Interview with Jun.-Prof. Dr. Johanna Baehr, April 2011

Johanna Baehr has been working as a CliSAP junior professor at the Cluster of Excellence since January 2009. She is head of the CliSAP research group "Climate System Data Assimilation".

What have been the main steps in your professional life thus far?
After my studies in physical oceanography at the University of Kiel and at the University of Southampton (UK), I did research for my PhD in Southampton and at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology here in Hamburg. Subsequently, I went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (USA) for a PostDoc position, and now I am back in Hamburg as a CliSAP junior professor.

What is your principal contribution to CliSAP?
My work aims to combine climate models with observations, predominantly in order to enable us to start climate predictions from an ‘informed’ state. More specifically, our focus is on seasonal-to-interannual predictions initialized in both atmosphere and ocean.

To reverse the question, how CliSAP helped you most?
CliSAP or, in a broader sense, the institutions which CliSAP has brought together to form the Cluster provide a very stimulating research environment. My group benefits greatly from the numerous disciplines within CliSAP and the mixture of young and experienced researchers around us.

What is the current situation of women in the climate sciences?
For some years now, approximately equal numbers of female and male students have completed their PhD degrees - the current enrollment in both graduate schools mirrors this. However, already at the postdoc level, this changes considerably: the CliSAP postdoc list has approximately 20% female postdocs. Although we have come a long way, apparently there is still a long road ahead of us.What would be your advice to women, who are contemplating going into climate science?If climate science is your field of interest, the low numbers of senior female scientists shouldn’t discourage you from pursuing a career in climate sciences. It’s a very interesting field with great opportunities. You do have to be proactive, though - don’t be afraid to find out what you really like doing, plan ahead, and be flexible enough to adapt your plans as needed. On a more personal note, in case you plan to have kids, and do science at the same time: live and work outside Germany for a while to experience that having young children and working full time is not considered strange in either society or in academia for both men and women. Save that feeling.

Do you think that you are a role model for young students?
That’s not how I perceive myself, although I am convinced it’s what we need: to see it happen. When I was trying to find a role model myself during the second half of my PhD, I ended up reading books on women who managed to combine motherhood with a career in science. These stories gave me the confidence to take up a postdoc position at MIT with a six-week-old baby in tow while my husband kept working in Hamburg.

How is it after having defended your PhD thesis just a few years ago to be now responsible for PhD students yourself?
Really exciting!

What would you do with an additional million Euros for your research?
No constraints? The honest answer, I’m afraid, sounds quite technical … I would invest the money in model development – implementing riskier and more time-consuming things than usual.Also, I would be tempted to buy some time to do more research myself. High on my shopping list would be a self-shortening to-do list for certain administrative tasks, an ‘unproductive-meeting’-accelerator, apparating between the ZMAW and my office at Grindelberg, and a daycare at the Cluster.

What do you think is the role of science within society?
To generate knowledge - as the basis for innovation, but nevertheless simply as knowledge. And to communicate the insights to society, along with the relevant uncertainties. For me, science ends where judging uncertainties and decision-making - i.e., politics - begins.

Is there a politicization of climate science?
Yes. And I think it is important that some scientists actively participate in the political process - and also communicate regularly with the media. What I do find essential is that we should make a clear distinction between scientific findings, and political strategy or personal opinion.

What constitutes "good" science?
At zeroth order: good scientific practice, though that should go without saying. Beyond that, good science means getting to the bottom of things and pursuing novel approaches. At times it’s dead ends; at other times, it’s sparkling ideas - and surprising outcomes.Professionally, where would you like to be in 10 years? Is this a job interview…?

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Nikola Biller-Andorno et al. (eds), Karriere und Kind: Erfahrungsberichte von Wissenschaftlerinnen, (Frankfurt am Main and New York: Campus, 2005). 328 pp.

 

The interview was done by Prof. Dr. Hans von Storch, head of the Institute of Coastal Research at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht and Jun. Prof. Dr. Mike S. Schaefer, head of the working group “Media Constructions” at the Cluster of Excellence CliSAP.