What is your scientific background?
My BA is in political science. My MA and Ph.D. are in sociology, but my research is on climate change communications and misinformation. I study how messages about climate change in the media impact people’s attitudes and beliefs.
How did you choose your field of study?
My goal was always to do something that could make a difference in society and help people, and I’ve always been passionate about environmental conservation. I started in political science because I was interested in how policies are made, particularly environmental policies. I grew up in Northwest Indiana, an area with a lot of pollution and environmental inequalities. I wanted to know why some areas and people were protected by the law while others were exposed to risks.
I moved into sociology after taking two years of grad courses in political science. I wanted to know more about what happens to people and ecosystems after policies were enacted (or not enacted, as the case may be). My instructors told me that sociology was the place to go, so I moved over to environmental sociology.
My Master’s and Ph.D. are in sociology but my research is really more communications. Sociology teaches you how to think about society and interactions between people and the environment in terms of systems. Communications and the media are one set of systems that impact how we think about the environment and how we act towards it. Especially with climate change, where the scientific evidence is so clear yet public opinion lags, understanding why people doubt the research and how misinformation spreads is a major challenge.
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?
Right now I am working on an experiment which builds on my dissertation on climate fiction (“cli-fi”), looking at how realistic people believe these stories to be. I’m also doing some work on public knowledge of science. Climate change is a major global issue which needs to be addressed soon if we are to avoid its most catastrophic impacts, and I want to understand how people are thinking about it. My hope is that the research provides more information for communicators and activists working on climate change to help shift public opinion towards action.
What are the hardest parts related to this work?
I won’t lie, the rejection is difficult. The peer-review process is essential to ensuring quality research but that doesn’t make it any easier when your work is shredded. There’s nothing like getting an e-mail rejecting your article on Thanksgiving morning to make you grouchy. It’s usually stronger afterward, though, and it’s satisfying to see yourself grow as a researcher. Mean-spirited and cruel student evaluations also take a toll. People will say things anonymously about an instructor that they’d never say to your face.
Getting out of your head enough to write clearly is also challenging. It’s very easy to get so close to a project or manuscript that you can’t see its flaws—just like you can’t see obvious typos in the paper you’re writing after you’ve been staring at if for hours. It makes perfect sense to you because you’ve been thinking about it and turning it over in your head for months, but it may still be unclear to your readers. There’s also a fine line between under-explaining a point, which leaves your readers confused as to how you reached your conclusion, and over-explaining it, which counts towards your word limit and risks being redundant. Having a coauthor helps immensely with all of this because you can call each other out on weak ideas, hazy logic, and unclear writing.
Besides your scientific interests, what are your personal interests?
I like being outside! I live in Florida so it’s easy to be outdoors most of the time (as long as you are willing to brave the heat and humidity). I like hiking during the cooler months and kayaking during the warm ones. I love watching wildlife, especially bird, reptiles, and amphibians. I also crochet.
Is it hard to manage both career and private life? How do you manage both?
Parts of it are hard. My partner has a Ph.D., too, and did work on climate change, so he understands the research process and we were able to support one another as we made our way through graduate school. It’s nice having someone to talk research with and bounce ideas off. I think it helps that he understands the pressures of research and publication.
On the other hand, when you do research it’s difficult sometimes to step away and turn that part of your brain off. I think it might be especially bad because I study sociology and the environment—you can’t really get away from people or nature and you start seeing potential research studies in everything. I love the research so that’s not inherently a problem, but if I don’t consciously take a break from it I lose perspective and start missing things. Having a partner who does research means that it’s very easy to talk about nothing but research. We have to be mindful about leaving work behind when it’s time to relax.
The workload also varies dramatically, especially with the journal. There are days when I feel like I have all the time in the world to write and think through ideas, but there are also days that just don’t have enough hours to get everything done. It can be stressful and isolating. You can start to drift from with spouses and friends and hobbies if you don’t make a conscious, continuous effort to connect, and of course, your work suffers then because you burn out.
I won’t say I balance the two well, but I’ve learned over the years that setting aside time regularly for family, friends, and interests outside academia is critical. I write events with my partner and friends in my planner and schedule them just like I do my work because they are equally important. I feel an urgency with climate communications research but I have to remind myself that taking time off to rest makes my work better.
What kind of prejudices, if any, did you have to face? How did that make you feel? Were you able to overcome these?
The place I saw prejudice most was in teaching. Even with my degree, students would call me “Mrs.” rather than “Dr.” and this didn’t seem to happen as much with my male colleagues. Students seem to challenge female instructors more than male ones and I had to work harder to gain authority over the class. There are studies that back this up, basically saying that women instructors suffer in student evaluations because of their gender. Other factors like race, ethnicity, and class complicate this even more.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot an individual instructor can do to combat this directly in the classroom, other than teaching the best course you can and acknowledge that there are larger social forces at play. To me, understanding why these things were happening took some of the pressure off—it wasn’t anything specific I was doing, but the way students are taught to think about gender. Of course, I still took feedback seriously and made changes when I thought they would benefit my students, but tried to let the very nasty evaluations go.
You can e-mail Lauren at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter.