Alison – Physicist

Alison McLure was born in Thurso, at the northernmost tip of Scotland, and grew up in Glasgow with physics as an integral part of everyday life: her parents – both enthusiastic physics teachers – would constantly talk about physics and ask their three children questions such as “Why do we all lean one way when the car is going around a roundabout?”. In school, Alison was especially impressed by the experiments her father conducted with the class (he was her teacher then). She was also taken by chemistry, with its flash-bang-smoke experiments, but her ties with physics were stronger, so she went on to study physics at Aberdeen University, as did her brother.

To Alison, real-life problems have always been the most appealing ones in science, particularly if finding a solution to them will make a difference. When she was young, Alison learned about the applicability of science first-hand: she used to sail a lot, and physics helped her to understand how the sails and the weather worked. This understanding of the intricacies of the weather also led Alison to her first job as a meteorologist with the Met Office. At that time, the Met Office liked to train its own people, so you didn’t need a degree in meteorology. Alison joined straight after graduating, hoping to do something practical, rather than conducting research. Ironically, she was posted to a research lab to start with: “Luckily, the research was to do with measuring the weather in extreme environments, so I got to put experimental automatic weather stations on top of mountains and on ocean buoys.”

As if this was too boring, Alison was selected to become a TV presenter for the weather on ‘Reporting Scotland’. She had been forecasting the weather at Aberdeen and London Weather Centres and a couple of Royal Air Force stations, so she was a reasonably experienced forecaster by that time. Besides, she had done a fair bit of local radio, so she had experience as a presenter: “My short spell on TV was with BBC Scotland to cover between one presenter leaving and the famous Heather the Weather arriving in 1994. My boss didn’t really give me a lot of choice. I was very nervous and wasn’t really cut out to be a glamour girl – I scraped off the makeup as soon as I finished my piece. Once I was recognised cycling home in a deluge. They probably thought that I had got the forecast wrong, but I just like cycling in the rain! It didn’t make the news, but I didn’t expect or want anyone to recognise me at all. That’s when I realised I wanted to give up.”

Those were exciting times: besides ending up on screen, Alison was offered the chance of a six-month secondment to the British Antarctic Survey. She was lucky enough to pass the interview and after a month’s preparation, spent five fantastic months working at Rothera Research Station on the Antarctic Peninsula. Forecasting the weather in such an extreme environment was incredibly challenging, but Alison still managed to make time to climb, ski and watch the amazing wildlife. “Rothera is next to the sea on the Antarctic Peninsula, so it is not on the ice cap, which is all ice and snow and no wildlife. I went during the Antarctic summer, our winter, so I had three summers in a row. The base was pretty basic, but everything you needed was there. They had professional cooks, a library and a bar, and social evenings were arranged. During the day, all of us had our own jobs to do, and I was impressed by everyone’s professionalism. There were around 50 people on the base at the time – it’s busy in their summer and minimal staff in winter. I was the only woman there for most of the time, and living with so many men had its moments.

 

The original article was written by Marelene Rau, and can be viewed in full at the Science in School website.