How did you choose your field of study?
I consider myself to be a combination of a classically trained botanist and evolutionary biologist, but my path to this field of study certainly wasn’t straightforward.
Biology was my favorite subject in high school, and I thought it made sense to choose a practical career in medicine when I got to college. After my arrival at the University of Michigan, I had the opportunity to take a variety of classes and soon realized that I was the most excited by my ecology and evolution courses, especially those that got me outside. It also took me awhile to find my focus: my undergraduate major was zoology and I took a job working in a fungal lab at Oregon State University before I finally found my calling with plants.
Why plants? To me, they seemed beautiful, subtle, and complicated. It is thought that ~400,000 species of plants exist on the planet, with many of these waiting to be discovered. I like the idea of uncharted territory. Plants are also not what we would consider well behaved in terms of their genetics. They can hybridize, backcross with each other, and genome doubling is common—to the point that we are unsure what constitutes a “species” in some cases!
Why evolutionary biology? Evolutionary history gave me a framework with which to understand all other aspects of biology. When I began to understand how major groups of plants were related to one another, patterns of morphology (how a plant looks), ecology, and genetics started making a lot more sense.
Did you ever doubt your abilities as a scientist? Why? How did you handle these situations/feelings?
All the time! Early on in grad school, I was plagued with the idea that everyone else was smarter than me and that I’d somehow managed to slip under the radar and get accepted into the program—classic imposter syndrome stuff. It got to the point where I was tempted to drop out because I felt like I couldn’t hack it, and I began to struggle with insomnia because I didn’t know how to turn my brain off. It helped to make friends with others in my lab and department and discuss how I was feeling. It turned out that this experience is incredibly common, even among people that I would consider scientific rock stars. Realizing that I wasn’t alone helped tremendously.
I still feel this way sometimes, especially when I start getting out of my comfort zone with new topics and analyses, so I’m not sure if it ever goes away completely. By now, I’ve learned to keep plodding ahead. I’m more comfortable with not knowing stuff and asking for help when I need it.
What (or who) motivated you in difficult times?
My own stubbornness plays a role for sure. Even in my most insecure moments as a scientist, I always ask myself, “Well, how would you feel if you just gave up and walked away?” I know exactly how I would feel, and that motivates me to put my head down and get through it.
I’ll add that self-care is also extremely important with this. For example, when I was trying to quickly finish my dissertation, I made sure to make time for yoga and exercise, my “non-negotiables”, because it helped me sleep and made my writing time more productive.
In ten years, what do you hope to have accomplished in terms of your work?
I’m in a period of transition in my career and will begin a research program in South Dakota. In ten years, I would like to see the fruits of my labor from some of my newer research interests—particularly how patterns of land use (i.e. crop production, grazing) affects biodiversity. I would like to see this research incorporated into land management plans in the region and hope to make evolutionary biology accessible (and practical!) for landowners. Given my time in South Dakota, I hope this would also mean that I’m better with my identification of grasses!
I also plan on continuing some of my current research interests in closely related (and taxonomically challenging) groups of plants (e.g. the genus Castilleja, the “paintbrushes”). There is still much we don’t understand about the process of speciation in plants, and how we should describe where one species begins and another ends. In part, this is due to limitations in available analytical tools, and also a lack of well-studied plant groups at this level of detail. I hope my work contributes to this topic on both fronts.
Teaching and mentoring are also very important to me. In ten years, I would love to see the successful career paths of my students!
Is there any scientific topic (outside of your field of research) that you think should have more scientific attention? Which one?
Absolutely. I think that scientists need to become better advocates for the importance of our work—both when dealing with the general public and also with legislators. The future of our research funding depends on this. We live in a time where there is a bit of a public disconnect on topics such as climate change, biodiversity, and evolution, and it is up to scientists to help bridge that gap.
Do you come from an academic family?
Not particularly. My father dropped out of high school to start working, and my mom got her GED (equivalent of high school diploma) later in life. In spite of this, both of them were lifelong learners and instilled the value of education in their 7 children. Most of us went to college, but I’m the first to pursue a Ph.D. in my family.
My early interests in biology actually came from walks in the woods with my brothers. I think wild strawberry and wintergreen were among the first plants I learned to identify because of this.
How does your family regard your career choice?
They have been supportive, although I sometimes think our priorities in life are a little out of order. My life hasn’t followed the textbook recipe for success (i.e. go to college, get married, buy a house, start a family, etc.). I’ve focused on my education and career first, and have yet to start a family.
During your career, have you been specifically mentored or supported by someone?
Early on, I didn’t have any immediate female scientist role models, so I obtained some inspiration through television and movies. I especially liked Agent Dana Scully from the X-Files and Dr. Ellie Arroway in Contact (played by Jodi Foster), because they were strong, capable, and highly intelligent women.
I’ve been fortunate to have had some wonderful teachers throughout the years, and am particularly grateful to those who told me that I should pursue a career in the sciences and tipped me off about scholarships and fellowships. Throughout graduate school, my co-advisor, Dr. Pamela Soltis, and my committee member, Dr. Nico Cellinese, were important sources of support and inspiration. Both of them are scientists at the top of their game, all while balancing family and social life with grace and professionalism. My postdoctoral advisor, Dr. David Tank, has also been tireless in his support. I especially appreciate his approach to mentoring and teaching, and can only hope to follow his example as I start my own lab.
What is the funniest or most memorable thing that has happened to you while working in science?
Our research team was almost stranded at a field site in Haiti because of heavy rain. We decided to hike out with our equipment but had to cross three big rivers on foot. On the last river, the largest, I had to be carried on the shoulders of a local villager. We almost lost the 100lb equipment trunk in the strong current. Long story short, we arrived at the airport sopping wet and narrowly made our flight.
Is it hard to manage both career and private life? How do you manage both?
I think academia has a notorious reputation for a skewed work-life balance. I chose this career path because I genuinely love the intellectual stimulation, freedom, and creativity, but I can think of scientists who have sacrificed personal relationships and/or mental health for the sake of research productivity. It doesn’t have to be that way. I’m protective of my private life. I make time for my personal relationships because they help sustain me. I also try to make time for exercise, eating healthfully, and a decent amount of sleep. Taking real vacations is important, too! Life is too short not to enjoy it fully.
What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome as a woman in science? Did you ever have the impression that it would be easier/harder if you were male?
I think major obstacles would be my own lack of confidence, but also the lack of female scientist role models early in high school. I was raised to be stereotypically “female” in that I shouldn’t interrupt others when speaking, I shouldn’t raise my voice, I shouldn’t come across as bossy or aggressive, think before you speak, etc. Not that these are bad qualities, but I think it’s prevented me from being vocal about my opinions or expertise. Throughout my career, I’ve had to shed some of these inhibitions.
Unfortunately, our society places an unfair burden on women to look a certain way (or not) in order to be taken seriously—“does this person look intelligent and capable?” I’m under the impression that there are likely different standards for men and women, but it’s gotten to the point where it is more subtle and insidious. I can certainly think of times when I suspected that I’d been underestimated because of my gender or appearance.
If you had the option to give advice to a younger version of yourself, what would that be?
Advice to my younger self, but also my current self: Be more confident. Taking chances (including submitting papers…) requires giving up perfectionism and fear of failure.
You can contact Maribeth at maribethlatvis(at)gmail(dot)com, or follow her on Twitter!