As part of National Geographic's Women of Impact special, physicist and adventurer Melanie Windridge talks fusion, the northern lights – and why optimism helped her climb Everest.
Dr Melanie Windridge is a physicist, author and adventurer. With a PhD in fusion energy, she is a STEM ambassador and the author of Aurora: In Search of the Northern Lights. She is vice president of the Alpine Club, and in 2018 climbed Mt Everest.
Generally I would say that I simply talk about physics, and on the side I like to combine science with adventure. But I didn’t really choose this occupation, not consciously. I never really knew what I wanted to do when I ‘grew up’ so I always just followed my interests. And my interests led me here—to a career somewhat of my own making, investigating and communicating the things that fascinate me. I started broad with an undergraduate degree in straight Physics (at the University of Bristol), but I also spent a year studying in Grenoble, France – which increased my love of the mountains. Then after three years out travelling and working I settled on a PhD position studying Plasma Physics at Imperial College London and working on fusion energy at Culham in Oxfordshire.
I’m fascinated by exploration and the notion of achieving the impossible – whether that’s the science that supported classic twentieth century sporting exploration or harnessing the energy of the stars. The more general study of plasma physics combined with my attraction to mountains and the poles led me to write my book Aurora: In Search of the Northern Lights, which came out in 2016. I’m now finishing a book about science and Everest, after climbing the mountain in 2018.
In general, both physics and mountaineering and adventuring are male-dominated. But I think the situation is changing. For example, I’m currently Vice President of the Alpine Club—the oldest such club in the world, which began as a Victorian gentleman’s club. Membership is currently about 11% women. But of the new members joining in the last 5 years, about 20% are women.
If I started my career again I would do very little differently. I could say that I’d try to think ahead a bit more and be more prepared when I was younger, to perhaps avoid some of the failures, but I learnt those lessons and I think they were valuable, so I’m not sure I’d like to avoid them. We are shaped by our failures as well as our successes, and I believe all experiences are valuable, whether good or bad. So I think I’d take them all again.
“I think women still face the challenge of having a lower perceived competence than men.”- Melanie Windridge
What is your greatest strength?
Optimism and, perhaps because of that, endurance.
What is the greatest hurdle you’ve overcome?
I’ve been pretty lucky and blessed in that my life hurdles so far have been fairly small and manageable. I don’t think I’ve overcome great hurdles. I’ve struggled with little things: grappling with complex physics and feeling like I’ll never get my PhD; going through the early years of freelancing as a science communicator, feeling lost and identity-less whilst trying to find my feet, and working like crazy. But this is life.
The hardest things I’ve ever done have been self-imposed—skiing out across Svalbard in winter and climbing Everest. These were very different things. Svalbard was a only a week’s ski expedition, but I went to experience the northern lights in a wilderness environment like the old polar explorers, so—unlike most Arctic trips—I went in winter. Temperatures went down to almost -40 degrees, and we were camping. I’ve never experienced anything like it. You become so focussed on what you need to do, just trying to keep warm and functioning. Climbing Everest is completely different. The cold is never anywhere near as extreme but the expedition is almost two months of long, constant attrition. The altitude wears you down. You’re sick, tired and in pain for almost two months, just hanging on in there. Both of these things required much patience, focus and endurance and caused me much discomfort, but there were elements of beauty, insight and such peace that I’m grateful to have even had the opportunities.
What was your breakthrough moment?
I suppose you could say that my book coming out in 2016 was a kind of breakthrough for me. I felt like there was so much of me in this one little package and it felt like I had actually achieved something, like it gave some validation to this crazy career path that I had taken myself off on. It increased my confidence.
What is the most important challenge that women face today?
I think women still face the challenge of having a lower perceived competence than men. It’s probably due to old societal biases combined with differences in confidence and even pushiness, but I think it’s still there - whether we’re in the workplace or on a mountain.