Glacier research, climbing in glaciated valleys, and a glacial pace of recovery

It’s been (somewhat unbelievably) seven months since my last proper blog post in October 2018, which I wrote after my final session of radiotherapy. At that point I had grand plans of being back at work full-time before Christmas and had hoped to be training hard for the remains of the bouldering season. The reality of recovery, medication side effects and fatigue meant that I actually went back to work in January and was only able to work part-time hours up until a few weeks ago. In terms of climbing I’ve been trying my best to just enjoy being able to move with minimal pain now that my muscles are easing up a little post-surgery/radiotherapy, but I’ll admit to also being frustrated at my slow progress and lack of strength. This experience has taught me an important lesson about managing expectations (my own and those of others), but I know that having taken time out to recover, both physically and mentally, means I’m much less likely to reach “burn out” at the end of term this year, as is always a danger in academia.

The last few months have had plenty of challenges, but it certainly hasn’t been all bad… Three days after returning to work in January I found out that I had been successful in my first standard grant application as PI. The project is a UK-Peru collaboration looking at the impact of the changing role of glaciers for downstream water resources in the Peruvian Andes, funded by the Newton Fund through NERC, and an opportunity for me to have a mini glaciology research group here at Plymouth when my new Research Fellow starts work on the project in the summer! I wrote in a previous blog post that I had been heartbroken when I thought I’d have to give up on applying for this grant due to my surgery and treatment, but my amazing collaborators decided to crack on with writing it without me. I really am hugely indebted to them for their support in getting the application submitted, and I’m very much looking forward to working on this project over the next few years! The main challenge work-wise now is to find the time to get back into the research I enjoy so much, as reduced hours coupled with a busy semester of teaching and playing catch-up has left very little time for this since I got back to work. That said, I did manage a short trip to Vienna for EGU where I presented ongoing research on the presence of contaminants from nuclear fallout on the surface of glaciers around the world, and took part in my first press conference. These little work highlights have been a welcome distraction in a year that has been incredibly challenging.

I’m still struggling with the side effects of hormone treatment, including night sweats, joint pain, muscle cramps, and digestive problems, and have developed some hip and back issues that no amount of yoga seems to help, but on the whole I feel like I have more energy with each week that goes by. I reached a personal recovery milestone in April by climbing South Ridge Direct on Cir Mhor, Arran, a “Hard Rock” tick and a route that has been on my wish list for some time. Before heading to Arran Nick and I enjoyed a week of idyllic climbing in a sunny Lake District, getting some much needed trad climbing practise in since my treatment had kept us away from it for too long. We baked while climbing on warm rock, cooled our feet in mountain streams, and remembered just how good trad climbing can be. The day we climbed Cir Mhor was long and tiring, but more than worth a bit of suffering for the quality climbing and amazing views down the stunning glaciated valley of Glen Rosa. We left the campsite at 7:40am to start the long walk up the glen to the base of the climb, then swapped leads up the 400m route with all the efficiency of two climbers who clearly spend most of their time bouldering! We topped out to a full-on gale that had our ropes billowing out into mid-air, forcing only a short summit visit and a hasty descent, and got back to our tent at 9:30pm for beers and camping stove curry. I’m so happy that my body held up for long enough to let me climb this route only nine months after my breast cancer diagnosis, and I’m really pleased to have raised over £1100 for Climbers Against Cancer and given something back to the cancer research community in the process.

Looking ahead, I’ve got plenty of marking and admin to keep me busy, and a lot of paper-writing and new research to catch-up on, but I’m riding on a high from teaching our students about glacial processes during an excellent recent field trip to Iceland (always a highlight of the year). As for the climbing, it’s less about 400 m routes and more about 4 m boulders as I’m off to enjoy some bouldering in Fontainebleau next week. It’s only a couple of months until my one year “cancerversary”, when I’ll be hoping for clear scans, although I know the anxiety around recurrence won’t disappear completely. I’m also going to have to be careful about what commitments and travel I take on over the coming months so I don’t exceed my “new normal” in terms of capacity and energy, but here’s hoping the next year will be challenging for all the right reasons!


Caroline Clason

21st May 2019


It’s that schnitzel time of year again…

It’s been far too long since my last blog post, and as I’m typing this from my hotel room in Vienna at 23:20 on a Sunday night I’m not going to make this one very long. For those who aren’t at EGU this year, can’t make it along to see my poster, or if you’re just interested in ice, climate, and the environment, here’s a copy of my poster for you to peruse at your leisure!


I’m so excited to be back in Austria for EGU after what has been a really rough year, but more about that in a future post. For the moment I’m just living it up in what might be the funkiest hotel room I’ve ever stayed in (complete with guitar amp, massive shower, and rock star mirror) and looking forward to talking science followed by that first sip of weissbier with friends tomorrow!

Milestones, muscles and more treatment


Cheesy grins after having finished my final radiotherapy session!

Today I completed my 18th and final session of radiotherapy, a little over four months since discovering my tumour, and three months since receiving my diagnosis. I am so happy that this stage of my treatment is finally over. Another milestone reached and no more daily visits to hospital – yay! Since August I’ve had a lumpectomy and sentinel node biopsy (breast conserving surgery and lymph nodes removed to check for cancer spread), IVF treatment to preserve fertility (traumatic enough cancer aside!), and four weeks of daily radiotherapy, resulting in at least 35 trips back and forward to hospital. Although I didn’t need chemotherapy, these past few months have really taken their toll both physically and mentally, and there have been days where I didn’t even have the energy to eat. While I realise that I have been lucky to escape chemotherapy, I’ve been really down about being made to feel by some that my cancer experience has somehow been relatively “easy”. These feelings recently culminated in breaking down while talking to a Macmillan support nurse because I felt I wasn’t being strong enough given my “easy ride”; something I’m now starting to realise is a load of rubbish. Radiotherapy has left me with fatigue to a degree I’ve never experienced before, a nasty, ugly skin reaction, and sometimes severe pains in my chest and arm that keep me awake at night. If you’re reading this as someone currently going through treatment, please don’t beat yourself up if you find radiotherapy difficult; I’m usually a sporty type and was out of breath with chest pains while walking along a flat track last weekend! This whole process has been a revelation for me in quite how individualised treatment plans are in order to meet the needs and tolerances of different patients, which extends into mental health as well as physical.


Radiotherapy rash (unhappy boob)

Having now completed these key stages in my treatment, I’d love to say that it’s over and I can move on… In reality I’ve been told to expect the skin reaction and fatigue from radiotherapy to continue and perhaps even get worse for at least a couple of weeks, and I’m also facing at least ten years of endocrine therapy (hormone treatment) which began two weeks ago with the injection of an implant called Zoladex under the skin of my tummy. This drug will essentially shut down my ovaries and put me into an early, and hopefully temporary menopause, and I’ll have these injections every four weeks for as long as I need hormone treatment. I’ll also be taking daily medication in the form of aromatase inhibitors to further reduce oestrogen production in my body, starving any remaining cancer cells of food for growth, with the aim of preventing a recurrence either in the same breast or in another part of my body. Finally, as this lack of oestrogen might cause a reduction in my bone density, I’ll be having drip infusions of zoledronic acid every six months for the next three years to try to minimise this impact. Those of you who know me will understand why I’m finding the thought of this particular side effect quite stressful; I desperately don’t want my treatment to impact my ability to enjoy sport, not to mention my quality of life in general. The hormone treatment will also likely result in other side effects which I won’t list here, but might report back on after some time has passed.


Recent micro-adventures in the Peak District and Dartmoor

All that said, it’s not all doom and gloom! While greatly reduced in number and intensity, I have managed to enjoy some climbing sessions both indoors and outdoors during my treatment, including exploring some fantastic new places like Rubicon in the Peak District and Honeybag Tor on Dartmoor. Physical activity is something I still frequently crave, even if I’m often too tired to do the things I’d like to, or at the standard I’m used to doing them. The same can’t really be said for intellectual activities unfortunately, as I’m finding that fatigue, anxiety and pain have left me unable to concentrate on tasks that involve any real thought. The plans I had initially to keep working on my research and manuscript drafts while off work have gone solidly out the window in favour of daily afternoon naps. Despite not being able to perform at even a fraction of my best, staying active really is keeping me sane, and I’d encourage anyone undergoing cancer treatment to do whatever you can to stay happy and healthy, whether that’s a 5k run or sitting in the park. I make sure to get fresh air in one form or another every day, escape the urban environment when I can, and keep plugging away at some easy climbing in the hope that my muscles won’t wither away too much while I’m watching every drama series Netflix has to offer. I enjoy seeing how much stronger my friends have become when I visit the climbing wall, but will admit to sometimes feeling left behind and like a bit of a weakling. Hopefully I’ll catch up with them again soon!… I’ve also found more time to enjoy a good book, catch up with friends over a cuppa, make new friends and get involved in a new community, and I’ve even started knitting!

As for the near future, I can now finally look forward to escaping the shackles of frequent hospital visits! To make up for the recent lack of adventure in my life, and the summer holidays that weren’t to be, I’ll be heading north with my lovely partner Nick to enjoy the Kendal Mountain Festival and (fingers crossed) some Lake District rock in a couple of weeks. After this much needed break I’ll begin easing myself back into work and my “new normal”, whatever that might look like. Hopefully a better work-life balance as a starting point, and with a bit of luck no more sodding hospital visits!


Caroline Clason

23rd October 2018

A medical merry-go-round

The past few weeks have been a whole world of crazy. Individual days have felt like an eternity at times, in no small part down to the stress of waiting to meet my oncologist for the first time and find out what lies ahead. It was four weeks post-surgery when I could finally climb again (yay!) and a few days later when I was given my treatment plan. Knowing that chemotherapy is recommended to quite a large proportion of young women with breast cancer I had prepared myself for being told that chemo would be next on my agenda, but that didn’t happen. Instead, when I met my oncologist she told me that the risks were larger than the reward in my case. I went through so many emotions that day, but relief, guilt, and uncertainty were by far the most prominent. Relief for obvious reasons; guilt because I felt like I was cheating the system by not having to go through what so many others do; and uncertainty because in my overwhelmed state I forgot to ask what the benefit (if any) of chemotherapy would have been for my long-term outlook. I want to do whatever it takes to live a long life, and in good health, so not having chemo is, in some ways, actually a little scary… Have I covered all my bases? Will my prognosis be the best it possible can be? Ultimately I’m putting my trust in the experts now and hoping it won’t come back.


The medical (and emotional) merry-go-round… from being able to climb again post-surgery to starting daily injections of fertility meds, from finding out I don’t need chemo to undergoing an egg retrieval procedure that left me blown up like a balloon!

Looking ahead, I’ll be having four weeks of radiotherapy likely starting at some point this month, followed by at least ten years of hormone therapy since my greedy little cancer feeds on hormones. While the side effects of radiotherapy (most commonly skin problems and fatigue) are nothing by comparison to chemo, I’ll be taking time out from work to focus on looking after myself. A dose of fresher’s flu probably wouldn’t be all that helpful during treatment! My main worries moving forward, however, are the side effects of hormone therapy. I’ll be having monthly injections of a drug called Zoladex, and taking a pill called Aromasin daily. This medication can have side effects including hot flushes, joint pain, mood changes, and a decrease in bone density. As an active, sporty person the latter is a particularly scary proposition, so I hope that my oncology team will be able to offer some options to offset damage caused to my bones. While not needing chemo is certainly a relief, how my body will cope with these other treatments in the short and long-term plays heavily on my mind.

The other perhaps unexpected side effect of cancer treatment, which I touched upon briefly in my last blog post, is changes in fertility. Had I needed chemotherapy it could have damaged my fertility irreparably; this is thankfully no longer an issue. The remaining worry is that after ten years of hormone treatment I might struggle to get pregnant naturally. Women in their forties often have more difficulty in getting pregnant due to a decrease in egg number and quality over time; not to mention any unforeseen complications from cancer treatment, or the possibility of cancer recurrence. To make sure I have a back-up plan I’ve spent the last couple of weeks going through ovarian stimulation and IVF, which has thankfully resulted in the successful freezing of embryos for future use should I ever need them. I can now completely sympathise with other women who need to go through IVF for one reason or another; it is not the most pleasant process! Multiple daily self-injections, some less-than-dignified appointments at the clinic, a not entirely unpleasant dose of sedatives and fentanyl during a slightly painful egg retrieval procedure, followed by the worst bloating I have ever experienced. I put on 1.5 kg and 5 inches round my waist due to fluid build-up following egg collection, and I’m writing this from the sofa two days after the procedure, hoping that I won’t have to wait much longer for some relief. Perhaps the most frustrating thing for me is that I now have another two week wait until I can climb again, to avoid literally getting my ovaries in a twist!

The last thing I want to touch upon today is support networks and quite how important they are… The Mustard Tree Macmillan Cancer Support Centre, and particularly the wonderful Becky who spent the best part of two hours with me when I finally broke during a visit to the fertility clinic last week, walking through Derriford hospital in a flood of tears that wouldn’t stop. My fellow cancer patients on the Breast Cancer Care forum who remember which days I have appointments, ask how I’m doing, and talk just the right amount of nonsense. And finally the online community who make me laugh, cry and feel like I’m not alone. I’m absolutely heartbroken to have read while I’m writing this that the beautiful Rachael Bland has died aged 40 from breast cancer. The contribution she made to talking about cancer openly and honestly has been incredible, and I am so grateful for the support she has given to me and so many others through presenting the “You, Me and the Big C” podcast. If you haven’t listened to it yet, why not give it a go?


5th September 2018

Highs and lows of the C-word

It’s been one month since I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and a little over two weeks since I had an operation to remove the tumour and test lymph nodes under my arm for cancerous cells. After an initially groggy and uncomfortable first few days of recovery I’m slowly starting to feel like myself again. Removing the dressings was the most difficult part of the past two weeks, and initially a shock, but as the wounds heal I’m increasingly happy with how they look (nothing like the images I had in mind when the surgeon told me before the operation that I would unfortunately have a “visual deformity”). My only real gripe is that I have a blue-stained nipple due to injection of dye during surgery, which is fading VERY slowly, and has led to some friends giving me the affectionate nickname of Blue Tit!


One of my teeny tiny scars!

After a two week wait for post-op results I was finally given the good news that my lymph nodes are clear and my consultant is confident the full tumour was removed during surgery. This has been a massive relief, but unfortunately I still don’t know whether I’ll need to go through chemotherapy, since more aggressive treatment is sometimes recommended for younger women, and I have another wait ahead to be referred to oncology to receive my treatment plan. To make sure that any previously undetected cancerous cells are destroyed, and to reduce my risk of this particular cancer coming back, I know I will have a three week course of radiotherapy to look forward to, followed by 5 to 10 years of hormone treatment aka drug-induced early menopause (yay!). I’m also waiting to be tested for the BRCA gene mutation which will give me an idea of whether I have a significantly higher-than-average risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

An unexpected but very serious component of my cancer story so far has involved making the decision to go through a cycle of fertility treatment and embryo freezing to ensure I have some chance of having children, should I want to, once my treatment is over. If I need chemo there’s a strong possibility I could end up completely infertile, and even without chemo I will be older and could struggle to get pregnant naturally by the time hormone therapy is complete. There’s been so much to think about in terms of both fertility and cancer treatment that I’ve had little room in my head for anything else; it’s hard to believe I only discovered the relatively small, but life-altering lump only two months ago. While I’m not looking forward to the self-injections over the next two weeks, or having ovaries the size of satsumas (a very pleasant description from the nurse!), I am incredibly grateful that fertility treatment is offered free of charge via the NHS for young cancer patients.


The mountain of fertility medication and my very own sharps bin!

Since I’m healing well from the operation and have a few weeks before chemo/radiotherapy starts, I’ve started working again full time in the hope that I can find enough headspace and distractions to concentrate on anything other than the C-word. In my previous post I mentioned that I was having to give up a funding proposal to start a new research project in Peru. I’m very happy to report that my incredible colleagues and collaborators in the UK and Peru decided to crack on with it anyway, and made a herculean effort to pick up where I left off and finish the application while I was out of action. Who knows whether we’ll be successful (I certainly hope so!), but I’ll be forever grateful for that support at a time where I felt heartbroken to have to give up on my research. Only time will tell how many of my normal academic duties will be possible over the next few months, but for now I am massively over resting (dying of boredom) at home.

I have a house that smells of flowers and contains enough chocolate to last until the end of the year, and more support from friends, family and colleagues than I know what to do with. I’ve also made friends via social media and the breast cancer care forum who provide an invaluable support network I had never imagined would come to be so important. I woke up around 4am today with the C-word on my mind, and haven’t been able to shake it for most of the day, but if nothing else, writing this has helped me to remember that it really isn’t all bad, and will be even better when I’m back on the climbing wall in a fortnight!


Enjoying a shandy two days after surgery, proudly sporting my “Climbers Against Cancer” top


18th August 2018

Breast cancer: an unexpected journey

A few weeks ago I found a lump on my breast that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. I knew what the description of a potentially cancerous lump was, and I was immediately worried. My GP referred me to the breast clinic where an ultrasound suggested the lump was irregular, and biopsies were taken there and then. The doctors told me that they unfortunately couldn’t say that it was benign, but also that because I was young it was unlikely to be cancer. Some fairly detailed research of my own, however, plus what I can only describe as gut instinct, meant that I decided to expect the worst, despite breast cancer incidence in women of my age (31) being very low.

I had fieldwork in Iceland planned during the two week wait for the biopsy results, and although concerned about getting the results while away from home, I decided not to give up the opportunity for some quality glacier time. My colleagues were fantastic and the trip fun and successful with some exciting new samples collected for my research. A phone call near the end of the trip to say I needed to go back for the results the following week, rather than receiving the results by letter, hinted further that perhaps I should expect the worst. I stayed strong, and enjoyed the spectacles of Iceland knowing that this  period of fieldwork in a stunning setting might just help to keep me sane and give me some nice images to look back on in the coming weeks.


Having returning from Iceland the wait for results reached “peak stress” last weekend; I just wanted an answer one way or another. My partner and I both tried to stay positive on the outside, but I think we both knew deep down what the outcome of the follow-up appointment would be. Sure enough, earlier this week I was told by a rather surprised consultant that I have breast cancer. Looking at the data below from Cancer Research UK I can understand her surprise, with so few breast cancers occurring in the 30-34 age bracket. Now I’m preparing myself for surgery in a couple of weeks, followed by radiotherapy and further treatment (as yet unknown).


So why am I writing this post, aside from as a cathartic exercise? I’m writing it because getting this news made me realise that I am a massive workaholic and that now is as good a time as ever to review my work-life balance. The programme of treatment and recovery ahead means I can no longer commit to finishing a large funding application that I’ve put a lot of time and effort into over recent months. Rather than the worry of cancer treatment being at the forefront of my mind in the hours after diagnosis, I worried more about not getting my proposal submitted, letting other people down, whether or not I would be able to be as productive with paper writing as I’d hoped over the coming months, and how it would impact upon my teaching. To put this into a broader perspective, I’m currently on the first proper period of annual leave I’ve taken in a long time, and had initially decided to dedicate my first week of holiday to finishing my funding application. Supportive discussion with colleagues has made me realise (albeit stubbornly) that work really need not be a priority over the next few weeks/months, and that my now shortened holiday pre-surgery would be better spent climbing, socialising, and writing about things other than work! In time I know that my research will come to be very important again to keep me sane during my recovery, but if one good thing comes out of this unexpected bump in the road, it’s the recognition that I’m already doing enough in my career, and that prioritising myself and my personal life apparently won’t lead to disaster!

A coveted climbing trip to the Lake District next week has unfortunately had to be cancelled in place of hospital appointments, but my wonderfully supportive partner and I plan to make the most of the beautiful South West over the next two weeks instead, exploring more of the climbing on our doorstep. I fully plan to keep climbing for as long as I can before treatment starts, and I’ll be back on it again as soon as my body allows! Sport keeps me happy and healthy during other periods of stress, and I will sorely miss the physicality of climbing, and the lovely people I climb with, over the next few months. I’m lucky to have a very close family, awesome friends, and a group of colleagues (friends) who have already helped to alleviate so much of the stress I was feeling about letting work go for a while.

The only thing left to say for now is that checking your breasts regularly is so incredibly important. Screening doesn’t start until at least age 47 in the UK, so for younger people the most likely way to discover cancer is by knowing what feels normal for you. If you don’t know how to do this, please take the time to read this guide from Breast Cancer Care. I was lucky enough to catch it at a relatively early stage, and I’m sure I’ll be right as rain and back to obsessing about glaciers in no time!


18th July 2018

Promoting gender balance and improved recognition of female researchers at conferences: some thoughts and guidelines for best practise

equity-2355700_960_720The issue of unequal representation of women and men at academic conference is not a new topic, but it has often been on my mind in recent weeks following experiences and observations as both a conference organiser and attendee/presenter. I’ve had multiple constructive, encouraging discussions around this topic with people of varying gender and career stage, and through this article I hope to summarise some of the ideas arising from these discussions which organisers, conveners and attendees can put in place to promote gender parity in future meetings. I know that many individuals and organisations are working hard to effect change on this issue, and some of the material below may be obvious or already being applied, However, it’s clear that there is still significant room for improvement, and as long as there are still conference sessions where all speakers are men, in my view, we must do more to achieve a gender balance.


Encouraging attendance and abstract submission

  • Earmark in-house funding for ECR female attendance where funds are available and flag external opportunities for conference attendance funding such as the Gill Harwood Memorial Fund from the BSRG.
  • Offer childcare subsidies if possible, and strive to acquire sponsorship to contribute towards funding of crèche facilities and childcare.
  • Solicit abstracts from female researchers to encourage submission to meetings and individual sessions, with a particular focus on talks. By contacting researchers directly they may feel more welcome and their academic contribution more appreciated.
  • Try to achieve gender balance when inviting keynote speakers. In conferences with multiple sessions/specialisms this should be reviewed by the organising committee to ensure gender balance across the event and not only at session level.
  • Ensure gender balance in session conveners/co-conveners. Having a good gender balance in the organising committee, session conveners, and invited keynotes can be used to advertise a meeting/session and create a positive, inclusive vibe.


Achieving session diversity

  • Strive for an equal gender balance of speakers, even if (where appropriate) this results in “positive” discrimination in favour of women. The visibility of female speakers may act to encourage increased female attendance and abstract submissions in future meetings/sessions.
  • If an oral session looks likely to be dominated by male speakers while the poster session has a larger proportion of women, think about getting in touch with individuals to ask whether they would consider giving a talk. This may not be possible where the abstract submission process is very formal (highlighting the need to solicit female contributions early on).
  • It has been observed that men are more likely to ask questions during oral sessions even where conference gender balance is 50/50, but one study suggests that women are more likely to ask questions if a female is first to ask. Convenors could thus try to vary between men and women being given an opportunity to ask the first question after a talk. Individual institutions and organisations could also try to improve the confidence of ECRs of all genders in engaging with questions and discussion by implementing ideas such as “question club”.


Facilitating the needs of attendees

  • Be aware of diverse needs when choosing a conference venue. I witnessed multiple instances of people with children and buggies struggling with non-automatic doors at the very busy entrance to EGU last week, for example. Ensuring accessibility is important not only for attendees with children, but also for those with disabilities and mobility issues.
  • Try to set aside quiet/private spaces with adequate facilities for breastfeeding, pumping and other childcare needs.
  • Strive to offer childcare/crèche facilities, and spaces for play.
  • Consider inclusion of priority seating in oral and poster sessions, ensuring that pregnant women, and indeed those with reduced mobility, have access to seats should they need them.
  • Facilitate the attendance of family members and caregivers. Given that many countries and organisations still do not offer full equality in parental leave, promoting family conference attendance may better support female researchers.
  • More on this topic can be found in this recent article in PNAS.


Diversity in roles and accolades

  • Conferences often involve medal ceremonies for researchers being recognised for their contribution to a specific field. Medal ceremonies and lectures are a visual display of excellence, and thus achieving gender balance here is imperative to encourage female ECRs to continue in their research careers. When soliciting nominations for these awards organisers may wish to highlight that the full range and diversity of the research community should be considered when nominating and voting for candidates. Ultimately it is up to the community as a whole to do better on this point; when calls for nominations come around the mailing lists, act! (Only 21.1% of nominees for EGU awards in 2018 were female, for example).
  • Both conference organisation and convening can be viewed as prestigious roles, and may even contribute towards career progression. Committees should thus strive to encourage female participation in conference organisation, while sessions without female co-convenors could consider inviting additional female contributors.
  • More broadly, female representation in organisations and committees must be improved across a range of roles and levels. Furthermore, females must have an equal opportunity to take on the most prestigious roles (and not only roles in outreach and networking, which are often taken on more by minority groups).

The EGU 2016 Awards Ceremony… promoting equality? (Credit: EGU/Foto Pflueg)


Considerations for conference attendees

  • When organising networking or social events (both formally and informally) be mindful to avoid bias against those of a different gender. Given that ideas for new projects and collaborations can often arise outside of formal conference sessions, post-conference socialising and networking must be inclusive to allow equal opportunity for future research engagement. As with many of the points raised here, this issue is important not only in terms of gender balance, but also for all minority groups.
  • Transparent guidelines for appropriate behaviour, including a policy on sexual harassment, should be considered, particularly for large events. These guidelines must be clearly-communicated and easily navigable, helping to ensure that all attendees feel comfortable and safe during the conference. AGU have made positive progress on this, including the implementation of the “SafeAGU” programme.
  • Finally, all conference participants should be aware of their own behaviour during sessions. I’ve seen multiple cases of ECRs (particularly females) being questioned/criticized in an aggressive and non-constructive manner following what might be their first oral presentation at a large conference. While I certainly do not want to see sessions where constructive criticism is not welcomed, attendees should be mindful of where public criticism is appropriate.


This is not intended to be an exhaustive list of guidelines, nor can all of this be achieved immediately or at every conference. Many of these guidelines can be implemented simply by a change in research culture and through community buy-in, while others will require investment in the form of infrastructure and funding. I’d like to thank all of the men and women who flagged many of the ideas above to me in recent weeks, and I very much welcome additional input and open discussion around this topic in the future.

Dr Caroline Clason, 15th April 2018

Creating gender balance at academic conferences: a reflection on recent experience and the elephant in the room

Earlier this month the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the handbook_coverUniversity of Plymouth hosted the QRA (Quaternary Research Association) Annual Discussion Meeting. This three day conference welcomed delegates from across the UK, Europe and further afield, and across all research career stages from masters students to professors. The overarching theme of the conference was data-model inter-comparison in Quaternary Science, with session themes spanning landscape evolution and palaeohydrology, long-term ecology, palaeoclimate reconstructions, glacial modelling and geomorphology, and sea level change. From the offset the 2018 QRA meeting was organised with gender balance in mind, including the make-up of organising committee, invited keynotes and session chairs, and the programme of talks. As the lead of the organising committee I was supported by both male and female colleagues, and while the task of organisation was a significant drain on time, at no point did I feel in any way that my efforts were not appreciated.

I am passionate about equality in STEM and academia more broadly. One of the responsibilities of my job is to sit on the Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity Committee in my school, where we look for ways to promote gender equality across a wide variety of academic activities, including the departmental seminar series, interview committees, and academic administrative roles. With a growing impetus for improved gender balance in academia, it’s imperative to consider not only how we might improve equality within our own institutions, but also how we can promote equality and diversity in the wider academic community. Conferences are an important platform upon which early career researchers can build networks, meet potential future collaborators and employers, and receive essential feedback on their work from other experts in the field. I’m all too aware from my own experiences that conferences are not always a positive experience for women, with the gender balance of presentations often far from equal. Furthermore, I know of senior women reduced to tears by aggressive questioning by other delegates, with the sometimes intimidating atmosphere of conference halls acting as a barrier to less “confident” delegates being willing to pose questions or voice their opinions. A recent article published in Times Higher Education  describes a study which found that women are two and half times less likely to ask a question during an academic seminar than men, and that female respondents to one survey were more likely to report feeling intimidated, nervous, or not clever enough as a reason for their reticence to ask a question.

With this article in mind, my colleague and I made note of the gender of every person who asked a question during the QRA meeting. The results of this survey, in addition to other variables including delegate numbers and gender balance of speakers, are summarised in the table below.

Male Female
Conference attendees 44 (54%) 38 (46%)
Talks presented (including invited keynotes and drop-outs/stand-ins) 23 (56%) 18 (44%)
Posters presented 11 (39%) 17 (61%)
Talks requested (on submission of an abstract) 23 (56%) 18 (44%)
Talks allocated by the organising committee 21 (57%) 16 (43%)
Keynote speakers 2 (40%) 3 (60%)
Session chairs 3 (60%) 2 (40%)
Organising committee members 4 (44%) 5 (56%)
Questions asked during the programme of talks 80 (77%) 24 (23%)

Let’s start with addressing the elephant in the room: 77% of questions during the meeting were asked by men, more than three times the number asked by women. There’s no way to dress this up as anything other than depressing reading, however having attended every session during the conference, and having presented a talk myself, I witnessed no aggressive questioning to either male or female speakers and certainly do not feel that the atmosphere of the meeting was either intimidating or unsupportive. Looking at the gender balance of conference attendees, talks requested and talks presented, I believe that we achieved a very good gender balance both in terms of conference delegates and the programme of talks. Quaternary science is a research field that has been historically dominated (in number at least) by men, however my recent experience of organising this conference fills me with genuine optimism that we are headed in the right direction. Achieving this gender balance was a core priority of the organising committee. We actively chose to invite three (excellent) female keynote speakers, maintained the proportion of talks requested and talks presented by women, and perhaps by selecting a female lead for the organising committee we played a small part in influencing the attendance of female delegates.

All things considered, these numbers give me cause to be happy, and contribute to what was an overwhelmingly encouraging conference experience. A number of delegates, including high-profile keynote speakers, commented positively on the gender balance of the conference programme, and I very much hope that the other attendees and presenters had a similarly positive experience, particularly those in the early stages of their research career. But what to do about the elephant in the room? How can we affect change not only in who attends and presents at conferences, but also in who feels comfortable and confident enough to make their voice heard? Unsurprisingly, I don’t have the answer, and our data are insufficient to offer additional insight. What I would suggest, however, is that this exercise should be repeated on a larger scale (EGU, AGU or INQUA for example). This might allow for a more detailed analysis of whether sessions with a greater proportion of female presenters also promote greater numbers of questions from female delegates, whether the gender of session chairs influences the proportion of males vs females who ask a question or make a comment, and whether females are more likely to ask a question if the first person to ask is also female.


Ralph Fyfe, Stephanie Mills and Caroline Clason – three happy conference organisers!

To finish, I want to briefly touch upon the importance of not only retaining females who have chosen to enter the world of academia (a huge issue in itself) but also on attracting female school-leavers into the geosciences and STEM in the first place. “Girls into Geoscience” is an initiative to introduce female A-level students to the Earth Sciences, including a field trip, workshops led by female academics, and seminars from women who work in the geosciences. The next event will be held at the University of Plymouth this July, and you can follow us on Twitter if you’re interested!

Dr Caroline Clason, 24th January 2018

Pells, R., (2017), Men ‘much more likely to ask questions in seminars’ than women, Times Higher Education, available at (accessed 24/01/2018)

Coring and cricket

We’ve been at Tarfala Research Station for a week now, and making great progress with our sampling schedule! Unfortunately, the weather has well and truly called a halt to fieldwork due to rain/snow/hail/gale force winds, but we’re making the most of it by staying warm and dry and catching up with processing our ice surface sediment samples in the lab (and discovering just how smelly cryoconite is while drying in the oven!).


Cryoconite sampling on Isfallsglaciären

In addition to completing our sampling of the moraines and proglacial stream outlets, we also had a go at taking a sediment core from the bottom of one of Isfallsglaciären’s proglacial lakes. To do this we carried a dinghy from Tarfalasjön to Isfallssjön across multiple moraines, which turned out to be a seriously physical task! Coring proved to be much trickier than expected as the proglacial sediments are very fine and dense and the corer struggled to penetrate the sediments at the lake bottom. Although this was a disappointment, and we ended up having lunch in a bothy bag to shelter from the bad weather, taking the boat out on Isfallssjön was a a really fun experience… We’ll try again when the weather improves!


Boating in Isfalls proglacial lake

We’re really glad that we decided to front-load our fieldwork schedule and have collected most of what we need, as the weather is really putting a spanner in the works at the moment. Good company and nightly saunas are going a long way to keeping spirits high! To end on a VERY positive note, following some cricket coaching from Nick and I (the only Brits at the station), Team Tarfala went on to win back the “Ashes” from Kebnekaise Mountain Station at the annual cricket match! HOWZAT?!!!


Evening cricket practise… Tarfala style!

This blog post was first published at on 14th August 2017 as part of our INTERACT project, “GRASP” (glacier recession as a source of environmental pollutants).

Let the sampling begin!…

After journeying from Plymouth by car, plane, bus, and helicopter, we arrived at Tarfala Research Station in Arctic Sweden on Monday 7th August (a very happy moment for me after a long three years since my last visit!). We were greeted by Tobbe and the station staff and immediately made to feel at home, and began our fieldwork on Monday afternoon by scoping out our field site on and around Isfallsglaciaren.


We have begun our field campaign by collecting samples of cryoconite from the surface of Isfallsglaciaren, and taking sediment samples from the proglacial stream outlets, moraines, and fluted glacier forefield, for eventual analysis back in Plymouth. Isfallsglaciaren has retreated significantly over the past century, leaving behind a dynamic and very beautiful proglacial area, which makes fieldwork here a joy (even the rain couldn’t dampen spirits completely…)!

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Processing the samples (drying and separating fine sediments) at the end of the day is a bit of a slow process with so many samples to get through, but we’re looking forward to more exciting field days ahead both on the glacier and when we take the boat onto Isfallssjon to take a sediment core from the proglacial lake. It’s been a great start to our visit so far, and we’re looking forward to the rest of our time here at Tarfala!


This blog post was first published at on 9th August 2017 as part of our INTERACT project, “GRASP” (glacier recession as a source of environmental pollutants).