The hard-working high-flyer

Heather Corden graduated top of her class at the Graduate School of Climate Sciences and was awarded the 2023 Oeschger Young Scientist's Prize for her achievements. Today she is part of a major research project in the Antarctic.

This young Englishwoman likes a challenge. She wanted to complete her master’s degree in a German-speaking country, for example, because she had learnt German at secondary school in Stockport, England. While studying in Bern, she took on the role of a teaching assistant, instructing medical students in physics – notably, in German.

Heather Corden masters challenges with brilliance: she completed her master's degree in climate science with an incredible average grade of 5.98, something that had never been achieved before in the Graduate School of Climate Sciences at the University of Bern. However, these achievements were not simply handed to this exceptional student. "I had to work hard," she admits, "I attended a lot of lectures, including some at ETH. That was a lot of work." It was indeed a lot of work, and Heather is also deeply interested in understanding the underlying processes. "I'm interested in the atmosphere and weather and want to understand how processes work."

From Cambridge to Bern

Born in 1999, the winner of the 2023 Oeschger Young Scientist's Prize grew up near Manchester. Both her parents being engineers, she indeed had the legendary chemistry set in her childhood. Eventually, Heather's interest in science led her to Cambridge University, where she completed a bachelor's degree in physics - even then, she was honoured with prizes for her academic achievements. She also excelled as captain of the university's orienteering team.

Her decision to pursue a master's degree in climate science at the University of Bern was, in no small part, a stroke of fate. - it started with a Google search, and then she was interested in the wide range of subjects on offer. What did Heather Corden expect from the climate science degree programme? Brief reflection. The newly qualified climate scientist is someone who chooses her words carefully, but then gets straight to the point. "I imagined it would be quite interdisciplinary - and it indeed was. And quite international - exactly as it turned out to be."

Although the master’s student found the interdisciplinary focus interesting, and she also attended a lecture on climate economics, she ended up specialising in physics, more specifically in atmospheric science. For her master’s thesis, she participated in the field campaign of the ETH project CLOUDLAB, which uses clouds as a natural laboratory to research ice formation. However, Heather's specific interest was in the atmospheric boundary layer, the lower portion of the atmosphere.The height of this layer depends on radiation and the time of day. With the help of measurement data, including from drones, she developed an algorithm with which the height of the boundary layer can be recognised automatically.

Measuring precipitation in the Antarctic

Innovative measurement technology also plays an important role in the dissertation that the young researcher is now working on at the EPFL in Lausanne. Her study is part of the Atmospheric WAter Cycle over Antarctica - AWACA project, which is supported by a Synergy Grant from the European Research Council (ERC). Heather Corden's work involves using weather radars to measure precipitation over a four-year campaign - not at a single point, but along a 1,100 kilometre transect from the coast to the Antarctic plateau. This is uncharted scientific territory.

Next fall, Heather will join the expedition team that will install the measuring devices in the inhospitable Antarctic, where gusts of up to 200 kilometres per hour occur on the coast and the temperature inland drops to -80 degrees in winter. "I'm fascinated by fieldwork," says the researcher full of anticipation, "that's one of the reasons why I applied for this position." She sees the biggest difficulty in her project as the vast amount of data that needs to be interpreted in a meaningful way during the course of the project. She is also concerned about whether the measuring instruments will actually work independently for months in the adverse conditions. During a recent test, one of the instruments broke down outside the window of her office in Lausanne. In other words, the young Englishwoman will have no shortage of challenges in the future.

(February 2024)