Women in science communication

I’m so excited to say that a few weeks ago, I was selected to serve as the Director of Communications for the Michigan chapter of AWIS (Association for Women in Science). Being a part of AWIS for the past two years has been so eye-opening and thought-inducing – it’s a great community with even better discussions – and I’m passionate about supporting women in STEM at all levels, so having the opportunity to serve on the board is fantastic.

I was in Paris when I interviewed (Skyping from our tiny – but quaint, because it’s Paris, so everything is viewed through rose-colored lenses – AirBNB), followed by my time sampling in Norway, so I have finally had the time to sit down and really start working on this. I’m revamping the website and I’m working on getting a Michigan AWIS blog started where our members can share their experiences (good or bad) as a woman in STEM, give advice, comment on the current political climate… whatever they want, really. The point is to give our members a professional platform beyond publications or presentations. I’m so pumped about that, and I really hope it gets off the ground smoothly!

The other reason why I’m so excited about this is because I’m expanding it into Communications… and Science Communication. My other undergraduate degree was in Communication Studies, and I have always loved writing, so being able to combine my two skillsets and professional interests is amazing. I took a class on science communication last semester, hosted by the wonderful Julie Cole, and every Friday morning I walked away from that classroom feeling motivated and driven to contribute to the public science discussion – to progress. In today’s political climate, with science and scientists perceived as being under attack (though studies show that public opinion of scientists is actually steady, and majority positive), being able to clearly and simply explain what we do and why we do it is so important. I believe this is particularly important for scientists who don’t fit the old-fashioned stereotype of who a scientist is; unfortunately, for many people, when they are asked to describe a scientist, “white man with glasses and Einstein hair” is still the norm.

To keep science in the positive realm of the public sphere and to attract and encourage the new generation of scientists, this has to change. It is changing… but slowly. With social media presences de rigeur and an ever-technologically-savvy youth population, scientists today have the opportunity – and some would argue the obligation – to share our research and our lives as scientists online. Lab blogs, personal Instagram accounts, and department Twitters are ubiquitous at this point, which is an amazing first step. The trouble arises when it comes to audience.

The issue many scientists face is the fact that their audiences are typically rather small and – the real sticker – mostly limited to people who are already in science. How does one break out of that narrow window and connect with a much broader, less-specialized audience?

A number of science communication-minded Instagram accounts run by female scientists came under attack several months ago, with the author in Science Magazine arguing that while yes, these types of accounts do provide an alternative to the “white man with glasses” stereotype of scientists, they still present a “very narrow representation of femininity,” which she says reflects the underlying system where “traditional” female attractiveness is still the most crowd-pleasing representation, and where women are expected to carry out more mentoring and volunteer work than their male colleagues. It’s an interesting read and I recommend you check it out, but I also came across a number of articles rebuking the original opinion piece, with one headlined, “Scolding female scientists for embracing Instagram doesn’t solve the gender gap in STEM.” This provided the counter-argument that these women shouldn’t be put down because they fit the profile of “traditional femininity,” that they are entitled to run their Instagram with pipetting woes and cute selfies side-by-side. Additionally, because there was such strong feedback from the community, Science published a handful of responses, as well as this reply article. (The latter opens with, “Although we agree with M. Wright… that there are many systemic structures perpetuating the marginalization of women in science, we view social media as a powerful tool in a larger strategy to dismantle such structures.”)

Again, you should read each of these to appreciate the nuance of their arguments (they’re all pretty quick, thought-provoking reads), but this opened the doors to an entire realm of ongoing conversations about how women communicate their science, and whether or not the burden of science communication automatically falls to female scientists for the same reasons that female professors and PIs are expected to do lots of outreach and provide more emotional support for their students. Or… is it because we are passionate and vocal about supporting other women in science and wanting to encourage young women who may be uncertain if they’ll belong and be successful in STEM fields?

It’s a thorny and fascinating thing, one that I very much look forward to throwing myself into as I begin this work.

Sampling Precambrian rocks from the FAR-DEEP cores at Norway Geological Survey

I recently spent a week sampling Precambrian drill cores from the Fennoscandian shield; the drill cores from the FAR-DEEP project (part of DSDP) are housed and impressively-logisticsed by the Norway Geological Survey in Trondheim. Nestled cozily into a bay of the Trondheim Fjord, Trondheim is a small city by U.S. standards, but the second-largest in Norway (population just shy of 200k). We got lucky with the weather: all week, we saw essentially nothing but blue, cloudless skies and temperatures that never went above 70. And, because it’s so far north, it never really got dark – which took a little adjusting to, but in the end I really enjoyed it.

I went out (supported by a GSA graduate student research grant) to sample potential paleosols or weathering surfaces, some of which have been documented by previous workers. I was expecting to find a few profiles I could sample; I didn’t think I’d come back empty-handed, but I also wasn’t expecting… the almost 200 samples that are being shipped to me now. There were so many unique environments and interesting questions raised that I couldn’t help myself; not only did I sample potentially weathered rocks, I grabbed material from supratidal sabhkas with crazy dissolution and oxidation features, gorgeous pale pink microbialites, varved lacustrine sediments, weird volcanics… the list goes on. Obviously, I’ll be prioritizing the rocks that were my main goal (gotta get that paper submitted!), but everything else is a tantalizing side project.

Everyone with whom I worked while sampling – NGU folks, visiting students and profs from Yale, Stanford, University of Portsmouth (UK), and University of Tuebingen (Germany) were absolutely lovely and such fun to hang out with and talk rocks. It’s always refreshing to meet a new batch of people with different perspectives. Prior to this work, I had been on vacation in Paris for two weeks (which, by the way, 11/10 recommend), and I was worried about coming back to work. But doing this “field”work was the perfect transition: working hard, but doing something different, with new people. I’m back in Michigan now, running sequential for the next few weeks, but I’ve returned motivated and upbeat. That’s the point of vacation after all, right?

Some of the sampling team!P1170266E
We quickly discovered that the best wifi was in the hall… all those boxes are filled with core. Probably about 1/4 of all the cores are pictured here… we made it through nearly the entire 3.5km repository!


Proud mentor moment!

This Wednesday, my undergraduate researcher presented her first poster, covering her preliminary results for her work on seasonality in nutrient cycling of a Michigan wetland. After the symposium, she let me know that she won an award for her poster and presentation! I’m so proud of her dedication and enthusiasm for this project – she has exceeded my expectations for a freshman first getting into research! Go Sonya!!

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Thumbs up for science!


I was pumped to find out I was generously awarded GSA this year! I wrote my grant to fund some of my fieldwork – I’ll be sampling Precambrian paleosols in Norway this summer, from the FAR-DEEP cores. Between Norway and Iceland, I’m more than looking forward to my travel this summer.

And, because I finally got around to editing some pictures from New Zealand last year, here’s a blustery Mt. Cook. I’ll post most of the images separately.

Mt. Cook I

MGU 2018

Yesterday was our annual interdepartmental conference (with the climate and chemistry folks), so I presented some early work for the project I’ll hopefully get wrapped up over this summer and present at GSA this year. It’s always a nice chance to get to talk to your friends about their work in more detail than, “Oh yeah, I know he works with fish over in paleontology” or “She works with… organic things.” In these mostly informal, but still slightly formal, settings, you get to ask your colleagues questions and see what makes them really tick. Watching your friends get excited about their work, and happy to share it with you, is just… fun. And hey, you might even learn something. (I learned that there is a fish species that can breathe air and survive outside water for periods of time! Who knew!)


You want the pudding

Whenever I’m waiting to hear back about (read: waiting to get rejected by) grants and fellowships, I think about Amy Poehler’s book Yes Please! In her chapter about winning awards, she likens wanting to win to wanting some delicious pudding. Do you need it? No. Would you be happy if your friends got it? Absolutely! You try to ignore it, try not to think about it, and tell yourself it doesn’t matter whether or not you get the pudding – but deep down, you know you want the pudding, and sometimes that little piece of your mind sneaks out. You let yourself think about what it would be like if you got the pudding.

The NSF graduate fellowship is extremely competitive. I received excellent reviews but I didn’t get the fellowship – which is fine. Would it be nice? Absolutely. Am I disappointed? Yes – but not too much, because I know just how tough it is to actually get one, and also… how much arbitrariness and luck is really involved. The reviewers are rushed and, at the end of the day, they have to pick just a few excellent applications out of a mountain of essentially equally excellent applications.

So instead of trying to totally ignore the fellowship while I was waiting to hear back (read: get denied), I did the opposite of what motivational speakers tell their audiences. Instead of envisioning success, I tried to picture very clearly the email that would 99.99%-likely arrive in my inbox: “Dear Ms. Dzombak, We regret to inform you…” or “Unfortunately, your application was not selected…”, that sort of thing. Maybe it’s depressing (yes), but being very realistic about the odds definitely helps when the inevitable occurs. And then – if the .01%-likely event happens and you do get the pudding – it’s great. (I assume.)

Anyway. I have now placed all my eggs in the NASA fellowship, another extremely competitive gambit. I’m allowing myself a tiny shred of optimism because the reviews for my NSF were 100% .positive, and I essentially added more data and improved the application for NSF… but I won’t think about that now. For now, congrats to everyone who got NSF!!

PS. If you have not read Amy Poehler’s book, I highly recommend it.


Post-prelims (or, Officially A Candidate)

Well, after the weeks of studying blurred sufficiently together, I took my preliminary exam. Yesterday as of 4 p.m., I became a PhD candidate.

WHAT A RELIEF. I was never really worried that I wouldn’t pass, I felt prepared, but it was still just this weight for so long. So now I can get back to lab work and planning for my fieldwork this summer! And editing my paper, I hope to submit it by the end of March to really tie up loose ends (until edits for the journal, of course).

But today will be spent making and eating lemon poppyseed muffins, watching Friends, and snuggling with my cats. Relaxing.