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Pat Langhorne

Pat Langhorne is a Professor of Physics at University of Otago.

Lowering a current meter through a hole in the sea ice in Antarctica in 2009.

What did you study at school? And after high school? 

I was educated in Scotland. At school in my final year I studied English, French, Chemistry, Maths, Physics and Latin! After high school I went to the University of Aberdeen in the north of Scotland and did Natural Philosophy (which is a fancy name for Physics). Then I wanted to go to Antarctica – but I was declined because I was a woman (UK in the mid 1970s). So instead I did a PhD on sea ice at the University of Cambridge and got to travel to the Arctic and see sea ice. Because of global warming, sea ice is now disappearing in the summer Arctic so I feel very privileged to have seen it when I did.

Was your study directly related to what you do now?
Yes - now I get to teach all sorts of cool physics to students at University. I get to be around very smart young women and men and do research on sea ice. Over the years I have had many opportunities to work in Antarctica.

Photo Credit: Andy Mahoney.  Sea Ice

What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?

Do what you like best – not even what you are best at. Sometimes this is hard because people will ask what job it will get you; or others might have different ambitions for you than you have for yourself. Follow your dreams – but always have a backup plan!

I used to think that the sea ice I studied was frivolous and had no useful outcomes – but as the world has warmed it turns out that we are doing something that other people care about. I could not have predicted that at the start of my career.

What are some of your career highlights so far?
On my first visit to Antarctica (in 1985) I provided guidance by radio to the pilot of a US C130 Hercules who had agreed to fly at VERY low altitude over our experiment. A very low flying aircraft puts a load on the ground/sea ice. The feeling of being in control of that aircraft, flying low over my head, raised the hairs on the back of my neck and made me feel like I was choking with excitement. The photo of the aircraft and the polar tent (with our recording gear in it) was a front cover of the science magazine Nature.

Why do you believe engaging in STEM – whether it’s working in the field, studying it or just educating one’s self around the issues – is important to New Zealand?
Science (like the humanities) is important because it teaches people how to think, how to reach logical conclusions based on the evidence presented to them. Science (like the arts and humanities) is also a way to be part of a global “club” – people with similar interests will overcome cultural, economic and language barriers to share their interest. Climate warming is an enormous challenge and the skills in logical and collaborative thinking are needed if we are to make any progress to improve the situation.

Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
Some aspects of a future in a warming world are rather gloomy. The greatest hope I have for the future is the enthusiastic intelligence of the young to bring about change and come up with innovative solutions. These solutions need diversity: cultural and ethnic diversity and most importantly balanced input from women and men. 

Pat Langhorne is a Professor of Physics at University of Otago

This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM. 
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