Welcome to the second episode dedicated to LGBT+ History Month in the UK.
Craig Poku is a postdoctoral researcher in climate sciences at the University of Leeds, who identifies as a queer Black cis-male. He completed an undergraduate degree in Mathematics from King’s College London where he obtained a 1st Class Honours. In 2015, he moved to Leeds where he went onto complete a PhD in Atmospheric Sciences which focused on improved UK fog forecasts by understanding how to improve the modelling of fog microphysics. Following his PhD he now works on similar research, with a focus on fog over Northern India. Over the past few years, Craig has developed an interest in understanding the intersection between race and climate. He’s passionate to discuss how representation in climate sciences could be improved, leading to him to co-lead projects such as Black in Geoscience Week. In his spare time, he likes to get creative which sees him regularly bake, and take up activities such as theatre and pottery.
Below is the full transcript of the episode. *This episode contains explicit content* Enjoy, and please do provide feedback or get in touch with Craig via:
Jazmin, Nuzhat, Craig
Hello, and welcome to the What on Earth Podcast. I’m your host, Jazmin.
And I’m your host Nuzhat. In this podcast we celebrate Earth, environmental and planetary scientists from diverse backgrounds, and get to know what they’re up to.
And we also speak to scientists from different disciplines about how we can decolonise science and make it more inclusive for everyone.
In this episode, we’ll be celebrating LGBT plus month. And to do that, we’ve got the amazing Dr. Craig Poku. Hey!
Hey, how you doing?
Good. Can you introduce yourself with your pronouns?
Yeah, sure. So my name is Dr. Craig Poku, I am a climate scientist and my pronouns I go by are He and They. [Nuzhat] Welcome. [Craig] Thank you for inviting me.
Okay. So what was your journey into becoming a climate scientist?
My journey to becoming a climate scientist – I was, so back at school, I was always interested in like natural sciences and sort of like the way how the world worked. And when I was picking my GCSEs, I just picked things that I was kind of like, intrigued by so I enjoyed mathematics, like I really enjoyed mathematics. But I had the choice of either doing Triple Science or Additional Science and Geography, and I chose the latter because I was also interested in like the natural world and stuff, got to A levels primarily picked mathematical subjects and I wanted to do like geography A level, however, my school were like, oh, well, geography is seen as a soft subjects and because I was like, looking at Russell Group universities, I was like, well, in that case, geography can’t happen. Upon hindsight, that’s rubbish. And so I then went to then do a degree in mathematics at King’s College London, where I started a Master’s, I then dropped out of my master’s, and proceeded in working in local government. So I worked in the Adult Social Care Team, primarily focusing on how we can implement policy into local practice. And through this year, it made me go well, what I want to do is, if I’m going to go back into science, I wanted to have something that has like societal impacts. So I then packed my bags, left London and moved up to Leeds to then do a PhD in Atmospheric Sciences. I primarily focused on how we can improve fog forecasting in the UK and now, what I now do is mostly climate impacts and climate projections in the UK. So in a very roundabout way, I did get the climate sciences, I just went about it in probably, the not- not the most straightest path is the best way to describe it.
Okay, I think we really like talking about the different twisted ways people get into Earth Sciences. [Its] such a diverse group, and so many people come from different pathways. So we want to just take a bit of a step back and interrogate your childhood a little bit longer.
Wow. The last time I was interrogated about my history is during my PhD viva, so this is bringing PhD flashbacks. Let’s, let’s, let’s- But you know, I’m ready. Let’s do this.
I think it’s really fascinating that you, you were interested in the natural world from, like, from childhood. So where did you grow up?
So I grew up in South London, hence the very strong London accent that [you] hear. Now been intertwined with me being in the north for a little bit. And so I say ‘we’ a lot. So I grew up in London. And whilst I didn’t have like, say, you know, access to like, you know, go to country walks and stuff like that I lived opposite really big park. And so because of that, like my ideas of like nature and being engaged in nature was sort of kind of ingrained from quite a young age. I also had the opportunities to go to like Jamaica quite a few times when I was younger. So for context, I’m half Jamaican half Ghanaian and so go to Jamaica, that also gave me the opportunity to be engaged with nature, just not in the UK, of course. So I think through both of those, I then kind of became quite intrigued about like the natural world. But I think what kind of stemmed my interest in weather specifically, was when I went to Jamaica the last time which was in 2007. We got caught in a hurricane, there was Hurricane Dean. The day that was supposed to fly, the hurricane hit the island. I think there were a few casualties, some deaths. And despite the fact that it was kind of like quite scary being in a natural disaster, it was also quite cool in a way, because there may be kind of go, we studied this a lot in like school in terms of like what it’s like to be in a natural disaster, how to sort of deal with being in sort of like that kind of environment, but actually being in the midst of it allowed me to then kind of highlight, okay, this is what it’s like to be in it, but from all kind of like social impact perspective. And so I guess that even though I ended up doing maths, during it- during university, I ended up finding I was gravitating mostly towards applied subjects. One of my favorite modules that I did was mathematical biology, where I actually got to model fish eating dinosaurs, as ridiculous as it sounds. And I was also- I was always finding that I was wanting to then go, how could I apply mathematics not only to like, natural physical sciences, but also have that kind of social context in mind all the way through? And that was something that definitely stuck through with me throughout my career, basically.
Yeah. And yeah, and I think having that personal experience of you being in hurricane, sometimes that’s all it- that’s the spark sometimes.
Yeah. ‘Cause it’s interesting, because prior to that, I remember when- it’s weird, because like, as a Londoner, somebody asked me what actually got me interested in weather. Because every time you think about the weather, you just think about “Oh, the weather’s gonna be raining, you’ve got this, this this”. But I think what initially started it was the fact that because London sits on what’s known as an ‘Urban Heat Island”. This then means that the likelihood of you having snow is a lot less. And that’s just due to the fact that the amount of heat that has been emitted from buildings basically counteracts you having snow settling. So when we did have snow settle for the first time, that as a kid was something that threw me off, because you see it on television all the time, and you go “Oh up north, they have all the snow, down south, they have some snow, but London? We never have snow, we have really hot weather”. So when we did have snow for the first time as a kid, I was like, why is this the case? And while all of my friends were like, kind of like “oh snow day”, I think for that point, the thing that made me kind of question is, why is this happening? So I suspect that a combination of just the hurricane, seeing snow for the first time and just sort of thinking about why is this happening in London more than anything else, made me kind of figure out okay, these are things that actually sparked my curiosity and I guess that’s probably what ended up making me fall into meteorology. I say that I fell into meteorology by accident, upon reflection, I don’t think it was by accident. I just think that my spirit kind of just went, “nope today, this is where you’re gonna be and you’re gonna stay here right now”.
I just wanted to make a comment that I actually don’t mind that there’s not that much snow in London, as long as you really, really test the cold, like snow is lovely for the first hours like it’s snowing, you know, just before people step out, and then it’s just sludge [Craig] Yes. [Nuzhat] It’s annoying. I do not like the snow. I’m okay with London being snow free.
I think what makes it even more interesting is that like a lot of the country, for example, when there- whenever there is snow, they’re so interested you can tell who are Londoners and who are non-Londoners because when it’s snowing, and like after two, three days, all the non-Londoners is they’re just walking like normal. They just go, “ice? it’s fine”, and carry on. All the Londoners, we’re just hanging on for dear life on the side of the walks. And I’m just there going, “I don’t want to fall. I don’t want to fall”, and I fall, every time. But also the whole city just shuts down, like one inch of snow and the whole city just shuts down. And I think it’s simply that because prior to climate change accelerating at the rate in which it is there was just an assumption that London just never gets snow like the UK would experience [sic] but London just never has it. But unfortunately, with climate basically becoming more extreme over the next 20 to 30 years London will experience more snow and we need to be better at adapting to it.
Yeah, yeah, I remember like when I was young, I saw snow once in my lifetime. Partly because like, you know, London hardly has any snow and partly because also being like a first generation immigrant, my parents used to fly back to Bangladesh and India during winter, so I never really got used to British winter. Until I was like an adult and that’s even more reason why like I- I- terrible at tolerating British winters and just like working in an office in the British winter as well, like they always turn on the heating too late in the year, or it’s never warm enough. I used to always- people used to like joke because I had this scarf, which was large enough to be a blanket. So they were like, “oh, Nuz with her blanket”.
Yeah, no, that’s me in my office: I’d have hot water bottle, I’d have a blanket over my feet and it got to the stage when I was like, Mum, could you give me another blanket, please? Because my mom crochets. So, you know what, an opportunity has presented itself, so I’m using this opportunity to stay warm and this is the case. I think, for me, it’s one of those things where being a meteorologist and having to like, ’cause I mostly do computational meteorology, so I’m primarily in front of a PC. But there are times when I do need to collect observations as I need to go into the field. Because I don’t like the cold, I have so many layers. But now because I’ve had to kind of get used to just being in the field now. It got to the stage of the last time it snowed, I was like, cool. I’ve got my leggings, I’ve got my thermals, I’ve got another layer, I’ve got this, I’ve got that, I’ve got my boots, I’ve got this, I felt warm, it was great.
I’m just gonna say I think one of the good things about work from home is that this is probably the first time I’m not struggling to work because I have to tolerate a cold workplace.
Exactly and I think that’s something that, of course, during the summer, working in the city is a nightmare, because you’re just there like I am like, and then likewise, you have the complete opposite effects during the winter months, and you’re just like, why is it so cold all the time? So I think again, like for me working from home for the last year. Oh my gosh, almost a year- has made it a bit, I guess, well, I can adapt my microclimate to fit my needs and that’s perfect.
I think another thing about London is, it doesn’t break down just when it’s snowing. I think the two times I’ve seen extreme like transport, like network collapsing is when it snowed and when there’s been a heatwave, like we had train delays. And you know, in the past, maybe UK didn’t have to mitigate for like the extreme climates or what it considers extreme, this is obviously context subjective. But it’s just it’s been a couple of years in a row and I really need to get better at adapting to more extreme climate events. [Craig] Yeah.
Interesting from a disaster studies perspective, that, yeah, the fact that London can’t cope for these extremities shows that from a disaster perspective, they, their coping systems and mechanisms are not adaptive, or not adapting to the situation. We can extrapolate it to even the pandemic and the infrastructure, how that’s not really working and of course, we’re gonna- the future is just going to have more extreme weather events, might have another pandemic in the future, probably. And it just shows that we’re not prepared to adapt as cities, as countries and societies and that’s definitely going to be a problem when it comes to climate change.
Exactly. So the sort of message that we have within climate sciences is that we’re going to have hotter, wetter weather, to sort of sum it up in a very neat statement. And the way in which this will sort of impact the UK, it depends on where in the UK it is. So we think that part of the reason as to why some places in the countryside may adapt better is because of the fact that you’re at- you’re taking into account things such as how much moisture in the soil absorb at any given time, or how many buildings are around a say, a given land space at any given time. When it comes to urban meteorology, things get a lot more complicated, because you’re also accounting for the green spaces that you do have, the buildings which can have changes in heat, as well as wind structures and the reason why wind structures are also important is because then they can then basically transport things such as pollutants, which can also have impacts on say things that- certain things such as temperature on like a microscale. So it gets quite complicated and so the work that I’m now moving into at the moment, is now actually trying to understand how can we best model urban meteorology going forward? But more importantly, how can that then be tying into ensuring that communities such as black and brown people aren’t then as heavy impacted, because you find that what will tie into say, easiest way to sort of like mitigate some climate impacts is access to green spaces. But then if you then look at social economical factors, you find that a lot of black and brown people will live in, say tall rise buildings. And so therefore they may not be able to access as many green spaces. So as they’re trying to find out, how can you best sort of mitigate those, like unfortunate circumstances?
Yeah, so that sounds really interesting, particularly from you’re starting out with math. So what made you want to do maths?
What made me want to do maths, I think, was that I was always curious- I found that fascinating with the idea that you could basically model anything in the world through a set of a few equations. So as an example, the idea that if like taking a really simple example of a bike driving down the M1, and I accelerate by this much per second, being able to map that out into a mathematical equation so that I can then predict what’s going to happen in the future, I found that really fascinating. And I think for me, it wasn’t just the kind of there’s- there’s there is beauty behind mathematics. So you have things such as the golden ratio, which is this idea that it’s- I’m trying to think- so the easiest way to describe the golden ratio is this idea that certain aspects of nature and certain aspects of art, if you basically split it in this particular ratio, basically, it just never breaks down, I found that really fascinating. But for me, it was this application and that’s what drew me to do mathematics. And I remember being back at school where I was always wanted to do mathematics and actually found a line where I think, at the age of 10, I said, at the age of 10, I stated that when I’m going to university, I’m going to either do mathematics or music at university. Somehow, my 10 year old self had predicted my entire career. And so I remember when I was looking at university options, and my school initially didn’t offer Further Maths, which is compulsory for a lot of the top tier universities for maths. So I was like, well, in that case, maybe I could do something like chemical engineering, because it kind of brings in some mathematical- mathematical applications, and etc, etc. But then, I remember just talking to my maths teacher, and she was like, to me, well, we don’t offer Further Maths, but there’s nothing stopping you from just doing the curriculum yourself, and doing the exams for yourself and of course, whilst we may not be able to teach you, we can at least support you with that self teaching aspect. And it just made me go, well, I’ve always wanted to do maths. I’ve really thought about this in quite a lot of depth. And I wrote personal statements for both and in the end, I just said, actually, I’m going to stick with the maths personal statement and that’s what happened. And I’m really glad I did, because a lot of people go into math because they go, oh, I enjoyed the A level, oh, I enjoyed this. But for me, it was more kind of going, I want to think why this is the case? Or how can we better model things? So they’re more efficient, essentially.
So can I ask, did you go to a state school? [Craig] That is correct, I did go to a state school. [Nuzhat] Would you describe your neighborhood as somewhere that was like a disadvantaged or like from a lower socioeconomic background?
I’m going to say yes. In today’s society, I’m- actually hold on, let me rephrase that. I’m going to say no, in today’s society, but back when I was growing up, yes. And I say no, because of gentrification. [Nuzhat] Yep, okay. [Craig] So you found that a lot of people from slightly wealthier backgrounds have now moved into my area as it hence because of that. It’s a bit unclear to work out where- what that bar is. But when I went to- when I went to primary school, for example, even though it was a really good primary school, the majority of people were on free school meals, whenever it’s secondary school, that good proportion of people were on free school meals again, I wasn’t. And I think the way that I saw it was that I was there going, I was aware of what like grammar schools were I was aware of what private schools were, I was aware that I was in a relatively okay comp-school, but we didn’t have a sixth form college. And when I went to sixth form, we were the first year that had done it, because we were like, well, maybe you should try this and see what happens.
I mean, the reason I asked these leading questions was like, for people who, for people who don’t know, me and Craig are from like the same kind of region of London, so I grew up in Southwark. Craig, you grew up in? [Craig] I grew up in Brixton, and I went to school in Streatham. [Nuzhat] So we are kind of neighbors and I asked this because I empathise a lot and Craig’s situation. So I went to a state school, it was relatively good in that neighborhood, but again, is contextual. Like we had a lot of students who are also free school meal, we had a like a lot of the people who are from like lower socioeconomic background. And me myself, like I grew up in like an a council state, so my school supported me into getting into good unis. But I loved maths, too, in school, and but I wasn’t given the option to do Further Maths even that was what I was interested in. So I did maths, physics, chemistry, and geography and I really wanted to do Further Maths, and when I asked the math department, they said, I mean, they said something similar, they were like- but in a way, the way they said it was extremely, like unsupportive and hostile, they were like, you can do the exams, you, we won’t help you, we won’t teach you, if you have questions, we’ll allocate like, one hour for you to be able to come in, and asked but you have to do this all on your own. And it really sucked, because when, when teachers come and kind of like, are so hostile to you, it was almost like they’re setting you up for failure. Like, I just didn’t, I wanted to do it and the reasons I didn’t pursue the Further Maths option was because in the end, my university offered asked for four full A levels. So they said that if I wanted to do Further Maths, I had to drop geography, they specifically like picked out geography, they’re like, Oh, you have to pick drop geography, you have to self teach, you can only come in these limited hours. So in the end, I didn’t do the Futher Maths option, because my university asked for four A levels, instead of like three and two, AS’s. And I’m kind of, I don’t know how I feel about it, because I really wish that I had Further Maths when I started university because I really struggled with the- I really struggled to kind of set myself in academia. So it would have been nice if I had less academic worries. But I bring this point, because it’s like, this is one of the things that stops students from like lower socioeconomic background to be able to pursue something like STEM in universities because they don’t have the Further Maths options, or we don’t have the options that, you know, more competitive universities wants- [Craig] yeah- [Nuzhat] if you want to pursue them.
And that’s a really interesting point that you bring there because- so for kind of context, and I’d like to make this point very clear, because every story is valid. Up until year 11, I was, you know, I didn’t get into that much trouble. I was seen as one of the kind of gifted and talented students. And I knew that while so are some of my peers who were basically being penalised for really ridiculous things, I wasn’t facing those same barriers. And so because of that, it gave me the opportunity to kind of excel and I was fortunate enough that I had, like my math teacher, Pauline John, who is absolutely brilliant, just allow me to go, she used to be the type of person that she would set everybody else in the top set, like this amount of work and she would be like to me, so Craig, actually, I’m going to give you this instead to kind of push me that a little bit more. And I was really fortunate that I had somebody like that, who believed in me and I had a couple of other teachers who did that. So when it- but then when it got to A levels, it was really interesting, because they said, oh, we’ve got the state of the art new math teacher, and they gave me this person, and for confidentiality reasons I’m not going to name her because I don’t think she deserves that time of day. I wanted to do Further Maths and they brought her in as the Further Maths specialist and her phrasing, which I remember very clearly was, “well, I had this one student a few years ago. She was really really, really good at maths, but however, she struggled Further Maths, so we had to end up doing the AS over two years and she only got a C, so she couldn’t do it, there’s no hope for you”. [Nuzhat] Oh my God [Craig] Context. context. Not only did I get an A star at GCSE maths, I came top the entire year group of about 200 kids. So when she said this to me, my response to her was that she needs to go suck her mum. And then I proceeded of self-teaching my- the A level myself, because I just went, well, if you’re not going to help me get to the level that I need in order for me to get to these universities, then I’m just going to bypass you altogether. And I was thankful that I had teachers in that department who actually went, okay, so I’ve not touched this, since I’ve done degree level maths, however, we can maybe do this, or I haven’t touched this- and it kind of was a bit of like a mixed match kind of area. I think what happened was, is that Sixth Form the reason why I got seen as one of the troublemakers was not because I was necessarily going out of my way, and like, you know, setting off fireworks in the middle of the playground. But it was because I was questioning the authority and the way in which they were doing things [and] I didn’t like how it was being done, because up until that point, they were very supportive. But the moment I hit Sixth Form, it was a completely different story. And I think there when it came to university options, I remember I got decent GCSEs, my AS grades, they could have been better upon hindsight, you know, I took them over 10 years ago. But I remember when I was like, I want to apply to Cambridge, I want to put to Kings, I want to apply to Durham, I don’t want to apply to Imperial. Imperial, I couldn’t apply to, because at the time they had this rule where if you didn’t get an A in every exam first time round, then that was a no go and there was one exam, which I got like AAAAD. And I was like, well, that crosses Imperial off so I’m not even gonna bother with that. But Cambridge is still an option at the time. And I’d kind of geared myself up where I was like, even if they say, no, this is a dream of mine, I would like to still at least have the opportunity to apply. And at first, some of the teachers are like, well, you know, what you can really aspire to, you can aspire to Nottingham Trent. And I was like to my mum, I’m sorry, but I have not worked my ass off to then have my potential limited by it like that, that’s not fair on me whatsoever. So I then went ahead and still put the application in. But there was a period, there’s that weird window where before it goes to the university, it goes to whoever your references, and my head of Sixth Form could not stand me because I used to question him all the time. He rejected the application and told me to take Cambridge off. I said no, and I sent it back to him and it was a back forth for about two days, we had to then get somebody else external in. And even when he tried to mess up my preparation for interview stuff, mess up my predicted grades, so therefore they were worse on paper and try to prohibit me go into my Cambridge interview. 10 years ago, I received an offer from the University of Cambridge to do mathematics. [Jazmin] Well done, good for you. [Craig] I say this as a story because I was like, I got so much hit back by the people who was supposed to be supporting me, but it was hilarious that when I got the offer the responses- I even got a, “oh, wow, Craig’s surprised us all.” Or the other response was, “he didn’t get into Cambridge, he got an offer from Cambridge, there is a difference”. Now, if I’ve been told that, I don’t want to know some of the stories other kids have been told and that’s a scary thing.
And you highlight the very reason I’m really worried about, especially in the COVID impact, how they want to go by teachers predictions- [Craig] Exactly. [Nuzhat] -because teachers play such an important role in all of our futures, like little things like that little, you know, even the tiniest bias they have has such a large impact. [Craig] Yeah. [Nuzhat] That ethnic minorities are more likely to be inaccurately predicted, especially if you’re like a Black student and then just little things about like getting giving detention more than necessary. [Craig] Exactly. [Nuzhat] Not giving the opportunity to speak or giving the opportunity to go to, like a specific work experience makes such a big difference. [Craig] Yeah. [Nuzhat] It accumulates- [Craig] yeah. [Nuzhat] -but teachers have such a strong hold on, like, these predictive grades have an annoying amount of power of which universities we go to, [Craig] Exactly. [Nuhzat] -which has such a big impact of like where we turn out in the world. And we know that teachers have the power to abuse the predictions, I control like a child’s future and we know that a lot of these biases are rooted in racial discrimination.
Exactly. And I think that’s something that I’m very passionate to talk about now. Because maybe 10 years later, my score has improved. But hearing some of the stories that I hear from some of my students, I don’t think it has. It was really interesting you say that about predicting the grades, because I mean, with regards to the summer exams that happened last year, that fiasco, there was no right way of doing it. I think that there was no right way of doing it. I think the way they went about it was probably the most detrimental. But the thing is, is that when people go oh, we should go on predicted grades. I go, well, if we’re on predicted grades, I would have missed all of my university offers based on what they said. And it’s when they predicted me to get a grade D, at A level maths, when I got an A, and an A star, the following- the pri- the year prior, and I self taught my whole curriculum to myself. And so when they said that I literally just went to the school, I don’t trust that you’re going to do this. And I’ve got a really good friend called Kayode, who I still talk with now. He is in his fourth year of medicine at Dundee, so that’s a shout out to him now. And the reason I mentioned him is because he went through exactly the same problems that I did, to the point that when he needed to get a remark to get into medicine, and he needed an A, and he was off by one mark, the teachers were gonna just be like, yeah, we’re not going to do that remark. And so he went to the teachers to the head of Sixth Form, same person that basically tried to detriment me, he went to him, I don’t trust that you’ve got my best intentions at heart. So therefore, I do not want you to be in charge of my application whatsoever. And that’s the reality of what it is. So you, I’m not surprised that when you go to university, I just have this kind of fight, like instinct the whole time, basically.
Yeah, as much as I want to support the teachers who have been working so hard during the pandemic, we still- there’s still not enough accountability for the teachers who misabuse their powers. Because when the summer fiasco happened, there was- I remember it because I’ve been in a person situation, which I’ll talk about probably maybe another time, I’ve been looking at how you could challenge it- a teachers predicted grades, and there wasn’t like there wasn’t any way to challenge a teacher’s personal discrimination, because they said, oh, you need an external way of assessing but because they- [Craig] The external way- [Nuzhat] -there wasn’t any external ways. And it’s just so diabolical, that children from marginalised communities are let down this way.
Yeah and the thing is, is that so I was reading in the news that they want to do, like, it’s sort of mini assessment in conjunction with teachers predicted grades. And like, my advice to those students is to make sure that you basically just say to your teachers, screw you, I do the best that you can. Because afterwards, if you’re getting all A’s, and then they then predict you would D their biases, are they going to come out right there and then, there is no way to fight that. And I say this, because then it that means that there’s nothing for them to argue with. And so for context, I ended up going to Kings, as opposed to Cambridge. So Kings was my insurance choice and it was really interesting, because the people who were supporting me more on A level results day, was the university that I missed my grades for because Cambridge called me that morning, and they were like, we can’t offer you this, could you- what- would you consider doing natural sciences. To which I said, no straight away, which is hilarious given I’m now in climate science. And then they were like, we’re gonna give Kings a ring and we’re gonna see what we can do because obviously, we’re aware of the situation and the kind of thing and King’s called me and said, well, Cambridge called they basically argued your case. And I was like, why is it that a university who’s only met me a couple of times, has only done this? And I say this, because Cambridge have recently released their foundation program, which I think is a step in the right direction. My fear is, is that those teachers who already have those biases against students, they are going to be prohibited from even applying or considering those programs and as somebody who identifies as Black British, I will keep fighting for those kids and I will keep going, those opportunities are there for you take as many as you can.
And I think especially with regards to whatever might be happening this year for GCSE and A level students, there needs to be some kind of commitment that marginalised children would be given some form of, like mitigation, some form of like aid, if they believe, if they believe the student or the parent believe that this some kind of discrimination that’s going on, and needs to be some way of appealing challenging before University starts. Because- [Craig] Yeah [Nuzhat] -we cannot have this happening again, we cannot happen- we cannot have this, like marginalised children being led down and having this kind of attainment gap widening.
Exactly. I think that whilst I disagree with how the whole A level fiasco was handled last year, the only sympathy that I have is that we will never- we’ve never been in a global pandemic within our lifetime and so because of that, decision making could have been a lot more blurred and this is the only kind of sympathy that I give to the situation. If it happens a second time round, there is no excuse because you seen to fall out the first time around. We want to make sure that for this summer’s set of exams that all of the policies and practices are put into place, so therefore those teachers who do have those unconscious biases don’t penalize kids for marginalised communities more.
Amen. And also, this is a call out to the STEM community, you should be aware that most of the retakes that happened in autumn were in STEM subjects. Math had the highest number of retakes, chemistry had the highest proportion of retakes, all the top subjects that had retakes were in STEM subjects. So you should also be worried about the attainment gap that’s happening because of COVID. [Craig] Exactly.
Especially since we all be like, well, we need to encourage more kids getting into STEM. Well, obviously, there is a problem, considering there’s now an attainment gap- [Craig] Exactly- [Jazmin] definitely widened due to this pandemic. [Craig] Exactly. [Jazmin] So we need to try and do our part, however we can as well to help those students.
I’m really excited for this part. Because Craig, I know so much about the conversations you hold about climate justice, I know so much about like your baking, promoting or helping other black scientists to thrive in the academic world. But I know so little about what you actually did for your PhD.
If I said that you’re not the first person to say that, because there was a period where people didn’t actually realise that I was an actual scientist. Which -you may I mean, the question to that is, then go, what is what do you define as an actual scientist, but I think people didn’t realise that I actually do like, you know, still do quite a lot of maths and still do quite a lot of like, theoretical understanding to try and improve like modeling and everything. So my PhD was looking at how we can improve fog forecasting in the UK. And to do that, I wanted to work at how we can better model what is known as an aerosol-fog interaction. So you’ve got your atmosphere, it’s nighttime, there are no clouds, the atmosphere basically cools through a process known as radiactive cooling, which is simply just to try and explain, heat loss from the ground. If you have enough heat loss, you then reach what’s known as a state of saturation and saturation, to put it simply imagine that you’ve got a kitchen sponge, you put it under a tap and the point at which you can’t hold any more water that’s known as saturation. So you get that through atmospheric cooling. Now in the atmosphere, you have what are called aerosols and aerosols are these tiny airborne particles that are also otherwise known as pollutants. In a state of saturation, they can allow for condensation, condensation would then basically have the beginning of a fog layer forming. And my PhD looked at that interaction from before fog formation to fog formation, and more specifically, what happens when you have enough aerosol particles become fog droplets, so that the layer becomes so thick that it’s then very difficult to drive through, and that interaction was the bit I was mostly interested in.
So what- what were you doing with this interest, basically?
So the way that I mostly kind of did it was I did a lot of numerical modeling. So if I say had an equation, x minus two is equal to five, then I could solve for x. So x is equal to seven. However, if I have some bit like x and power of x to the power of x minus y squared, plus z is equal to two. That is a more complicated equation to try and solve analytically. So you’ve got two ways to solve an equation you’ve got analytically whereby you can solve usually by pen and paper, or you have what’s known as computationally, so you go, well, we know that x, y, z has to be between these two values. So what we can do is we can do iterative processes where we may say, if we know x is between, say four and five, we may say what happens we use four point five? Is it closer or further from the answer? If it’s closer, we then work between four point five and five? If it’s further away we go through between four, four point five. Numerical methods, GCSE maths.
Yeah, this is a throwback to actually A levels for me.
And so imagine now doing that but on a much bigger scale and that’s primarily what I did. But what I would do is if for example, they said to represent aerosol to fog droplet, it was this equation. I would then look at the equation and then see whether or not it was physically representative. So what I did mostly for my PhD was that I would say model fog cases using what was known as a Large Eddy Simulation. So that was basically high resolution modeling, I would then go, okay, so now that we’ve seen this is what the simulation is doing, how far off is it from observations? If it was closer or further from observations, I would then look at the equations and work out whether or not we can improve them. So that was what my PhD was.
Okay, so you’re looking at past historic cases- [Craig] Yeah. [Nuzhat] -and you’re trying to improve a model? [Craig] Yeah. [Nuzhat] So what were you modeling, exactly?
So I was model[in]g a fog- a fog event. [Nuzhat] Okay. [Craig] So the fog event that I modeled was based in an area known as Coddington, which is very close to- which is based in Bedfordshire. [Nuzhat] Okay. [Craig] And what I would do is, I would say have an atmospheric profile that was observed, I would then set my model based on the atmospheric profile, I would then let the model completely run based on the equations that are set in the model, I will then look at, say varia- variables such as relative humidity, surface temperature, other like droplet numbers, I will then compare that to observations, and then I’ll see how far off were all of these points, were there any discrepancies? I will then change the equations, or I would include additional processes that weren’t included in the base model, and then see if there were further or- further to observations or closer to observations. So it was a lot of sort of, like, sit down, think, do some maths, apply maths, let the model run, do some analysis, make some recommendations.
Why was this region chosen?
Region was chosen because that’s where we have observations from. So in 2014, to 2015, there was what was called the local and no-local fog experiment, otherwise known as ‘LANFEX’. So whenever you’re collecting observations in meteorology, we tend to do what are known as intense observational periods. So because fog is so difficult to forecast, because there’s so many physical processes that go into it, it’s not as simple as going, “okay, so we want to now collect some observations for this day. So what we’re now going to do is we’re going to plot it in three weeks, because this is what the forecast says”, and then you then get to the forecast, and then afterwards, there is no fog whatsoever. And the reason why my PhD looked at fog is because there are so many- so fog is a low lying cloud that reduces your surface visibility, which then basically has an impact on human health and safety. Because there’s so much physics that goes into fog formation and development it then means that it’s very difficult to forecast. And so whenever we were like, okay, there may be fog on this particular day, we would collect as many observations as possible and then try to simulate them using models to then work out how we can best improve fog forecasting.
How do you measure fog?
So there are a number of different instruments that will do this. So we will have instrumentation that will measure the surface visibility. So imagine that I’ve got two points here. So I’ve got point A and point B, if it’s super clear, you will be able to have a beam of light basically go from A to B with no scattering whatsoever. When you have fog, you have basically light being scattered. And the way to kind of visualise this is if I got a pen light, and I basically put it through water, you find that it refracts. Now imagine that refraction happens on- in like quite an extreme way you were rather than you just having one line than another line, you have one line and another line and another line and another line, another line and another line. The amount of scattering will then determine well, then basically then the light didn’t calculate what that visibility is, once you then know what that visibility is if it then reaches a certain threshold, then you can say, okay, well, we can measure what your relative humidity is, you can measure what your temperature is, you can measure at this particular visibility, we had these variables change like this, at this visibility, we saw that these variables change like this, so how did you go from A to B? [Jazmin] Wow. [Craig] Fog is complicated, more complicated than it was. Now imagine me as a Londoner, never had really thought about fog, basically coming into this PhD and being told I get we’re looking at aerosols and the first thing that I went through was stuff that came up with deodorant can. And so we’re like, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, it’s something very different. So I went into that PhD, having no idea what relative humidity was, how to measure temperature, what aerosols were and but doing a maths degree gave me the skill set to be able to adapt to different physical scenarios. So what I really needed to learn was that the physics, and so whilst the beginning of my PhD was super tough, like brah, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, because I’m just like, all of these people have done physics and I haven’t done physics for like a good few years now. And everyone’s like, relative humidity, high pressure and I’m just like, huh? the whole time. So going from that, to now being at a point where I can lecture to people about relative humidity and atmospheric pressure its a weird thing. A PhD, is- a lot of people go into it and this kind of touches on the EDI bit where there are a lot of CDTs and DTPs, that will say that, oh, you need to have publications before you start a PhD. And I’m just gonna say this quite directly, that’s bullshit. Because if I was to look at the publications that I would have had, had I had any, they would have not helped me be a better researcher whatsoever in any capacity whatsoever. And I say this, because there are a lot of people who go, Oh, I need to have papers before I start a PhD. If you have a paper before PhD, that’s great. If you don’t have a piece of paper before your PhD, that’s also fine. A PhD is the time to learn and learn new things and go from huh? to ah!
I didn’t think it was even possible to publish like a paper before a PhD or you know, within like, the next few years. Or To be fair, I didn’t know I could publish with a Master’s project. Like if I knew that was a possibility, I would have probably aimed and committed to it, but I didn’t think this was a thing.
Exactly. I think that like so in, let’s take maths, for example. Maths is one of those areas where it’s very difficult to publish, because you need to have a very new concept and that new concept, unlike in other fields, where you may have ten-eleven, authors, maths, you have a lot of soul papered authors. Solo authored papers rather, and so because of that, you go into it going, I need to have this brilliant, new, fancy concept, that [sic] and I just went Craig, bruh, like look, I know your- I know you want to feel cute and I know you want to feel like you’re amazing, but you ain’t getting no publications with anything you had, because I didn’t do a dissertation and I also don’t have a Master’s, the only work that I had was a summer project that I did between my second and third year. Because I was like, oh, maybe I want to consider doing a PhD. One of the things that they look for independent research opportunities, and I was fortunate enough to get one of these positions. So then that way, when it came to apply for PhDs, I went, oh, what are the things that I can do is use that summer research internship as a way to kind of indicate, okay, I’ve got some research experience. But yeah, publications, what publications? My first publication, and it came out a couple of years ago and it’s a communication- and it’s a communications article, which I don’t doubt, but there’s some people who go, it’s not serious enough. And I’m like, it’s a serious piece. So yeah, I’m so- I’m so sad this isn’t a visual podcast, ’cause honestly, the sass that I’m giving.
Yes, he’s giving a lot of sass. And that’s what we love about Craig.
So if you weren’t interested in fog that much before your PhD, what led you to pursue a PhD in it?
I have the option- sort of a kind of context, when I applied to do a PhD at Leeds, I didn’t apply directly to the project, I applied to a CDT in fluid dynamics, because when I was looking at PhD options, ’cause after dropping out my masters, and basically saying, fuck academia, I’m done with this shit. Bun this, I’m done. No more, no more. My undergraduate supervisor for this project that I did over the summer, he sat me down three times, it was like to me, Craig, I know you’re disheartened. But I do think there is some potential in you. And I’m fortunate I have people who saw my potential when I was the I didn’t see my own potential at this point. And he was like, to me, maybe it’s the case that it’s not that you don’t want to do academia, but you don’t want to do academia in the field that you’re in and you need to think further afield. So what are you interested in? I was like, well, I like the idea of fluid dynamics, I find it kind of cool, like, the idea that you can kind of measure, like surface tension with a bunch of equations and how that could be applicable to like, real life application. I thought that’s well sick. So I then kind of went, well, there are three places in the country for fluid dynamics that I could apply to. There was Oxford, there was Imperial and that was Leeds. So for PhDs, I applied to Oxford, Imperial, and Leeds and that was it. And I then I looked, and I got an interview for the CDT at Leeds. I was fortunate that because I had a first class honours, it made it a little bit easier, which they say there was a lot of people I remember back at school when I was like, oh, the people who only get first class honours, they study all the time. They do this, they don’t socialise. I did opera society and musical theatre for a good chunk of my undergrad and did jujitsu while studying. So for those people who say that no. No, do not come at me like that. Anyways, going back to the point that I was making, I went to the interview the guy on my panel was a meteorologist, and turned out that for that particular year, meteorology didn’t have many applicants. So like how the Cambridge system pulls people, they decided to do that this year, as well. And so I got pulled from the CDT fluid dynamics, into meteorology and I got offered, I think, three projects. So one of them was on fog. The other one was on, I think thunderstorms and I also got interest from somebody in engineering. But what made me go for fog was that, whilst of the three areas, it seemed the least exciting, the supervisor who I still talk to now, was the most supportive. And I think that given the fact that I had a bit of a disastrous year, I needed somebody who kind of saw my potential. And I still talk with him now, since even finishing my PhD, so Professor Alan Blyth, I will name drop him now. He’s a brilliant person, but he’s also one of the most supportive people and throughout the final year of my PhD, most of the time, we never spoke about science, we spoke about the philosophy of life and gratefulness, which I found that was more useful to me, than for me to think about the science because when I thought about gratefulness, and why I’m sort of present in the, like, why I’m present, it allows me to then think clearer and be a better scientist.
I think when I was applying for PhD, I wish I knew, that’s important to look at the supervisors track and like, I guess, like how much opportunities they provide, or how well connected they are, because that really does help you during your PhD. I heard good things about my current supervisors. But I think there’s a vast difference in experience if you’re a person of color, and if you’re not, in the experience that you have, and it is really hard to see a supervisor’s track record on that, because there’s just so few PoCs who do pursue. [Craig] Yeah. [Nuzhat] Yeah.
It’s- it’s- it’s tricky, because I took a massive risk in the fact that I had only telephone interviews, as opposed to like a video interview or going up to Leeds to actually, like, you know, check the place out and everything and I think my gut feeling was saying to me that this is a good opportunity, I should take it, and I follow my gut a lot of things. Oh, yeah, another thing, follow your gut, if you can, like, because there are many times when I don’t, and it flops and fails me miserably. I definitely found that when I followed my gut, it was saying to me, this is the pathway that would be right for you. But I also think that part of the reason what made me say yes, was because once I understood what aerosols were, I was like, I okay so if aerosols are pollutants, that means you’ve got air quality. Now, air quality is quite bad in London, so I could potentially use this PhD to jump into this area. But I don’t have the chemistry background, but I could do this. So this was me trying to be forward thinking at this point. So I actually spoke about that in my interview, and he was like, yeah, so you can sort of apply this to this, and this, this, and this, and this, which is now come useful, because now air quality is one of those areas that I’m quite passionate about. But the fact that he didn’t shut me down, and he was like, you can think about all of these other opportunities. That was what it was and also when I was going through a really rough period during my PhD, even though he had a lot going on in his career, and he’s a very busy person, he’ll be that Craig, we can talk at this time, this time, this time, this time, this time, or this time. And he would make time for me and I think that was the other thing as well. And that’s something that I appreciated and I also and the thing was when I started the PhD I some of his ex staff, were there. And I just said what are your thoughts on him and he was like, they were like, he’s this, this this, I then have a look deeper into his record. And I noticed that he’s actually done quite a lot in terms of supporting his staff, and ex-PhD students going on to their further careers. I just went, he seems like a good person for what I need right now.
Good advice for prospective students, look into your supervisors.
Yes, look into your supervisors, properly. Trust me. That’s all I’m going to say on that topic.
So you are currently doing a postdoc now. So what are you working on?
So, my postdoc, which is coming to an end, was focused on how we can improve fog forecasting in India. So whilst my previous work was looking at UK fog forecasts, I now look at forecasts- fog forecasting in Delhi specifically. And what my role is, is to understand how air quality and can actually be either prohibiting or deterring fog formation and development.
So you mentioned earlier how difficult it is to model weather and climate in cities. So, can you talk a little bit about like maybe the difference in modeling between this region in the UK, and then this region in India, which is super urbanised.
Yes, so remem- so, earlier on the podcast, I use the example of saturation and sponge. So in this case that in order for you to have fog in the UK, you need to have saturation. Now, actually, what you’ll find in an environment such as Delhi, you can actually have fog forming without saturation. And that’s because of an effect called the aerosol optical depth. So if I’ve got two points, whereby I’m trying to basically have like go from A to B, if I’ve got enough aerosols, or in this case, pollutants within the environment, depending on their chemical properties, they can have the ability to scatter light. So if you’ve got these in large quantities, what you’ll find is that that will then result in initial surface decrease, as opposed to actual fog droplets being present within the environment. So that’s the first thing that’s quite different. But the second thing that’s also quite different as well is that because you’re dealing with an urban environment, you’re dealing with what’s known as a heterogeneous surface. So that means that impacts of buildings, impacts of green spaces, use of cars can then basically not only have impacts of the aerosol distributions, and hence the formation of fog. But then they can also have other impacts on things such as surface humidity, and surface temperature, which can have impacts on formation- fog formation and development. I’ve also used the word impacts a lot. But essentially, with buildings, they can then control fog formation in development, in conjunction with high pollution that can also then prohibit or promote fog formation, it gets very complicated very quickly.
Just to clarify, so buildings can help produce fog formation?
So buildings, so that’s the question that we don’t know yet. So in some instances, buildings will- if you’ve got a building that’s releasing heat, then that can then dry the atmosphere and then that can then potentially then actually then lead to your relative humidity in the atmosphere decreasing, which will then prohibit fog formation. Where it gets complicated, however, is that if you, for example, have heat- buildings that are then releasing heat, that heat then can then actually rather than going into the atmosphere, will go into these aerosols, and then you’ve then got a super cloudy day, then the aerosol or absorbing aerosol can then basically burn off low lying clouds through what’s known as a semi-direct effect. If you then have no low lying clouds, then the rate of cooling from the surface when you hit nighttime can actually then promote fog formation. So that’s what makes it very complicated.
That’s really interesting, because we usually focus on like climate change due to the emission of greenhouse gases, but not so much about the way we develop our landscape and how that could impact our microclimate, at least.
Yeah, because there were a lot of news reports that said that because of the coronavirus pandemic, and less emissions being emitted into the atmosphere that can actually slow down climate change. But with the reduce in greenhouse emissions, you also have a gri- to- reduce- you also have a reduction in aerosol particles. Because as aerosol particles not only change the amount of radiation that’s been scattered in the atmosphere, but they also can promote cloud formation. That that makes it for very difficult situations to try and model. So when you look at climate projections, there’s a thing called aerosol cloud interactions. That usually has the biggest amount of uncertainty in climate models. So it’s not as simple as going, because this is reduced then climate change, will they slow down. It’s, in certain circumstances, it may slow down but it can also speed up, which is why it’s very, is a very dangerous statement to basically put out in the media. But it also shows the reason why climate is a very complicated thing to model.
So during your PhD and postdoc, you have been working with the MET Office? [Craig] Yes. [Jazmin] For those who don’t know, the MET Office is basically where we get all weather information in the UK, essentially. And so what is it like collaborating with the MET Office?
The MET Office, I would say, if you had to combine my time in local government, and my time being in the university environment together, that’s the Met Office. And I say that because the Met Office are essentially the government branch of science. Now you’ve got different sized branches, but in terms of meteorological services that’s the MET Office, and what I found the MET Office is it’s more deliveries focused. So in my particular postdoc, which is funded by central government through the MET Office, what we find is that it’s more going, so we’ve got the science, but how can we now apply that science? So it will be more, how can we apply to direct forecasting? How can we apply it to initiatives that are working with, say, different government bodies? And so I found that work with the MET Office gave me the opportunity to actually apply the work that I’m doing, but in a more government context. And what I definitely found as well is that by working with and collaborate with the MET Office, there was a higher chance for it to basically go into sort of policy work. So that’s what I found working with the MET Office has been for the last maybe coming up to six years now. And I’m currently writing a project, which was also involve working with the MET Office again. Also, because the MET Office have access to a lot of weather station data, they have a lot of access to the latest modeling software. It then means that rather than me having to do stuff from scratch, I can use archive data to basically drive a lot of my initiatives instead, which makes it for a lot easier in terms of like general scientific understanding.
I just wanted to quickly ask, what about the data for Delhi? Where did you get that from?
Data for Delhi was from what was called the ‘Winter Fog Experiment’, I can tell you that field campaigns don’t have the most original names. So WFX effects was conducted in Delhi by the Institute of- the International Institute of Tropical Meteorology that was based in Pune, Delhi. So they then set out a number of observational weather stations in Delhi airport, they collected the data, processed data, and then from this collaboration between the MET Office, the University of Leeds, the University of East Anglia and IITM, we then basically we’re able to then use that data to then do collaborative work. So now what I’m doing is I’m finding that I’m having to do a lot more international collaboration work, in conjunction with say what I was doing before, which was primarily UK focused.
You work with any Indian institutions for this collaboration?
Me specifically no. There are people who do, I couldn’t name the Institute at the top of my head, but they are primarily based in Pune, in Delhi. What was interesting is that this time last year, I was in, I was preparing to go to Delhi for a workshop. And what was really interesting with that was that it’s one thing modeling something that you don’t have, like a physical recollection. It’s another thing, having that physical recollection and allow me to put things into context. So like when I mentioned how, by me experiencing snow in London, and being in a hurricane in Jamaica, that then got me into meteorology, actually going to Delhi and actually seeing where all the big observational datasets were being collected, how air quality can impact fog formation and actually seen that for myself. That gave me a perspective that I really needed for this project. I think what I found most terrifying about Delhi is the air quality. So I’m asthmatic and growing up in London, the thing that they always have to you is asthma, air quality, asthma, air quality, asthma, air quality. So what I’m going to a city that is known to have some the worst air pollution in the world. I was like, I don’t want to die. That was my big- that was a really big concern to me. Because I spoke to occupational health and I was like- so I’m queer. And like, it’s- I’m fortunate enough that being a man, I don’t get questions about like my relationship status and stuff like that. But that wasn’t the thing that was my biggest concern. My biggest concern was the air quality, because I knew that I’ve had histories or I’ve had a history of going, well, my asthma has been really good for years, and there’ll be periods where I’m like, oh, gosh, I can’t breathe again and that’s a terrifying thought. And so what it made me kind of realise, especially when I went out there was that it definitely gave my work an even bigger social context. Because when you think about air quality in London, one of the things that I think it’s linked to, is mental health, because the idea of not being able to breathe is quite a terrifying thought. So when I then went into meetings, and when I went into sort of like thinking about it, I was then thinking about fog, but from the perspective of mental health, which is something I never really thought about before, because of the fact that air quality was one of the biggest drivers of surface reduction, but for a lot of people it’s not being able to see that’s terrifying, and not also being able to breathe at the same time as well.
So leading up from your postdoc, because you’ve talked about how you’ve personally reflected on mental health and its connections to climate and weather. I just wanted to ask, like, what other challenges of promoting climate justice with an intersectional approach?
So for that particular question, I think I’m going to talk about it primarily from the perspective of race, and also the perspective of queerness. I think it’s really useful to also bring in this idea of privilege into this conversation. So rath- before I bring climate justice into it, I’m just going to talk about the intersections between being Black and queer. One of the things I’ve definitely found is that as a Black man, in its own right, I have the disadvantage of being Black, but I have the privilege in that cis male. And so what I’ve definitely found, especially growing up is that a lot of the cis- the ones who I visually saw who I could see who identified as cis males who were also Black, and also identified as straight, you found that that was a lot of homophobia and misogyny within the way we utilise language and the way in which they kind of utilise that sort of kind of like, navigating that space. Now, on the flip side, somebody who’s also queer, so the reason I use ‘Queer’ as opposed to gay, is because my full kind of identity kind of stuck with is I’m a biromantic homosexual, which is a bit of a mouthful to say every time, so I just say are queer. And that’s why I kind of stick with that. There is also a lot of non-acknowledgement of people’s own privileges within those spaces. So a lot of the queer community that I’ve come across in my time have been primarily from White people. And they’ll say things and they’ll say comments, which don’t really acknowledge the experiences of being a person of colour, who is also queer, and I say person of colour, because a lot of my brown friends who are also queer, find that we end up having resonating similar sort of experiences. So when that then links back to climate justice, what you find is that a lot of the climate justice space that I dealt with, until recently, when I was then working with an organisation called the Racial Justice Network, where predominantly from middle class white folk. And so if they’re meant that they’ll say stuff, like we need to focus on cutting our emissions, we need to focus on renewable energy, we need to focus on doing this, we need to engage Black people, but not giving us a reason to engage initially, we need to do this, we need to do that. And a lot of the suggestions they’ll be doing or suggesting, were not acknowledging that not everybody fell into that kind of social economical status. And let’s take renewable energy as an example. So there’s this big push that we need to start using solar panels, however, where do you get the material for solar panels from? You get them from countries that we’ve already exploited. And what you’re finding is that in a lot of poorer countries, they are already facing the impacts of climate as it is. A lot of these countries, if, for example, a lot of these countries that are facing climate change, they’ve really had impacts on their livestock, they really had impacts on the way in which they’re able to do this day to day activity. And so us as a privileged nation, then go into these places and then exploit them for even more materials without providing them like the support to help them deal with climate adaptation. That’s where I find that that intersection of race and climate is very key. And I guess where my queerness comes into it as well as I go, well, I’m a climate scientist, who is passionate about making sure that the intersections between race and climate are sort of prominent. But then a lot of countries that I will say work with, so say India, India’s only recently passed the law for homosexuality. There are a lot of places in say Africa, that homosexuality is still illegal, and you in some places, you can also deal with the death penalty, I have to be very careful about my own safety in these spaces. Because whilst of course, I want to talk about this particular issue, I then don’t want it to be diverted by something which a lot of places in Africa were obviously colonised, and there’s places that will colonise- the countries that colonised them were ingrained in Christian values, as they had their interpretations of homosexuality, they brought them to these nations, and then they turn around to these nations and then go, oh, yeah, these countries are homophobic because they’re African. So I guess sort of summing up that sort of intersection, and especially being both Black and queer in this space, is that I’ve definitely at least acknowledged my own privilege and the fact that I’ve grown up in the UK, but I have that awareness of going that in order for the climate justice space to move forward. Race needs to be at the forefront, it shouldn’t be an after thought. And that’s something that I’m sort of being more vocal about. And then I guess, in the queer space, where that becomes quite important, is more the fact that we now need to also acknowledge that we can’t let our own privileges within that, basically been deterred from the bigger picture.
Yeah, I think it’s really hard when especially scientists from that are predominantly White, don’t acknowledge, say, Europe’s- Europe’s role in colonisation, and the state of a lot of developing countries, former colonies now, because a lot of these colonised- colonisation, you know, it was exploiting the raw materials, but they dramatically changed landscapes of a lot of regions in a way that is poor quality, or they’ve changed a lot of economies. So it’s very dependent on factories or agriculture. And to, to such an economy that contributes to the changing climates to global warming to the changing climate. And, you know, what was frustrating is that, for example of the people that contribute to the state of global warming are predominantly from these predominantly White countries.
Exactly. So when you look at, say, climate projections, you find that a lot of it will a lot, what some people will do is that it will skew the graph as they go, well look at places like China and look at places like India, look at places like Brazil, but then not acknowledging that actually, that’s only happening mostly at this precise moment in time, because of the Industrial Revolution. If you look at say, pre-1800 emissions, however, you find that the UK, the US, a lot of mainland Europe are quite high up on that on that list. And I think it’s the fact that what I’m not saying is that it’s the case that people need- White people need to go, oh, I’m so sorry that you’re experiencing it, it’s more going, okay, what we did in the past was shit, we need to acknowledge that and what can we do as White people to try and make it a fairer game. And I think that’s the key thing, because I’m not coming on- I mean, you both invited me on to this podcast, knowing that I’m not here to make White people feel comfortable or to coddle White people. I think it’s the case that if we are going to move forward as a community, especially in the science- like the climate science space, we need to be acknowledging this is what we need to do and the question then needs to change. What- because a lot of people say, oh, we need to engage the Black and brown community, where the question should be more, why are they not being meth- included into the climate methods itself? And that’s a more specific question, because by doing so, it’s then acknowledging your own Whiteness, and you’re also acknowledging your own, like, the terrible parts of colonisation.
I think climate justice is for everyone, and therefore anyone that is involved or whoever you’re catering to, needs to be safe space for everyone.
Exactly. And I’m going to use on the topic of safe spaces actually, I think that- so Penny, who is the director of the Racial Justice Network. And the reason I mentioned the Racial Justice Network quite a lot is because they are the organisation that I’m going to be collaborating and working with and they are a brilliant set of people who even work with them for the last few months is helped my understanding about what it’s like to be Black and that’s something that’s quite important to me. She used the statement about the fact that when it comes to things such as safe spaces, safe spaces can be- are actually a derivative of capitalism. And at first, I was like, I didn’t get it. But the more I thought about it, the more I went, okay, this makes a lot of sense. So capitalism, of course, is driven on this idea of competition. So of competition, you need to have somebody that is right, and somebody that is wrong. When I look at a lot of safe spaces that were done, let’s say places in the LGBTQ plus society [at] university, where the majority of people that were white, if for example, you said something where it was like a misuse- poor way of which we utilise language or poor term, you found that a lot of people would hound upon that person. And there’s a danger in that, because what you’ll find is that when people are then in the safe spaces, if there’s something that they’re too scared to ask, what you’ll find is that it’s not the fact that people are saying the right things, because they are like changing their behaviors internally. But they’ve actually saying these things because they don’t want to basically have- be hounded upon. And when I thought about it, and I digged it a bit more, and I spoke to Penny about this, I went, that’s a really important step, because actually, that then means that especially in the climate justice space it needs to be then I would say that a safe space needs to be a place where we need to acknowledge our own privileges, we also need to acknowledge the way in which actually utilise language. But we also need to say that there are times where we will get stuff wrong, but getting stuff wrong isn’t a bad thing, provided that you are learning in a way where you make sure you understand why that statement is wrong.
So being a minority within a minority, what have your experiences, been navigating between those two spaces of being black and queer?
The short answer is, and I am putting this on record, I get scared to collaborate with straight Black men. Because I find that because of the experiences of the homophobia and misogyny that I have experienced, and witnessed a lot of the time and also quite the blatant colourism within these groups as well, I find that it’s a space where I can’t feel like I can be myself. And I feel like when I’m dealing with a project, I need to be myself. The longer answer I say is that I definitely found that in terms of navigating these spaces, finding other queer Black people really helped me find my kind of like calling, I guess. But also, I would also say as well, like talking to my younger brother was really helpful. So my younger brother identifies as gay and so actually, we found that our experiences in navigating these spaces are quite similar, but for very different reasons. And so just talking to people and actually being able to work out how do you navigate those spaces is quite beneficial. In terms of how I navigate it, now, I find that I am more aware of when people are doing bad things in either category and I say this in the sense that if you only belong into one minority group exclusively, they use can be very- can be, it can be very dangerous to not acknowledge all of the other kind of intersections. I’ve definitely found that my experiences have been better where somebody has fallen into an intersection, whether that’s being a Black woman, whether that’s being a disabled queer man, I’ve definitely found that me talking about my experiences have been a lot more of a comfortable situation to deal with.
Yeah, I think from my personal experiences, I found it quite hard to navigate specific spaces. Yeah, it’s so hard to do with the separate LGBT spaces and so hard to deal with the separate PoC spaces. But even sometimes when I see queer South Asian spaces, sometimes I feel like it’s supposed to be like, it’s supposed to be open and welcoming. And by just some instances be like, some of these spaces try to perpetuate the exclusionary behavior that they’ve, you know, they’ve- [Craig] Yeah. [Nuzhat] -been forced to experience.
I think that’s quite a nice point to actually bring me on with regards to like being sometimes in the black queer space. Is that sometimes- there is no better way to phrase this, so do you forgive me, but there’s this thing, what I like to call the ‘oppression wars’, where, for example, certain groups will feel that because they’re more oppressed than other groups, than they then are then entitled to them make their voices heard even more. And I noticed this quite a lot, especially when safe spaces. So take, for example, if you are say, so if, for example, you are, say Black British versus Black American, there can be sometimes a lot of pushback, especially when it comes to Black British actors getting really big roles. And some- and on social media, you’ll sometimes see some Black Americans be very vocal about no, that should go to a Black American because we are more oppressed than Black British people. And I say this in a kind of attack-y way, but more than observation, where in my experiences of being Black British, I’ve sometimes noticed, especially sometimes in other Black spaces, that some Black people will feel more entitled to certain things and other Black people. And I highlight this because if that means that if you then don’t fall into the kind of like, that space whatsoever, so like my housemate she’s a White female. And she’s obviously learned a lot about my experiences, being a Black queer man, by being my friend, and also living with me, it that means that if there’s something that she’s not sure about, and I don’t fall into the intersection, then- but she wants to learn or at least understand where to learn. It’s, I don’t think it’s saying that it’s our duty to be in our own and we need to coddle people, but I also think that we need to be aware that actually if we’re fighting within our own space, then it then means that when we then try to then bring, like, get other people to understand what’s going on, it can be quite hostile. And I say this, because, I’m fortunate that a lot of White queer friends that I now have, are acknowledging their own privileges, are acknowledging a lot of these things, are acknowledging that actually, there is a problem. But I know a lot of people who will go no, this is just a thing that’s only in your head, and they will like support movements or support people that are also then basically go to them be damaging their own prospects, but it doesn’t impact them, or does it impact me. And until it impacts them directly, then they don’t realise why it’s an issue.
So I have a question for both like Jaz and Craig. So- [Craig] Yeah, sure. [Nuzhat] -when you were at university, undergrad and during your PhD, did you explore LGBT spaces, societies and Black spaces slash societies?
Ah, I dabbled a couple of times with LGBT plus societies, but realise that I just couldn’t be asked with any of that racism, or the un-acknowledgement of like racism within the group. I found that when it came to black spaces, I was more willing to go to those spaces because I found that actually, whilst yes, of course, I knew that they were like, you know, potential people that are homophobic, but like, some of my best mates are Black women and I met them through those spaces. And that’s what I found I ended up gravitating towards in the end.
Me, not undergrad because I had no idea back then. Or PhD, was like, in second year, I came out. And I’ll just so I’m, I’m a very interesting person where I don’t actually like to get involved in societies and groups of people because I don’t like drama, so I just like you know what I’ll just remove myself from these space and not being in those spaces. So even though technically I am part of the queer community, I’m like, I’m my own community, I don’t really, I don’t like to engage with these- with people.
I like- do you know what I think I’m gonna start using that is, I am not part of the community. I am the community. No, I think part of the reason I found that I didn’t engage is that for example, I like to go out, but let’s go with people who I trust. So I found that, from my experiences of being in the queer community, there’s a lot of like, assumptions that you’re going to go out and get drunk all the time. And you’re going to just like, you know, there’s this thing of go, oh, we’re just going to like have four bottles of wine every night kind of thing. And sometimes I’m like, I don’t want to drink or I don’t want to do this. And I found that that’s partly the reason I didn’t engage. But also there are other times as well where I have- like in the type of work that I did- so I as a climate scientist, ideal with so much climate justice and climate analysis, that when people want to sometimes engage in climate science with me, outside of work hours, I’m just like, I’m sorry, but I’m tired, I can’t do this. I’m now obviously now looking in introducing race analysis into the work that I do and so I have to think about it a lot for the work that I do. So when people then say, oh, I want to talk about this, there are times when I’m just like, I’m exhausted. And I sometimes found that, especially within safe spaces, they- it’s like, we have to engage in these really intense conversations where sometimes I’m just like, look, I will do this on a regular basis- on another day, but right now I’m tired. And I found that there weren’t enough people who understood that, so I just went, I’m just not going to engage in the end.
I’m also interested in like, how it is to navigate science and STEM, as a queer Black man?
I would- the way that I say is that my Blackness is usually the thing that people spot before my queerness. So I think there are a lot of assumptions where people will assume that I’m not the lead scientist, or they will assume that I’m relatively junior, not realising that it’s me who’s actually delivering this talk. And when I do go and give a talk, I think there’s this assumption as well that people go oh, you need to give it in this particular format, not acknowledging the fact that actually there is I want to do in this specific ways, because my blackness is the way- my blackness untangles the way in which I present slides and articulation and everything like that. Where my queerness that comes into it, I guess, is really the opportunities that I want to take on board. So there have been opportunities for me to go abroad. But it’s not as simple as me going, am I going to be safe in this space as a Black man? The question then becomes, am I going to be safe in this space as a Black queer man? And so for example, I wear nail polish, so if I know that I’m going to a country that has, like, laws around homosexuality, I’ll take my nail polish off, I will talk a little bit deeper like this to like, you know, not give away. I know, it’s really weird, I don’t know how I do it, but I do and I just find that I just try to not give them a reason for me to stand out, which is a very weird thing to do. But I’m like, I’m already standing out, I don’t need them to have more reasons to stand out. So that’s how I sort of navigate science. And it’s quite important now. But I’ve now found that because representation is so important, I found that actually, as I got further from my science career, I’m being more myself, because I will then be doing this justice to all of the little queer boy, queer Black boys in South London who all want to go to climate sciences. And I definitely know that when I met, people who were Black in academia, that then inspired me to keep going. And then I realised the other day that people see me as that inspiration, which is a weird thing, because I’m like, yo, but I’m still quite junior my career, and I ain’t got my shit together, but if you want to see me as a role model, but yeah, go for it. Yeah, go for it! So that’s what I- that’s how I sort of navigate that space. But as I’ve gotten further into my own deeper thinking about race analysis, I can’t untangle the two anymore. So I’ve just gone, well, I’m not going to do EDI stuff on top of my science work, how can I just bring them together? And that’s what I’ve been working towards is just developing a research area where I can put the two together and actually, they are seen on equal merit.
Okay, so Craig, we come to near the end of this episode. And we’d like to give each of our guests a little fun question. Our fun question for you is: do you have a favorite equation or math theory?
I would have to say, despite the fact that I’m an applied mathematician, by trade, that my favorite equation has to be: e to the i pi plus one is equal to zero, mostly because it is one of the few equations that has quite a few intricate theories involved. So you’ve got complex analysis, you’ve got radial theory, but it somehow combines it in such a neat equation, but actually, you go, now that’s sick! It’s been one of my favorite. It’s been one of my favorite equations, along with the number six basically, because the number six is what’s described as the perfect number where the integers within the number, when you add them together and multiply them together. You get the same result. So yeah. Maths!
It’s such a nerdy answer, I love it.
I know I do have- it’s funny because the other day, and this can be a record, I was talking to somebody where they’re like to talk like quite heavy political theory, social justice on a regular basis. And on occasionally just nerd out about like one very specific science theory and I’m like, yeah, that’s me in a nutshell basically.
It was great having you.
Thank you again for inviting me.
If people wanted to contact you, how can they get in touch?
So the best way to contact me is via Twitter, which is C underscore Poku 93. Or if you have some more scientific questions that you would like me to maybe ponder through, you can send them to my email address, which is C dot y dot A dot Poku at Leeds dot ac dot UK by the way I’m still at the University of Leeds. Which is the best way to get a hold of me. Thank for inviting me.
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