Professor Ann Henderson-Sellers

Doctor of Science Ann Henderson-Sellers

23 February 2011 - Orator: Professor Paul Valdes

Madam Chancellor

Nils Bohr, the famous Nobel Prize winning physicist, said that “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future”. Yet one of the biggest challenges facing society and especially scientists is predicting how climate change will develop into the future. Our honorary graduate, Professor Ann Henderson-Sellers, is one of the leading pioneers of climate change research and predictions. She was part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change team that won the 2007 Nobel peace prize “for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change”

Ann was born in Sheffield, Yorkshire and from an early age dreamed of being a physicist. She studied magnets on her bed, leaving iron filings everywhere. "My mother wanted to know what this black stuff was," she said. "But I wasn't quite as scary as a would-be chemist, I didn't blow things up."

Despite her initial interest in physics, she came to Bristol to study Mathematics. When asked why the change, she admits that she saw that the timetable for Physics had lots of practical's every afternoon but that mathematics had nothing to do after morning lectures!

She lists three particular memories of Bristol: long walks across the Downs and up Bristol’s many hills, to see friends or to get back to Manor Hall; riding motorbikes out to the Severn Bridge; and, of course, frequenting the bar in the students’ union. I suspect the students graduating today might share at least some of these memories! She also remembers that Bristol taught her the difference between science and belief. An important lesson that I also hope remains for the graduates of today. 

It was particularly applied mathematics that took her interest and she was inspired by some of the new astronomy of the time, including black holes. However, it was the study of the atmosphere of our planets that drew her attention and she gained a Ph.D. from Leicester University in Atmospheric Science in 1976 while a graduate student based at the UK Meteorological Office. The topic of her thesis was “A theoretical study of the evolution of the atmospheres and surface temperatures of the terrestrial planets” and focused on a little studied process called the greenhouse effect.

Her examiner for her PhD was James Lovelock. His Gaia Hypothesis changed the way that we viewed the interaction between life and the environment and he deeply inspired Ann.  James Lovelock invented a whole new discipline called Earth Systems Science. Ann has become one of the world leaders in this new subject, and herself has become an inspiration to her colleagues.

I well remember the first time that I met Ann. It was at a meeting that James Lovelock had organised on the science of Gaia. It was the first time that I had given a talk to Earth System Scientists and I knew that Ann had a reputation of asking awkward and insightful questions. I was therefore deeply relieved when, at the end of my talk, she remained silent, although at coffee time she quietly did point a few problems in my analysis!

It was whilst studying for her PhD that she married Brian. Brian was also studying for a PhD at Leicester and when he found work in Manchester she took the only job on offer, as a tropical climatologist in the geography department of Liverpool University, even though she hadn't studied geography since she was at school. She learned about how weather and climate worked. The work focussed on how environmental conditions affect people and how people affect the environment - a subject that remains of fundamental importance to our contemporary concerns about climate change.

In 1987, Ann moved to Australia to be the founding director of the Macquarie University Climatic Impacts Centre. Later she became deputy vice-chancellor of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, and the Environment director for the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation. From 2005 to 2007 she was the Director of the World Climate Research Programme based in Geneva at the headquarters of the World Meteorological Organisation. Throughout this time, she has championed the scientific need for action to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Her academic achievements are almost too numerous to list. Ann is one of the most highly cited authors with over 500 publications, including 14 books. She is an elected Fellow of America’s Geophysical Union, the American Meteorological Society, a Fellow of Australia’s Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering and was awarded the Centenary Medal of Australia for Service to Australian Society in Meteorology in 2003. She was convening Lead Author for the Second IPCC Assessment and has contributed as a researcher and reviewer for all four assessment Reports. She has chaired the Australian National Committee for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences and has been a member of the Greenhouse Science Advisory Committee.

Her commitment to the importance of climate change far transcends the science. She has been active in explaining this complicated science to the general public. Her book “The Climate Modelling Primer” co-authored by friend and colleague Kendal McGuffie, who I am delighted to say is in the audience today, remains the best book for explaining how climate models work, what they can do, and what they cannot. She also says that one of her proudest achievements was gaining consensus in the messy and political universe of the United Nations– persuading its leaders to agree on a set of straightforward recommendations.

Several times in my oration, I have used the word “inspirational” and with good reason. Ann has inspired scientists, politicians, and the public about the need to do something about climate change. However she actually puts these ideas into action. She volunteers ongoing advice on climate, sustainability and planning to her local community in Sydney and supervises PhD students working on things of tangible value to local communities. She has solar panels on her roof, has landscaped her garden to be water efficient and walks pretty well everywhere. Indeed I discovered that another book that she has co-authored with Kendal McGuffie and her husband is called “The Great North Walk Companion” which is a 250km walk between Sydney and Newcastle. The book offers some insight into the social development of the area from the time before white people laid claim to Australia to the end of the 21st century.

Ann is a mathematician and climate modeller who occasionally treads into the field.  I am sure it's purely coincidental that her last field work was in association with a vine yard in Australia and her enjoyment of a decent red in no way influenced her choice of venue!

In researching for this oration, I also discovered that Ann has a deep commitment to Winnie the Pooh.  I couldn't help but wonder what character best matched her personality.  I initially thought of Tigger, for the energy and enthusiasm that she throws into her subject. But I also think that there is some Christopher Robin in her, for her amazing ability in resolving the problems and crises created by others.

Honorary degrees are bestowed on distinguished individuals who merit special recognition for outstanding achievement and distinction. The words “honoris causa” can be translated as “for the sake of the honour”. I cannot think of better words to describe our honorary graduate. 

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

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