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Helen Czerski talks about her career as an ocean physicist and what bubbles tell us about our world.
Physicist and oceanographer Dr Helen Czerski has joined UCL Mechanical Engineering as a Research Fellow. Her new role will eventually see her lecturing engineering students in addition to continuing her research into the physics of bubbles.
What prompted you to join UCL Mechanical Engineering?
I really like the attitude of the people that I’ve met here. Everyone is enthusiastic about their research but they’re also keen on finding new ways to help academia function better. It’s a very friendly environment, and people have a lot of get-up-and-go. Community spirit and genuine collaboration are essential for doing science and engineering well, and this seems to be an excellent environment for getting exciting stuff done.
What are you looking forward to achieving here?
I’ve just returned from six weeks at sea on a research ship, studying the bubbles formed during storms in the North Atlantic.
We’ve come back with a terrifying amount of data, but we got to make measurements in a wider range of conditions than ever before. I’m confident that we’ll be able to add some really important jigsaw puzzle pieces to our knowledge of how the bubbles formed by breaking waves contribute to the mechanisms at the ocean surface.
So the first task is to sort through and process that data, and find novel ways to analyse it. Then, I’m keen to tie those results together with my laboratory bubble experiments, and to work on connecting a small-scale understanding of bubble physics with the influence that bubbles have on our planet.
As a physicist, what made you want to specialise in studying bubbles?
I love the idea that the world is full of things that are too small and too fast for us to see directly, but that can be happening right in front of our noses.
My PhD was in experimental explosives physics. I did a lot of high-speed photography and used other high-speed techniques to study what happens to explosive crystals just before they explode. Then I looked for other things to do with those experimental techniques, and it turned out that the process of bubbles breaking apart and joining together can be studied using the same techniques. So I went to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, learned about bubbles and became an ocean physicist in the process.
Tell us about “bubble tea”.
I’m very keen to establish a network of bubble researchers who study the same bubble physics but apply it to different topics. It’s fabulous that the same bits of bubble physics can be used in medicine, food science, oceanography, naval research, drink design and lots more. But those communities don’t often talk to each other.
Here at UCL, I’d like to organise occasional tea breaks which bring together people with any interest in bubbles, and I thought I’d call those events “Bubble tea”.
Bubble tea is a real thing, although I anticipate drinking “normal” tea at these tea breaks, at least to start with. I first had bubble tea when I lived in California. It’s a general word for Taiwanese drinks which have tapioca balls (“bubbles”) bobbing about in them, and it was very popular when I lived there. If you’re at all interested in bubbles, let me know and I’ll make sure I tell you when Bubble Tea comes along (probably in a couple of month’s time).
You also work on popular science programmes like the BBC’s Orbit. What should we look out for?
I’m working on two projects at the moment. One is with the Natural History Unit, a series on the science of animal senses. I’m really excited about this one, because although we’ve all seen the amazing documentaries about what animals do, there is very rarely any information about how they’re doing it. This is a fantastic opportunity for a physicist to show the physical mechanisms behind things like snakes seeing in the IR and elephants hearing infrasound. And there are animals out there using some fabulous bits of physics to do astonishing things. The series will be three one-hour programmes, one on sight, one on sound and one on smell.
The other project is a Horizon on the jet stream and whether it’s changing. There is some evidence that it is and this programme will examine some of the data and what might be driving any potential change. This is a very challenging topic – the science is really complex. But I think that it’s very important to get it right, and to represent the state of scientific knowledge fairly. I’m going to have to prepare even more carefully than usual for this one, but I think that it’s well worth the effort.
Both these will probably be broadcast in May/June.
Assuming there is any leisure time left , what do you do for fun?
I do a lot of sport – I’m an enthusiastic badminton player (I play for a club in Wimbledon), and I run and swim as well. I love to read, and I spend as much time doing outdoorsy stuff as I can…and I’m always keen to try new things.