I grew up in Slough in quite a traditional Asian family. The expectation was you would have an arranged marriage and be a homemaker. But from a very early age I just loved school and I loved science.
It was on a holiday – my family are from Kenya – when I was 12 years old, and we were travelling from Nairobi to Mombasa to go to the beach, when we stopped off at an ancient lava flow. I was walking over it and I picked up a couple of rocks, which I still have today. I remember it like it was yesterday. I thought – this is what I want to do. I want to understand why the earth looks like this.
I actually started off studying geography, and I’ll be honest with you, I really struggled with human geography. It was for that reason I switched to Earth Science because I found the earth sciences and physical geography more reflective of my talents. I then managed to get myself on to a PhD at the University of Southampton studying glacial geology and deformation mechanics of glacial sediments.
Twenty years ago we were working on the West Antarctic ice sheet and we were struggling to get recognition for the work. During that time, there was a deep suspicion from some other scientists who were trying to understand how much of the change was human induced and how much was natural variability. We were really struggling to have our voices heard.
Now we fast forward to Greta Thunburg and Vanessa Nakate, and all those voices crying out for people to understand the impacts of the climate change emergency. That has been an extraordinary journey for me, seeing how the voices of young people have harnessed the science that has been there for 20 years. I think that geography has been incredibly clever at adapting and shifting to what young people want to know about.
When I came back to the UK, I secured a position with the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site team. My job was to build a sustainable education programme for the world heritage site. Now I look back on that and think it was an extraordinary achievement, to look at the Dorset and Devon coast and turn it into this extraordinary resource that captivates children and teachers all over the country. You can’t do that unless you feel it in your heart. If you’re working with people that are quite suspect of the subject and say: What has this got to do with me? Why should I care about rock? You’ve got to win those people over by your own love for the subject.
From the perspective of being a woman of colour in geography and in earth sciences, we have a long way to go. The vision of a geographer is changing, but it’s very slow to change. I think people like myself who advocate for the subject, we have to necessarily put ourselves into a public space. Black, Asian and minority ethnic young people love geography. I’ve talked to so many over the years and they’re passionate about it. But where they don’t see themselves reflected in the current makeup, they are reticent to follow a career path in the subject.
I compare this to the advances being done in STEM and the huge investment that’s been done to get more girls into science and engineering and maths. And then I look at my own subject and I think: why after 15 years am I still the only brown face in the room, talking about how we look after one of the country’s most phenomenal landscapes?
Now that I’m more of a freelancer I’m able to talk about what that means and how that feels and what a burden it is, because I think it is helping to educate people in my sector and raise their awareness of what we need to do. We’re at a shifting point now and there’s no turning back.