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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.

Summer 2018, in which I attempt to avoid the post-prelims slump

For the first two years of grad school – and possibly while I was working in the lab as an undergraduate – my advisor warned of the third-year, or post-prelims, slump. “It happens to everyone,” he said. “So don’t take it too hard when it inevitably hits you.” Externally, I nodded, but in my head I harrumphed and swore it wouldn’t happen to me. After all, things were going so well! I had so many cool projects and I was loving grad school.

Now, four months after passing my preliminary exam (YAY!), I still have many cool projects… too many. And I’m still loving grad school… most days. I wouldn’t describe myself as jaded or pessimistic, but I’m not quite so naïve as I once was. Papers are taking longer to write than I’d planned, I didn’t get the coveted NSF or NASA fellowships, and perhaps most frustratingly, the ICP-OES that I’ve been using since 2016 is the flakiest, most annoying, most broken instrument I’ve ever tried to use. (But shh, don’t tell it I said that – I’m in the ICP room now and it can’t know that I’ve been frustrated or it will definitely stop working again.)

Some things that help stave off a slump: going to Paris and eating many, many pain au chocolats. Doing super cool sampling of Precambrian rocks in northern Norway and running along the gorgeous fjord after work. And more simply, making an effort to actually hang out with your friends. Reading books for fun again. Writing for pleasure. Chipping away at to-do lists in manageable chunks. Working with great undergrads who remind you that you really do love your work, and that it’s fun. (Hi Sonya!) Putting in time with other productive-but-not-research things (I’m loving my science communication work with AWIS!).

You know what else helps combat a slump? YOUR INSTRUMENT FINALLY WORKING AGAIN AND GETTING DATA FOR THE FIRST TIME IN WHO EVEN KNOWS HOW LONG. It’s a hot Saturday afternoon and I’m here, in the almost-too-cold ICP room, running another hundred samples, and I’m not even salty about it. I’m just thrilled that it’s working again. And the timing couldn’t be better: I have about a week until I head up north for family vacation, then just a few days between that and my ICELAND FIELD WORK. Yeah, you heard me right. I get to escape Michigan in August and sample soils in Iceland, and hopefully see puffins. Then there’s Goldschmidt (find me in session 12e!), and then my partner and I are sailing around the Washington coast for a week or so with his mom. And then it’s a new semester and the undergrads will be back; I’ll be teaching soils again (yay!) and taking a modeling class (yay?) and hopefully mentoring a new student in lab (YAY), so I suspect lab work might be limited to nights and weekends.

So far: slump avoided.

Screen Shot 2018-07-14 at 12.31.09 PMMe with the ICP in question. Note the hope in my eyes accompanied by a slight glint of fear that everything will go wrong at any moment. Instagram.

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.