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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, with a focus on sea level rise and hydrology. Before that, Cazenave was a pioneer in the field of space geodesy, using satellites to measure the Earth’s fundamental properties, including its shape, orientation in space, and gravity field.

For her groundbreaking work in Earth sciences, Cazenave will be celebrated and presented with the prestigious 2020 Vetlesen Prize at Columbia University this April (after a three-year delay due to COVID-19).

Anny Cazenave sitting at her desk
Anny Cazenave, recipient of the 2020 Vetlesen Prize for achievement in earth sciences. (Courtesy Anny Cazenave)

An emeritus scientist at the Laboratory of Space Geophysical and Oceanographic Studies in France and the former director of Earth sciences at the International Space Science Institute in Switzerland, Cazenave will also share the stage with the 2023 recipient, physicist David Kohlstedt. The Vetlesen Prize is administered by Columbia Climate School’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

In honor of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, a U.N.-designated day calling for improved access and equitable 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 inspired you to pursue Earth sciences and climate research? 

I initially wanted to be an astronomer, when I was still a university student. But instead of looking to the sky, I have spent my life’s work looking downward at the Earth. And I’ve never regretted this. During the 1970s, I received a PhD studying the rotation of the Earth, and I was recruited to work for the 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 began my research using different space geodesy techniques to determine the Earth’s gravity field.

I still wanted to expand on this research further, so I also studied the origin of the anomalies in the gravity field, such as those in the internal structure of the Earth. When space geodesy techniques improved with time, it gave me the chance to study other solid Earth processes, like vertical motions of the Earth’s crust, large-scale tectonic deformations, motions of the Earth’s center of mass, highs and lows of the mean sea surface, and their link with sea floor topography.

The launch of TOPEX/Poseidon, the first high-precision altimetry mission that used onboard altimeters designed to accurately measure the sea surface topography and ocean currents, was developed jointly by NASA and CNES, and ushered in an era of “oceanography from space” in the early 1990s. I chose to enter this new field and started to use satellite altimetry to measure climate-related sea level rise and its causes. I have also been working with satellite altimetry (a technique that can also measure river and lake level variations) and space gravimetry (which provides measurements of water storage changes on land) to study land hydrology and the global water cycle. My research in these last two decades has been mostly centered on climate and environmental science using satellites. Switching to this very new field 20 years ago was a challenging but highly rewarding process for me.

What projects are you working on right now?  

I am currently working on sea level rise and climate change. With my coworkers, we routinely measure sea level change from global to local (coastal) scales using altimeter satellites. We also work at quantifying the processes causing sea level rise, namely ocean warming and land ice loss. In parallel, we study sea level rise in the world coastal zones and the associated impacts.

I am also a co-principal investigator of a project from the European Research Council dedicated to studying the deep interior of the Earth using global observable measures such as the Earth’s magnetic and gravity 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, privilege, and immense honor to receive the Vetlesen prize. When I look at the list of previous recipients, I feel very humble compared to these highly renowned scientists. Overall, I am very happy and quite proud that our research field has been recognized. I warmly thank the colleagues who have nominated me and the Vetlesen jury who selected me. I am looking forward to the ceremony in New York in April and will be pleased to meet this year’s awardee!

When you were starting out, how challenging was it to be a woman scientist? Do you think things have changed significantly since then?

Overall, the number of women in sciences has been growing in the past few decades in Europe. Still, it is incredibly low in some scientific areas and everywhere at the top levels. There are clearly multi-factorial causes for this. Based on my own experience in the field, I haven’t seen this as the result of sexism or discrimination. But I do think there are complex cultural and societal factors subconsciously persuading women that scientific research is more appropriate for men. Moreover, many women scientists give up on the idea of reaching a high-level research role because they view this as a way to exert power, which they see as something reserved for men. There’s also the struggle of childcare and family commitments and combining them with high-level research obligations. Too many women have been taught it is natural to give up their own scientific ambitions for family commitments and responsibilities.

In my own life, I have chosen to prioritize productivity and expertise in science over other responsibilities, while balancing family demands and research involvement to the best of my ability. In France, I have benefited from a government system that offers women substantial support, including nurseries and recreation centers to take children during school holidays. Overall, I never found that being a woman in science was a handicap. To me, excellence in research, curiosity, and passion should always remain the main goals, whether you are a man or a woman.

How else can we continue to support women scientists? Do you have any advice for younger women or girls who are interested in entering the field?

Senior women scientists (like me) can help the younger generation in their scientific career path. We can certainly start with female PhD and post-docs at the research lab level, by teaching them and supporting them so they develop confidence, strive for excellence, and work with passion. It is also easy and important to encourage and help junior scientists apply for research grants, share our own scientific networks, and assist them in the navigation and involvement with international meetings and conferences so they can grow their confidence and scientific visibility.  It is important to encourage women scientists to join scientific policy committees and to serve on the groups and panels that select grant and award winners and recruit candidates, so we can increase the ratio of women in influential decision-making for the field. There needs to be a more clearly defined strategy for including nominations of women scientists for national and international prizes and awards. We know that mentoring programs both within specific fields and nationally are very helpful for younger women scientists, but these still need to be better developed.  I think that the most difficult obstacles to overcome are cultural barriers, starting as early as childhood. Early education should teach children to move away from gender bias and stereotypes and to start scientific experimentation at a young age. Many countries, in the EU especially, have worked to teach kids that science is not just meant 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 colleges and high schools several times a year and find these interactions to be very gratifying.

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