Jenny Nelson shines a light on climate change

Image: Shutterstock/Peangdao
Image: Shutterstock/Peangdao

With an insatiable desire for innovation and the drive to tackle some of the big issues of our time, science needs more women like Professor Jenny Nelson. We spoke to her about her career so far, the challenges she’s facing in her line of work and her life as a professor at Imperial College London.

This year’s recipient of the Faraday Medal, Nelson is adding the award to her already impressive list of achievements.

Although the Faraday Medal is offered to those who have made outstanding and sustained contributions to experimental physics, it is unlikely other nominees would have been able to match the additional endeavours Nelson has embarked upon above and beyond her work in the physics laboratory.

Image: Royal Society

Nelson’s research on solar energy conversion targeted the development of cheaper solar cells, a goal that is imperative for enabling renewable energy to play its part in cutting carbon emissions.

Nelson is also engaged in work to address many of the wider issues surrounding climate change and global warming, including the social, political and economic challenges of reaching a low-carbon future.

Nelson always wanted to do something that would have a wider, more positive impact on the world outside of the lab, but initially struggled to find a line of research that she thought served her need to give something back. “I didn’t want to do a PhD just because it was the done thing after finishing your undergraduate degree: I wanted to do something that would allow me to use physics to solve a problem that needs solving,” Nelson explained.

“I wanted to work on an issue of social significance, really make a contribution.”

After working for a couple of years in London, she was eventually tempted by a PhD project based at the University of Bristol, looking the effects that soot particles would have on light should the air suddenly be filled with flames from a nuclear fallout – something that was a major concern at the time. Although Nelson later moved on to different research topics, the fundamental concept of light interacting with matter would become the foundation of her research for the next 30 years.

“One way or another that – the light–matter interaction – has been a theme that has run through my research since the beginning,” Nelson explains, “But I was looking to move into an area of research that could offer a more useful outcome.”

After being funded by Greenpeace to help start a research activity on solar-call physics at Imperial, Nelson also secured funding to understand more about solution-processed nanoscale materials and their electronic properties. The marriage of both a concern for climate change and a drive to understand more about photovoltaics led Nelson to think about how to design cheaper and more efficient solar cells, so more people can access renewable energy.

Nelson now leads a team of theoretical and experimental scientists investigating the properties of organic and inorganic photovoltaic materials, solar chemical energy conversion and also energy storage. She explains that although having a research group involves a lot of responsibility, “it’s a part of my job that I love – meeting students, talking about their work and solving problems together”.

Nelson is also head of the mitigation team at the Grantham Institute, based on the Imperial College campus. She leads a group of researchers looking to identify the social, political, economic and technical challenges in moving towards a low-carbon future.

Looking in particular at emerging technologies, for example, in solar energy conversion and energy storage, Nelson spends about a fifth of her time with the team trying to address the contributions that science and engineering can make in tackling climate change.

Nelson also works part time at the University of Swansea at Sêr Cymru Solar, a world-class dedicated research facility that is looking to improve solar energy production and develop advanced solar cell technology that can be used to manufacture even cheaper and more efficient solar panels.

For someone who has had such a busy yet evidently successful career so far, unsurprisingly one of the biggest challenges Nelson faces is, as many academics will attest to, is finding enough time to do it all. “Sometimes I feel I have too much to do, too many balls in the air, and sometimes that is hard, but I don’t know if there are any academics out there have really solved that problem.”

However the biggest issue by far for Nelson obviously is climate change: with most of her working hours dedicated to understanding more about using solar energy to meet human energy needs, and also addressing the wider issues surrounding global warming, Nelson understands what an overwhelmingly complex task it is in trying to tackle the ever-worsening effect we are having on the planet.

“Sometimes it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by the size of the problem of climate change because a solution is going to require hard work, detailed investigations and breakthroughs from many people who may not even know as yet how their work will contribute to the solution.

“It is quite hard when you don’t know how your work is going to address many of the challenges and it’s quite hard to feel that what you are doing is worthwhile; I’ve felt it and I know other people have too.”

Despite what may seem to some as an impossible mission, Nelson says it is the people she works with that make all the difference, and it is the people she meets and supports every day that drives to keep going. “I wouldn’t feel the same way about the work if I was working in a lab by myself or with robots rather than people.

“I feel immensely privileged that I have people coming to me who want to work in this area, because they want to make a difference. Often they are very talented and have so much to offer, and that is an amazing thing to see.”

She concludes with some advice for any early-career researchers who also want to make a difference and get involved with the vital research needed to tackle climate change. “If you think you have got something to offer, don’t give up. It will be challenging, but we can’t really afford to do without you.

“If you think you have something to offer, then we need you.”

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Philippa Skett

Philippa Skett

Media Officer at Institute of Physics
Philippa was the IOP's media officer
Philippa Skett

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