Jane Francis BSc Geology, 1978; PhD Geology, 1982
Director of British Antarctic Survey
Southampton was one of the first to encourage independent learning and give students a choice of modules
Science has changed a great deal since I became an undergraduate in 1975. Back then, I was one of just four women and about 20 men studying Geology at the University of Southampton. After I graduated, companies involved in oil exploration stated in their job advertisements that women need not apply. Now there is equality of opportunity for all and I’m delighted that women are working in science at all levels in the British Antarctic Survey.
I started off with an interest in geophysics but found that I preferred fossils and went on to focus more on palaeontology. Southampton was one of the first to encourage independent learning and give students a choice of modules. It was an exciting time to be at university. We did fieldwork in North Wales, Yorkshire and southern Ireland and I joined the student Geology Society - I remember we had a picture of a dinosaur on our T-shirts.
Although I thought about taking a job in industry, I stayed in Southampton to carry out PhD research on the 150 million year old fossil forests in Lulworth Cove and the Isle of Portland on the Jurassic Coast in Dorset. That was when southern England had a Mediterranean climate and dinosaurs roamed the area. This inspired me to continue in research, studying fossil plants and past climates in which they grew.
During my academic career, I went to the University of Adelaide in Australia for five years and even worked for a year at the British Antarctic Survey but I spent most of my time at the University of Leeds, becoming Dean of the Faculty of Environment there in 2008.
I was delighted to be appointed Director of the British Antarctic Survey in 2013 after carrying out so much research myself in Antarctica. Understanding more about the vegetation and climates in the polar regions during different geological time periods can help us predict how the climate might change in future. I’m most proud of helping develop the science of polar palaeoclimatology to model and understand ancient climates. Now I support scientists through developing international collaborations and sharing logistics for polar work. I often return to the University of Southampton to catch up with what colleagues are doing there.
At BAS, we are carrying out polar science for planet Earth. As part of my role to spread the word about our research, I often take influential visitors to our station in Rothera on the Antarctic Peninsula so they can see what we are doing first hand.
This is a great time to work in polar science and I hope today’s students are inspired to join us at BAS. My advice for today’s undergraduates is – seize every opportunity that comes along. If you’re offered an opportunity to take part in something new and adventurous, just say yes. It could take your career in a completely new and exciting direction.