Women in oceanography: Q & A with the first female Co-chief Scientists in U.S. GEOTRACES history

Karen Casciotti of Stanford University in Palo Alto, CA and Phoebe Lam of the University of California, Santa Cruz head the management team of GP15 along with Greg Cutter of Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA.

Casciotti and Lam are the first female Co-chief Scientists in the history of the U.S. GEOTRACES program.

Alex Fox sat down with each of them to ask about their paths to leadership, the challenges they’ve faced along the way and what changes they’ve seen in the culture and composition of oceanography.

Karen Casciotti of Stanford University in Palo Alto, CA and Phoebe Lam of the University of California, Santa Cruz head the management team of GP15 along with Greg Cutter of Old Dominion University in Norfolk, CT.  Casciotti and Lam are the first female Co-chief Scientists in the history of the U.S. GEOTRACES program. Images: Alex Fox

How did you first get interested in science?

Karen Casciotti: I’ve been interested in science as long as I can remember. It reaches all the way back to elementary school. I’ve been lucky to have some great teachers.

Phoebe Lam: My father is a scientist and he would always explain things to me about how the world worked when we played and tossed the ball or whatever. He also used to take me to science museums and they made a big impression on me. They made science like playing. That’s always what science has been for me—fun.

karen fun sampling2
Casciotti takes a sample from the CTD rosette in the R/V Roger Revelle’s hangar. Image: Alex Fox

What drew you to oceanography?

KC: When I started college I wanted a major that helped me bring together my interests in all these different fields—chemistry, biology, physics and math. I went to school for environmental engineering and discovered oceanography along the way. Going to sea was what really got me hooked. I really enjoy the field work.

PL: It was a process of elimination. I didn’t grow up with the ocean. I went to MIT and I took all the basic science courses and liked it all. I was always a generalist. I liked lots of different things and I could never choose just one. Oceanography let me do everything at once. It requires physics and biology and chemistry and even some engineering to do it.  If you want to understand the ocean you need to be able to switch between thinking about it through the lenses of all these different disciplines.

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Lam gazes out to sea at the end of a day’s work in the field. Image: Alex Fox

Were you ever made to feel like it was abnormal that you were both female and interested in science?

KC: No. I was always encouraged to pursue science, I was pretty lucky that way.

PL: Not at all. It wasn’t until grad school that I felt like being a woman in science might be something non-standard.

But, broadly speaking, science and academia are still male social environments. Science is supposed to be logical, and you have to contend with this stereotype of the emotional woman and the logical man. The stereotype creates a bias against the idea of women doing this logical thing that is science. I don’t think that serves scientific advancement, and I feel strongly that women have a huge amount to bring to the table.

Who were your role models or people who made big impacts on you?

KC: Bess Ward was my Ph.D advisor, and she inspired me every step of the way. She was always asking amazing questions. She wasn’t a professor who just sat in her office. She was always in the lab doing research. She stayed current and always had her own experiments going. Her work ethic really stuck with me. She taught me to be more organized. Bess’ ethic of getting things done ahead of time is something I try to emulate.

Mary Lidstrom is also a big role model of mine. She is a microbiologist and was my undergraduate advisor at Cal Tech. I met with her often for academic advice and I still keep in touch with her. She was one of the rare female professors of her generation who also had kids.

PL: Penny Chisholm was my mentor as an undergraduate at MIT. She’s the reason I’m an oceanographer. She said, “Phoebe, you’re going to be a great generalist one day.” She encouraged me to synthesize all my diverse interests. She identified that as a strength.

One of my primary mentors during my time at UC Berkeley was Inez Fung. She also happens to be a Chinese woman. I don’t think a person has to look like you to set an example, but for me it was hugely important and powerful to see myself reflected in someone of her position. She demonstrated what being a smart, strong female scientist looked like.

At seminars and during discussions she always asked a lot of questions and expressed her curiosity without hesitation. It’s something I try to do now. You learn a lot more and it creates a different atmosphere—one that focuses on learning. Creating an atmosphere where people aren’t afraid to speak up is a huge part of what makes a place welcoming to women.

KC Pipette gold
Casciotti prepares samples in one of the ship’s laboratories. Image: Alex Fox

Are there more women in oceanography now than when you first entered the field?

KC: I’ve noticed that the number of women in the room at ocean sciences meetings has increased dramatically since I first started going.

Biological oceanography seems to have more women. Chemical oceanography tends to be more male dominated, but lately that’s where I’ve noticed the biggest changes. Women are fairly well represented at the grad level in trace element biogeochemistry, and that is starting to trickle up to the faculty level. There have been a lot of amazing women chemical oceanographers coming up through the GEOTRACES program. These women are early career professors now and they came up as grad students doing expeditions like this one.

PL: When I applied to grad school in the 1990’s I applied to chemical and biological oceanography programs. Biological oceanography was more female both in terms of grad students and faculty than chemical oceanography. By the time I was on my first tenure track position at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, 30 percent of the scientists in marine chemistry were women, which is pretty good. Most were pre-tenure when I was there, but many have tenure now.

Phoebe queen of pumps
Lam manages her team and the pumps sampling system on deck. Image: Alex Fox

What about women in leadership positions like the one you’re in on this expedition? Has the increased female participation in oceanography translated to more female principal investigator’s and chief scientists?

KC: I think we’re getting there. I think that my generation is on the leading edge of having better female representation. For example, Phoebe and I are the first female chief scientists on a U.S. GEOTRACES cruise.

Last year, I was the sixth female chair in the 50-year history of the Gordon Research Conference in Chemical Oceanography—a major conference in our field. I went to a meeting of all the past chairs and there was one other woman in the room. But now that I’ve chaired that conference, I have a voice in the room. I find myself in that position a lot—one of very few women in a room. But those are opportunities to change things.

PL: It’s slowly changing, especially now that the female oceanographers of my generation are advancing in their careers and taking on leadership positions.

What boundaries do you think exist between women with an interest in science or oceanography and becoming leaders or occupying positions of power within their fields?

KC: Research programs with long expeditions are difficult for scientists trying to start or maintain families. That’s something that impacts all genders. To make a name for yourself early in your career you have to show up and if you have a young family it’s hard to be away. I haven’t traveled as much as other people in my position. I hadn’t been on a cruise in ten years before GP15, and I only go to one or two meetings a year. That’s how I’ve decided to manage it, but it’s definitely a hurdle.

PL: The bottleneck where women are lost comes after grad school. It’s going from post-doc, to academic position and then to getting tenure.

That bottleneck coincides with child bearing age. The best time to be making babies biologically is the time when you need to ramp up your career and do nothing but work. It’s also the time of the most uncertainty in academia. Until you get a tenure track job you’re in a constant state of insecurity. That’s a tough place for anyone, but if you’re trying to have a kid it can seem impossible.

But it can also be a matter of culture, and that varies department by department. Some places have bad reputations among the female academics I know. Friends of mine have turned down job offers because of that. It’s hard to be the first or the second female in a department. I’ve been lucky enough to be in places after that’s happened. If you’re trailblazing and changing the culture and trying to find job security at the same time, that’s hard.

mgmt team
The GEOTRACES GP15 management team eyes a live data feed in the ship’s computer lab. The decision of which depths to sample was one Casciotti, Lam and Cutter needed to make at each station of our expedition. Image: Alex Fox

What keeps you going when things get hard?

KC: I take pride in finishing things and making progress. I don’t have a lot of ego about what I do. I just love to talk science and brainstorm and ask questions—coming up with ideas and problem solving keeps me going. I take on more things than I should sometimes, but I like helping other people. It sounds weird but I thrive on working hard. I like being busy and having a purpose.

PL: The moments of eureka keep me going. There are a lot of long slogs in between those moments of eureka, but they are pretty awesome. I wanted a career that would give me the space and the time to continue to have them. I like this job. You have to work really hard and you never get any time off, but it lets me do what I love. What else would I do that would give me the chance to do all of these things? It’s a blessed career for me.

karen hangar
Casciotti maintains a positive attitude even during long work days at sea. Image: Alex Fox

What’s your style as a mentor?

KC: I try to motivate people with positive reinforcement, I find it’s usually more effective. I always start from a position of respect for people I’m interacting with and being open to their ideas and thoughts on things. I do that whether I’m co-managing an expedition like GP15 or advising a student. I try to look for the positives in situations and try to do what I can to bring out the best in people.

PL: I try to encourage students to ask questions and develop their curiosity. My mentor Inez always had us practice our talks and then would rip them apart, but it wasn’t personal it was in the service of improving. So, I want my students to feel like they’re in an environment where criticism can be received with an open mind. It’s not about you or I being right or wrong—criticism is an opportunity for growth.

slug fam1
Lam and her UCSC graduate students Vinicius Amaral and Yang Xiang on the stern of the R/V Roger Revelle. Image: Alex Fox

What hopes do you have for the future in terms of the culture in science and oceanography?

KC: I hope that diversity in ocean science, and chemical oceanography in particular, continues to grow. I think we have a long way to go in terms of achieving more equal representation with gender and racial or ethnic diversity.

PL: I believe in the power of diversity. There isn’t just one way to do things. By having a greater diversity of people you tap into different ways of thinking that could allow us to make new connections or think about data differently.

Do you have any advice to budding oceanographers who have trouble seeing themselves in the field?

KC: Keep at it. There is room for everyone in science. Just because something hasn’t been done before doesn’t mean you can’t do it. Also, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to talk to the leaders in your field and reach out to them at a conference or a talk. They’re people too and they were once in your position.

If you’re thinking of becoming a research scientist and starting a family, I would say there is never a bad time but there’s also never a good time. There will always be struggles balancing family and work, especially in oceanography. Don’t bank on the next stage being easier, because it probably won’t be.

I didn’t have many examples of other women in oceanography who had children. But I wanted to have a family and I wasn’t going to let my job interfere with that. I didn’t know for sure if I could do it, but it was important to me, so I went for it.

ctd last cast K and Coco happy
Casciotti and her graduate student, Colette Kelly, at sunrise after collecting samples of seawater for their research on nitrogen in the ocean. Image: Alex Fox

PL: If you don’t see yourself in the field it likely means you’d have to be a trailblazer, and that can be hard. But it also means you have something special to contribute and that you’d be forging a path for everyone who came after you.

GP15 blog posts written by Alex Fox unless otherwise stated.

Follow GEOTRACES GP15 on WordPress.com



GEOTRACES GP15 is supported by the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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