Professor Julia Slingo, OBE

Doctor of Science Proefssor Julia Slingo

Thursday 15 July 2010 - Orator: Professor Paul Valdes

Madam Chancellor,

I only have to mention the phrase “barbeque summer” for everyone to immediately realise that today’s honorary graduand has something to do with weather forecasting. But before she becomes too annoyed with me for reminding you of one of the rare less accurate forecast from the UK Meteorological Office, I think it is important to remember that forecasting weather and climate is one of most important and challenging sciences of our times. It also has a hugely long history.  Aristotle wrote one of the first books on the subject more than 2000 years ago, a huge four-volume text called Meteorologica. And talking about visionary thinkers is a much more appropriate way of introducing our honorary graduand, Professor Julia Slingo, OBE, Chief Scientist of the UK Meteorological Office.

Julia Mary Walker was born in Kenilworth, Warwickshire and went to school at King’s High School for Girls in Warwick. She soon established herself as a strong mathematician and physicist. However it was whilst revising for her A-levels she recalls her first interest in the weather. Like all students, slightly bored of studying her notes, she used to stare out of the window and watch the clouds marching across the countryside near her home. She started wondering what governed their formation and movement and hence was born a long lasting interest in meteorology.

Fortunately, such day-dreaming did not damage her exam performance and Julia achieved top grades in all of her A-levels. She then applied and was accepted to read Physics at Oxford.  However, when she visited Oxford for an interview, she was not very impressed and so asked her father where else would be a good place to study. He immediately suggested Bristol (her father was obviously a very wise man) and so it was in 1969 she arrived here to read for a BSc. in Physics.

Julia recalls her years in Bristol with great pleasure. She soon discovered a love for classical physics, working on such diverse projects as measuring the viscous and plastic properties of potty putty, and learning practical machining skills which resulted in her making a 3-D noughts and crosses! She also continued to build on her interest in weather, putting to use her day-dreaming by completing a major first year essay on the physics of clouds.

Julia was a member of Badock Hall and later lived in a shared flat in Victoria Square. She was then, and indeed remains, a very keen musician. She briefly belonged to an elite university chamber choir called the “32 Choir” which was run by the Head of Music and performed in concerts at the University and at Colston Hall. She has given numerous solo performances and for many years conducted her church choir in Goring, near Reading

After her time in Bristol, Julia was accepted by Imperial College to do a PhD but decided instead to join the UK Meteorological Office. At that time, the Met Office was an intellectual powerhouse, similar in many ways to a university of weather, and was leading the world in developing computer models for weather forecasting.

It was an exciting place to work, and Julia progressed rapidly though the ranks to become Senior Scientist in the dynamical meteorology section. Her research focussed on clouds and their interactions with the rest of the atmosphere. She also pioneered new ways to represent clouds in weather forecast and climate models. Some of the schemes that she helped develop then are still being used in climate models today.

It was during this first period at the Met Office that Julia met and married a fellow scientist Tony Slingo. They worked together on many research topics and several joint papers have been published. Sadly, Tony died tragically after a sudden illness two years ago. It was a huge shock to everyone.   I know that Julia has had tremendous support from their two daughters, Mary and Anna, and I am delighted that they have been able to attend this celebration today, as well as several other members of their family.

Julia left the Meteorological Office in 1985 and worked for the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasting. It was here that I first met her. She was giving a seminar on her latest research. I remember the seminar well, not so much because of the subject but because she was very heavily pregnant, I believe with Anna, and most of the audience were concerned that it was not just the seminar that she was going to deliver that day!

In 1986 Julia moved to the National Centre for Atmospheric Research in the US.  It was while she was in the US that she completed her PhD, externally, in the Physics Department at Bristol University. The topic was atmospheric physics, and it was a thesis completed through a series of published papers.

Julia returned to the UK in 1990 to work at Reading University, where she established a new group researching into tropical climate. She also established herself as one of the world leading researchers in tropical climate variability and cumulus convection, its influence on the global climate, and its role in seasonal and decadal climate prediction. Her work has revolutionised our understanding and ability to model these processes.  Julia led the development of a new generation of high resolution climate models. She has a particular interest in the monsoons of India and China and works closely with scientists in both countries. More recently, she has also been investigating the impacts of changes on water resources and crop production, and the need to better represent the hydrological cycle in climate models.

Last year she became the Chief Scientist at the UK Meteorological Office, the first external scientist appointed to this role. It has been an interesting and challenging time since starting there. It began with a major funding crisis, soon followed by “climate-gate”, “barbeque summers”, and Icelandic volcanoes!  I imagine she is now hoping that we will experience some very boring weather for the next few months.  

Among numerous esteem indicators, Julia’s research contributed to the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change as well as the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  She was awarded the Buchan prize in 1999, leads many national and international committees researching into various aspects of weather and climate, and was the first woman president of the Royal Meteorological Society. In 2008, she received an OBE for services to Environmental and Climate Science.

Whilst preparing for this oration, I contacted a few of Julia’s colleagues for a few stories and anecdotes.

Several described Julia as a bit of a weather geek. There is never a “chilly day” in Julia’s world. It is a “persistent block” or a “strong North Atlantic Oscillation” or an “Arctic cold intrusion”. But perhaps this is hardly surprising for the Chief Scientist of the Met Office.

However, I do want to tell you about two stories that will probably embarrass Julia a little. The first story reflects the esteem with which she is held by her colleagues. One of my contacts told me “When Julia arrives at a science workshop, everyone seems genuinely delighted to see her. I remember thinking that it is almost like royalty arriving! I can’t think of another person that everyone working in tropical climate is as pleased to see at a meeting”

The other story was from her research team. All of them provided similar descriptions, that she was a widely knowledgeable visionary who, despite being phenomenally busy, will always generously give her time, support and encouragement to her students and post-docs. She has made a massive contribution to the training of a whole generation of scientists and many of her team have gone on to have highly successful careers in meteorology.

These statements are a tremendous tribute to a world leading meteorologist, who is able to combine visionary science with the highest standards of leadership and training.

Madam Chancellor, it is therefore my great pleasure and honour to present to you Professor Julia Slingo as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.

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