Why did you choose to become a scientist?
As a kid, I loved going to places like museums and public parks to learn about the natural world, but I didn’t understand how this knowledge was generated. Then, serendipitously my parents signed me up for an all girls science camp during the summer of 7th grade. There, I not only learned that it was through scientific research that we figure out how our world works, but how we create inventions and solutions to complex problems. I was hooked. After doing lab experiments and building rockets for two summers, I thought of myself as someone who could possibly be a scientist for the first time.
Of course, from that starting point to today, it was a long road with unexpected turns and was only possible with support from many mentors, friends, and family. But when we talk about how to encourage more young women to consider careers in science, I think it’s important to recognize that fostering inspiration and confidence from an early age are key parts of the recipe for success. Many programs are doing that, but since it can take a decade or more before those women will enter the workplace, it is challenging to quantify the positive impacts.
Did you ever doubt your abilities as a scientist? Why? How did you handle these situations/feelings?
Yep. Every damn day. To be fair, we are trained to question everything in science- to make sure that we are really, really sure about our findings and rule out all other explanations as much as possible. And this is a good thing. But, especially as female and/or minority scientists, this can often compound with insecurities from decades of dealing with situations where we are subtly (and not so subtly) assumed to not be as competent by default…. guilty until proven innocent. I think this can lead many of us to an unhealthy place of deep impostor syndrome to the point of an almost self-fulfilling prophecy.
Since I want to push myself to do the absolute best work I am capable of, I try to embrace these feelings and dig into where the doubt is coming from in a healthy way. For example, is it from a nagging feeling that something just doesn’t add up, and maybe I should take one more look at the data or talk to a colleague to get a fresh perspective? Or was I confident about the results until a snarky comment, and then I began doubting myself? Since, unfortunately, sometimes even good feedback is wrapped in snark, I try to deconstruct this by bouncing ideas off of trusted mentors and colleagues, and I read voraciously to make sure I know the field and issues inside and out.
So I guess in short, while I certainly don’t have it all figured out, I think there is a healthy way to use your doubts to make you a stronger, even more badass scientist. And, that no woman (or man) is an island…build a network of collaborators, mentors, and friends that can help you objectively see when you should reflect on criticism and when you should just let it roll off your back.
What are the hardest parts related to this work? What (or who) motivated you in difficult times?
Finding conservation solutions that promote healthy wildlife and ecosystems while supporting sustainable jobs and economies for a growing human population is really hard. It can be challenging to not let frustration jade your worldview and commitment, especially when politics block action for issues in which the science is so clear, such as climate change. But when I feel this way, I often think of the many conservation success stories that exist, and the words of a former kickass female mentor, Dr. Becca Lewison: “We shouldn’t be surprised that finding solutions to complex problems is hard, of course, it is. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try, or that we can’t do it.”
We have a lot of really brilliant people working hard on all sides of these issues who refuse to give up, despite setbacks and politics. We saw a great example of this last week when many scientists, NGOs, private citizens and regional politicians stepped up to reinforce their commitment to the Paris agreement after President Trump’s shortsighted announcement to withdraw. As I draw strength and hope from these actions, it renews my commitment to doing conservation science in a way that does not just document environmental decline but helps generate sustainable solutions.
In ten years, what do you hope to have accomplished in terms of your work?
I recently made the decision to take an academic position, which will be very different from working at NOAA. But while I could see returning to science agency work one day, I am excited that this new chapter allows me not only to expand my research but also to more closely mentor and teach students in conservation science at the graduate and undergraduate levels. Moreover, being at a public university, I will have the capacity to support diversity and train students from all walks of life. So although I also have a long list of research questions that I plan to tackle in the next decade, I am most hopeful that I will have a significant impact in shaping the next generation of scientists, conservation managers, and science-literate citizens.
During your career, have you been specifically mentored or supported by someone?
I’ve been extremely fortunate to have great female and male mentors throughout the different stages of my career, and I’ve also experienced situations where things weren’t a good fit. Just like personal relationships, having a diversity of experiences helped me see when things weren’t working- in some cases making adjustments and in others, recognizing that we needed to part ways.
As I mentioned above, I’ve also learned the importance of having a network of mentors, sponsors, and collaborators to turn to for different needs and perspectives (this is actually one of the great suggestions from the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity, which has a lot of other great resources too). For example, during the academic job interview process, I got pretty consistent and straightforward advice. But then during the negotiation process, I found my needs were very different from many people I had previously turned to, due to both my career goals and personal situation (two-body problem). However, I was able to reach out to colleagues that had situations more similar to mine and get some great suggestions-including being ok with walking away from a job offer if it just doesn’t feel like the right fit.
Is it hard to manage both career and private life? How do you manage both?
I used to be pretty bad at time management. But at some point during graduate school, I woke up and realized that next month was never going to be less busy, so if I wanted to have time for friends, family or hobbies, it was on me to prioritize making it happen. So instead of waiting for a ‘good week’ to take a vacation, go on a date with my husband, or visit my family, I started putting those things in the calendar and prioritizing my important work goals around them. It’s not easy- I have to let go of or say no to things that I would like to do, and I am still consistently late because I think I can pack more into a day than is actually realistic. But I’ve made peace with the fact that I’m making time for the important things, both personally and professionally.
In your opinion, which changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system to be more attractive to female scientists and possible future scientists?
While there is still a lot of overt sexism that we obviously need to deal with in science, we also need to do a better job of recognizing and addressing microaggressions that promote an overall toxic culture. We all have biases, but if we can foster an environment where it’s ok to talk about them, I think it would really help us understand and be better allies for one another.
Second, I think more administrations and companies need to shift their viewpoint of gender and diversity from problems to opportunities. While many are making changes, we still have a long way to go. For example, during a recent job negotiation meeting with a high-level administrator, I asked about what opportunities might exist for my husband, especially since I was considering moving my family across the country. And I was told that (paraphrasing) ‘Increasing diversity in the sciences has been a double edge sword, since it used to be so much easier’.
Now, he’s not a bad guy, and I understand that he did not intend to offend. It did use to be easier…if you were a white male. Women are not only more likely to have an academic partners than men, but are significantly more likely to consider family obligations and their partner’s employment opportunities when making their own career decisions (Schiebinger et al. 2008)…it’s messier for sure. Different but analogous issues confront many minority scientists. But, we also know that diversity in science fuels better, innovative research by incorporating different perspectives. If we value this more (in addition to ethical obligations of equal opportunities), we can embrace the messiness and start crafting solutions. By contrast, in a very similar negotiation conversation with a different university, an administrator recounted how this was such a great opportunity for them to be able to recruit two up-and-coming scientists instead of one. Of course, every university doesn’t have the capacity to do this, and ‘solutions’ may look very different at different places, and that’s ok. But by shifting the paradigm from problem to opportunity, I think we can start heading in the right direction.