Published 2 July 2024 by Ulrike Böhm

Women in Research #LINO24: Claire Yung

Claire at Media Training. Photo/Credit: JB Brown, ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes

Claire from Australia is a PhD student at the Research School of Earth Sciences, Australian National University.

She is a physical oceanographer researching how the ocean influences Antarctic ice shelf melt and vice versa. Specifically, she is trying to improve the accuracy of these processes in ocean and climate models for improved sea level rise projections.

Claire participates in the 73rd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.

Enjoy the interview with Claire and get inspired:

What inspired you to pursue a career in science / in your discipline?

My parents were my first inspiration for pursuing science. They are both scientists, and they exposed me to science and engineering early on: I read all sorts of science magazines and attended STEM outreach events and school holiday science programs as a kid. I found my discipline, physical oceanography, during my undergraduate degree. I had been studying physics, but I also wanted to make an impact towards issues I feel strongly about: climate and the environment. Physical oceanography provides that: ocean flows are governed by the Navier-Stokes equations, so I get my dose of equations, and the ocean has a huge impact on global climate and, therefore, our Earth’s future.

Who are your role models?

There are many people I look up to in science, so I am finding it hard to think of a singular role model. We have a very friendly oceanography community in the Consortium for Ocean and Sea Ice Modelling in Australia, and I take inspiration in both science and also life from many peers and collaborators, including my supervisor Dr. Adele Morrison.

How did you get to where you are in your career path?

I am still a PhD student, so I haven’t gotten that far in my career yet, but there have been a few important moments in my short career. One was participating in the International Physics Olympiad program in high school. I attended a two-week physics summer school/national selection camp to prepare for the Olympiad and was fortunate enough to be selected for the Australian team. Despite the intensity, months of studying, and five-hour exams, I loved the challenge and getting to travel to another country to compete. I then studied for a Bachelor of Philosophy in Science at the Australian National University, which is a flexible, research-focused degree. The degree requires you to complete independent research projects under the supervision of university faculty. Here, I got my first taste of real research, and in one of these projects, I worked with one of my current supervisors, Prof. Andy Hogg, who introduced me to the ocean modeling world. I enjoyed it so much that I did my honors year research (like a mini master’s) in the same group with Dr. Adele Morrison and eventually decided to stay on for a PhD. I think being able to dive in and actually try different research projects through my degree was very helpful as someone who otherwise would struggle to decide between all the interesting science out there!

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?

I am currently very excited about a model intercomparison project I am leading. Nowadays, there are many different ocean models that simulate the ocean and climate system, but we must remember that models aren’t perfect (but they can still be useful). In this project, we compare the results of many different models, all run in a very similar configuration to simulate Antarctica melting from beneath the ocean. We are looking at the similarities and differences between models and how we can reconcile these. I really enjoy collaborative science, especially if it’s discussions in front of a whiteboard or puzzling over a strange result, so being able to work with lots of researchers from around the world is exciting.

What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?

It might be small, but I always feel so satisfied when putting results together in plots. I find it so fulfilling to turn my results and story into a neat and colorful figure or visualization, usually after a lengthy process of trying to find bugs in my code or thinking deeply about a logical explanation for my results. It’s the small things that keep science fun for me!

What is a “day in the life” of you like?

A good day for me usually starts with a run. I’ll then ride my bike to my office at the university. Often, there will be a seminar and a meeting or two to attend, but otherwise, I work on my computer, running simulations and making figures of the results, as well as reading and writing. My research group always has lunch together outside (even in cold Canberra winters), which is a good break, and after some more coding, I’ll ride home. In the evening, I like to cook, bake, or catch up with friends.

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

Claire giving a Conference Talk. Photo/Credit: Ellie Ong

I hope that in my career, I can use my love for and interest in physics to make a positive difference to the future of the Earth. This may be ambitious, but it would mean the world to me if my research could impact climate policy. I find that sometimes, it can feel like your small bit of research on ice melting in one remote region of the Earth (or other niche topic) isn’t making much difference to the real world, especially when it’s hard to influence policy or communicate your work to the public. Of course, research consists of a lot of little building blocks that are needed to create a critical mass of knowledge that enables change, but it would be nice to be able to say my little block made an impact! I also hope to continue to have fun in my career and have enjoyable collaborations with other people around the world.

What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?

In my spare time, I like to stay active by running, rowing, or playing ultimate frisbee. I like trying new things – university has been great for picking up new sports and hobbies, as there is so much going on.

What advice do you have for other women interested in science / in your discipline?

If my small amount of experience is anything to go by, there are many happy and successful women in science! My experience of gender diversity in physical oceanography has been very positive, particularly among students. Like many physical sciences (and indeed sciences in general), there is still a way to go regarding gender representation, particularly at senior levels. Still, there are plenty of women role models and a welcoming mentoring culture. My advice would be to talk to people and find the community or research group that gives you the most joy in your work and life. Also, have confidence in yourself, and don’t be afraid to apply for things that seem like a stretch; just put yourself out there!

In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science / in your discipline?

One of the biggest challenges for oceanography and climate science is that even with massive supercomputers, we can’t run our simulations at a high enough resolution to really capture all the small details, such as turbulence, that affect the ocean and climate system. We, therefore, have to make approximations to account for the “missing” processes, and this is one of the sources of uncertainty in climate projections (other than the big uncertainty in what greenhouse gas emissions will actually occur in the future due to political, economic or social reasons). Machine learning offers an alternative – if machine learning can work out what’s missing and emulate it in a physically meaningful way, we’ll be able to get more accurate climate predictions without requiring more computer resources. I think this breakthrough is likely not only in climate science but in science more generally. There are many ways in which machine learning can advance scientific knowledge in other disciplines.

What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and professors?

There are many different avenues we can try to approach gender equity in science. Mentoring is a great way to show women what they can do and help them along the way, and it can be beneficial for all, from school-aged kids through to professors. Having a community and network of women who run events is also helpful when women are outnumbered in a group or department, which happens often in physics. It’s also important that we give women visibility, whether it’s by balancing conference speakers, awards, or panels, or simply by giving opportunities to the less vocal and confident members of the community (who, in my experience, are often women or other minority groups) to ask questions or speak in big meetings. All of these contribute to culture. I think ensuring that the culture of the group or discipline is inclusive and friendly is essential for achieving diversity in gender and other demographics. Moreover, it makes science a better place for everyone! Lastly, we need to make sure women aren’t penalized for having career breaks or working part-time when applying for jobs or fellowships. I see a lot of progress towards this in Australia, but it isn’t perfect yet!

Further Interviews

Ulrike Böhm

Ulrike Boehm is a physicist and science enthusiast. She works as an optical scientist at ZEISS in Oberkochen, Germany. Previously, she did her Ph.D. studies at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen in the Department of NanoBiophotonics of Nobel Laureate Stefan Hell, followed by research stays in the US at the National Institutes of Health and HHMI’s Janelia Research Campus, developing tools for biomedical research. She is generally passionate about designing and building (optical) instruments to image, probe, and manipulate (biological) structures. Furthermore, she is passionate about science communication and open science and is a huge advocate for women in science.