Women in oceanography: Q & A with two early career female GEOTRACES researchers

(Recommended background: Q & A with the first female Co-chief Scientists in U.S. GEOTRACES history)

Colette Kelly and Jennifer Kenyon are PhD students who collected samples for their research on GP15. Their perspectives offer insights into the lived experience of two female oceanographers at the start of their careers.

Kelly is a second year PhD student under GP15 Co-chief Scientist Karen Casciotti at Stanford University’s School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences. Kenyon is a third year PhD student in Ken Buesseler‘s lab in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s joint program in Applied Oceanography and Engineering.

Kelly and Kenyon each specialize in chemical oceanography. Kelly spent GP15 researching the marine nitrogen cycle and working as a “super technician”—a position that required her to collect and manage samples for researchers back on land. Kenyon investigated marine radiation, using radioactive elements as tools to study the ocean’s physical and chemical properties.

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Kenyon (left) and Kelly (right) in their respective labs, working under ventilated hoods to safely handle chemicals at sea. Image: Alex Fox

Aboard GP15, Kelly and Kenyon also gave a presentation to the expedition’s science party based on a 2018 report commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences on sexual harassment in the sciences.

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

How did you first get interested in science and what drew you to oceanography?

Colette Kelly: I grew up around nature and spent a lot of time outside as a kid in Vermont. It sparked an interest in nature and the environment and in college I became interested in science and research. I became interested in oceanography in particular after spending a semester at sea during college.

Jennifer Kenyon: I love science. I’ve always known I wanted to be a scientist. As a kid I wanted to be a marine biologist and I didn’t wind up too far off. I also did SEA Semester during college along with Colette. The experience of living on the ocean is a huge part of why I got into oceanography. A career spent outside, trying to learn more about how the world works seemed pretty ideal to me.

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Kelly prepares samples in the R/V Roger Revelle’s main lab at sea. Image: Alex Fox

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

CK: I played on the boys’ baseball team as a little kid through my first year of high school. I always approached that with an attitude of, “I’m the only girl, but I can do this.” But as the only girl on the team I felt increasingly isolated.

I was lucky enough to be surrounded by other female scientists as an undergraduate at a women’s college. But whenever I’m in an environment that is dominated by men, I get that same feeling of, “I’m one of a few women but I’m going to do it even though I may never feel like part of the club.”

JK: I have no early memories of feeling like I couldn’t do science because I was a woman. I went to an all-girl high school, but in college I majored in geology and that was really isolating. My classes were overwhelmingly male—maybe a fifth of the department’s faculty and students were female. We had some great female scientists, but trying to succeed in an environment without much female representation was challenging at times, to say the least.

Were there particular role models or people who encouraged you early in your life who made a big impact on you?

JK: My parents. My dad taught me to prioritize what I want the most and go get it. My mom didn’t get to go to college because she came to the U.S. from Vietnam as a teenager during the Vietnam War. It was really important to her that I pursue my academic goals in science. The sacrifices she made to raise me motivate me to keep pushing.

CK: Because I found my interest in science much later than Jen, the people who really encouraged me to pursue that were mostly male advisors at Barnard College who really, really believed in me and encouraged me to keep pursuing research and seek out opportunities.

Now, Karen Casciotti is my PhD advisor, and she is an incredible role model. Not just being a female scientist, but also being a mom. Watching her doing it has totally inverted my sense of what I thought was possible—especially at a high powered institution like Stanford.

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Kenyon mounts pieces of filters used to collect particles from seawater onto plastic discs for beta-radiation detection. Image: Alex Fox

What gender dynamics have you observed since entering the field?

JK: My impression is that the older generation of chemical oceanographers is almost entirely male, but that Karen and Phoebe’s generation of scientists has more female representation.

CK: It’s another example of the leaky pipeline. As you move up the hierarchy in science you find fewer and fewer women. There are lots of women in PhD programs, but not as many post docs, even fewer female assistant professors and the list goes on.

One thing that surprised me was that the majority of lead researchers on this expedition are male. GEOTRACES has 27 funded research projects and many of them are led by men. Expeditions I’ve been on that were more focused on biological oceanography had more gender parity.

Is oceanography less male dominated now than it used to be?

CK: I think there is a generational dynamic but it’s hard to separate that out from the loss of women as you advance through the hierarchy in academia.

JK: I think it may be too soon to tell.

CK: Which is indicative of something—it’s 2018 and it’s still too soon to tell.

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Kelly collects samples from the CTD rosette as Co-chief Scientist Karen Casciotti, also Kelly’s PhD advisor at Stanford, manages the operation. Image: Alex Fox

What challenges have you faced as women in the field and how have you overcome or dealt with them?

JK: As an undergraduate, I worked in a research group that was almost entirely male. I often felt like I had to work harder to get the same amount of attention or recognition as the male students in my department.

CK: I skipped a lot of that being at a women’s college, and now working in Karen’s group, which is all female. A challenge I’ve faced is the inability of other women to recognize their own and thus my experiences of harassment as such.

I once approached a more senior female scientist because I felt I’d been harassed and she just said, “Honey, I’ve been through things that would make your hair curl.” It was hard to share an experience of harassment and then essentially be told I should suck it up.

JK: I’ve had people make demeaning, sexist jokes to me, take tools out of my hands, make condescending comments to me or make me feel “less than.” Those experiences can be made worse by feeling like, as a woman, I have to put on a brave face to avoid being seen as emotional, which translates to being seen as a less productive worker or scientist. It’s a horrible loop to find yourself in.

What are some of the day to day realities of navigating academia as a woman?

JK: I feel like as women in science we have to be a lot more tactful than our male colleagues—especially if we have an issue or a problem. We have to figure out how to express ourselves without being stereotyped.

CK: I have avoided meeting with or having conversations with certain people in my field who would be beneficial for me to network with because I’ve heard from other women that they’re not someone to be alone in a room with. That’s a pretty concrete trade-off.

JK: Yeah. You could be a co-author on more papers or make more connections but you just cut that off.

CK: On the flip side, I know women who haven’t avoided those men and suffered the consequences for the sake of the boost it gave to their careers.

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Kenyon runs through her checklist processing samples in the WHOI lab van, nicknamed Café Thorium. Image: Alex Fox

What was it like having two female Co-chief Scientists?

JK: It made me more comfortable going to the chief scientists with problems. I knew I’d get the help I needed without judgement for having a problem while also being a young, female student.

CK: Having two female chief scientists as role models makes a tangible difference. Seeing women in positions of authority helps me envision myself there. I’ve also learned a lot about how to gracefully handle difficult situations from watching Karen and Phoebe.

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Kelly and Casciotti share a laugh working together in the main lab of the R/V Roger Revelle. Image: Alex Fox

Do you aspire to become an oceanography professor, chief scientist or principal investigator?

JK: I think so, but I’m not totally sold on it yet. Colette mentioned that she is really inspired by watching Karen be a scientist and a mother, but that sounds like an overwhelming task to me right now. Maybe my opinion will change, but I can’t imagine having a family and being a research scientist at the same time.

CK: Yes, I aspire to be a research scientist, and I would find it incredibly gratifying to one day be a chief scientist on an expedition like this one. But, like Jen, I have some trepidation about also trying to have a home life.

JK: I will definitely stay in science but I’m not sure if I’ll go for tenure track. I’m not saying I won’t but I don’t know.

CK: It does help to know what exactly this dragon is that you have to slay in order to be an academic with a family. Karen has almost zero if not negative free time, but I see her doing it. Having that concrete example makes it at least into something I can envision even if it sounds really hard.

The other reason I have a little trepidation isn’t just babies, it’s continuing to have to deal with sexism and harassment. Itʼs easy coming from a place where you don’t ever get harassed to think you can handle that, but experiencing more of it makes the whole thing seems less tenable.

Were there particular role models during your undergrad or grad training who influenced your ability to see yourself becoming a career academic?

JK: My undergraduate mineralogy professor, Barbara Dutrow, was an excellent mentor. I didnʼt work in her lab, but she was always willing to sit down with me and discuss what I wanted to accomplish in my career. I didnʼt know how to go about becoming a scientist even though I wanted to be one. She helped me start my career by helping me set goals and telling me about how she got where she was. She also believed in me, which I think was the most important factor of all.

Also, Cara Santelli who was my mentor during my summer internship at the Smithsonian Institution. She had faith in my ability to do science, think creatively and work hard. She inspired me to pursue chemical oceanography at WHOI. Sheʼs someone who worked very hard but somehow maintained a work life balance, and having that example was super valuable for me. Having strong, female mentors really inspired me to follow my dreams and my career in science.

CK: I already spoke about how inspirational I find Karen, but Bess Ward also made a huge impact on me. She was the chief scientist on my first oceanographic expedition in grad school. In Karenʼs lab we study nitrogen, and Bess is the queen of nitrogen. She was Karenʼs PhD advisor, and she’s a force of nature.

Watching her operate I remember thinking, “Wow, this is what I aspire to be.” Watching her execute experiments, interact with people and command respect was awe inspiring.

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Kenyon works on deck with the pump team to deploy their array of devices for collecting and filtering seawater for study. Image: Alex Fox

What motivates and inspires you? Is there a certain mentality you adopt when things get hard?

JK: I feel passionate about my science and my research. Collecting data and taking measurements is really powerful to me. Iʼm making my own small contribution to this huge enterprise of science. I also love being at sea because you form these deep bonds with people you’re going to know for the rest of your career. When youʼve had a long day and nothing worked, it means the world to be able to talk to friends who are literally and figuratively in the same boat.

CK: I love my research. It feels relevant and important to me. Even when the usual backstops of enjoying it and getting paid for it seem paltry, I have the additional backstop of thinking that itʼs important for the world.

There is also something really enlivening about being at sea. Youʼre going out on the back deck carrying heavy bottles of water with waves hitting you and rain coming down sideways in the middle of the night, and the experience is so visceral that it becomes addictive. Itʼs really hard work, but there are moments that are so rewarding.

JK: At sea there are moments of overwhelming beauty. Just going outside to watch a sunset or staring out at the endless horizon can keep me going.

I saw a rainbow at 3:30 a.m. the other night. The moon was so bright. I turned around and there was a rainbow. I couldnʼt believe it. I was jumping up and down. Moments like that remind me why I wanted to study our planet in the first place.

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

JK: I hope that being feminine or doing things that are stereotyped that way donʼt make people somehow think less of you. I hope women feel more empowered to express that part of themselves and not fear judgement. It would be cool to imagine wearing a pink dress to a conference and not be worried about some kind of judgment.

CK: Iʼm excited for not just more women in science and oceanography, but also for more women of color and more queer women.

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

JK: Having a network of people who support you is really important. At WHOI they do a great job of making that available. There are organizations you can join—women in STEM organizations and things like that. Finding support groups with like-minded people is not just going to help you achieve what you want to achieve but may also to help you feel more sane.

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Kelly (left) and Kenyon (right) take in a sunset at sea. Image: Alex Fox

CK: Jen is part of my support network. Sheʼs a year ahead of me academically. I didn’t know about the GRFP [NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program] until I watched her apply for it. I’ve always been following in her footsteps and it makes a big difference. There are so many tiny things that you wouldn’t know how to do without a support system. Even things as basic as knowing that you have to reach out to a potential grad school advisor before applying to grad school.

Lastly, don’t be afraid to question experiences that make you feel badly about yourself. Don’t assume that it’s your fault if you’re made to feel incompetent or unworthy of respect—chances are, it’s not your fault.

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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