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Dr Melanie Windridge: Summiting the Science of Everest

On Tuesday 20th March many students from all years attended a talk delivered by Dr Melanie Windridge, a former Becky High Student with a passion for Plasma Physics and Adventure. The talk described Melanie’s career path before discussing her latest plan to climb Mount Everest in Spring 2018. She aims to raise the profile of the science and advances in technology that improve safety and performance on the mountain and hopes to inspire young people, especially girls, to go into STEM related careers.

The talk started with Melanie discussing her pathway to becoming a Plasma Physicist which started studying Physics, Maths, Further Maths and Economics at Becky High. She then completed a Masters Degree in Physics at Bristol University before travelling the world, where she became fascinated with the physics she could see in the world around her. In particular Melanie became concerned about the effects of climate change and the issue of finding future energy sources. This sparked an interest in fusion energy, which lead her to complete a phD in plasma physics. Students learnt about the physics behind what plasma is - the fourth state of matter where electrons are separated from nucleus - an extreme state of matter that is affected by magnetic and electric fields.

We then learnt about how plasma is responsible for creating the Northern Lights or “Aurora Borealis” due to the charged particles in plasma in the upper atmosphere generated from magnetic field lines snapping when they get too close together due to solar wind from the sun. Melanie’s exploration in search of the Northern Lights led her to Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Scotland, Svalbard and Canada resulting in her book, “Aurora: In Search of the Northern Lights” which combines her adventurous travelling with fusion research.

Melanie then discussed her next adventure - climbing Mount Everest! She first became interested in the mountain after learning that it was the advancements in scientific knowledge and technology that allowed the first climbers to succeed in reaching the top in the 1950s. Her extensive travelling and previous experience of climbing other mountains, such as Mount Kilimanjaro, led Melanie to believe that it wasn’t impossible for her to climb Everest - a fantastic message to all our students to pursue their interests and passions when they have the opportunity.

You can find out more about Melanie’s aims for her climb of Everest and keep up to date wither her progress through her website. http://melaniewindridge.co.uk/a-journey-of-discovery Links to the Institute of Physics youtube channel with educational videos on the Science behind Everest can be accessed here:  https://www.youtube.com/user/InstituteofPhysics

The audience learnt about the numerous perils that Melanie will face, which include ice falls, avalanches and entering the “death zone” above 8000m. To help her survive Melanie talked about the different teams and guides on the mountain who try to keep everyone safe and described some of the technology such as the use of statistics and showed us some of the kit that has been developed to help climbers. Melanie brought along her down suit, boots, crampons, mittens and ice axe as just some of the equipment she would use to combat the extreme conditions on Everest.

Students had the opportunity to ask questions about her plans to climb Everest and Melanie was impressed with the wide range of perceptive and interesting questions our students asked.  We learnt of how Melanie is balancing her training for the climb with her job in communications at Tokamak Energy - a fusion energy company based in Oxford; how much it would cost to climb Everest and how long it would take to climb the mountain itself. It was a shame we didn’t have more time to discuss such an interesting topic. We look forward to monitoring Melanie’s progress for the climb and wish her the best of luck!

Here are what some students said of the talk:

“It was very inspiring to hear of the experiences of a former Becky High student who is in the process of achieving her goals by following her passions.”

“A fantastic opportunity to see the wide range of opportunities STEM careers can provide”

Find out more about the project and its goals, including opportunities to support and be involved, here: http://bit.ly/MWEverest .  Melanie is crowdfunding for production of educational videos on the Science of the Summit – please consider supporting her: http://bit.ly/supportMW 

Sarah Stevens

STEM Senior Prefect