Episode 3 – Interview with climate scientist Dr Linden Ashcroft
In this episode we’re thrilled to chat with Dr Linden Ashcroft, a lecturer in climate science and science communication at The University of Melbourne, and a proud member of the UniMelbSciComm teaching team. She is also a historical climatologist, and uses pre-1900 documents and weather observations to explore the climate of Australia’s past so we can better prepare for the future.
Her career has spanned the academic, non-for-profit and government sectors, including a stint at the Bureau of Meteorology, and managing a national citizen science project.
Linden is a regular on community radio, gives frequent public talks, has contributed to over 40 media articles since 2018, and was featured in the 2019 Best Australian Science Writing Anthology.
She was a 2019–2020 Science and Technology Australia Superstar of STEM, received the 2020 Australian and Meteorological Society Science Outreach award, and was selected as a Victorian Tall Poppy by the Australian Institute of Policy and Science in 2021 for her excellence in scientific research and outreach.
You can follow Linden and find out more about her work here:
Welcome to Let’s Talk SciComm, a podcast by the University of Melbourne Science Communication Teaching Team. I’m Dr Jen Martin and my co-host is Dr Michael Wheeler and we believe science isn’t finished until it’s communicated.
Hello and welcome to Let’s Talk SciComm, a podcast by the University of Melbourne Science Communication Teaching Team. I’m Dr Jen Martin and I am very happy to be joined as usual by my co-host Dr Michael Wheeler.
How’re you doing Michael?
Hey Jen, super excited for today’s episode. I can’t wait to get into it.
I know, because today we are talking with one of our very favorite colleagues, and of course all of our colleagues are our favorites. But today Linden, it’s you.
We are speaking with Dr Linden Ashcroft, who is also at the University of Melbourne and she spends some of her time as a climate scientist working in the School of Geography, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. And she spends some of her time working with us, teaching communication skills to scientists. So welcome, Linden.
Thanks Jen, what an honour to be here. I mean, I talk to both of you most days, but having our conversation recorded feels particularly special to me, so thanks for having me on.
And I feel like we should really list off all the many, many accolades to your name. But if anyone wants to hear all the amazing things that Linden has done and does, and all the awards she’s won, just have a look at our show notes on our website because we want to get stuck straight into this conversation.
And Linden, the first thing we want to hear about is you and science. Can you think back to a moment in, in your childhood when you decided science was your thing? Or is there a time that science just really, you know, took your fancy?
When I was a kid I was always going to grow up to become a poet. I didn’t actually love science that much when I was younger. I liked writing, I liked dreaming and you know, until about, you know, and I thought I’m going to be a poet and a secretary because I like words and I like organising things. So that will be my career.
I think it’s a little bit of, a bit of a gender story in there as well maybe. But then in about year nine or ten I remember we started doing calculus at school and we started, you know, looking at equations that could explain how graphs work and equations that could explain how other things work. And then I got into physics and I realised that you could use equations to explain, not just the curves on a graph, but actually how the world works. And that to me really changed my direction and I’ve always been fascinated in the weather. I grew up in Country Victoria where we had big skies and, you know, heavy rains and long droughts, and I was always fascinated by, by the atmosphere. And so I shifted my direction from poet to meteorologist, and that was what I wanted to do.
So I really focused very hard on that in my high school education, wanting to go to the University of Melbourne and study meteorology. I remember looking at the guide book, you know it was all in books back then about ok, meteorology, what do I need to do to study that? And so I did that. I went to Melbourne Uni and I studied a Bachelor of Atmospheric Sciences and I thought I wanted to go and study storms forever, but towards the end of my undergrad I realised that actually, what I wanted to study was the long term patterns of our atmosphere, how things change over time.
I didn’t want to spend my career looking at individual clouds. I wanted to understand how clouds in one part of the world affected clouds in another part of the world, so that led me into a career in in climatology. Not only because climate change is the most important thing that we need to do with as a species, but because scientifically it’s just, it’s still incredible to me that you can use equations to explain the chaos that we see above our heads everyday.
So I love the fact that it started with numbers. And then your initial love of words has brought you ‘round to communicating about your science. It’s the love of numbers and the love of words brought together.
Yeah, absolutely. And I think, just like a lot of people and I’m sure you will talk to a lot of people in this podcast that will say the same thing. I always thought that those two things were separated and they could never be combined and that you couldn’t love numbers and love words together. You know, you had to pick one or the other. But now I realize not only is science communication a crucial field and I just so love teaching that to our students, but also that the skills of communicating and the skills of writing are incredibly vital to be a successful scientist.
If you want to use your love of numbers with power, then you need to be able to communicate that using words, whether that’s the written word or speaking verbally, or you know videos, all sorts of things like that. So, I don’t know, I think a lot of stories we hear from people who work in science communication is that I’ve got these two parts of myself and I couldn’t get them to reconcile, and so I’ve forged a career in science communication.
But I also think you don’t have to use them both in equal parts. You can be a scientist who likes communicating rather than a communicator who cares about science. You can have those different amounts of each of that, if you know what I mean.
Yeah, definitely yeah, it’s such a vital part of the day to day job of a scientist that I, I think maybe not a lot of people quite realise, you know, being able to communicate. So yeah, really transferable skills.
So Linden, I’m just curious about whether there’s any particular part of your climate science research that you’re particularly passionate about?
I love talking about all things climate and weather. Actually, I do still love exploring the weather maps and trying to understand. I see a cloud in the sky and I think right, what’s happening up there with those air molecules and those water molecules kind of moving around.
But my area of expertise is historical climatology. I’m actually a historical climatologist, and there is not that many of us in the southern hemisphere. I think I probably know all of them and there would be about 25, I reckon. There’s a few more people that do this in the northern hemisphere because of course, written records in the northern hemisphere are a lot longer than they are in the southern hemisphere. Because the job of a historical climatologist is to explore the weather and climate variability of the past using documents and using numbers, using archives that haven’t really been studied for scientific purposes in the modern age.
In Australia, obviously our indigenous populations have a really deep understanding of our environment, of our climate and weather of country. But what I do is remarkably shallow compared to that knowledge. I look at the written record from European invasion in 1788 and I try to tease out what we understand about the climate of that time from 1788 to about when the Bureau of Meteorology was formed in Australia in 1908 because there’s heaps out there, right? There’s so many books and diaries and log books and tables and tables, all sorts of information that’s been just sitting in libraries and attics and, and museums and things like that.
And it’s insane to me that all of the work that people have done recording weather information, diligently writing in a diary everyday, and, and capturing the climate of our country before climate change really started to bite in about the 1950s. It’s insane to me that that information is not being used to help us better understand what the climate of Australia is like, so we can prepare for the future.
So that’s what I do, I hunt for old weather observations, and then I assess them for quality. I use a lot of statistics and really deep detective work from a mathematical point of view, but also from an archival hunting point of view to find out who took these weather observations, did they know what they were doing? You know, did they change their approach after a while? Did they move the thermometer? Did they palm off the job to their sons on the weekend? All these kind of information collection that I do to try to get the story behind the numbers so we can use them with confidence. And I love that, I love, I love what I do. It’s, you can tell from my excited voice that I just love that exploration. And maybe again, it’s that marrying of science and stories, you know, and bringing those two things together.
Yeah, that’s fascinating. Just thinking about it now, I mean, those historical records. Are they just numbers or is there also, you know, you’re trying to interpret historical communication that’s… Is there any meaning attached to those numbers?
Absolutely yeah, that’s such a good question Michael. And it’s not just numbers, it’s never just numbers is it? You have to look at them with a very skeptical eye and you have to assess them for human biases and human issues. Lots of people, even today. If you’re a volunteer weather observer, you generally tend to round to the nearest zero or to the nearest five, for example, and we see that back in time all around the world.
And there are a lot of documentary written accounts as well that uhh, provide really crucial information about droughts, about floods, about the impact of these events. And we can use those to bring out information that if you, if you can explore it in the right way, you can turn it into a graph. Which someone like myself, that’s how I like to process the world, seeing it in graphical format. But then you can wrap that with the stories of the people and what they experienced. And to me, now that I work kind of in between these two spaces, the stories of what people experienced and the societal impacts have passed, extreme weather events or past droughts, or those kinds of things. That allows people, particularly some sections of the community who maybe don’t engage with climate change that much, really allows them to access this sort of information.
And we do, we do a fair bit of citizen science work as well, where we ask people who aren’t trained scientists to help us with our research; either finding weather observations in their personal family collections or looking on the National Library’s extensive online repository. We ask people to help us with that, and help us turn these observations into a spreadsheet that we can then do science with. And people really enjoy that, people from all ages and different generations and maybe different mindsets about climate change? They like exploring the historical side.
And it’s the words that you say Michael. It’s the, it’s the stories and the narratives behind that that I think really hook people in. And so, it’s a really, it’s increasingly apparent to me that the work I do is important scientifically, but it’s also a really valuable engagement opportunity for people to connect with the weather and the climate of their place and also understand a bit more about how that is changing.
And so Linden you said before that climate change is the, is the biggest problem, the biggest threat facing us and, and you know, obviously, I’m going to completely agree with you. I think we’ve all become a bit focused on COVID in the short term, but, but the changes, the changing climate that is looming ahead of us is something that’s always on our minds.
So you clearly then, as a climate scientist, you know, you have all this expertise and all this knowledge that you could keep to yourself, right? You could just talk to other climate scientists, but you don’t. Do you have a sense of your first experience of being a science communicator? The first time you thought: Oh, hang on, I’ve just been explaining something complex to people who aren’t in my field.
I’ve been doing science communication for over 10 years now and I have to confess I also did a qualification in science communication. So my first foray into talking about science with people outside my field is talking to school kids. And I did a lot of touring around as, as part of the Questacon Science Circus up in Canberra, where I would go around and do science shows for kids and schools in rural, regional and remote Australia. So I made lots of clouds in bottles and I did a lot of demonstrations about how cool air pressure is and the incredible things that the atmosphere can do.
And then when I came back to research, the timing of that coincided with the really sustained attack on climate scientists around the world. There was the big Climategate scandal, when a scientist in the UK was accused of fiddling with the numbers and making up climate change so that they could get paid the, you know, as we all know, the extremely high salary that scientists get paid, which is not true and every scientist I know is never doing in it for the money, and it’s not that much money on the smaller scale of things to begin with.
So the communication activities that I did when I was training to be a climate scientist were pretty small. They were pretty minimal and that’s because I was trained and I was taught to protect myself. I was taught to be very objective. I was taught not to show any of my personal opinions or show any of myself in the communication that I did and a lot of my colleagues have, have done the same thing. They’ve really protected themselves because to communicate with passion in our field has a long time, and maybe some more science in general is the same, would be seen to be losing objectivity.
And so you, you lost that position of authority, of authenticity if you dared to show yourself. And so I kind of kept on the sidelines a bit. For a long time, I did some communication during my PhD. I did a 3 minute thesis competition, which was fun. I spoke about my research on radio, which was really great.
But the thing that comes to mind actually Jenny, when I decided actually, I need to speak louder about this is when East Gippsland burned at the end of 2019, the start of 2020. I have a personal connection with that part of the world. I was there, like so many people were, you know, I spent my New Year’s Eve fleeing the place that I love, assuming that I would never see it again kind of thing. And I was pregnant at the time, I was terrified, I couldn’t imagine anything, anything worse happening. My whole world changed that day or that summer as a lot of people’s lives did and that made me sit up and think I have a lot of information here. I can’t sit on this anymore, you know.
There are a lot of incredible climate scientists who do work and I think as a junior scientist, I thought it’s somebody else’s job to talk about this. It’s somebody who was involved in writing their nature paper or the science paper. They can talk about their own work.
But that turning point made me realise that I have a role to play or I have a responsibility to share the knowledge I have with a, with a wider group of people. So that’s kind of the stance that I made and that I need to do it honestly. And I can’t be afraid of that small, vicious community that attacks climate scientists. We don’t have time for that. We need to, we need to move on. And so yeah, I made the decision to be a little bit louder.
Good on you, *audio issue*, that’s brave Linden, ’cause that’s, that’s a big step to take, it must have been quite anxiety provoking to say no, it’s today and it’s me and I’m going to do this.
I felt quite empowering actually. Maybe it was a little bit nerve wracking. But also I was heartbroken and also I was full furious. And you want to, you know, you want to do something.
This is the problem. Well… there’s lots of problems with climate change. But I think one issue that I see and when I talk to people and people ask me what can I do, what, what’s the thing to do? There’s so much, there’s so much that needs to happen. And one person can only do so much and I, I think a part of me was a bit paralysed, I didn’t know what to do.
Right, should I just focus on my science because that’s a really important contribution? Should I focus on communicating? That’s a really important contribution. Should I focus on my own individual actions? That’s something that needs to happen. Should I focus in the political sphere? That’s something that needs to happen. Argh, too many options. So I think in one sense that, that was really empowering because I thought, right, this is something that I can do.
Yeah, so Linden, you’re in a very unique position as you are a climate scientist doing climate science communication but you’re also a science communication teacher.
So would you say that climate science communication or climate change communication is more difficult than other types of science communication?
Yes, I would. And I think there are other fields that would say the same, ecology maybe as well. Although they’ve got cute animals. We don’t have as many cute animals. I think climate change communication is definitely harder than something like astrophysics or paleo, you know, paleontology, that kind of stuff where it’s, the hook is, This is amazing. This is so fascinating to explore this part of the world.
Whereas climate change science is, This is terrifying, here’s some more bad news. Hi, I’m a climate scientist, I’ve got some more bad news for you. You know what I mean? Like Jenny and I do the radio regularly and every time I go on the show, I say, “oh sorry guys, I’ve got some more bad news for you.” Like that’s, that’s hard for people to listen to and climate change as well, it’s a harder thing to get across to people than something a bit more tangible like: oh, if you drink one glass of red wine, or have four blocks of chocolate, it will make you live longer, live less long, whatever, depending on which article you’re reading on the day.
Yeah. You know, climate change is huge, it affects every element of our lives now. But it still feels far away in both time and space. It’s also quite confronting for people to think about and from a scientific point of view, the science is very complicated, and there’s still a lot that we don’t know, just like all science I know but, people are asking, people want the information now.
What’s going to happen in my town in 20 years. 30 years, 50 years and we, we can’t say that for certain. We can give you an estimate, but we can’t say in 30 years to the day, this is exactly what’s going to happen. And communicating that uncertainty or looking at how to make those projections a little bit more accurate. That’s a big part of what climate research does. And so talking about uncertainty is tricky, I think, although we’ve all become a little bit more familiar with it in the last 18 months, two years.
Not by choice but yes.
I also think that, with climate change, compared to some other forms of science, although maybe you know not immunology and epidemiology recently. The conversation doesn’t, can’t just include scientists anymore. Yeah, Yep.
The conversation is not, I, for a while I thought no, it’s not my, I don’t have anything to add here. Like you don’t need to hear from me anymore. You need to hear from policymakers, you need to hear from renewable energy experts, you need to hear from sustainable planning experts. You know, the science in one respect is very settled.
In another aspect, there’s still a lot for us to explore, and it’s a really exciting field. Oh how I would love to be a climate scientist in a world where climate change wasn’t happening, ’cause there’s still lots of cool things to discover. But it’s a bigger conversation and like I said, I think a lot of scientists in the climate sphere are still, don’t want to wade into that. They say “here are the results that I found”, you know, “you can do what you want with it”, but that’s not what people… From my understanding, that’s not what people need anymore, they need that next step.
So Linden, you have just, I think you’ve just made a really good case for why communicating about climate and about climate change is, is really challenging, and I think you’re right.
There will be people in every field to say ‘no, my field’s the hardest’, but you know it ain’t a competition, right? We’ve all got the same goal: to help more people understand science and to make evidence based decisions.
But given your wealth of experience, you know. You’ve done lots of writing. You’ve done lots of radio. Obviously you started off doing shows with kids. What are some of the main things you’ve learned along the way about what makes effective science communication?
The skill that I have tried to develop the most is listening. I don’t know whether maybe you wanted me to say something different, but the more that I talked to people and the more that I write for people, the more I understand that the thing you, you need is a respectful relationship, better respect for the people who you’re talking to or talking with.
And a lot of science communication that I see or communication experts that do an incredible job and they do make a lot of, they do make a lot of difference and a lot of change, but it feels very one directional. Whereas for me personally I think those two directional conversations inform my communication practice in the future, informed my science as well and it also allows me to build up a respectful relationship with the people that I want to work with.
And that makes them more likely to listen to me, more likely to trust me, more likely to share the information that I’m sharing with them, with other people. Yeah, and that comes, that comes back to listening a bit I think. Which I guess again comes back to knowing your audience, which I assume is what every single guest on your show will say.
Oh look, we don’t have any preconceived ideas of answers that we want, and I think that idea of listening is amazing and we all recognize the importance of that.
But I guess my next question then is, so what platforms do you find are the most useful for you? Because obviously some forms of science communication are going to invite conversation and dialogue and respectful relationships, a lot more than others.
That’s a really great question Jen. And you know, I’m still trying to figure that out. You know, because it’s still for me, a question of which audience am I the most useful to? You know, we talk a lot in our classes about knowing your audience right? And to me that sometimes, once you figure out ok the people who I want to speak to the most are a certain section of the community or a certain research group, or a certain whatever. Who are they likely to listen to? Is it me? Is it a young upstart woman? I don’t know.
But for other things, the conversations that I’ve had have been, that have been most fruitful have been in regional communities, have been with older community groups, and that’s because I’m a girl from the country. And they say, ah, “You’re a country girl. You know what’s going on?” I’m talking about the past and so people in, maybe in an older kind of demographic feel as though history is maybe not being listened to as much as it could be, and I’m here to say no, no, we talk about, we look at the past a lot when we do climate science and so that gets respect that way.
I’ve also been surprised when I, when I use bigger platforms. You know, if I write something that gets published in the paper, or if I have been on TV a few times, I’ve been really surprised by the feedback that I’ve gotten from people within my personal and professional network, which has allowed me to have more conversations as well. You know those things on the surface seem very one directional. You go on the telly or you publish a piece or something. But I have had a lot of feedback and a lot of follow up from that. So I think a few aspects there, making sure that you can get a message out, but also that you’re getting something back intellectually but also emotionally a bit. You know, it’s nice to have a conversation with someone. For me, that fuels me a bit and energizes me.
Yeah, I mean it sounds like all of those experiences have been really beneficial and you’ve learned a lot from them.
So I’m curious to know whether if you could go back to your undergraduate self, what would you say to yourself to give yourself advice on how to have a rewarding career in science?
Probably say don’t stress about it. Don’t stress so much man, it’ll be fine.
Is that good advice for today? For today too?
Yeah, I’m not sure, I suppose. You know what? I was given some career advice when I just finished my undergrad that I have held for a long time now and I now pass it on to other people if they ask. Which is to just do the things that are interesting. Follow the things that are interesting and a career will be built that way. *audio issue* Setting.
I mean, maybe it works for some people to say I want to be this thing at the top of this ladder. You can’t see, but I’m pointing high. This is what I want to do and this is how I’m going to get that and that works for people sometimes.
But for me, I wasn’t quite sure what that was. I fell into doing a PhD because I thought I could get a job as a science communicator and I couldn’t find a job anywhere. I ended up selling broadband plans over the phone and then a PhD opportunity came up and I thought oh, that sounds interesting, I might do that.
And then towards the end of my PhD a job came up to manage a citizen science project and an Australian-wide project that was looking at how plants and animals are changing their behavior due to climate change and I thought, well, that sounds pretty interesting, I’m gonna do that.
I’ve done the interesting things throughout my career while maintaining relationships and networks with people along the way. And so those two things have allowed me to do stuff that I love and also build up a community so when something no longer becomes interesting or my contract finishes, I can kind of put some feelers out and say, is anyone got anything interesting coming up? And that has led me to do more interesting things. So do the things that interest you, I would say.
What sound advice Linden. What interests me right now, my friend, is that it’s time for our speed round.
So we have a couple of questions for you and concise responses only.
And I kind of feel like the first one you’ve actually already answered, but I’m hoping that maybe you have another answer for us from a time earlier in your life, but we’ll just see how we go. We ask everyone the same questions so your time starts now.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
Yeah, poet or secretary, or weather girl. Have to say weather girl right. There was a small stage in everybody’s meteorological career when they wanted to do that.
Yes, which is what I do now and it’s great.
Question two Linden. Do you have a proudest moment as a scientist?
The proudest moment I think as a scientist would have to be when my PhD project, which my PhD was a part of won a Eureka Prize in 2014. I thought that was, I thought that was pretty cool.
And actually quite recently, if I can sneak in another one, a friend of mine who works in the government, recently sent me a text with a screenshot of a paper they were working on that had cited one of my studies, which meant that the work that I was doing was directly impacting our state government policy and that made me feel pretty proud.
Yeah, that’s awesome. For anyone listening outside Australia or even inside Australia who’s never heard of the Eureka Rewards, think of the Oscars for scientists in Australia. So you know the red carpet and everything, yeah?
We got dressed up. It was pretty fun.
But anyway, third question Linden. Twitter or Instagram?
Twitter! Yep, I don’t take great photos, even with a fancy new phone.
Alright. What’s your favorite science related movie or book Linden?
Twister! It has to be Twister. Obviously it’s Twister.
Yes, no doubt about it. And presumably, depending on on how old you are, you either totally agree with me or you don’t know what that movie is at all.
But then, *audio issue*, classic 90s film with Helen Hunt.
‘You can’t explain them. You can’t predict them.’
Yeah, definitely Twister.
I’m still terrified of that movie. It’s such a good one though.
Really, if you’ve never seen it, you need to go right now and find it. Surely it’ll be on Netflix or somewhere.
So OK Linden, last question. If you could give a scientist one tip about how to be a more effective science communicator, what would your top tip be?
Think about what your audience wants to know from you and just tell them. Don’t get stuck with the structure of whatever platform you’re using, don’t get caught up.
If someone… just think that person is saying to you tell me about this thing and tell them. Just, just have a chat with them, think about it as a chat.
Absolutely brilliant. Well Linden, our time is rapidly running out. But given that we have the joy of working together I’m, I’m here to let you know whether this is a promise or a threat, we will obviously have you back on the podcast again in [the] future because I know there’s lots of things we didn’t get to talk about.
But thank you so much for your time today.
Dr Linden Ashcroft, who is a climate scientist and a science communicator and a teacher of science communication.
What a joy to speak with you!
Such an honour. Thanks guys.
Thanks for listening. You can reach out to us on Insta and Twitter @LetsTalkSciComm and Let’s Talk SciComm Podcast on Facebook and we would love to hear from you.