From HPS to Saving Planet A

Recently, HPS Alumna Dr Zoë Loh featured on the ABC documentary Fight for Planet A in relation to her role as a senior research scientist at CSIRO. In this interview, Zoë spoke with Samara Greenwood about her love for History and Philosophy of Science and how it has contributed not only to her career, but to building the skills needed to meet the challenges of today. Zoë is Lead Scientist in the Cape Grim Science Program and leads the Major Greenhouse Gases Team in CSIRO’s Climate Science Centre.



Could you give us a sense of your connection to the University of Melbourne and History and Philosophy of Science? What did you first study?

I first studied History and Philosophy of Science. I was of that generation of young women who, if they showed any aptitude for maths or science, were pushed to do science. I don’t regret it for an instant. I’ve landed in a really interesting space in work I really enjoy but, actually, when I was at school, my deepest love was words! So, I always thought I’d be interested in science journalism, or something like that.

When I was sussing out university courses, I discovered that both La Trobe and Melbourne had History and Philosophy of Science departments, and I just thought: “that’s what I want to do”.

I did a double degree in Science and Arts. My Arts degree was principally History and Philosophy of Science. Initially my Science degree was going to be all about Biology, but then I discovered I didn’t really enjoy studying Biology at all! And I ended up doing quite a lot of Physics and Chemistry.

As it came to the end of my undergraduate degree, really what I wanted to do was Honours in HPS, and I had a conversation with Neil Tomlinson, who said to me: “you’ve done a Science degree as well, Zoë, you should really go and be a scientist for a while and then you can come back to us”.

So, I went and did Honours in Chemistry and went on to do a PhD and I look back very fondly at my HPS years. It probably was my real love.

Were there particular subjects or topics that captured your interest?

I loved almost all of it, actually. I guess with my love of words, and literature, and culture, I loved the intellectual milieu of HPS – the debate around how culture and society intersect with science, which is so key to the society we live in.

It was just the quality of the engagement of the students with the content matter, and the dissection of all of these parts of the way our society functions work – I just found really engaging and fulfilling.

Have you found that your HPS studies have been relevant to the science you have gone on to do?

In the long run it probably has. Through a series of circumstances, I ended up taking a stop-gap job to pay the rent, measuring greenhouse gas emissions from intensive beef production, which was an incredibly stinky job! It wasn’t a job that I wanted to do long term, but it was a job that really brought me back to some of the foundations of what had inspired me to go to university and study both Science and HPS. Here was a practical application of some of my technical expertise that actually engaged in a question of enormous relevance to society.

That set me off on a path from pure scientific research back into the domain of science questions that are butting right up against the way the society is functioning and the choices we’re making.

So that was a stop-gap job. How did that lead to where you are now?

A series of happy coincidences, really. So it was a happy coincidence that I got that job just as my scholarship ran out, and I needed to pay the rent. This [next] job popped up in what was then the Institute of Land and Food Resources, and they had these new lasers to measure greenhouse gases, and so they needed someone who knew about lasers, and I knew about lasers. I knew a lot about lasers.

Actually, I didn’t know any of the things I really needed to know to do that job – like boundary layer micro-meteorology and project management. I kind of worked all that out on the fly. But through operating these laser systems I met some people at CSIRO who had a post-doc going. I guess I got a foot in the door. I applied for that job, because I really was fed up with all the flies at the beef feed lots. I haven’t looked back. I’ve been at CSIRO working in the same group ever since. I’ve been there thirteen-ish years now.

Has your job changed over that period?

Yes, it has changed. Well, it’s changed in some respects. So the focus of my work during my post-doc was really around designing an atmospheric monitoring system to detect leakage from geo-sequestration projects, carbon storage projects, and that was an interesting exercise. It gave me a lot of new skills and an introduction into atmospheric science, which I didn’t have a background in.

After that wound up I got a research scientist position within the group and I transitioned to more of the core long-term science that the group does. I now am one of the lead scientists of the Cape Grim Program that’s been running for nearly 45 years now.

But I’ve continued to do lots of work on a more regional scale, looking at how we can use measurements to constrain regional-scale greenhouse gas and how that might inform policy. For example, smart measures for pulling policy levers that might actually provide a really strong impact in terms of driving emissions down.

View from near the Cape Grim weather station. On the left is the ‘Doughboys’, in the middle in the distance is ‘Trefoil Island’, and beyond on the right is ‘Hunter Island’ and ‘Three Hummock Island’, 2013. Photographer: Ken McInnes via Wikimedia Commons

Now that you’ve come back to that connection between science and policy as well as society in general, do you feel like having studied the humanities as well as science has helped in that respect? Does it give you a different perspective from someone who perhaps didn’t have that background?

I think it has. I feel like it has equipped me very well for having those conversations and writing those documents and fronting up at those meetings where broader policy implications or strategic direction might be part of the conversation.

You featured on Fight for Planet A – the documentary currently on ABC. How did that come about?

The researchers for the series were fossicking around looking for all manner of people who are interested in carbon dioxide. They got in touch because, I don’t know, they found my name on a website somewhere associated with Cape Grim. I spent some time talking to them, and then we spent a day filming down there, which was really fun, actually.

I watched it and it looks great. It really brought home things in quite a concrete way. I thought it was great.

It is a very beautiful place to get to work.

It looks gorgeous.

When I’m able to get there, which of course I’m not at the moment.

No, that’s true. Normally, would you spend much time there?

I probably go there three or four times a year, for maybe a week at a time. At the moment we’re really relying on the fabulous technicians who live down there and work at the station day in day out. They are supporting five very complex research programs. And none of the lead scientists are able to travel there, so they’re carrying quite a big load.

And so, your future, what does that hold? Is it more of the same, or are there other things that you hope to achieve?

My real interest at the moment is in both maintaining the long-term core monitoring from Cape Grim, our global flask network, and our sub-Antarctic stations, but also really trying to make inroads into using atmospheric measurements to constrain greenhouse gas emissions estimates from cities.

Most anthropogenic emissions come from where the people are, which is the cities. It’s not uniformly the case – obviously we generate a lot of carbon dioxide in the Latrobe valley in Victoria, for instance, which doesn’t have such a high population density.

But most of the really effective measures for driving down emissions rapidly are going to have to focused around cities. In some ways they’re more agile and cities do a lot of work in terms of characterising what their emissions profile looks like. But they do it by sort of bottom-up estimates. They have great big spreadsheets that talk about the number of cars on the road and the amount they travel, and their fuel efficiency.

I would really like to see the kind of work I do, making those measurements and using atmospheric inversion models to estimate those, as a way to validate those bottom-up inventories. There are strengths and weaknesses of both approaches, but I think they will teach us much more rapidly where we’re making good choices that are genuinely driving emissions down efficiently, and where we may be missing opportunities to do so.

Does that mean looking at it from a different perspective and seeing how they correlate?

Yeah, seeing how they correlate, or don’t correlate, both in space and time. Because I think that gives us much greater insight into where we’re being effective and where we’re maybe missing some low hanging fruit – potentially.

So that’s a long-term project for you?

That’s my current career goal: to kind of carve out that space and make sure Australia learns to do a decent job of that. I think my team and I need to drive the uptake of that kind of stuff in Australia. That’s what I’m working towards at the moment.

It seems to correlate with what you were talking about in having concrete work that effects things that you can see in the real world. Would that be true?

Yes, I think that is increasingly true for me, actually. There was probably a period in my early twenties where I was not fussed with that at all.

That sounds pretty normal!

Yes! Probably that period where I was doing my PhD: head down, bum up, in the lab!

If you were talking to students today, why would you recommend taking up both science and humanities, or History and Philosophy of Science even?

I think it gives you a much broader grounding in all of the elements you need to participate in society. It skills you up to be a good citizen.

Studying HPS was always a joy but I think it has given me a much better rounding to be out in the world and take on challenges and engage with issues. Perhaps it’s also helped me make headway with some of those.

It has been really interesting to hear your story and to see how it has all connected up, got you to where you are now and where you’re heading into the future. Thank you so much for talking to me today.

You’re welcome. Thanks for having me, Samara!

Feature image: Zoe Loh at the Antarctic Circle, 2017