One time, when I was 15 years old and considering a (more lucrative?) career in acting and screenwriting, my class took a trip to have a master class with a REAL ACTOR. He was none other than Chris Sarandon, who is the brother of, yes, Susan Sarandon. Having watched his most notable film Fright Night in preparation for my brush with fame, I was pretty sure Chris Sarandon would be a sexy spooky vampire, in addition to being mildly famous. Fifteen year old me was extremely concerned with impressing him. In the end, Chris Sarandon was not sexy (I’m lyin’, he was), spooky or interested in turning my classmates into vampires. He was just a nice older man who encouraged me to break into screenwriting. This past week, I had a similar experience with scientist, advocate for women in science and non-vampire Dr. Sasha Reed of the US Geological Survey. Despite my nervousness about meeting such a superstar, talking with her was so refreshing and uplifting, two things I’ve almost never felt upon meeting a fancy scientist.
Sasha is a biogeochemist who thinks about how global environmental change will alter ecosystem function via terrestrial nutrient cycling. She’s drawn to the Earth’s extremes, so her study sites range from the wet tropical forests of Puerto Rico and Hawaii to the aridlands of the American west. Her publication record is poppin’ and the amazing range of her expertise is almost enough to make me turn off Grey’s Anatomy and start exploring new areas of the literature (almost). On top of all that, she was awarded the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers in 2011 by President Obama, so you know she’s doing something right.
I met Sasha for breakfast on a drizzling Friday morning. She had flown into Ithaca late the night before, so I was prepared to sort of mumble at each other over waffles and too much coffee while we both regained consciousness. Instead, she started with a warm smile, suggested we order different breakfasts so we could both try everything, and asked me about myself. I nodded like a Muppet as Sasha began talking about how crucial it is to have good mentors in graduate school.
As a graduate student, her mentors were very supportive but hands-off, leaving her to seek more regular support from a variety of sources, including her peers. It was a hilarious relief to hear that she, too, relied on her friends in graduate school to keep her going, to cry over tough times and spot her at conferences while she sidled up to senior scientists. Sue Pierre Aside: The importance having friends in graduate school who get it, especially women and minorities who share your experience, cannot be overstated. Sasha’s attention to finding and creating supportive environments has radiated throughout her career, where she prioritizes understanding the aspirations of her technicians and postdocs and helping them to find the right path. She believes that doing a little extra by being positive or supportive costs nothing but can make such a difference in a lab, a department, and the culture of a field. When I asked her whether she thought women in science bring this sort of compassion in a different way from male colleagues, she disagreed. “It’s more of a personality thing,” she said, adding that if we looked at some imaginary distribution of compassion among male and female scientists, it would likely be Gaussian, with men and women equally out on the tails. Finally, she offered some advice that I think any adviser or mentor can implement right away: “Explain where a criticism comes from”.
Doing a little extra... can make such a difference in a lab, department, and the culture of a field.
On Research and Writing
Most graduate students (myself included) are eager to collect lots of data with the hope that more means better. Regarding this Pokémon strategy, Sasha shared this elegant advice: “Let the data speak to you”. Before thinking about what to measure next or futzy ways to contort your result to fit a story, simply look at what you have to start with and understand what it means. Getting more data will inundate you and won’t make your ideas any clearer. I think this notion may reflect the need for slower science wherein we take time to really think about preliminary data while still maintaining productivity.
Sasha extends this slow-down mentality to writing. She attributes good writing to the ability to accept how the story of your data may change as you begin to write a paper. “I’m extremely visual,” she said, miming the walls of white boards which cover her office. She suggests visually story-boarding your work with a friend and trying to explain it to different audiences as a narrative. This is just one part of building good habits early in your career. “They really stick with you,” she admitted with a laugh.
Sasha’s perspective on communicating and sharing her science is simple but sort of revolutionary. “I’m a federal scientist, so I work for everyone, really.” As a USGS researcher, she treats sharing her work in an approachable way as just another part of her job. “When I get on a plane, before I open my laptop or put on headphones, I sit for a few minutes and try to seem available. Usually someone asks me what I do and I get to explain some of my work,” she said. Not only does her approach foster interpersonal exchange between scientists and the public, but it also calls into question the way all federally funded researchers actively communicate science as a function of their jobs. As Sasha put it, people should walk away with the sense that science is cool, that she really loves her job, and that they can trust scientists like her. Seriously, talk about a knowledge sharing coup.
Let the data speak to you
Towards Equality in Science
During her visit to Cornell, Sasha joined a group of female graduate students and postdocs to have a solutions-oriented and honest-as-shit conversation about what it is to be a woman in the environmental sciences. Kirsten Deane-Coe organized and moderated this much needed sit-down that brought together ladies from many fields. We tackled issues of gender bias, retaining women in science, territoriality between women colleagues and workplace sexual harassment, in addition to some heavier issues like which wrap platter to choose from. On the latter issue, there is still great uncertainty, but we did agree on the importance of cooperation, camaraderie and support between women in science. I left our discussion with the following:
· Early-career female scientists really value the perspectives and advocacy that senior female faculty can offer them and want to develop these connections
· Inclusion and equality have a lot to do with the tone of a lab or a department—whoever creates that culture can set the stage for who can excel
· Women in science should develop our own inclusive culture in which lines of communication are open and systemic problems can be laid bare
Thanks to Sasha Reed for the thought provoking and generally inspiring conversation and to Kirsten Deane-Coe for inviting her to Cornell and facilitating!
To document interesting ideas about science and nature and reflect on the experience of being a scientist from the margins.