Inspiring women: Dr Melanie Windridge

We met Melanie Windridge at a talk she gave about the northern lights a few years ago and she is a pretty impressive woman. Passionate about all things physics, particularly fusion energy, she is also a speaker, writer, has worked in education – oh and she’s climbed Mount Everest too. She loves to mix science with adventure and exploration, and she is an incredible role model for girls who want to get into science. We contacted Melanie to find out more about her work, what’s next, her top travel memories, and what she’s been up to in lock-down…

Where does your love for physics and adventures come from? What motivates you?

I don’t really know where my love of these things comes from.  I think it evolves from little interests that just grow with experiences. 

I think on the physics side I was interested in how the world works, why things behave as they do.  I was interested in the practical problems and solutions, which ultimately led me to a career in fusion energy.  Fusion is the energy of the Sun and the stars, and we are trying to replicate it here on Earth to provide a clean, green, safe and abundant energy source.  My motivation for working in fusion is my vision of a world where we can use energy freely with a lower impact on the planet—where we have cleaner air and we don’t need drastic lifestyle changes to hit our climate targets, where developing countries can access the clean energy they need to grow.   

For the adventures, these too started small and grew.  From hiking in the Lake District and Europe I explored further afield.  I’ve always loved the mountains and views from heights, the sense of space they bring.  I suppose that my love of the natural world and motivation to work in fusion are linked.  But the other thing that links them is the notion of exploration and challenge, doing things that have never been done before.  I became interested in the people who were visiting these places for the first time—particularly the poles and Everest, when reaching them was seen as almost impossible.  I see science as an exploration too, a reaching out into the unknown.  So the biggest adventures I’ve had (climbing Everest and skiing out to see the aurora in wilderness Arctic Svalbard) have been following in the footsteps of early explorers, almost to understand the experience. 

What aspect of your work do you love the most? Anything you dislike?

Paradoxically, what I like best and least are interlinked.  I love the interaction that my work brings, the sharing of a mutual interest.  I love it that people come up to me after aurora talks to share their experiences of the aurora with me.  On longer work trips I’ve made true friends, and I have beautiful memories of the people who have been part of the journeys of my books.  So I’d say the people are the best thing.

The worst thing is sometimes putting yourself out there.  I don’t like feeling like I’m on show.  I’m not a natural speaker or presenter, I just do it because I care about the subjects, whether it’s fusion or the aurora or Everest.  So I can find the talks themselves a bit wearing, especially all the associated travel, even though I benefit so much from the interactions.  But it’s good to remember that all the bad or difficult things have an element of good in them.

It’s great to see such a strong female role model in Science. What advice would you give women to encourage them to pursue science/math?

I always think it’s good to follow your interests, but also to grow those interests by finding out about the value of things, particularly school subjects.  Science at school can sometimes seem abstract and boring, but it’s when you find the relevance to real life, the meaning of something, that true interest and inspiration start to come.  These grow over time, and I think it’s ok to not know what you want to do when you’re young.  I never did.  I just followed my interests and they led me, ultimately (via some bogs and brambles and difficult bits) to a fascinating and satisfying career. 

These are my tips:

  • Look up  Find the meaning, the relevance to you.  Knowing why you care about something gives strength and determination.
  • Team up  Help each other.  We shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help, to give it, or to acknowledge it. 
  • Man up 😉  This is about confidence.  Don’t back away because you think you’re not good enough.  You don’t have to be the best to be valuable.  Have the confidence to get in there and find where you fit.

Has anyone in particular inspired or influenced you? Did you have a mentor?

I’ve been lucky to have a very supportive family all along the way, and supportive teachers and supervisors at all levels.  And I’ve had some strong female role models as well.  My mother is one of them.  She raised my two sisters and me to be very independent.  She worked hard and showed us, as the Financial Director of a women-run fashion agency, that women could be very successful in business.  Now she is passionate about her charity, Edirisa UK, that she founded in 2005 to improve the lives of Southwest Ugandans through education and sustainable business.

Looking back, when we were children we also loved films with strong, smart female characters.  I didn’t feel there was anything wrong with being different and following my own path.

What’s your favourite travel memory? And when we can all travel again – where are you heading first?

That’s a tough one.  The diversity of the world means that it’s hard to pick a favourite, and I’m not going to.  There’s so much to appreciate—from a pinky sunset over the water from a quiet beach after a hot day, to the watercolour muted lavender and coral of an Arctic winter sky.  But I’ll be heading first to France, to familiar paths in the hills and rosé wine in the fading evening sunshine.  As much as I love exploring new places, there’s so much beauty in what we have closer to home.

Are there any exciting plans or projects that you are hoping to start soon, at work, or at home?

I’m planning to spend more time on fusion work in the coming years.  I’ve recently become UK Director of the Fusion Industry Association, an organisation to represent the growing number of private fusion companies and the emerging fusion industry.  I think this next decade is going to be a very interesting one for energy in general and fusion in particular, and I’d like to help make sure that people know what fusion energy is, that it’s coming and how it will fit into the energy landscape to benefit all of us.

Whilst we have been in lock down what you have been watching, reading, or listening to – any recommendations?

I have been doing a little self-exploration, particularly using books, videos and cards from The School of Life, which I can heartily recommend.  I’ve been lucky in that all my expeditions have given me a lot of time for self-reflection in the past, but lockdown has given me the chance to reflect at home, which I appreciate. 

I have also been reading children’s books to my nephews over the FaceTime 🙂

Finally, what is your top tip of the day?

I will quote Max Erhmann’s Desiderata: “Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.”

Melanie has written this book Aurora: In Search of the Northern Lights, as well as Star Chambers, an introduction to fusion energy.

You can find out what else Melanie has got up to by heading to her website: www.melaniewindridge.co.uk and also her Twitter page @m_windridge !

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