Women in STEM: Dr Maria Russo

Dr Maria Russo is a Research Associate in the Department of Chemistry, where she studies the physical and chemical processes at work in the atmosphere. Here, she tells us about the links between climate and air pollution, the excitement of ’blue-skies’ research, and achieving work/life balance while raising a family.

Cambridge University is an amazing cauldron of very talented people. I have been working in the Department of Chemistry for over ten years as a Research Scientist, funded by the National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS).  The Earth’s atmosphere and climate are highly complex systems to study and require a multidisciplinary approach. The Cambridge Centre for Climate Science  pulls together the skills and knowledge of people from different University departments and the British Antarctic Survey to enable such a multidisciplinary approach. During my undergraduate degree at the University of Palermo in Italy, I spent six months studying in the UK as an Erasmus exchange student. This was an inspiring experience and after completing an MPhil in Chemistry I decided to go back to the UK and pursue a PhD at UCL.

I joined the Met Office after completing my postgraduate degree and worked there as a climate scientist for a few years. However, my job was of a very technical nature and I missed the excitement of interest-led research. A key moment in my career came when I decided to leave my permanent position there to pursue my research interests. I found a very relevant job in Cambridge and decided to accept it, despite the fixed-term nature of University employment. I’m glad I took that risk and followed my interests as this has paid off in the long-term.

My interests include atmospheric pollution in the urban environment, tropical storms and their impact on the ozone layer, and climate change. I use computer simulations to study the interplay of the physical and chemical processes that affect the Earth’s atmosphere and all of its living creatures. Most of my days are spent on a computer looking at large multidimensional datasets and trying to find patterns and trends. We use computer models to simulate the atmosphere and its chemical components, so one of my jobs is to test the model results are accurate, by comparing the model output to observations from satellites.

I hope my research will lead to better understanding of the atmosphere and potentially new ways to understand the links between climate and air pollution, along with increased awareness of the damage that certain technologies could be inflicting on our planet, and in turn on our health.

If pursuing further education in science or a STEM career is what you want to do, then don’t be put off by statistics or what anyone might say. There is a role and a need for more women in STEM and things are getting rapidly and noticeably better for those who follow this path. More flexible working arrangements and the definition of core hours allow women who decide to have a family (such as myself) to continue their career and achieve a reasonable work/life balance. Issues of pay gap and progression still exist but they have started to be addressed thanks to initiatives such as the Athena Swan charter.

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