Q&A with French geophysicist and 2020 Vetlesen Prize winner Anny Cazenave
French geophysicist Anny Cazenave has spent more than two decades studying climate and environmental science using satellites, focusing on sea level rise and hydrology. Before that, Cazenave was a pioneer in the field of space geodesy, using satellites to measure fundamental properties of the Earth, including its shape, orientation in space, and gravity field.
For his pioneering work in the earth sciences, Cazenave will be celebrated and presented with the prestigious 2020 Vetlesen Prize at Columbia University in April (after a three-year delay due to COVID-19).
Emeritus scientist at the Laboratory for Space Geophysical and Oceanographic Studies in France and former director of Earth Sciences at the International Institute of Space Sciences in Switzerland, Cazenave will also share the stage with the 2023 laureate, physicist David Kohlstedt. The Vetlesen Prize is administered by Columbia Climate SchoolIt is Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.
In honor of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, a day designated by the UN calling for greater access and equal participation of women and girls in science, we spoke with Cazenave about her career path, the Vetlesen Prize and ways to encourage more women and girls to enter the field.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What prompted you to pursue research in Earth sciences and climate?
I first wanted to be an astronomer when I was still a university student. But instead of looking up, I’ve spent my life’s work looking down on Earth. And I’ve never regretted that. In the 1970s, I obtained a doctorate studying the rotation of the Earth, and I was recruited to work at CNES, the French Space Center. Space agencies at the time were working to quantify the forces acting on artificial satellites in order to accurately calculate their orbits. I started my research using different spaces geodesy techniques for determining the Earth’s gravity field.
I wanted to take this research even further, so I also investigated the origin of gravity field anomalies, such as those in the Earth’s internal structure. When space geodesy techniques improved over time, it gave me the chance to study other solid earth processes, such as vertical movements of the earth’s crust, large-scale tectonic deformations, movements of the center mass of the Earth, the highs and lows of the average surface of the sea. , and their relation to the topography of the seabed.
The launch of TOPEX/Poseidon, the first high-precision altimetry mission using onboard altimeters designed to accurately measure sea surface topography and ocean currents, was jointly developed by NASA and CNES, and ushered in the era of “oceanography from space” in the early 1990s. I chose to enter this new field and began using satellite altimetry to measure elevation climate-related sea level and its causes. I have also worked with satellite altimetry (a technique that can also measure changes in river and lake levels) and spatial gravimetry (which provides measurements of changes in water storage on earth) to study the terrestrial hydrology and the global water cycle. My research over the past two decades has mainly focused on climate and environmental science using satellites. Moving into this brand new realm 20 years ago was a difficult but very rewarding process for me.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
I am currently working on sea level rise and climate change. Together with my colleagues, we regularly measure sea level change from global to local (coastal) scales using satellite altimeters. We are also working to quantify the processes driving sea level rise, namely ocean warming and land ice loss. In parallel, we study sea level rise in global coastal areas and the associated impacts.
I am also co-principal investigator of a project of the European Research Council dedicated to studying the deep interior of the Earth using global observable measurements such as the Earth’s magnetic and gravitational fields and observations of the Earth’s rotation.
How does it feel to be a Vetlesen winner? Are you looking forward to finally visiting Columbia and accepting this honor in April?
It is a great pleasure, a privilege and an immense honor to receive the Vetlesen Prize. When I look at the list of previous recipients, I feel very humbled by these renowned scientists. Overall, I’m very happy and quite proud that our area of research is recognized. I warmly thank the colleagues who nominated me and the Vetlesen jury who selected me. I look forward to the ceremony in New York in April and will be delighted to meet this year’s winner!
When you started out, was it difficult to be a female scientist? Do you think things have changed a lot since then?
Overall, the number of women in science has increased over the last decades in Europe. Yet it is incredibly low in some scientific fields and everywhere at the highest levels. There are clearly multifactorial causes for this. From my own experience on the ground, I did not see this as the result of sexism or discrimination. But I think there are complex cultural and societal factors that subconsciously persuade women that scientific research is more appropriate for men. In addition, many women scientists give up access to a high-level research role because they see it as a means of exercising power, which they consider to be something reserved for men. There is also the struggle for child custody and family commitments and their combination with high-level research obligations. Too many women have learned that it is natural to abandon their own scientific ambitions for family commitments and responsibilities.
In my own life, I have chosen to prioritize productivity and scientific expertise over other responsibilities, while balancing family demands and participating in research to the best of my ability. In France, I benefited from a government system that offers women substantial support, including crèches and leisure centers to take children during school holidays. Overall, I have never found being a female scientist to be a liability. For me, excellence in research, curiosity and passion must always remain the main objectives, whether you are a man or a woman.
If not, how can we continue to support women scientists? Do you have any advice for young women or girls looking to enter the field?
Senior female scientists (like me) can help the younger generation on their scientific career path. We can certainly start with women PhDs and post-docs at the research lab level, teaching and supporting them to develop confidence, strive for excellence and work with passion. It is also easy and important to encourage and help young scientists to apply for research grants, to share our own scientific networks and to help them navigate and participate in international meetings and conferences so that they can increase their confidence and their scientific visibility. It is important to encourage women scientists to join science policy committees and sit on groups and panels that select grant and award winners and recruit applicants, so that we can increase the proportion of women in decision-making. influential decision for the field. A more clearly defined strategy is needed to include nominations of female scientists for national and international prizes and awards. We know that mentorship programs both in specific areas and nationally are very useful for young female scientists, but they still need to be better developed. I think the most difficult obstacles to overcome are cultural barriers, starting from childhood. Early education should teach children to move away from biases and gender stereotypes and start scientific experimentation at a young age. Many countries, especially in the EU, have tried to teach children that science is not just for boys and that girls and boys have similar intellectual abilities. Women scientists should also consider attending meetings and exchanges with younger students and taking the opportunity to answer their scientific questions. I visit middle and high schools several times a year and find these interactions very rewarding.