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Finding a voice in grad school

No one advertises grad school as a confidence-booster – in fact, it’s usually the opposite. We hear so much about how grad school wears you down, exhausts you from the inside out, and correlates with depression & anxiety. We hear about how much people hate it; how they can’t wait to graduate; how it seems like the years stretch on, interminable, with no relief in sight.

I’m not here to say that grad school never gets you down, but I would like to provide a different perspective. A more positive view where grad school builds you up.

Like many people, I made some new goals at the start of this year. I want to keep up running a few times per week, I want to cook more real meals (eating hummus and carrots is just so easy), and I want to start doing yoga again. These are great goals, but I also made one more, a little more ambiguous: to find my voice and make it heard.

These days, the constant negative cacophony makes it easy to feel like voices of women and minorities are being shouted down by hate and anger. It can be so exhausting that it becomes tempting to shut off those NYT alerts and stay cocooned in blissful ignorance. But with a little effort, you can make out a different set of voices, the ones denouncing white nationalism and defending women and people of color and LGBTQ+ and the disabled and folks in low socioeconomic status. Turns out, despite the noise, most people are pretty much okay.

Knowing that makes it easier to speak up yourself, to join the positive voices saying, “HEY. This isn’t us. This isn’t what we want.”

This may all seem removed from grad school – let’s circle back to that. Before I started grad school, I’d hear grad students talking with professors about scientific ideas, presenting and defending their original thoughts, and having them supported by colleagues. While logically I knew I would probably get to that point someday, I couldn’t visualize it at all. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to come up with any original research ideas, or that if I did, they’d be shot down.

Thankfully, I’ve had an extremely positive experience so far. I’m in my third year with an open-minded and supportive advisor and a lab full of positive reinforcement and opportunities. I’ve had the chance to work with multiple amazing undergrad women too – I’ll get back to that shortly. A lot has changed since I started, but the most tangible shift I’ve undergone is my self-confidence, and with that, my readiness to speak up. Not that I was particularly self-doubting at the start, but I’ve realized that I’m there. I’m at the point where I saw my older labmates – discussing their ideas and manuscripts and planning new projects, talking with their advisor almost less as a mentor and more as a peer. I hear myself in meetings and step back a little in my own head, take a second to think, “Damn. I am rocking this. This is great.” I’ve noticed that it extends beyond talking about my own research, too; I’m more comfortable asking questions about other people’s work, or even just jumping in more during friendly conversations about quantum physics or philosophy. (My friends are nerds, and I love it.) I’m part of an organization that has put me in touch with so many kickass women in STEM, one that lets us lift each other up and encourages us all to speak up.

Grad school has given me the confidence to always speak my mind.

I’m sure that a decent portion of this is motivated by the rose-colored glasses of a project going well, multiple papers in the works (but before any rejections), and a bustling lab full of confident, intelligent women, but once that next knock-down comes my way, I’m banking on my confidence in myself as a scientist to pick me back up in short order. After all, I’ve got things to do!

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Now, I mentioned some undergrads I work with. Mentoring students in lab has been, hands-down, my favorite part of grad school so far. I’m keen to develop a relationship beyond “Please clean these beakers” with anyone I’m working with, so helping them figure out their scientific motivation is a pleasure. Hanging out in lab, talking about what the next steps of their projects might be, is usually the best part of my day. I skip out of lab with the warm-fuzzies of Yay science friends! and inspiration.

Coincidentally, our lab comprises entirely female grad and undergrad students. It’s a unique environment, one that lends itself easily to making us all feel very comfortable being in lab as well as asking questions or for help when we need it. I’ve enjoyed it so far, and one of my researchers really drove the point home for me in lab the other day. She said she’s in a class group with a classic mansplainer who she mostly ignores, but she realized it’s negatively affecting her willingness to ask questions in class because she knows he’ll jump in and respond condescendingly. Which sucks, and is all too common an occurrence, but she followed it with this: Usually, in a class like that, she’d feel totally confident asking a question because of her experience in our lab, surrounded by strong ladies in STEM. We’ve successfully created a supportive space for young women in STEM and hopefully helped more than one student feel more confident in her classes – and life – going forward.

What’s more warm-fuzzies than that?

So: I add a new goal for the year, and will keep it on my list as long as I’m in… well, anywhere, really. That goal is to continue to serve as a mentor and (hopefully) positive role model for women in STEM, to make them feel as welcome and supported as I possibly can. And in doing so, I can help them find their own voices and make them heard.

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PS. Read Michelle Obama’s book. It’s inspirational and empowering and I cried so many times while reading it.

Break means break

I spent my break doing everything but work. We went on a cruise (my first ever) in the Caribbean, where I mostly avoided the partiers and read many books overlooking the ocean as it glided past. We watched seabirds hunt flying fish. I slept about 10 hours every night and it was glorious. I snorkeled with cuttlefish, napped on beaches, and read even more books. I saw my family. I had some alone time. We started to renovate our laundry room (I’m learning how to properly frame a non-load-bearing wall, and how to reroute minor plumbing, and how to level a floor, and how to lay tile). I started cooking and running and drawing again. I ran into walls in MarioKart as the rest of my friends raced. I read more books. I managed to stay awake until midnight for the new year and clinked champagne glasses with my friends.

In short: it was a real break. Our house had a strict moratorium on work discussions or work; questions about our PhD progress or what a postdoc actually entails were politely swept aside. Any thoughts of work, stressful or otherwise, were largely ignored; I was focused on refreshing myself after a pretty hectic semester, and looking forward to the next few months, which are pretty wide-open.

I set foot in the office today for the first time in just over two weeks; many people are still out, and I’ll spend the week before classes start working partially from home and probably working shorter hours as we attempt to make as much progress on our reno as possible before the semester really kicks into gear. I was relieved to hear that my advisor had also not done much at all over break, nor had my labmates and some other friends as well. I have no guilt, not one iota, about how I’ve spent my time, because now that it’s time to work again, I’m so ready. I’m excited to jump back into my board duties for our chapter of the Association for Women in Science, pumped to write up a couple papers, and looking forward to finally having time to spend in lab after a semester where I’d be lucky to squeeze in an hour or two of time at the bench.

Talking to some first-year students, I heard the refrain: “Well, I worked some over break, but not as much as I wanted to.” One woman said she’d come into lab for a few hours every day, but never really felt like she was relaxing or being productive. My labmate and I immediately said “YEP.” That’s why it’s so important to separate work and actual relaxation: if you have a goal of “working a little,” that can easily turn into guilt whenever you’re not working – chipping away at your ability to relax. Then if you do work, it’s often halfhearted or distracted because you’re on break. They should hang a giant sign in the department somewhere: BREAK MEANS BREAK.

I took a break. I relaxed. I read books for fun. And now I’m back and ready to crush it!

Puerto Rico was so colorful – we only saw Old San Juan, which is the historic (touristy) area. That part of the city had been pretty well repaired, but even here there was still evidence from the hurricane. I’m sure the rest of the territory didn’t look as nice as this. I won’t go on a political rant here, but… if an emergency is declared at the border when one wasn’t declared when thousands of citizens were without electricity, food, or water, then… SIGH. UGH. Anyway, happy 2019!

Thankful for: my grad school friends

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This semester is nearly almost over. Not quite almost over, but… nearly. I’m into my third year – halfway through my PhD if all goes well – and I’m feeling it, as are my cohort-mates. I’ve been teaching and taking a class, as well as working with two undergrads in lab. (Who I love!) But it’s been really busy, and research has taken a back seat. I expected as much and planned for it, but I’m definitely looking forward to next semester: four months unencumbered by classes, wide open for labwork and writing and a little sampling trip to New York.

With all this in mind, on this Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for my grad school friends who keep me sane, and who I can help keep sane as well. We remind each other that it’s important to step back and remember that grad school is just a job. We love what we do (most of us, on most days…) and so it’s easy to dive headfirst into 60-hour workweeks and put on blinders towards the rest of life. So spending a weekend at Lake Michigan with a dozen grad students, getting out of Ann Arbor and hunkering down in the snow for a couple days without work, was a welcome retreat and reminder of how important work-life balance is.

I’m sitting in a hotel in Pittsburgh looking out at the bridges and cold rivers, getting ready to spend two days with my family. I’m relaxed and with people I love, and that’s more important than any deadline.

Happy Thanksgiving!

PS. Is it weird that we still celebrate Thanksgiving? It’s basically the arrival of genocide and disease and imperialism… but… pie! Anyway. 

 

#scicomm thoughts: who are “the public,” and how do we engage them?

This week has been a #scicomm whirlwind on twitter; Earth Science Week combined with the Earth Science Women’s Network (ESWN) Science-A-Thon for a veritable wave of science tweets (check out #dayofscience for glimpses into the lives of scientists in many different fields!). Taking part in this has been fun and, actually, a little challenging – I don’t think I met the 12-tweets-a-day goal any day. It’s also prompted me to assess the state of #scicomm and science communication more broadly, and to really think about what my scicomm goals are and what I’m doing to achieve them.

For me (and many others), a big part of science communication goes way beyond promoting our own work. Sharing our science – and who we really are – is a way to promote diverse, real representation of who is in science and what being a scientist looks like. Studies have shown that perceptions of “what a scientist looks like” change with age (younger kids draw versions of themselves, older kids draw more men than women), reflecting an insidious bias; but good news, this trend seems to be improving with time – more older kids draw versions of themselves now than decades ago. But it’s still so, so important to have good representation. I’m a woman, and there’s a huge problem with retaining women in STEM fields, particularly in academia; however, I’m also white, so not so much diversity there. Bringing as many folks to the scicomm table as we can to represent diversity beyond gender and race – financial background, education, ability, sexuality, literally every type of difference, visible and invisible, should be represented. Because science is an increasingly diverse community, and that gives us great strength.

 

So, representation matters – nothing groundbreaking there, but an incredibly important goal.

Another common goal for scicommers, and scientists more broadly, is to increase public awareness of and engagement with science, particularly for policy-relevant issues like climate change. Having an educated and motivated public is essential for driving policy change. The issue we run into, though, is: how do we best engage the public? And – do they even care?

These concerns are valid and deserve our attention and brainpower, but I also think there’s an underlying issue here: the divide between “scientists” and “the public,” as though we are not part of that voting public. This divide isn’t helped by the so-called ‘ivory tower’ perception of scientists and academics: removed, privileged people who have no sense of the ‘real world’ or the struggles that ‘normal’ people are going through. Often, then, attempts at public education or outreach can come off as very top-down; that is, “I’m the expert, let me tell you what to think” – or at least, that’s how it can be perceived, even if we are in fact well-intentioned and just want a discussion of the topic.

Pew research from the past few years has shown generally positive (if lukewarm and variable based on political orientation and specific issue) public views of scientists, on par with the military and far greater than elected officials (just 3% strongly supported) or the news media (21% had no trust). Despite the media ramping up coverage of negative and alternative views of science, the public generally support science, particularly medical research and nature conservation. The American public believes that the U.S. should be a leader in space; we like NASA. This is good news: people do care.  It’s just that science, for some reason, has been misconstrued over the recent years as a partisan issue.

So how do we get around this?

Part of this issue of access to people and overcoming the divide, perceived or real, between “the public” and scientists is the obvious problem of what is the best way to engage people? What forum is the most effective and productive for talking with people, either for science/policy education or encouraging/supporting underrepresented groups in STEM? As highlighted earlier, twitter is a common way for scientists to provide representation of scientists and access to their science. Instagram allows us to visually share our lives as scientists. Universities often offer a range of outreach events for engaging their local communities, like hands-on science events for kids or seminars on policy issues open to the public. Some groups even partner with bars to host “science nights” where scientists give lightning talks on their research, geared towards non-expert audiences. Traditional media (news, radio) provide some coverage for research, but it is often limited to biomedical advances or harbinger-of-doom climate change studies. Not that these topics shouldn’t be covered – they are important and eye-catching ways of getting people to think about science and research as things that could affect their daily lives – but there could be more.

So, we have options. The underlying issue here is ultimately self-selection bias. Like all news and content, people today have greater control over essentially the reality they experience: what news articles they read, what podcasts or radio shows they listen to, what social media accounts they follow, and what sorts of events they attend. If someone is prone to engage with those things, it’s likely that they are already interested in the topic or science in general – which is great from a ‘providing representation’ standpoint, but not so much for ‘reading the broadest audience possible to educate on policy-relevant issues.’ Who will attend a bar night hosting science talks? People interested in science, or already open to learning. Who will follow scientists on twitter? Other scientists, academics, policymakers, and a few nerdy public folks. Who takes their kids to museum events? Parents who (a) have the privilege of free time and resources to take their kids to museums and (b) are aware that they should actively engage their kids in science and critical thinking. (Although outreach-oriented museum events are impactful and important!)

What we are left with is essentially walking the streets with a billboard that says, “Ask me about my science!” (There areAsk Me – I’m A Scientist!” shirts already.) In liberal cities, I’m sure you’d get at least a few people engaged in that way.

I think it’s also important – essential – to stay positive in the current political climate and with the modern news media. It’s easy to buy into the “There’s a war on science!” discourse; in some very real senses, it’s true, with government support for conservation and research apparently dropping, and anti-vaxxers spouting nonsense and seemingly gaining traction. But there’s also the insidious partisan aspect, with far right-wingers stirring the pot and inflaming what is in reality a small but loud group of anti-science people. Even people in areas that are traditionally associated with anti-science sentiment, like the midwest, are aware of climate change and often open to discussing it when they’re approached in a respectful way. Farmers notice when rain patterns change; ranchers notice when vegetation disappears; southwestern-dwellers know when their wells dry up. Their reality is strongly affected by climate change, and they know it. (Dr. Jonathan Overpeck, the new Dean of the School of Environment and Sustainability here at UM, has dealt extensively with some of these people, and Dr. Julie Cole has devoted parts of her career to communicating climate change.)

This is all sort of roundabout and doesn’t have a clean, clear conclusion. I guess the real takeaway is: it’s easy enough to tweet about our work, and share it on Instagram, and have our websites and blogs. We’re providing content and representation, but it feels like it’s more for ourselves, our community, than the “public” who would most benefit from these conversations. (Although creating a supportive community is equally important!) What it comes down to is our willingness to “leave the ivory tower” (stop just tweeting from our couches) and go out into our communities, visit elementary and middle and high schools in underprivileged areas, provide programs that link schools with colleges for higher education opportunities, make both visible and invisible types of diversity – especially racial, gender, and financial – clear so that every kid has someone they can relate to who went to college and was able to pursue a career in STEM … We in higher education have the power and opportunity, and I would argue the obligation, to be active and continually push for improvement.

(And, ultimately, vastly rework and improve our national education program, dealing with systemic and inherent racial and financial biases to ensure equal opportunity for all and invest in a globally-competitive, highly-educated workforce for the future so we can be a leader in change. But that’s more than can be addressed by a single blog post.)

Teaching soil science, round two: fall field trips!

Fall semester is in full swing: the undergrads are swamped with midterms, the trees are turning red, and a horde of those electric scooters has appeared quite suddenly on campus. I’m TAing our Soils & Surface Processes class again this year, and we’ve already wrapped up our two main field trips to nearby parks/nature preserves to show, rather than tell, the students about soils. Our first field trip was to a research park, the George Reserve, where lots of ecology studies are carried out. Here, the main goals for the students were to look at soils in wetlands vs. forests, describe major physical and chemical differences, and think about differences in formation processes. We got pretty lucky with the weather – humid but nice! They collected soil and plant samples for some of the labs we’ll do coming up – they will get to look at the actual C:N and C isotope data from these sites and think about the carbon and nutrient cycling that’s occurring in these different ecosystems.

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Our second trip was more recent, and we didn’t get so lucky with the weather; despite the fact that it was just a short morning trip to the Eddy Discovery Center near Chelsea, we went through a few cycles of ‘nice fall weather’ -> pouring rain -> nice weather -> pouring (this time with thunder). Here, we were looking for similar differences between wetland and forest sites while also looking at some of the cool glacial features – hello, subglacial drainage river channel that’s inversely preserved!

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Even though teaching and lab prep can take up a decent chunk of time, which can sometimes be frustrating, field trips like these often remind me how much I really do enjoy teaching and sharing my nerdiness excitement about science with students, and seeing what gets them interested and engaged. It’s neat, actually: this year’s group is very heavily skewed towards the environmental side of things, whereas last year we had a more geology-centric group. So while we might have to go over, say, Bowen’s reaction series a little more, these students would be walking around in the forests identifying every tree and mushroom that we saw. Every year it’s different, and different groups bring different strengths and learning opportunities to the table.

Now I’m off to proctor their exam – something they’re less excited about than hiking in the Michigan woods.

 

Goldschmidt 2018

Boston, as far as I could tell, comprised an assortment of adorable and expensive three-story brick buildings and a thick, impenetrable, and persistent grey fog. We’d arrived on the early flight in a drizzle and taken a Lyft to our AirBNB in the Back Bay area, and I had yet to see either the sun or the top of a building. Several construction projects shot up into the mist, worklights shining weirdly. It looked like a scene from Blade Runner.

Although I didn’t see the sun until Thursday, I think, Boston – and Goldschmidt – did not disappoint. I presented my poster on Monday evening and had the rest of the week to loiter in Precambrian sessions and drink wine, stress-free. I met a couple of great people, nervously introduced myself to at least one person who I could eventually see myself post-doc-ing with, and had some excellent, motivating conversations about my research. I wandered around Chinatown and unwittingly got drinks at the Ritz. (They somehow brought an Irish whisky instead of the scotch I ordered, but it was delicious and it all worked out.) I walked on many cobblestone sidewalks. I ran through the Boston Gardens and saw the Good Will Hunting bench and passed many gorgeous townhouses that reminded me of Paris. I saw some great, thought-provoking talks. I (hopefully) avoided the cold that everyone, including my labmate with whom I was sharing the AirBNB, seemed to catch. So Boston was good.

Conference season isn’t quite over: I’m hoping to present some exciting phosphorus data at Midwest Geobiology at Northwestern Univ. in October, and I might come to GSA just because it’s so close. But before any of that, I’m leaving for a last vacation this summer: on Tuesday, I’ll be heading to Seattle. We’ll spend a week sailing around Puget Sound, hiking and exploring and (me) learning how to sail.

I just need to make some figures and write a draft before I leave. It’ll be fine.  🙂

Cobblestones, Blade Runner, and thumbs up for science. Even if the science printed weirdly small.

Iceland fieldwork! (August 2018)

Hello hello! I’m writing this from Boston, where I’ll be this week for Goldschmidt. I’m pumped to present updates on my iron in modern soils characterization project – something I’ve been slowly working on since my time in the lab as an undergrad, and that I’m planning (hoping?) on submitting before the year is up. It’s just tantalizing to always add just one more set of soils… Find me at my poster tomorrow afternoon (Monday! Session 12e!) to hear me ramble about this.

I digress. I just returned from about a week of fieldwork in Iceland (with paleosol postdoc Emily), where we were sampling modern soils and surfaces to use as Precambrian terrestrial analogues. (And to contribute to my aforementioned soil project.) Despite hearing about how Iceland is beautiful, but cloudy and rainy and windy pretty much all of the time, we got extremely lucky weather-wise; in addition to 100-odd samples, I actually came back with a sunburn.

Over the course of eight days, we drove from Reykjavik to Höfn, up to some remote (even for Iceland) regions in the northeast, and back along the coast, ending the trip with a day-drive to the Snæfellnes Peninsula. It was lots of driving, lots of sheep, lots of breathtaking views, and lots of surprisingly decent gas-station espresso (although the jury’s out on whether it was delicious because it tasted good, or because it was so desperately needed. Does it really matter?). We saw glaciers, black sand beaches, endless stacks of basalt flows, moody Icelandic horses, diving puffins, endless stretches of mossy basalts, gorgeous braided rivers, ferrooxidans-rich streams, bright green bogs, and more waterfalls than we could possibly count. It was an incredible experience – THANK YOU, AMERICAN PHILOSOPHICAL SOCIETY, FOR MY LEWIS & CLARK GRANT THAT FUNDED THIS TRIP.

There are so many unique research opportunities there, I can’t wait to go back. This trip spawned several new projects – not that I need any more at the moment – but there are always post-docs… and projects for my own students, eventually… wild to think about that, but it’s exciting!

A few highlights:

On one of our first long driving days, we discovered Glacier Lagoon – right during the golden hour, so the lighting was out-of-this-world.

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Sampling a very gravelly young surface somewhere in the northeast.

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Sampling one of the organic-rich, stream-fed bog soils. The moss is so green.

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Diamond beach! This is a cool black sand beach right across from Glacier Lagoon where ice chunks wash up pretty consistently. Really cool spot.

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This being Iceland, and Iceland essentially being one giant volcano, there were lots of red, clayey soils around. Great for what I’m looking for scientifically, but a huge pain to clear out of the auger.

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On the third day (I think), our luck with the weather finally ran out. It was rainy and chilly and windy and cloudy. But sampling stops for no weather! Here, I’m sampling soils, basalts, and biologic soil crusts (lichens and mosses) from this basalt and volcanic sand field. These landscapes were my favorite: these fields of basalt chunks stretches for kilometers in all directions, and they’re covered in this thick moss. Although the moss is so extensive, it can cover these flows in as little as one year! Which is crazy fast!

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Along with the moss fields (foreground) came huge mounds of bright red, purple, and black scoria. Silent except for the wind. Together, they created a wholly otherworldly feel. I could so easily picture early Earth like this, it was eerie.

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All in all, I’d call this trip a smashing success. Iceland – it was great. I’ll catch you later.