Unique Scientist: Simon Clark

Time to meet Simon Clark (He/him)! Simon is a flooding & climate change scientist in the United Kingdom!

What kind of scientist are you?
I research the impacts of climate change on river flooding. Specifically, I use the physics of water to estimate how climate change might increase river flow, increase the abundance of plants in rivers, and how both flow and plants may interact to alter food risk. There’s a lot going on there, but imagine how an automobile company might test how aerodynamic a car is: using a wind tunnel they observe how the wind speeds up or slows down as it interacts with the car, or how the wind might spin off into turbulence. Different cars and different wind speeds result in different effects. If you replace the car with plants, the wind with water, and the tunnel with a river channel then I do something very similar but in a virtual environment.

What made you want to become a scientist?
I never intended to become a scientist – when I was younger I wanted to be a writer. I wrote short stories and (attempted) novels since I was a child (I still attempt those novels now!). My chosen school subjects were in the arts and humanities, and I actively avoided maths. I also was raised within an evangelical community – I was taught that evolution wasn’t real and that homosexuality was a sin. Science seemed like an adversary. But I was always curious about why things were the way they are and how things were connected, especially with how humanity interacted with nature and its consequences. Every new fact I learnt made me want to know more in detail. Starting my undergraduate degree in Geography I really enjoyed the process of learning that science brought, and I thought about how this could be used to help people. Science can help create solutions and reveal challenges otherwise not understood or known. Climate change is a global threat, the key example of human-nature interaction and its consequences, and one which scientists are rising to challenge. I wanted in on this.

“Science can help create solutions and reveal challenges otherwise not understood or known.”

Simon Clark

What makes you a #UniqueScientist?
I am a gay man. Academia has historically been the domain of straight, white men – access to, and the spread of, information and resources was controlled by institutions which typically discriminated against minorities. For LGBT+ folk positive role models in academia has been lacking throughout history and the most famous names are often men who were targeted due to their sexuality: Leonardo Da Vinci was put on trial for sodomy, Sir Francis Bacon was outed by a fellow Member of Parliament whilst his sexuality has frequently been ignored by biographers, and Alan Turing was convicted and chemically castrated. If you’re also a woman or non-white then it’s even worse. It takes time and conscious effort to change intuitions and the environments they cultivate, and an environment which allows me to be openly gay is a comparatively recent gain. We need to celebrate the LGBT+ people who do science by creating greater visibility whilst championing role models. My friend and fellow scientist Malena Alegria captured this nicely: “Everyone is born with different initial conditions”, and we should celebrate that. This is especially true for academia: science thrives on a diversity of ideas which only comes with a diversity of people.

What’s something cool you do outside of work?
I play sports: I used to row (until injury knocked me out); I’ve helped set-up, run, and play for a rugby club; I love the gym, and I’ve even dabbled in Olympic-style weight-lifting. I also love to sketch and paint, from life-drawing to miniature painting. I write fiction and invest far too much time and energy in costume. These interests also intersect with my science communication (scicomm) which allows me to share my excitement for science through a creative outlet. Scientists are often boxed into the idea of being a “left-brained” analyst at odds with more “right-brained” creatives. We’re stereotyped as a labcoat-draped researcher obsessed with revealing an undiscovered kernel of knowledge over, for example, looking after their body or creating art. The idea of being more right- or left-brained has no merit, and neither does the stereotype – humans are diverse and scientists are diverse because of this. Some people focus their passion solely on their science, which is fine. Many scientists also have passions outside of science, and that’s fine too.

If you had one wish and could change anything in science, what would it be?
Firstly, I’d wish for more wishes first (is that allowed?) or at least for more wish-granting mechanisms. But if there was one thing I’d change, beyond what #UniqueScientists is challenging, it would probably be communication. Scientists need to be advocates for their research, but academia can be more of an ivory tower – a scientist is often conceived as being removed from the impacts of their research, and plenty are. Science is our best method for describing and understanding reality, and I think our perspectives should be grounded in reality. However, it shouldn’t be taken for granted that people believe scientific understanding needs to be included in, say, political decision-making and policy-making. Plenty of people think differently, and these perspectives have become increasingly louder and more influential in recent years. If you believe that the public should be scientifically literate or that political decisions should be informed by research then this needs to be championed.

“It takes time and conscious effort to change intuitions and the environments they cultivate, and an environment which allows me to be openly gay is a comparatively recent gain.”

Simon Clark

Who has inspired you the most in your journey to where you are now?
It’s horribly difficult to narrow this question down to one specific person! Day-to-day my biggest inspiration has been seeing other scientists online, especially on Twitter (as long as you watch out for its more shadowy regions). It helps to keep you grounded when the pressures of research threaten to overwhelm, as well as inspiring you to make a difference in your own scientific community or even how you approach your research. Other inspirations include the graduate students I’ve been working alongside whilst hiking that steep hill to thesis submission, as well as historical scientists whose stories personally resonate – Rachel Carson for example, who loved another woman and helped re-shaped the scientific world and its relationship with the environment. Also, I think it’s important to look back on what I’ve achieved and inspire myself.

Let’s end on a high note! What’s something you’ve done this week that you’re proud of?
This week I’ve helped organise a LGBT+ STEMday event at my university. We’re aiming to increase the visibility of LGBT+ researchers in the university, promote diversity, and generally release some of the stresses of research!


#QueerInSTEM

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