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‘A career in science is just about the greatest career that you can have’

Interview with Susan Solomon, professor of environmental studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and winner of the 2018 Crafoord Prize, on the occasion of the 2019 International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

Dr. Susan Solomon. Photo courtesy of Dominick Reuter/MIT News

What drew you to science rather than more traditionally accepted societal roles for women?

I’ve just always been fascinated by the natural world. I think part of that is that I grew up in a city. I grew up in Chicago, Illinois—a big city. I was lucky that my family used to take vacations on the beach of Lake Michigan, and we went outside the city to a very rural place and it was beautiful. It was just the water and the beach, and I fell in love with nature at a very young age because of that experience. So, I really credit those wonderful out-of-city vacations as a major influence in my life.

What were the two main obstacles you encountered in your career as a woman and how did you overcome them?

To be honest, I don’t feel I’ve had a lot of obstacles. I don’t want to overstate the importance of obstacles because I’ve had so many things that have helped me out and in particular, I’ve had some wonderful male colleagues that I’ve worked with over the years. A few female colleagues too, of course, but in the early days especially, they were very few, and the overwhelming majority of my male colleagues have been nothing but wonderful. There were one or two people who were not so wonderful, who, really, the minute you met them you knew you were being rejected because you are a woman and that certainly hurt. On the other hand, I think you have to balance it with the large number of people who took the opposite attitude of actually being extremely helpful and welcoming. So, I think the good news for young women today is that the guys who would reject you because you are a woman are kind of dinosaurs and they’re dying out. There are very few of them left now in most places and the number of people who really don’t think in those terms is growing all the time. So, I think that the obstacles were there, but they weren’t particularly serious and the advantages also need to be recognized.

What sacrifices have you had to make to get where you are today, and do you have any regrets?

Dr. Susan Solomon at McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Image courtesy of Susan Solomo

I honestly don’t feel that I’ve made significant sacrifices. I had to work hard, but all scientists do, and I worked hard because I loved it. I enjoyed everything that I was doing. I’ve had a fabulous time and I don’t have any regrets about the choices that I made. I’ve benefited so much from all the places that I’ve gone. I’ve been lucky enough to go to the Antarctic and the Arctic to study ozone depletion and I’ve met a lot of wonderful people along the way: a lot of wonderful scientists as well as policymakers from so many different countries. I think I can’t say that I’ve had any regrets or given anything up. Quite the opposite. I’ve just had a fantastically wonderful time doing what I’ve been doing.

What advice would you give to young girls and women who are considering a career in the sciences?

It is just about the greatest career that you can have. I think the best part about it is that every day you get to do something new. Your work life, which is a large fraction of your total life, at least five days a week, eight hours a day, is so rich when it can be something that you enjoy rather than something you hate or put up with. If you enjoy science, you should never hesitate in going for it as a career because it is such a satisfying career.

Given the theme of this year’s international day, what do you think should be done to increase the participation of women and girls in science for inclusive green growth?

The number one thing is to encourage them and to expose them to stories like the one that we’ve just told about my life, and of course many other people’s lives—of how much fun it is to do this kind of work and how satisfying it is. I didn’t mention this earlier, but one of the great things about it is that you get a sense that you’ve done something significant, not just for yourself in the way of having fun but also for the planet and for society. And there’s no more fulfilling way to spend your life, in my opinion. So, what we can do is make sure young women are aware of this and exposed to it. And of course, opportunities are also important, so I firmly believe that scholarships are important. No one should ever not be able to become a scientist because of monetary obstacles. Providing foundations to set up scholarships is really a major thing.

Any final thoughts?

We are moving into a new century in which there will be greater demands on the planet to support the lifestyle of people all around the world. It’s a great thing that people around the world are benefiting more and more from the resources that the planet has to offer, but I think we’re also becoming more aware of the need to treat those resources in a sustainable manner. The need for scientists, male and female, to be able to inform this process is enormous. You can’t understate the value of people getting into the process that’s going to guide that new century to be more sustainable than the one before it.