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Female Leaders: Dr Melanie Windridge

Words by Florence Robson

Dr Melanie Windridge is a plasma physicist, speaker and writer with a taste for adventure. She has a PhD in fusion energy from Imperial College London, is Communications Consultant for fusion start-up Tokamak Energy, and has worked in education with the Ogden Trust, Anturus and the Your Life campaign. She is the author of Aurora: In Search of the Northern Lights and Star Chambers, an introductory book on fusion energy. She has climbed Mount Everest. Melanie loves the mountains and believes science and exploration go hand in hand.

Why is it important to you to inspire young people to get into science?

Science is really important to the economy - and to life in general. We’re in a technological age and there are employers crying out for people with science and maths skills. Sometimes young people can avoid science because they think it’s difficult or not relevant to them, but there are so many interesting, fulfilling careers, that are really contributing to society, that use science. I don’t want people to be put off studying these fascinating subjects by simply not seeing the relevance.

Did you always know you’d have a career in science?

I never thought about a ‘career’ specifically, but I always followed my interests. When I was at school, physics was my favourite subject by far; it was the most fun and interesting, and I liked answering questions around how the world works. Even before I did my GCSEs, I knew I wanted to study physics at university! I didn’t know what I wanted to do after that, but I think that’s ok. There are a lot of roles in society that we don’t even know exist when we’re young. You get to those roles by following your interests.

Who were your role models growing up?

I had two sisters so I was very much in a house of women growing up! We liked stories about girls who do things they’re not supposed to do. The book ‘Little Women’ is really interesting because even though it seems a bit old fashioned, the female characters were adventurers in their own way, for the time. My sister also loved National Velvet, a story about a girl who wins the Grand National, dressed as a boy.

Who inspires you now?

I’ve met women in recent years who are doing very cool things. I shared a tent in the Himalayas with a woman called Lizzy Hawker, who’s a long-distance runner and is also a scientist who did a PhD. It was fascinating speaking to her about her experiences. Equally, when I wrote my book on the Aurora, I met Felicity Aston who’s a polar explorer and who also did a PhD. A lot of adventure girls have a science background, I’ve found!

You recently completed a climb of Mount Everest to inspire young people to ‘reach new heights in STEM and business’. What was it about Everest specifically that caught your imagination?

I’ve always loved the mountains but when I was younger I thought Everest was just this big, scary thing and you would have to be prepared to die for it if you climbed it, which I wasn’t (and I’m still not!). As I got older and I learned more about it, joining the Alpine Club and meeting people who had climbed Everest, I realised that the main reason the British got to the top in 1953 was because of the scientific understanding and the technology available to them. That really struck a chord with me.

We celebrate the strength of the human spirit in explorers doing wonderful things; we don’t talk about the science that supports them. I think we need to talk about both. That’s what I’ve been trying to do with the Summiting the Science of Everest project. When we have improved capabilities we can push further and I find that really inspiring.

How long was the preparation for the climb?

It was about five years, but I wrote a book about the northern lights in between so I didn’t do everything all at once! I wanted to make sure I was prepared by doing some more climbs, going a bit higher and getting more expedition experience.

Preparation is really important. It’s not just about knowing how to climb; it’s more about knowing how you react to altitude, how your body reacts, how you feel. Those are the lessons you learn through expedition experience. You do not want to be learning those lessons on Everest!

One of The Female Lead’s core themes is ‘Asking for Help’. How did teamwork factor into your climb?

There’s a whole pyramid of support under the people who actually summit. On the mountain, you join an expedition team which will have knowledgeable leaders and Sherpa support. Community was important in the preparatory phase too. As a member of the Alpine Club, there are lots of people you can talk to who have done these things before. You’re not going into it blind – and I wouldn’t want to!

Was there a particular obstacle before or during the climb that made you hesitate or feel that you couldn’t continue? How did you get through it?

I had a couple of low points on the mountain where I had to give myself a bit of a pep talk. It takes you about ten days to get to base camp and from there you have to do ‘rotations’, meaning you go up and down the mountain several times to different camps, back and forth between there and base camp. These rotations allow your body to adjust to the high altitude but they’re mentally tough, because you’re constantly walking but you’re not getting anywhere.

The first time I went to Camp One, I managed it really badly. I took my cues from what other people were doing, didn’t eat or drink when I needed to, and allowed myself to get exhausted. I realised then that I had to have the confidence to do what I needed to do for me, regardless of what other people are doing for them. In the end, when I finally went to the summit, I was actually the strongest in my team (partly because I am a small, light female so the supplementary oxygen I was breathing had more effect on me than on my heavier team-mates, and partly because I managed myself well), whereas for most of the climb I was one of the weakest. Learning about what you need is really important.

You’ve conquered one of the world’s most famous natural phenomena. What motivates you to challenge yourself?

I don’t need the motivation of a challenge to get things done. There has to be some other point of interest there. With Everest, it was the fascination of the place. It’s so impressive and you just can’t get that from pictures and videos. But at the same time I was interested to see if my body could do it. I love being out in those landscapes – sometimes it’s hard but there’s also this perverse sense of satisfaction and wellbeing afterwards. When it doesn’t hurt anymore, you’re left with the memories of the incredible places you’ve been and the things you’ve seen. It’s worth it for that.

Learn about Everest through Melanie's eyes by watching the Summiting the Science of Everest video series.

You can learn more about Melanie's work by visiting her website.

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Header Photo Credit: Tenzing Bhote Banner Photo Credit: Dorjee Gyalgen

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