KRISTI MOORE: This is Kristi Moore from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. Each month, we look behind the science to see the world from our scientists point of view and because March is Women’s History Month, we wanted to hear from our female graduate students about their experiences pursuing a career in science. See, the women seeking careers in science today are on the cusp of change. The generations before them didn’t have some of the opportunities considered normal today. They were told they didn’t belong in the lab or were barred from some scientific studies. The generations behind this one are growing up in classrooms that are embracing the value of science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM learning, and creating programs and lesson plans that introduce those subjects early. This generation gets the benefit of a hard path carved before them, but one that’s not completely paved. Some of our female graduate students at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science were still hearing what they couldn’t do and where they should be instead. They heard things like you can’t excel in a science career and have a family, and even then they have seen women succeed only so much in a career still largely dominated by men.
Nevertheless, they’re persisting. They find strength in the women before them and are motivated to inspire those rising up behind them. We asked some of these graduate students at UMCES’ Chesapeake Biological Laboratory to weigh in on the rise of STEM learning, share their experiences and thoughts on representation and diversity in the lab, and offer advice for the generations to follow. Here are their stories.
MELANIE JACKSON: I’m Melanie Jackson and I went into science just after hearing stories from my grandpa about snorkeling in the Cayman Islands and hearing how amazing reefs look and going to the beach in the summer.
EMILY RUSS: Hi, I’m Emily Russ and I went into science because I wanted to be a storm chaser when I was little.
HANNAH MORRISSETTE: I’m Hannah Morrissette and I went into science because my mother is also a scientist, so she started us pretty early in life
MAUREEN BROOKS: Hi, I’m Maureen Brooks and I went into science because I grew up with just a love of the natural world and did a lot of outdoor activities and things when I was little and just fell in love.
PINKY LIAU: Hi, my name is Pinky Liau. I went into science because when I was little, I was just fascinated with the natural world, with the environment. I wanted to know how trees grow and everything like that so I wanted to do more research on science in general.
JACQUELINE TAY: I’m Jacqueline Tay and I went into science because I loved animals, not just dogs and cats, but I would go out and catch salamanders and lizards and collect bones from them and put them back together. Then that was really fostered in high school when I took AP Biology; that was an awesome class.
SAM GLEICH: I’m Sam Gleich and I pursued science mostly because I over time starting seeing it less of a memorization of facts and began to see it more as a creative process that allowed me to express my creativity and also help the world by applying science to different policy and conservation initiatives.
CHRISTINE KNAUSS: I’m Christine Knauss and I pursued science because I was good at it [laughs] and I liked it and in the beginning, math and science came easily to me and I didn’t have to work as hard as English or learning French and so it just was natural.
KATIE HORNICK: Hi, I’m Katie Hornick. Why I pursed science is because I feel it’s a source of truth in the world and it helps us understand the world around us. Particularly environmental science became something I wanted to pursue just learning the way humans were altering the environment and to understand how and why we can do potentially.
MOORE: So there’s been a lot of emphasis in recent years on STEM learning, in particular getting girls interested in STEM or science courses. So I just wanted to get an idea if you felt there was an emphasis on science or if you wished there was more of one, and what you think of the fact that there has been such a big focus on it in recent years.
KNAUSS: I think it’s great. I love how Lego and there’s another women’s-run toy company and they build engineering toys specifically for girls to try and get them interested when they’re really young. I think that’s when the stereotypes begin is when kids are so young and so to try and break that mold.
BROOKS: When I was in school, there was a bit less of an emphasis on it. When I was in middle school for example I was in the advanced science class and I was the only girl. I think seeing in more recent years that emphasis changing into increase inclusivity has been really heartening to me because I stayed in that environment because I really wanted to be there, but I could see how someone who might be just as enthusiastic but more easily swayed by peer pressure or intimidation or was just more shy would have a hard time with that.
JACKSON: I always thought science seemed very serious and it seemed very strict and you had to memorize a lot of things and it wasn’t until I had this chemistry teacher in high school that was just so excited about science and showed us that we could be creative with it and passionate with it that I realized it was something I wanted to really pursue.
LIAU: It wasn’t until college when I was part of a women’s society in sciences that I realized girls were underrepresented in science fields, so I think this push to bring this attention to younger girls is a really great movement. When I was in college, our club, we brought fourth-graders in. We taught them about photosynthesis, different energy, stuff like that. It really got them interested and us as women in science, we set this picture and example for the girls to see it is possible for them to pursue this as a career.
MOORE: Why do you think women have been underrepresented in science or STEM fields or have you ever felt underrepresented?
RUSS: I don’t really feel like I’ve ever been underrepresented. Personally, I’ve always felt like I’ve been on an equal playing field with most people that I’ve been around in classes, and didn’t feel limited by intelligence or ability. But I do think I was in a field, a more geology field. I feel that has tended to be more male-dominated, but I think there’s a shift and I think just realizing there aren’t these limits is a really important part of getting women involved. It’s understanding your character, which is really important here to get people involved.
BROOKS: Historically, there’s been a systemic bias against women in all kinds of professional careers and then that’s trickled through in science as well and the problem that we have now is even as we go through these efforts to increase that representation we also don’t have as many role models in those senior positions and I think that in part is a limiting factor now. So for me personally I knew I wanted this career and I’ve been pursuing it and I don’t feel I’ve been actively limited, but I’ve been to meetings, in the computer science field, for example, where the representation of women there was much more limited than in environmental science where there’s a bit more parity.
TAY: I agree with Emily in that I’ve never felt personally inhibited by being a woman and I feel very fortunate in that respect. I actually went to a woman’s college and like about or over 50 percent of the faculty are women. In that environment, we had really good role models and they really pushed us and encouraged us to do things we maybe didn’t think we could have done. But to build on what Maureen said, I was shocked; I went on a cruise with Bill Boicourt, who just retired from Horn Point last year, and on the cruise, he said when he was in grad school, which was maybe one or two generations above us, women were not allowed on cruises at all. So just to have that historical perspective of the women that came a generation or two before us didn’t have those opportunities at all was interesting to me and gave me a lot of perspective of how fortunate we are now, but yet how much work is left to go probably.
MORRISSETTE: Just to build off of that, I think women just got a slower start from the beginning and it’s taken us enough time to ramp up to where we need to be, but I think now is the time to be a woman in science and a woman in many fields that were previously underrepresented because we’ve got this momentum that’s going on right now.
MOORE: So I know at least some of you have female advisers, does that make it easier? Like some of them when they came through grad school didn’t have as many female role models in the field. Does having that change things for you guys?
JACKSON: My master’s adviser, Pat Glibert, she’s not only to me but reached out to other students that I heard and telling them if you want to have a child, you can have a child, and go into academia and you can do things like get married and it’s not going to hold you back. I think she’s one of the great role models we have here at Horn Point. I think we have a lot of strong female scientists here at Horn Point that are good role models like that.
BROOKS: I’ll chime in to say like I have a woman adviser, Victoria Coles, and she’s amazing. I don’t know whether or not it makes anything easier, in particular, but it certainly is really helpful to me to have that touchstone and that bit in common of seeing how she responds to being in physical oceanography, which is more male-dominated than most of the environmental sciences. It’s useful for me to see how she responds to that world, how she builds support structures for herself and how she reaches out to others through mentoring. That inspires me to try to do that as well, to seek out good mentoring when I need it and to pay that forward to others.
RUSS: I, too, have a female adviser, Cindy Palinkas, and I would say she’s an excellent role model and just someone in her field. I think what I’ve been impressed with her is she really holds her own in a room that oftentimes are mostly male. She’s pointed it out before, too – there’s only three women in this room – and I wouldn’t say that has ever been something that limits her in her ability to be heard and her ability to do good science and I think that’s an important thing to see.
LIAU: I also have a female adviser, too, with Sairah Malkin. Building off what Maureen said, I don’t think having a female adviser makes it easier, but I think in my personal experience I do feel more comfortable with a female adviser. I feel I have a more open relationship with her, as opposed to me picturing myself with a male adviser. I don’t know that I would be as open with him.
MOORE: I mean we’re talking about whether or not and when women are underrepresented and that the balancing is building. Why does diversity matter in science?
MORRISSETTE: I think diversity matters in science and all fields for fresh ideas. People think differently and if you get into a rut of thinking one way and doing experiments the same way and this is how it’s always been done, so this is how I’ll do it. You bring diversity to the board, you bring people with different mindsets, different experience, different ways of going about things that have already been done and it brings a different way of thinking about science and different fields that we’ve never explored. I think that without it, you lose the creativity aspect.
BROOKS: I think another aspect of it, not just strengthening the science, but from strengthening us as society from a social justice aspect, if you increase diversity in science and other fields that have a potentially high level of prestige or respect associated with them and the salary and self-pride and all the things that go along with that, you’re not just increasing the diversities of opinions and scientific ideas that we have, but you’re also helping to lift up communities and people of various kinds that have been underrepresented and haven’t had those opportunities in the past.
LIAU: Yeah, I definitely agree with that. I wasn’t born in America. I was born in a different country, so I always that think it’s important to interact and talk to people of other backgrounds, different cultures because you never know what you’ll learn about them. Even me personally, I have different thought processes as some of my friends here just because I have a different background as some people. That leads to you having a more open mind and you’re more accepting of other cultures, other opinions and that can lead to friendly debates about science and any issues as well.
TAY: I just wanted to make a comment on the flipside of what Hannah said. Yeah, you have all this diversity in answering the problems, but also, by increasing diversity, you’re also increasing the types of problems that are even brought up to answer. If only one group of people is driving the question making, then only certain types of questions will get answered.
KNAUSS: I think science is all about creativity and being smart about your creativity, how you approach a problem. Some methods you just can’t do in your lab and so you have to figure out how to be able to do some of the things you need to do. By having a diverse lab, or just diversity in science, it means that people are creative differently and they think differently and they can solve problems in different ways. I think that makes gaining knowledge and doing experiments a lot stronger than it would be if it was less diverse.
HORNICK: And I think adding to that, it adds a diversity of perspectives to these certain problems, especially when it relates to science that could potentially relate to policy. It just adds a diversity of perspectives and it adds kind of a diversity of the face of science. Everyone can be a scientist. It’s not just that guy that doesn’t talk to people that’s in a lab coat all day pipetting or something.
GLEICH: Diversity in science helps the whole process of science, like Katie just said, but I think a diverse environment helps individuals like myself and any other scientists working in a lab grow. I think we can’t help but be conditioned to what we’re used to, our world view, everything, the way we see our world and the way we go about our day has sort of been conditioned by how we were raised and who we were raised by and all the different challenges we’ve faced and had to overcome, but being in a diverse environment and being exposed to other people’s struggles and how other people view the world and how they were raised, that could give you another perspective on life and make you as a scientist more well-rounded, more creative, more empathetic and able to relate to other people, which is a huge thing in the environmental sciences when we’re trying to work with one another in order to sort of rise up and come up with the right solution to the problem.
MOORE: A couple of you had mentioned seeing a little bit of a shift. For the past four years at least, UMCES has had more female graduate students than male graduate students. I kind of wanted to get your thoughts on that. If you think that’s an anomaly or if that’s what the future should look like, or what would you like to see the future look like?
MORRISSETTE: This field does have a lot of female representation, I believe. My sister is an engineer. She went to an engineering school that was more than 80 percent men, so different fields have different representations across the board. I wouldn’t say that having more female students is how everywhere should be. I think anyone who wants to do anything should attend wherever they want to go and be part of something just because that’s what they’re interested in and they think they can make a difference in this field or that’s the opportunity they believe is right for them. Representation means non-exclusion.
RUSS: I agree with Hannah. This field in general should be about inclusivity, as many fields should be that way. I think that’s a good direction should go—sort of building off the other question, why is diversity important – because you want to get new ideas, new questions, you want to have new answers, you want to have places that don’t have resources have access to resources and networks that allow them to lift up their communities in positive ways. I think if someone has that mindset, no matter what they are, how they identify, I think that’s just important to advance the field.
HORNICK: I definitely think in my field, which is fisheries and genetics, the older generations are male-dominated, but I notice that it’s changing, that there are more females now than there were before. But I definitely notice in the older generations it’s male dominated, but I do think it’s changing. You can see it at a conference in the sessions with younger women giving talks. Kind of the next generation of scientists, so that’s exciting.
KNAUSS: I agree. People told me when you go into science or when I first started undergrad, it’s all male-dominated, you know, you’re just going to be the minority being a woman in science. I did chemistry and biology in undergrad and I got to both of them and they were more than 50 percent women in all of my classes, so I found that interesting and I think, like Katie said, that’s the new generation that’s going to be coming into science. There’s more going to be more females than there have been.
MOORE: Was it at all intimidating to go into your field having heard you might be in the minority?
HORNICK: I think it’s more exciting than intimidating, if anything. It definitely puts pressure on you, I feel, because you want to represent your gender well, but I think it’s exciting.
GLEICH: I agree. I think like even growing up my mom was sort of the one who instilled it in me you don’t need to be nervous, like you can do anything you put your mind to, it doesn’t matter if you’re male, female, what have you.
JACKSON: I don’t think UMCES is on its own in that environmental sciences there are a lot of female graduate students. I just went to Ocean Sciences and there were tons of female scientists there. I do think, though, that we still could do a lot of work in terms of retaining graduate students even at higher levels into post docs. I think there has been some work that there haven’t been as many female post docs or new faculty that are females. So I think there still is more work we can do to increase retention.
MOORE: Let me piggyback off of that one – anyone can answer, how do we increase retention or what needs to happen or keep happening to urge a more balanced field?
BROOKS: So I think one major thing that potentially needs to be rethought is the tenure process, just in terms of making it and the timetable of it potentially more flexible because traditionally men, even if they had families, had a spouse that was caring for their children and they completed their tenure track on a fairly specific timetable. And women, that time period also generally corresponds to when they might be choosing to have children or they might have small children and the ability to complete that tenure process is a bit more challenging. Obviously women have done it and continue to do it, but I think that’s a bit daunting if you are looking for a post doc or are in a post doc and you’re thinking what you’re going to be doing with the next 10 years of your life. Making that decision whether you want to go through that process or not and also have a family, I think, is tricky. If we can make it a bit more accessible while still maintaining the scientific rigor of it, I think that would be a big benefit.
TAY: So I’m working remotely abroad in Switzerland right now and I noticed first I went to a computer science meeting and an R meeting in Belgium and they had child care available for the whole conference, which was striking to me. I don’t know about the US conferences, but I don’t think that they have childcare at all days of the meeting. So just piggybacking off what Maureen said, a little more attention to mothers and fathers who have to balance life and work.
RUSS: I think we need to identify what barriers are preventing women or any group of individuals who are underrepresented in this field. I think for women an obvious one is whether they’re going to have children or how they’re going to take care of them, but it can also be something like there could be a monetary thing, there could be older family members you feel responsible for caring for and I think it’s important to somehow establish a support system that makes you feel comfortable with pursuing your education or whatever your goal is, and also feeling your other responsibilities are taken care of and not just put on the backburner.
MOORE: How has being on this path, the scientific path in general, shaped who you are or changed the way that you see the world?
JACKSON: If I’m going out with people and I see trash on the sidewalk or runoff, my heart will drop a little bit and then I think about innovative ways that we can try and fix those environmental problems. So it’s almost ruined certain situations for me because I’m constantly worrying, but it gives you another perspective.
MORRISSETTE: I would say having a scientific background makes me and probably most a little more curious. So you may see runoff or plastic and now you know from your background why things are bad. Also when you see new and exciting things, ‘Why is this happening?’ and you ask questions. Most people may just see it happen and, ‘Oh it’s cool.” But we want to know the reason behind things. We want to explain things, and I think having that curiosity really drives what scientists do.
BROOKS: Sort of to flip it around a little bit because in some sense I’m not sure whether me being a scientist has instilled these things in me or whether really it’s just my underlying personality and self that has these traits that manifests in me becoming a scientist, but there’s definitely that curiosity and also that process of going through the scientific training has helped give me some confidence and to know that if there is a question that I have, I can answer it, or I can start thinking about how I would answer it and how I can start moving forward on it. So it’s not just having that curiosity, but it’s having a toolkit in your back pocket so you can answer those questions that you have.
RUSS: I think sort of to go off of what Maureen said, when I started here, I did not feel terribly confident in my ability to do some of the really intense scientific research and to call it my own. I think one thing I’ve embraced while I’ve been here is it’s ok to make mistakes. It’s ok not to get the answer you’re expecting. It’s ok to prove that hypothesis wrong. That probably happens more often than getting it right, so I think it’s let me realize not understanding things is ok because that’s the whole journey—trying to understand it better to help other people.
LIAU: For me, I think science has taught me how to persevere more. It’s like if can get through these thousands of runs in this experiment, then I can get through anything in life—that kind of mindset.
MOORE: What advice would you have for young girls pursuing science?
TAY: Try a lot of things and don’t be afraid to fail. I think that’s what science is all about.
RUSS: Find your interest and find the science in it because science is everywhere. It’s a process. So if you like art, there is a way to blend those two things and just being open to those two things is how you start to appreciate. For me, I got into coding because I didn’t like things taking forever, so just looking for ways to make your life easier, or make your life more enriched. So be willing to pair it with something that you really find fascinating and just think about the process.
BROOKS: Find something that you love and follow it wherever it takes you. Think about all the questions you can think of and when you answer those, think about what new questions you have and keep following them. If you love the natural world, explore it and go spend time in it. If you love puzzles, think about learning computer programming because it’s a lot of solving puzzles, but find the things that you like and the things that you love and just keep questioning them and spending time with them.
JACKSON: Don’t get discouraged, especially right now with social media, we share our successes and positive things and there aren’t many of us that share the failures or the experiment that didn’t work or the experiment that worked and then you lost all the data. We all experience things that set us back and everything will end up being alright.
LIAU: I’m still trying to tell myself this, too, but don’t compare yourself to other people. Like what Melanie said of social media, you’re only seeing the good things of people’s lives, but don’t compare your failures to other people’s successes and if somebody tells you that you can’t do something, don’t take that too personally and too seriously because if you want to do something and if you want to pursue something, who are they to tell you you can’t do it and that you can’t succeed?
KNAUSS: If you love something, related to science or anything, you should pursue it. It’s so much easier to do work, especially science work when you have to have long days and long hours and if you hate it, it’s so hard to do it, but if you really like what you’re doing, it’s fun.
HORNICK: Science is more than memorizing facts. Part of the outreach for one of the fellowships I got is kind of showing how science is fun to seventh-graders in a class and showing how it is this complex process, but that it also has different facets to it and it also addresses real-world issues that are in your backyard. So that’s the coolest, that’s so cool, to me that is, so you know, realize it’s more than numbers and jargon and memorizing things.
GLEICH: Something that really helped me grow in my science career was having a really strong role model and mentor in the sciences. My parents, neither of them are scientists, and they’re incredible, and always push me to do my best and follow what I’m passionate about, but it’s really helpful to have somebody sort of understand struggles that you might be going through or sort of understanding the way you think and the way you’re perceiving your career and perhaps what the next step is for you to take. I know probably my biggest role model that I’ve had was probably my undergraduate research adviser who really helped me understand things about science and about myself and what types of careers would be good for me to pursue in my future endeavors. So I think if you’re lucky enough to meet someone who you find as a strong woman role model in science or even if it’s a man, somebody you can look up to and ask questions to is really beneficial I think.
MORRISSETTE: Young girls, in general, should know that they should ask questions. They should always strive to better themselves and I think they shouldn’t be afraid to reach out to someone who can answer those questions or someone in a field that piques their interest and really get to know all the options that they really have because these girls coming into these fields and growing up now really have a lot of options in front of them and a lot of opportunities and I think that they need to know they can really go after anything they want.
MOORE: Thanks to Melanie, Emily, Hannah, Maureen, Pinky, Jacqueline, Katie, Christine and Sam for joining us on this podcast and sharing your stories. If you want to hear more stories like this, be sure to visit umces.edu/listen.