Navigating challenges and opportunities in academia

For International Women's Day 2019 we asked women leaders, scientists and innovators involved in the Newton Fund to share their stories and celebrate the impact of women in science.

By Caroline Clason

The first six months of 2018 had been wonderful – full of the kind of experiences that reminded me why I enjoy being an academic. I had (finally) secured a permanent lectureship, been successful with some small funding applications to support my fieldwork, organised a successful conference, and was really enjoying my teaching. In July I travelled to Iceland to collect sediment samples and look for evidence of anthropogenic contaminants on the surface of glaciers. For once it was dry for the full trip, the glaciers looked stunning as always, and my fieldwork went exactly as I’d hoped it would. Just five days after I got home I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 31, and underwent surgery on 1 August.

Thanks to the invaluable support of colleagues, and driven by the knowledge that I didn't want to miss out on a fantastic opportunity due to my illness, I submitted an application to the Newton-Paulet Fund call on Peruvian glacial retreat on 16 August. After months of treatment and recovery time, I returned to my job as a lecturer at the University of Plymouth in January 2019, and three days later found out that my funding application had been successful. I was delighted – this was my first large collaborative project as Principal Investigator.

I’ve experienced more peaks and troughs in my personal and work life over the last year than I could ever have imagined. In some ways this is representative of my experience of academia more broadly and over a decade of challenges faced and opportunities taken. Until recently I had no real job security, and I have lived in five different cities and three different countries to pursue my academic career. In each role I have had to drive my own research agenda, and at times I felt that I wasn’t included as actively in wider research activities as some of my male peers.

As a relatively young woman in a research field historically dominated by men (harking back to the days when polar and mountain science were heavily intertwined with exploration) I also encountered difficulties related to expectations of my physical capabilities during fieldwork. After dealing with confidence issues in the early stages of my career, leading student field trips and running research projects in glaciated regions are often now the highlights of my year, and a stage on which I thrive. I'm hugely encouraged to see that even in the time I’ve been working in academia more women are undertaking field research in polar and alpine areas. There is no reason why women can't flourish in these environments, despite the physical and mental challenges associated with fieldwork in Earth's icy areas. I hope in some small way that I can be an example to my own students, and demonstrate that careers involving field research don't have to be restricted by gender, ethnicity or background.

While academia can pose numerous challenges, the research questions that get me out of bed in the morning focus on a much bigger challenge: global sustainability. Our Newton Fund project addresses the impact of retreating mountain glaciers on water resources. We want to improve understanding of these processes and impacts in the Cordillera Blanca region of the Peruvian Andes, and develop new resource management strategies alongside local stakeholders to mitigate against changing water availability and quality caused by evolving climatic conditions. Glacier-fed water resources are important for drinking water, agriculture, industry, and hydropower generation in Peru, making this a critical socio-economic issue as well as an environmental issue.

Over the next few years I will be working alongside a team of researchers from the UK and Peru, with expertise spanning glaciology, catchment science, remote sensing, stakeholder engagement, and social vulnerability and adaptation to environmental risk. On a personal level I am really excited to have been given the opportunity to lead a project of this size for the first time, and to apply my existing knowledge and experience to a region of Earth's cryosphere I haven’t worked in before. Although transitioning back to work after a difficult period of my life is an ongoing challenge, this project helps to keep me going and keep me focused on those challenges that should matter to us all.

Caroline Clason is a glaciologist and lecturer in Physical Geography at the University of Plymouth, UK, where she is leading a new project on “Integrated upstream and downstream thinking to mitigate the water security challenges of Peruvian glacier retreat”, jointly funded by NERC and CONCYTEC via the Newton-Paulet Fund.

Caroline is an expert in glacial hydrology, from mountain glacier to ice sheet scale, and her current research focuses on water availability and quality in glacier-fed catchments.

She is passionate about equality and diversity in STEM, and encouraging young women to pursue careers in cryospheric science. She is also an avid climber, and an advocate for the importance of exercise in maintaining work-life balance, and for recovery from illness.