UCL News


Spotlight on... Helen Czerski

24 January 2024

This week we meet Helen Czerski, Associate Professor in UCL’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. Helen chats to us about the difficulties that come with studying the ocean and her involvement in co-hosting the new BBC radio series 'Rare Earth'.

Helen Czerski

What is your role and what does it involve?

I’m an Associate Professor in UCL’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. I’m trained as a physicist and I study the ocean so perhaps it’s not an obvious home from an external perspective, but it does make sense – there are lots of overlaps in the fluid dynamics at the heart of my studies, and I use a lot of engineering in order to make difficult measurements in the ocean. I’m also a writer and broadcaster, with a focus on sharing science with the public.

How long have you been at UCL and what was your previous role?

I joined UCL in December 2013 so I’ve just passed the 10 year mark. Prior to that, I was a research fellow at the University of Southampton.

What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?

I study breaking waves and bubbles at the ocean surface, principally to understand how big storms out in the open ocean influence how carbon dioxide and oxygen are exchanged between the atmosphere and the ocean. Measuring tiny bubbles in really violent and remote ocean environments isn’t straightforward, and there aren’t many people who even try. So I’m most proud of the practical experiments that I’ve helped design and build and that I’ve then taken to places like the North Atlantic or the North Pole to get valuable data about what the natural world is up to. You only have one chance to be there and to get it right, and you have all the challenges of an unpredictable natural environment to face. So it’s really rewarding when it’s a success.

Tell us about a project you are working on now which is top of your to-do list

I’ve just finished two big projects. One was a popular science book (Blue Machine) that explains how the physical ocean works and how it has influenced history, culture and natural history. The other was a big recent ocean expedition – I was at sea on a research ship for most of November and December 2023. So I'm not quite ready to think about new projects yet – I’m still focussed on tidying up after the last ones. But I have just started co-hosting (with Tom Heap) a new climate and environment show for BBC Radio 4 called Rare Earth, and I’m excited about the potential for discussing these big topics in a friendlier, more positive and more curiosity-driven way.

What is your favourite album, film and novel?

I honestly don’t remember the last time I listened to a whole album, but maybe a Best of Dire Straits compilation.

Film: The Shawshank Redemption

Novel: The Count of Monte Cristo

What is your favourite joke (pre-watershed)?

Heisenberg was speeding down the highway. A cop pulls him over and says "Do you have any idea how fast you were going back there?" Heisenberg says, "No, but I knew exactly where I was."

Who would be your dream dinner guests?

The polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen, the Hawaiian navigator Nainoa Thompson and Eleanor Roosevelt.

What advice would you give your younger self?

It’s ok to ask for stuff/resources/support – you’re not responsible for sorting everything out yourself.

What would it surprise people to know about you?

I’m reasonably good at building traditional dry stone walls.

What is your favourite place?

The Pacific northwest in the USA.