What is your scientific background?
I have a Bachelor’s degree in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Connecticut. I received a Master’s degree in Biotechnology Science from Kean University. Recently, I received my Ph.D. in Biology from the University of California, Irvine.
Which topic are you working on at the moment? Why did you choose this topic and how do you think you’ll make a difference?
I work in tropical cloud forests. These forests are experiencing rapid climate change, and are considered endangered ecosystems. It is really important that we figure out what the future of these forests might look like.
To do this, I study microbes that live in soil. These microbes recycle plant material and help plants get nutrients. They can also act as pathogens, and affect plant and animal diversity. But, because they are sensitive to changes in temperature and moisture, they may change with future climate change. And thus, many parts of the ecosystem may change as well. Looking at how cloud forests might change through the lens of microbes allows me to really tackle how many parts of this endangered ecosystem may change. This way we can figure out what is in store for cloud forests.
What is a typical day like for you?
The thing I love about microbial ecology is that it is fairly integrative. It is a combination of fieldwork, lab work, data analysis, and writing. This is great because it keeps me interested and keeps my motivation up.
Did you ever doubt your abilities as a scientist? Why? How did you handle these situations/feelings?
All of the time! Imposter syndrome is very challenging, especially for graduate students and for women. Whenever this really gets to me I try to think about my successes. Also, I confide in other women that I know that feel the same way. It helps to hear that I am not alone, but it is also fulfilling to be there to listen and to help.
What (or who) motivated you in difficult times?
Having balance in my life keeps me motivated. As a scientist and writer, it can be really difficult to turn your brain off. Instead, I just choose to redirect it. I maintain friendships and a life outside of academia. With my friends that are scientists, we talk about everything except science. This really helps me not feel drained.
Also, writing and science communication helps me stay motivated. It helps me reassess why I love science and why it is so important. It is also really fun to reach out to new audiences and to learn how to talk about science in new ways.
What is the funniest or most memorable thing that has happened to you while working in science?
To say I have some stories is an understatement. I had monkeys attack me, a caiman chased me, and watched the biggest cicada I have ever seen knock over my lab mate.
But, the time I was swarmed by killer bees is definitely the most memorable. We hiked up to the top of the mountain in Monteverde, Costa Rica. You could see them on the ground, and we knew we had to walk far away and very quickly. However, the vibrations that our steps created were enough. I was stung about 150 times.
Fortunately, there was a building at the top of this mountain. A man was inside and heard us yelling. He let us come inside and then pulled every single bee sting out of us. But, of course, we still had to hike three hours back down the mountain.
Ironically, this site became the focal point for my Ph.D. research. And hiking down the mountain wasn’t so bad after that!
Do you come from an academic family?
I do not come from an academic family; I am a first-generation college student. As someone who is extremely passionate about science communication, this has been a great experience and challenge. Although my parents and I do not agree on everything, they have been a great sounding board in working on communicating to broader audiences.
Besides your scientific interests, what are your personal interests?
I am extremely passionate about science communication, especially writing. I am actively trying to improve my skills and reach broader audiences. In the last year of my Ph.D., I published nearly 30 products, including radio scripts, news articles, and features.
But, I am not all work and no play. In my free time, I run, workout, camp, hike, and standup paddleboard. Living in Southern California has motivated me to get out and try new things. One of my favorite things to do is to paddle to an offshore kelp forest and go snorkel!
If you had the option to give advice to a younger version of yourself, what would that be?
Everything is going to work out how it is supposed to!
What kind of prejudices, if any, did you have to face? How did that make you feel? Were you able to overcome these?
Unfortunately, I’ve had a lot of experiences that I know are not unique to just me. It is really frustrating that women scientists frequently have their looks commented on. There was a recent comment thread on Twitter that really highlighted this.
On one occasion, I came back from my study abroad program completely inspired and motivated. I finally found my direction in science! I went to get my paperwork signed. When I went to the professor’s office that was in charge of signing my paperwork, he immediately told me that women like me shouldn’t wear graphic t-shirts because it forces men to look at their chest.
I also told a former advisor that I had an exciting opportunity to go back to Costa Rica to do research. “Oh, you must have found a boyfriend there,” he said. His graduate student (a woman) who I thought had really supported me also repeated this same statement. Over the years, many people have made similar comments, including on social media posts.
Actually, I am just a woman who loves science, and hiking around in the jungle. And there are many more women just like me.
Do you have anything else that you’d like to tell us about?
I had the opportunity to write an op-ed article for The New York Times on climate change in cloud forests that you can read here. If you would like to check out any other clips I wrote visit my website!
If you want to contact Caitlin, connect with her on Twitter (@caitlooby) or send her an email (firstname.lastname@example.org).