From Doubting to Doing

Alright, I was just thinking to start off, what’s your favorite fossil?

Ooh, great question. So I think that my favorite fossil that I’ve ever seen was in a museum collection in California. I opened a drawer and they had an opalized clam. So it was a clam that had been recrystallized, you know, it was completely made out of opal.

That sounds really cool.

And today I think it’s the prettiest and coolest fossil I’ve ever seen.

Wow, so what made you want to go into paleontology?

If you had told me in high school in college that I was going to become a scientist, I would’ve laughed at you. I hated science all through, kind of, middle and high school. I had gone to a math and science magnet school to escape my local school, which had huge issues with gang violence and all sorts of problems. And as part of this math and science magnet school you were required to do a hands-on science project before you graduated. And so, I was really passionate about history and I chose a topic that was as close to history I could get, which was paleontology. And I was researching topics and I stumbled across an article in Discover magazine about pterodactyls and whether they could take off from the ground. And I was like, this is kinda cool. It’s almost history but not quite. It’s almost science but not quite. And so I ended up studying that for my class project, but it basically snowballed from there and I ended up winning a science fair based on it, I went and did an internship with the Smithsonian for a summer, and I gave a talk at a conference my senior year of high school all on the project. And what I discovered is that I really loved research in science. I didn’t like the coursework in science, because I didn’t like the memorization; I felt like it was really recipe book. I felt it was not very exciting. But I really liked the research. And the research was so much more creative, and so much more social than I thought it was gonna be.

That science was so much more creative and so much more social than I expected it to be, and it was so much more fun than what I was doing in the classroom that I got hooked. And I kinda limped my way through all the required courses in college and grad school to become a paleontologist. But I was not one of those kids that was super passionate about dinosaurs when I was a kid.

Yeah, that’s really cool. I think I kind of feel the same way sometimes: that I enjoy the actual research that I’m doing than the times I have to sit in class. I mean obviously, in the Geology department we’re lucky ‘cause all the faculty is pretty great, but still.

Well we try to teach the way we do research. So we try to teach the process of research science, rather than, sort of, the pattern. I feel like SOLs and so much of the stuff you do in middle and high school is really just all about memorizing and spitting it out again, and that’s not what science is, even remotely. And so, in geology we try to teach the discovery side and the sort of process side of science.

Yeah I think it’s easier with geology sometimes because you can actually go out and drive like for two hours and go to the Blue Ridge Mountains and actually see the stuff that you’re talking about in class.

You can do it chemistry, you can do it in biology, you can do that in physics…I think you can do that in all the sciences. And you know, I think a lot of the professors here do, but these standard, traditional way we’re taught science-—super boring.

So what’s your experience been like being a woman in science?

That’s a long conversation. So I’m in a field I should say, first of all, that has historically been very homogeneous. Almost all white men. And it’s still almost probably about thirty percent female? 70 percent male. And we still don’t have decent racial or ethnic representation at all. You know, it’s been an uphill battle.

I think starting in high school I can remember I was tracked into the slow track in science, and when I asked why the teacher said, “Well you know, you’re a girl. You’re not going into science, why do you care?” And sort of every step of the way there was, you know, I was always the only woman in the class, I was always the only woman in the lab, I was the only woman on the field trips. And it, you know, after a while it’s pretty exhausting.

I did face—not going to talk about it today—but I faced a number of biases both professionally, but also sexual harassment, sexual assault, that sort of thing, in the field. So I dealt with this at almost every institution I went to. Yup, every institution I went to. But at William & Mary, in general, I’ve actually had a really positive experience. And in our department where we have had historically had a lot of women, I’ve had a really positive experience.

That’s good. So, I was going to ask a question and then I forgot. [laughing] I guess, what made you decide that you wanted to come to a college and be a professor and research rather thanI mean, I don’t know what it’s like for paleontology, but I know for planetary science there’s ways to just be a straight researcher.

Yeah, so I’ve always been passionate about education. After I had that science research experience in high school, when I started college I was really excited about trying to bring that same experience to other kids. So when I was a freshman in college, I started an organization called SMART— the Science and Math Achiever Teams—where volunteers at my university would go out into the local neighborhood and we’d work with inner city middle school kids on science projects. And so, it was fifth through eighth graders at the local middle school. And they could choose whatever project they wanted to do for the semester. By the time I graduated, we had, I think, 300 volunteers and 300 kids that we were working with. And when I went away to grad school, I started it at my grad school as well, and I started it at three or four other campuses. And I really enjoyed working with the kids. I loved working with the teachers, I loved working with their parents.

And so I knew I enjoyed education, and I was really sort of passionate about public outreach. When I got to grad school and started TAing, I loved to TA. I loved being in charge of the lab and helping students understand the bigger picture concepts from lecture. At my grad school I was only required to TA twice, and so I very quietly volunteered for free and TA’d several times to get more experience.

Nice.

I also knew that I was passionate about museum education. So, I volunteered at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago for about three years before I graduated. Again, on the sly. In scientific research there’s a number of professionals who believe that all you should do is research, you should focus 100% on research. And that wasn’t my personal philosophy, but it was the philosophy of many of the people I worked with. And so I kind of kept pursuing my interest in education and public outreach, but I kept it on the down low.

And then when I was graduating, I was specifically looking at liberal arts colleges. I really like the mix of research and teaching. I feel like the teaching makes my research better. I feel like the research I do with students makes my teaching better. I love working with and mentoring William & Mary students. And I actually hadn’t intended to end up at William & Mary. I was graduating and I had my post-doc go to for two years of funding, and this job came up. And it was the first job I applied for, the first interview I got, and I got hired. So I got very, very lucky. There are only about four jobs nationwide in what I do, and I just got really, really lucky. But it’s been the perfect fit for me. Like as soon as the job ad went up, I knew that this was my perfect job. So, I was really lucky.

That’s really wonderful. Yeah, I mean, I think most students here, even people who aren’t in our department, would say you’re one of the nicest professors that they know, just because you always do seem to make that attempt to actually engage with students and really make sure they understand—and I mean, I’m saying this and I’ve never even taken one of your classes. But, this is because everyone who hears that I’m a geology major, they’re always like, hey, have you taken a class with Rowan? [laughing] Not yet!

But I guess, you know, I think it is kind of typical of our department to have more of that sort of personal relationship with your students, but in general, what motivates you to do that?

I love interacting with students. And I really, really love working with William & Mary students. I’ve worked with students at three or four different institutions, and William & Mary students are actually really special.

You know, again, I think I learn as much from them as they learn from me. And you know, all teachers get frustrated and burned out. But the truth of the matter is that there’s no way I would’ve been at William & Mary for 17 years if it weren’t for the William & Mary students. They really do make this place very special.

And, you know, I’m excited to come to work every day of the week. I’m excited to work with William & Mary students. So, I don’t know, I think William & Mary students are generally really open to learning. They’re enthusiastic. They tend not to show a lot of entitlement or to be very entitled. And I love the raw enthusiasm. There are a lot of students here that are very bright but don’t necessarily know that they’re very bright. And so it’s fun kind of working with them and working on self confidence and, you know, working on what they are capable of doing. Challenging them and seeing how far they can go.

Yeah, that’s really wonderful. I think especially for women sometimes, it’s easy to feel like they don’t belong in a science department and all of that. So it’s really wonderful all the work you and, I mean the department in general, does to make people feel more welcome here.

We really do view the geology department as a community. Our doors are always open to anyone who is even remotely interested. Or even not that interested in geology. We want to be an open and inclusive place. And I think many of us have studied in institutions that weren’t necessarily open an inclusive at times when geology wasn’t as open and inclusive. So it’s important to us to build that community, and just support each other and to have that welcoming atmosphere.

So, like, what would you say is one of your most interesting experiences or stories that you have from your time at William & Mary?

Ooh gosh. [laughing] There’s been so many. So favorite stories with William & Mary students. I mean I guess a lot of them are field based. And sort of silly things or, you know, issues that come up in the field.

There’s plenty of those. [laughing]

There are plenty of those. I guess one of my favorite memories is taking students to the Bahamas. I’ve taken students to the Bahamas for spring break now three times. Most recently on a COLL 300 class. And so there’s something really magical about being able to walk over a fossil coral reef that was deposited something like 125 thousand years ago, and then that afternoon go snorkeling over a live reef and see all those organisms living that you’ve just seen in the fossil record. And be swimming with sharks and barracuda, and giant-spotted eagle rays, and lionfish. That’s been kind of an amazing experience to be able to take students out. We go swimming in a cave—it’s a tidal cave—um, and we get to go swimming in a cave and get to see stalactites and stalagmites and bats and cave sponges and cave shrimp and all these different organisms. And so, that’s a pretty amazing trip.

I’ve also taken students down to Alabama, Mississippi, that area. We have run up against alligators. We’ve almost been washed away by barges. We’ve done some amazing fieldwork with ladders and ropes hanging from cliffs, while giant spiders are sort of over our heads. Yeah, I think my favorite stories from William & Mary are always going to be field-oriented stories.

We do do a behind-the-scenes trip to the Smithsonian every year, and I like that, too. We get to see a lot of random bits and pieces of the museum that other people don’t get to see.

That’s so cool.

There are brontosaurus leg bones lying all over the place and giant skulls of triceratops and, you know, massive pieces of mammoth fur from frozen Siberia. And we get to sort of see all those things behind the scenes and talk to the curators and hang out with them for a day. That’s always a good time, too.

Yeah, I mean I guess it makes sense, though. ‘Cause when you’re in the field, that’s when you get, I don’t know, it’s a more casual atmosphere and you get to actually, I don’t know, interact more than you would in a sterile classroom setting.

I think geology is a field in general. There’s a lot more interactions. Not just William & Mary; it happens at a lot of schools. But there’s a lot more interaction because you spend so much time in the field. But there’s also, you know, a lot of geological opportunities that exist in the lab, and museums, and that sort of thing. It’s not all field work. It’s not all camping. It’s a lot of, like a lot of lab work and museum work, too.

 

Yeah, I mean, I’m thinking of a field that has very little field work unless you want to be there.

Planetary geology. Well, you know, I fully expect you to be on the first mission to Mars. You know, human mission to Mars. I can see your name right there.

Would you go to Mars?

Oh, a hundred percent. Yeah, I just had this conversation actually with my husband the other day. Yeah, if I was offered the opportunity to go to Mars, a hundred percent.

What if it was a one-way mission?

I would wait till my daughter was grown, then I would go to Mars. [laughing]

Okay. [laughing]

Yeah, no, I’m assuming it would be pretty much a one-way mission.

Yeah, I mean, at least, like, yeah, for the next ten or twenty years, that’s all I could imagine it would be.

We’ll see. Give us time.

So if you knew someone who was kind of struggling with feeling like they don’t necessarily belong in the sciences, or just in general with seeing their own brilliance or self-worth or anything like that, what’s some advice that you would give them?

Yeah, so self confidence is a very interesting thing. So I personally struggled with it for years and years. All through high school, college, and grad school. It wasn’t really until I was teaching for a few years here at William & Mary that I actually started to feel confident. I actually started to feel like I could do this. I already had a job, but it wasn’t for several years after that, that I felt, oh my gosh, I might actually be capable of doing this.

It’s a very common feeling people have in science. And it’s especially common for people who are coming from underrepresented groups, whether it’s women or people of color. And I guess one thing I would say is I always had an internal monologue going—that I wasn’t smart enough, and that I wasn’t good enough, and that I couldn’t do this. And it didn’t really matter that other people were saying you are smart enough, you are good enough, you can do this. I wasn’t really listening to them, I was stuck in this internal monologue.

And I actually think that my grad school experience took longer because I spent so much time doubting myself. And I would look around and the other people in my program…there would be all of these people who would never, especially the men, never doubted that they were capable of it. They never spent one minute in self reflection, but I was always in this negative feedback loop of thinking I wasn’t good enough. And you end up wasting a lot of time. So, I guess my advice would be: until you develop your own sense of self and your own self confidence, listen to other people. So, listen to your parents who are telling you, you are good enough. Listen to your friends who are telling you that you’re smart enough. Listen to your professors who are telling you that you’re more than capable of doing it. And borrow that self esteem from them until you can build it yourself. Make sure you’re spending much more time every day doing science and much less time asking yourself whether you can do science.

I really do think this is an issue, especially for women in science. We do doubt ourselves so much more than the men do and it does slow us down. And the extent to which you can “fake it ‘till you make it”—and I’m using the little, like quote hand signals here—“fake it ‘till you make it” is really important in science. Sort of looking like you have self confidence and self esteem is more important in science than it is in a lot of other careers. And so, you know, borrow from your friends, family, and professors. Take that self confidence from them. You know, they wouldn’t tell you that you weren’t capable of it. They wouldn’t tell you that you weren’t capable of it if they didn’t mean that. So, take it and try to run with it, would be my advice.

That-that’s pretty good advice. [laughing] So, what, you know people talk about imposter syndrome and things like that a lot—

It’s one-hundred percent real.

But I’ve always wondered, I don’t know, sometimes for me personally it does feel more like the reason I feel that way is more because of my own thoughts rather than because there’s a system that’s like, you know, built against me. And you know, I’m not saying that the system is flawed in some ways, but I’m saying, I don’t know, I think that for most people if they did have more of a sense of self confidence or self worth, they would be more able to overcome those things.

In some ways it doesn’t really matter what’s causing it. You know, that effect is there and that effect is real. So, you know, the way to react to it is to try to build up the confidence of your friends and your peers when you see them struggling. You know, for professors, we try to build up self confidence of students when we see them struggling.

Yeah, imposter syndrome. I really feel like I dealt with it, and I feel like I still deal with it occasionally, but I felt like I dealt with it on a daily basis for years and years and I will never get that time back in my life. And I would’ve gone through so much less emotional turmoil if I had just simply let myself be and let myself do, rather than doubting the whole time.

Yeah.

I mean one thing I think you can do that’s very proactive it to seek out mentors and advocates. So, you know, a mentor is someone who can give you advice, help you sort of understand what career directions you want to go in. You know, help you deal with some of these big issues that are coming up in your junior year, senior year, and beyond. An advocate is someone who advocates on your behalf in a system around you, right? An advocate is someone who, for example, helps sell your senior research project or helps you get into grad school, helps sell you as a candidate for grad school. Helps sell you as a candidate for post doc, eventually.

A good mentor will be both a mentor and an advocate. But these generally are not people that you just bump into in your career. I’ve always had to seek them out. And some of the best mentors I’ve had—like Heather McDonald, who’s in my department—are people that I have sort of sought out, and they very kindly agree to do it. But it’s something you have to seek out. It’s not just something that happens to you. You have to explicitly search for it.

So don’t wait around, you know, for that mentor. It’s not like a fairy godmother. Don’t wait around for that mentor and that advocate. Actually go and seek them out, and then you are building your support system as you move through grad school, as you move through this possible field of science.

Yeah, I mean, especially because in my personal experience, it makes sense that sometimes you would need to search for that elsewhere because I’ve definitely had mentors before—well, research advisors before—who were not necessarily, like the best mentors. And um, if you already have a poor sense of self worth or something, then when the person who’s like in charge of you is also saying things like that, then it can be really difficult to still see your work as worth something.

Well and you also have to separate your work from your sense of self, right? You know I, all through high school, undergrad, and grad school, I got a lot of criticisms of my science. And those criticisms made me a better scientist. Criticisms about my writing, about my math, about my experimental design, my statistics. That’s what makes you a better scientist. But that’s not who you are, right? So, who you are is when your mentor says, “I think you’re really bright,” or, “I think you’re more than capable of doing this.” Or, you know, “I think you’re really great at blah-blah-blah.” Like those are the little gems that you take and you hide away for a rainy day. And you can’t take the constructive criticism personally. Because it’s not about you, it’s about improving you as a scientist.

And I do think you need to pick and choose your mentors and your advocates really carefully. If people are really thinking about going off to grad school, if they’re thinking about getting involved in a scientific career, who you spend your day-to-day time with in grad school—your fellow grad students, your grad school advisor—that’s hugely important. And every grad advisor has different strengths and weaknesses, different personalities, so you need to find the one that works with your personality. Does that make sense?

Yeah, that does. I think that well, I guess in general, if there’s anything else I haven’t covered yet that you would like to speak to, knowing that this is something that is for the hundred year anniversary of women, or anything like that.

Can I tell a story?

Sure!

So, I was talking to one of our alum—we have a pretty young department here at William & Mary. Geology is a little more than 50 years old. So we’re a pretty young department in an old university. And one of our alums was telling me that when she went in here in the 70s they still had house mothers. And when women left the residence halls every morning, the house mothers would measure the lengths of their skirts and make sure that they were ankle length so they could go out. In her example, on geology field trips, in their ankle length skirts, without being inappropriate. So they would leave their geology field trips in their ankle length skirts, and then the geology faculty would let them go to a gas station and change into jeans and hiking boots so they could go out in the field and do their geology. And I just think, that wasn’t that long ago. That was the early 70s where women at William & Mary were required to wear full length skirts to be able to go to class and to be able to go on field trips. And we have come such a long way now. We have women who are running these field trips. We don’t have the dress codes anymore. I think it’s fascinating to sort of think how far we have come.

And this is something a lot of people don’t know: William & Mary is ranked in the top ten undergrad programs in geology in the country in the recruitment and retention of women in our science. We’re actually the subject of a National Science Foundation study a few years ago why we had been so successful despite those full-length skirts. Why we’ve been so successful and and why we often have a female-dominated graduating class in geology. That’s very unusual in our field. And so, it’s just exciting. Exciting to be a woman geoscientist at William & Mary. It’s exciting to be here for the hundredth anniversary, to see that happening, to see all the alums coming back to celebrate.

That’s wonderful.

And geology’s going to do a special celebration. I know you know about it, but we’re going to do a special celebration where we invite all the alums back to celebrate at Homecoming. We’re going to do a day of talks from women geoscientists and people who identify as women geoscientists. And our alumni population…they’re going to talk about their science and their experience as women in science. We’re gonna have a lunch with current students. We’re going to have mentoring opportunities, and we’re going to have a big keynote address. So we’re super, super excited to celebrate with the college.

I’m excited, too. Alright, well thank you so much for your time. I learned a lot from that, too. I mean outside of this interview.

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