Physicist Summits Everest for Girls in STEM

July 19, 2018

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I interviewed physicist Dr. Melanie Windridge, author of Aurora: In Search of the Northern Lights, last year for a Special Report on the CFI website.

No armchair-ridden ivory tower egghead, Windridge is a veteran of days-long treks and wilderness expeditions. Her website features photos of her summits, and her book contains many compelling first-person adventures in Iceland, Scotland, Sweden, and Norway. “When I was doing my undergraduate work, I had no idea what I’d be doing now,” she told me. “I was doing fusion, so it was very lab-based, so it was very different for me to say I want to get out of the lab, I want to study physics in a very different domain. It’s really wonderful to see this phenomenon that really touches you on a personal, inner level…. But also to look at the science of it, and understand that the science doesn’t take away that feeling you get. It’s still magical. In fact knowing the science makes it even more incredible.”

As for her book Aurora, “I didn’t want to just write a science book. I wanted to celebrate the beauty and magic of the aurora and how captivating it is, and also explore the history of Arctic exploration and the cultures there… It’s this wonderful crossover between art, history, science, culture, and landscape.”

Windridge has launched a campaign to get her to the top of the world—or at least to Mount Everest. The reason? To improve science education, especially among girls and women. She notes on her website: “The economy needs more science graduates and we especially need more women in science. Did you know that just 20% of physics A-level students are girls; a figure which hasn’t changed for 25 years? Studying science leads to meaningful, interesting and well-paid careers but many students are put off because they aren’t aware of the opportunities. I want to help change this… I’m climbing Mount Everest this year and showing the science that improves our chances of getting safely to the summit. I am a physicist and I’m fascinated by the science of exploration. I want to use my experience to inspire young people—especially young women—by showing them the importance of science in our lives through an exciting challenge. And I need your help.”

As part of the effort Windridge has created an educational outreach program including blogs, articles, and school workshops. The keystone is a series of short videos on the theme of “Science of the Summit,” aimed at teenagers and available on YouTube: “They will be used as engaging educational resources for schools and will give young people an insight into how science skills are used in a variety of careers. We hope they will help engage young people globally with science.”

Windridge summited May 21 and on June 15  she released a seven-minute video titled “Oxygen and Safety Systems on Everest,” a look at the science of oxygen at high altitudes. The fundraiser continues, helping to produce and edit other videos. You can donate and find out more about the campaign here.