Heather Reid

9th November 2012 at 00:00
"Heather the Weather" always had a feel for science, but one teacher made it electrifying

A big influence was my dad, Peter Reid, who was a PE teacher at St Aelred's High in Paisley. He also taught anatomy, physiology and health science, and was very into science. That encouraged a really questioning attitude in me. By the time I got to secondary school, having been encouraged to ask why the sky was blue or the grass green, I was really looking forward to science.

My register teacher was Mr Weir - I think his first name was James. He was a physics teacher and took us for first-year integrated science - I only had him for first year. All my high expectations were met and exceeded. He brought all areas of science to life and was a brilliant communicator. He had a great blend of seriousness and factual content with lightheartedness and humour.

So many of my contemporaries, when I talk to them about their secondary school science experience, throw their hands up in horror and say, "Oh, those ticker-tape trolleys to try and teach you speed and acceleration - I just didn't get it." Mr Weir pushed everything to the limit, and made a ticker-tape trolley one of the most exciting experiences. Instead of just counting the dots and making measurements, we were being transported into a BMW crash-test scenario. I don't know how many trolleys we broke.

He realised that to interest 12- and 13-year-olds in science, there has to be a real-life application. In chemistry, we were encouraged to use large pieces of potassium, not little fragments. We should still be able to show that science does have a whizz-bang element to it.

Any time I'm working with young people, it's important to have some humour. You can feel a warmth from the audience if you can make them think, "Did she really say that?". Jackie Bird (journalist and newsreader) is an obvious target - some little crack about the fact that when doing a weather forecast you ad-libbed, you didn't need an autocue. I'll say, "Anyone can read an autocue - trained monkeys, Jackie Bird ..." You should hear what she has to say about me - but it's affectionate, we're good friends. It means I relax, the audience relaxes. They're the kind of techniques Mr Weir employed.

I enjoyed school. I played quite a lot of sport - probably the influence of my dad and my mum, who was a PE teacher too. We were lucky that we had a lady PE teacher, Miss Urquhart, who had been a Scottish netball selector, so it was a big netball school and I played a lot. If you can get good sport going on in school, you see the impact on academic learning. Having outdoor, physical activity helped me to focus on the academic side.

I was torn between going on to do law or physics, but opted for science because of those early, first-year experiences. I have a friend, Jenni Barclay, who went on to become a leading volcanologist because she had a brilliant primary teacher.

I've been involved for 20 years now in various initiatives to encourage more women into science and engineering. We haven't made great progress, despite that. One approach that can work is the whole area of renewables in Scotland, which seems to be attracting more girls. If you can show an element of caring - whether it be medical physics or environmental physics - girls seem to be more interested.

Teaching is an amazing profession. I don't think we value our teachers enough. My husband is a professor of physics at the University of Glasgow, and the reason he did that is because he had a brilliant physics teacher. I've used Mr Weir a lot over the years as my role model, as an inspiration.

I have never seen him since my schooldays, but occasionally I meet a teacher who tells me, "Oh, I know Mr Weir. He says, 'I wish you'd stop going on about me!'"

Heather Reid is a physicist and meteorologist who spent 15 years as BBC Scotland's chief weather forecaster and presenter, when she was known as "Heather the Weather". She has also become well-known for promoting science to young people and the general public. She was speaking to Henry Hepburn.


Born: Paisley, 1969

Education: Brediland Primary, Paisley; Camphill High, Paisley; studied physics at University of Edinburgh and gained a master's degree in image processing from the meteorology department

Career: Joined the Met Office in 1993; BBC Scotland weather forecaster 1994-2009; now a freelance science education consultant.

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