I got to participate in some roadside field work measuring emissions from cars, and I met a number of people in the industry that were good contacts to have and keep in touch with. In any internship, there will be times you might not be as mentally stimulated as you would like to be (e.g. I also had to count cars during my internship) but my advice is not to get too bothered by it, focus on and learn from the positive experiences you are having.
What did you learn in your internships/jobs that you couldn’t have learned in school?
This is a difficult question to answer because you learn a lot, and you might learn this stuff in school without knowing you have learned it, but in a workplace, you learn to highlight these things within yourself. You learn a lot of what people call ‘soft skills’ in a job or internship. These skills are so incredibly important to have in your career. Skills like; being empathetic and compassionate, networking and connecting with colleagues, managing your time effectively, being able to resolve a conflict, working well in a team, listening to others, problem-solving and critical thinking.
What does a typical day as an atmospheric scientist look like?
In my job as the site operator for the Whistler Peak Research station I normally get on the gondola to go up the mountain, if the peak chair is running I will go up that too, if not I will either hike up or catch a ride with ski patrol (depending on if in winter or summer) to the site. When on site I generally check all my atmospheric science instruments are running smoothly and reading logical data, if there is snow I will clear the snow from the inlets for the instruments, I will change filters, perform calibrations, and do general maintenance around the site. If a new instrument has been sent, I will install it. It’s a lot of tinkering around! At the end of my day I will either ski or hike back down the mountain.
What are some cool projects you’ve worked on in the past?
For my undergraduate project, I worked on synthesising hafnium hydride – a catalyst for the production of ethylene. It was really cool because I got to learn how to glass-blow in this project and at the time I really enjoyed organometallic chemistry. For my masters project I worked on the atmospheric chemistry of Mt Erebus in Antarctica, I didn’t actually get to go there, but I really enjoyed working on the data. For my doctorate I was lucky enough to be able to go to the Arctic on the CCGS Amundsen, a research icebreaker, to study how ice crystals form in clouds in the Arctic. Ice nucleating particles (INPs) are atmospheric particles that catalyse the formation of ice crystals in clouds. INPs influence cloud properties, including cloud lifetimes, and thus impact the Earth’s radiative properties and hydrological cycle. Warming in the Arctic will melt sea ice, glaciers, and permafrost, thereby increasing the amount of erodible soil and the surface area of the ocean that is exposed to the atmosphere. Since erodible soil and the ocean are potential sources of INPs to the atmosphere, the effects of warming in the Arctic on the population of INPs in the atmosphere are unknown. The results from my research were used in numerical models for predicting future climate in this region.