"Her research is strikingly relevant"

Eleni Dovrou from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, about 19th century amateur scientist and women's campaigner Eunice Newton Foote

Long before current concerns over climate change, in 1856, an American woman named Eunice Newton Foote was the first person to theorize that higher carbon dioxide levels would lead to a warmer planet. Foote (1819-1888), an amateur scientist, inventor and women’s rights campaigner, conducted experiments on the interaction between the sun’s rays and various gases. Her findings led her to conclude that there was a connection between the Earth's temperature and the concentration of carbon dioxide gas in the atmosphere. "An atmosphere of that gas [i.e., carbon dioxide] would give to our earth a high temperature; and if as some suppose, at one period of its history the air had mixed with it a larger proportion than as present, an increased temperature from its own action as well as from increased weight must have necessarily resulted."

Eleni Dovorou, what is it about Eunice Newton Foote that you find particularly fascinating?

Eunice Newton Foote was an amateur female scientist at mid-1800s, who managed to conduct pioneer research. In an era that, even though women were technically allowed to present in public settings, the actual freedom provided was limited. She became one of the few women scientist to publish her scientific findings. Her work as a women’s rights advocate and as an atmospheric scientist is inspiring and fascinating. Foote was on the editorial committee for the first women’s rights convention in 1848; however, when her research was presented at 1856 in the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting she was not the one presenting it, but a male colleague. As a scientist she prioritized her science but she also used her experience to vocalize and take action towards equality between men and women and the fundamental right to vote.

She foreshadowed and shaped the discovery of the greenhouse effect through the experiments she conducted using cylinders to mimic higher concentrations and the effect of water vapour and carbon dioxide in the temperature raise. Her experimental setup might seem simple nowadays, especially with the tools and technology we have at our disposal, and it did not reveal how the temperature raise can be achieved. However, as an amateur her hypothesis that Earth would have been significantly warmer if its carbon dioxide levels were higher was insightful and groundbreaking.

How relevant do you think is Foote’s work today for atmospheric chemistry?

Atmospheric chemistry is strongly connected with climate change and Foote’s hypothesis on the effect of carbon dioxide in Earth’s temperature was crucial for the evolution of the field. Carbon dioxide is the most long lived greenhouse gas in the atmosphere and is extensively studied by scientists. Even though it absorbs less heat per molecule compared to other greenhouse gases, it is the most abundant in the atmosphere. Foote’s contribution made the first step towards understanding the main properties of our atmospheric system and later on understanding the effect of a greenhouse gas in trapping heat and not allowing all the solar energy to return into space, which would lead to a “frozen Earth”. In addition, her hypothesis combined the effect of water vapour, another significant greenhouse gas, which has the ability to absorb the heat radiated from the Earth’s surface in the lower atmosphere and subsequently radiate heat in all directions. Foote was not able to experimentally prove her hypothesis, but she had the first indications from her experiments and she was able to comprehend the significance of the most common gases in our atmosphere.

Currently, we are battling and trying to fully understand the aspects of climate change. Partly, it is caused via the over-emission of greenhouse gases that has offset the Earth’s energy budget via additional heat trapping. Carbon dioxide emissions have significantly burdened the atmosphere resulting in temperature raise as Foote hypothesized. Her research is strikingly relevant to the current atmospheric conditions we are facing.

What made you become a scientist? What piqued your interest in atmospheric chemistry?

The reason why I became a scientist lies in the love I have for my sport. As a beach volleyball athlete, I was able to travel in different beaches, realizing the significant pollution in the sand and sea. I wanted to understand the effects of such pollution in our environment and human health and that was the turning point. Studying the chemistry in oceans and aquatic environments, my curiosity lead me, inevitably, to their interactions with the atmosphere. The wide range of reactions and effects in both the gas and aqueous-phase in the atmosphere made me shift and focus on atmospheric chemistry. I am fascinated by the effect of molecular level reactions in the Earth’s balance and the implications they have in human health.

The underrepresentation of women in science is still pervasive today, especially in the STEM subjects. What factors do you think contribute to this discrepancy?  

Unfortunately, it is a fact that women are underrepresented in STEM. Over the past years there have been many efforts and we see more and more female scientists in STEM fields. In my opinion, numerous aspects have lead and continue to result in the low female to male ratio in STEM with the most striking one, I believe, the restrictions for young women. Often early-career women scientists are restricted in research position opportunities because they are more likely to create a family. Support to women who have young children is also limited in the workspace. In different cultures it is also a stereotype that male scientists follow STEM and from a young age, women tend to choose different professions with less working hours. The lack of opportunities and exposure to STEM is also pivotal.

The past ten years more efforts are made to introduce children to STEM in schools, assisting in motivating future female scientist. Female mentors and role models are important in shaping and motivating female scientists. We often encounter academic and research male-dominated environments, depicted as the norm. Fortunately, in the atmospheric chemistry filed, this is changing  and more female scientists are portrayed via their excellent work and become valuable mentors and role models for the younger generation. Mentoring programs for women in STEM have increased offering a safe environment to receive and provide advice.

What role models do you see for women in science?

When I am thinking of women role models in science, I personally do not have one individual in mind. Throughout history, we have exceptional female scientists, such as Marie Curie, Rosaline Franklin and Katherine Johnson, but in our everyday life, we encounter inspiring women. For me my female colleagues are my role models, as each of them balances different aspects in their lives while doing important research. Among us, we have mothers, athletes, artists and activists that are at the same time scientists, conducting research in institutes, universities and independent labs and assisting with their findings in the evolution of science.

What advice would you give to young women considering a career in science?

The only advice that I would like to give is: follow your dreams! Work hard and never stop telling the truth. There are no shortcuts, and it is not easy, but it is worth it. Foote did not hesitate to publish her work and fight for equality.  

What would you like to see change in the coming years to achieve a greater gender equality in science?

I hope and aspire for more opportunities for female scientists and equal treatment. I strongly believe that by teaching and showing to our children equal opportunities they will continue that work mentally. I would like to see more women speaking out about their paths in science inspiring the younger generation and reflecting the positive outcomes as well  as the struggles. A young woman, and in general a young individual, might get discouraged after continuous difficulties, thus, hearing from their role models that they faced similar struggles will only give them strength to continue and pursue their goals. Most importantly, I believe it is crucial to shift towards a world where  women are treated with respect and equality every country.

Eleni Dovrou, thank you for this interview!

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