Introducing climate scientist Dr Sophie Lewis

  • Published on September 20, 2019

Introducing climate scientist Dr Sophie Lewis

 Last month during Science Week, I had the pleasure of attending an address at the Shine Dome in Canberra given by the winner of the2019  ACT Scientist of the Year Award, climate scientist Dr Sophie Lewis.

The ACT (Australian Capital Territory) Scientist of the Year Award ‘recognises the achievements of an up-and-coming local scientist with significant potential to continue to achieve in their chosen field of research.’

As tomorrow 21 September is the International Day of Peace and this year’s theme is Climate Action for Peace, I thought this was the perfect time to introduce you to Sophie.

Dr Sophie Lewis ACT Scientist of the Year - her journey

About climate scientist Sophie Lewis

Dr Sophie Lewis received the 2019 award for research and the development of innovative techniques that are helping climate scientists the world over understand the impacts of climate change at the local, national and global level.

On her website, Sophie says “My primary research work involves investigating the contributions of human and natural influences to recent extreme climate events in Australia, such as heatwaves and floods.  Attribution studies are useful for understanding the potential risks and costs associated with future climatic changes. My interests are climate extremes, climate change and variability, and communicating climate change.

I am currently a Lead Author on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report (WG1, AR6) and a Domain Editor for WIREs Climate Change.”

Becoming a climate scientist

While I appreciate the importance of Dr Lewis’s research to the future of our planet, as an educator, what I enjoyed most about her talk was the story of her journey to becoming a scientist. I think all teachers and parents must be aware of the power their attitudes and actions have on the development of future scientists. Sharing and encouraging an interest in the world around them can have an enormous impact.

As an educator, I was also impressed with Dr Lewis’s intention to ‘use her year as ACT Scientist to ensure her knowledge is shared by delivering educational programs for children and young people to develop their interests in climate change and empower them to help us make positive action on climate change.’

In her remarkably humble way, when discussing the award after the event, Dr Lewis said that she hadn’t worked alone or in a vacuum and that she had already received payment for the work she had done as part of her job, so felt compelled to pay the benefits forward by helping to develop children’s interest in science, particularly climate change.

Sophie describes her journey

I’ve wanted to be a scientist since I was 4 years old.

My story began many years ago when my parents took me stargazing as a young child in the hope of glimpsing Halley’s Comet. We trudged for some time through the open grassy fields and then we waited, and we waited. It was a pale, grey night. In our part of the world, thick banks of cloud masked the comet’s voyage across our skies.

There was nothing to be seen that night, but still I was thrilled and became hooked on science.

Over the following years, my family spent a lot of time in the foothills of the Australian Alps. On trips to the country I collected furiously — old bones or teeth, snake skins, tadpoles, feathers, leaves, seed pods, river stones, freshwater yabbies, anything I could get my hands on.

My uncle gave me a microscope and slidemaking kit, and then a few years later, my grandmother gifted me a small telescope. At any moment, a rock might reveal a fossil and a starry night might show me particularly breath-taking meteorite.

At high school I studied as much science and maths as I could. A pocket full of seedpods and beetle casings was replaced by notebook with sketches of Bunsen burners, atomic models and calculus equations.

An honours degree, PhD and postdoc followed. Then another postdoc and a grant to start my own research program.

Looking back on these decades, my journey to scientist seems to make sense. It’s textbook really! I wanted to be a scientist and pursued my goal and here I am at the Shine Dome.

(This is an extract. Click the link to read her entire address.)

From reading Sophie’s journey, we can see some events which encouraged her interest in science:
  • Her parents took an active interest in the world and natural events, such as the passing of Halley’s Comet, and encouraged Sophie to do the same by including her in their adventures.
  • Her family spent time outdoors in the natural environment and encouraged Sophie to explore, investigate and take an interest in every aspect of the environment.
  • Sophie received gifts that encouraged and extended her ability to explore and investigate the environment; both up-close with a slide-making kit, and from a distance with a telescope.
  • In school, she extended her interest by studying science and maths.

We can use these events to inform attitudes and actions we may take to foster children’s interest in science. However, in doing so, we must also heed Sophie’s words of caution.

“My only reluctance in sharing my story is that I would never want anyone to think that you have to

1) have a long-held interest in science to become a scientist, or

2) that the only use for scientific interest is as a scientist.

I think it’s great to allow children to enjoy science and explore scientific thinking, wherever that takes them.”

Dr Sophie Lewis ACT Scientist of the Year

Attitudes and actions to foster children’s interest in science

  • Show an active interest in the world and beyond.
  • Encourage an investigative attitude and support their collections of things that interest them.
  • Observe natural phenomena together; for example, watch an approaching storm and discuss the senses used to experience it (what you can see, hear, feel, smell and taste).
  • Encourage them to find out the answers to their questions, or find out together, through experiments, investigations or research.
  • Attend lectures, watch documentaries, visit museums, and talk with experts in different branches of science.
  • Help them verify information with reference to other sources.

Michael Rosen Good Idea

Supporting our learning from Dr Sophie Lewis’s story, is a story about Sir David Attenborough told by Michael Rosen in his book Good Ideas: How to be Your Child’s (and Your Own) Best Teacher. (I shared that story, along with other suggestions and resources in the post Making Space for Stem in Early Childhood Classrooms.)

The story goes like this:

As a child, David Attenborough took an interest in bones. If he was out walking and found some bones, he would take them home and ask his father about them.

His father, who was a GP and would have known, didn’t just tell him. Wanting his son to be curious and interested in finding things out for himself, he responded, for example: “I wonder if we can work it out . . .” They would then look through books about zoology and anatomy and try to identify the bone’s origin.

I think you would agree that, if we want our children to be interested in science, we must take an interest in it ourselves.

We couldn’t conclude a post about a climate scientist without including some everyday actions that each of us can do to make a difference.

Actions for climate

  • Walk, ride, skate or use public transport when possible; for example, to school, to the shops, to the beach
  • Turn off lights and appliances when not in use
  • Buy locally sourced and produced food and items
  • Dry clothes on the line rather than in a dryer
  • Take short showers
  • Eat less meat
  • Compost vegetable scraps
  • Use refillable drink bottles and cups
  • Use your own reusable bag to carry shopping
  • Reduce, reuse, recycle
  • Dispose of all waste appropriately
  • Have conversations with friends and family so you can support each other in gaining a good understanding of the challenges and solutions
  • Be a climate-conscious citizen and think about prioritising climate action when you decide how you will vote.

You can find many other suggestions in The Lazy Person’s Guide to Saving the World available on the Sustainable Development Goals website.

Note: I have prepared the lists provided above as posters which you can download free to distribute to parents or to stimulate discussions in meetings with parents. Click on the images to follow the links.

Attitudes and actions to foster children's interest in science

Actions for improving climate

Climate Action for Peace: International Day of Peace

Climate Action for Peace

As stated above, tomorrow 21 September is the International Day of Peace and this year’s theme is Climate Action for Peace. You may wonder what climate action has to do with peace, but the statement on the website explains it clearly:

“The theme draws attention to the importance of combatting climate change as a way to protect and promote peace throughout the world.
Climate change causes clear threats to international peace and security. Natural disasters displace three times as many people as conflicts, forcing millions to leave their homes and seek safety elsewhere. The salinization of water and crops is endangering food security, and the impact on public health is escalating. The growing tensions over resources and mass movements of people are affecting every country on every continent.

Peace can only be achieved if concrete action is taken to combat climate change.”

With scientists like Dr Sophie Lewis working towards finding solutions to the challenges of climate change and inspiring young people to be actively involved in contributing to positive outcomes gives us hope for a peaceful future.

Thank you, Dr Sophie Lewis.

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Comments

    Great how you’ve extrapolated from Sophie’s journey to how other children can be inspired. Even if they don’t follow a scientific path in their careers, there’s so much to be gained from encouragement to be curious. No shortage of work for climate scientists — and philosophers and communicators like David Attenborough — right now.

    Thank you for your lovely comment, Anne. I thought Sophie’s story was perfect for sharing with children. Yes, we can all take an interest in science even if we aren’t officially scientists, and there’s a big need for citizen scientists too. And yes, we need more people who are prepared to have the hard conversations and make the difficult decisions which will mean a more positive future for us all.

    Wow, how fascinating you got to listen to Dr. Lewis live. This is a big changing time for the world. Just the amount of people around the globe marching for climate change, led by young Greta, is finally awakening the world. <3

    It was a wonderful talk, Debby. It was very special to be in the audience. I think we (the collective) are finally starting to take notice. I hope it’s not too late. My grandchildren joined the climate strike here on Friday. They were talking about climate change all weekend. It’s a real concern for them.

    The children are the future for sure. Children are like sponges as you know well. They take notice of what’s going on and already thinking of their futures – something we never even thought about ourselves as children.

    We had other anxieties as children. Thankfully, many of those never came to pass. I hope it is the same with climate change, but I am not very hopeful.

    What a wonderful post, Norah. Dr. Sophie Lewis must have been fascinating to listen to. She shows how important it is to have support as a child, but you lead the way in showing parents how to do it.

    Dr Lewis was fascinating and inspiring, Charli. I knew as soon as I heard her talk that I wanted to share her story. Not only does it show the way for parents and teachers to encourage children, it also encourages children by showing them how a life in science can be achieved.

    I’m sorry your comment disappeared, Robbie. I’m not sure why. It wasn’t in spam either. You are right about learning beginning at home. Your boys got off to a good start.

    Thanks so much Norah – a wealth of useful information – or perhaps knowledge is a better word – contained in your post. I like how you bulleted the 4 or 5 points about Sophie Lewis’ journey, likewise with Davis Attenborough, each story showing the positive influence of encouragement of significant others.

    And your list noting how we can each make a difference by our our mindful actions in these challenging climate change times is useful too.

    Peace and Namaste and have a lovely weekend 😀

    I really appreciate your thoughtful comment, Susan, and am pleased to know that you appreciated the bullet points and list I used to highlight the information.
    It is useful to know that the small actions we make everyday make a difference.
    You have a wonderful weekend too. Thanks for your wishes.

    You know, Norah, you have hit on such an important point here. If you want your children to take an interest in something, you must be interested in it yourself. You can’t tell your children to read but never read yourself. A fantastic post.

Please share your thoughts. I love it when you do.

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