Faculty, staff, graduate students, and postdocs in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences celebrate Women's History Month by spotlighting women in the geosciences who have inspired them and their work.
Asmeret Asefaw Berhe
In addition to being an outstanding researcher, Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, professor and Falasco Chair in Earth Sciences at UC Merced, is a powerful voice in science advocacy and communication. As a soil biogeochemist and political ecologist, Asmeret's research touches on critical current events related to climate change, including the impact of soil processes on erosion and wildfires. Asmeret advocates for the advancement of women in science as co-PI of ADVANCEGeo and as an advisory board member of 500 Women Scientists. Both groups are working to make science more open, inclusive, and accessible; improve workplace climate; and increase the retention of women in science. I look forward to meeting Asmeret at an upcoming EPS colloquium.
Emily Brodsky is a professor in Earth and planetary sciences at UC-Santa Cruz. She is a seismologist who studies the fundamental physics of earthquakes. Throughout her career, Emily has focused on questions surrounding why earthquakes start, what sets their size, and how they stop. She has looked at these problems through many lenses, including seismology, hydrogeology, structural geology, and rock mechanics. What is particularly inspiring about Emily is that she draws from fields beyond geoscience and incorporates ideas from rheology, statistics, and materials science into her work. For her contributions in the field of earthquake physics, Emily has been recognized by the Seismological Society of America, the American Geophysical Union, and the Geological Society of America.
I was lucky enough to have Emily as a mentor while completing my PhD at UC-Santa Cruz. I am consistently inspired by her creativity and enthusiasm for learning. During my time at UCSC, she and I would get together once a week to work through textbooks in granular physics and material science together. In those meetings, we would toss around ideas of how these concepts could be applied to our respective fields. Those exercises were probably some of the most formative in making me the scientist that I am today. Beyond this, Emily has been an incredible source of support and fierce advocate throughout my career thus far. It is difficult to express how much I have valued her mentorship and how she has influenced me and how I view science.
Darby Dyar, the Kennedy-Schelkunoff Professor and chair of astronomy at Mount Holyoke, is a notable geoscientist who I have the honor of calling my collaborator. Darby’s main research focus is on spectroscopy, and she is widely recognized as an expert in the field. Her research interests are both terrestrial and planetary; she is heavily involved in NASA missions on Mars and Venus. Most important to my current research is Darby’s work to develop a method for quantifying the percent of iron as ferric in amphibole using x-ray absorption spectroscopy (XAS). With students in her lab, Darby spearheaded a machine-learning approach to the analysis of these spectra, which enables me to analyze minerals in situ, without needing to determine the crystals’ orientations or separate them from the rock.
A great deal of the work Darby does is in collaboration with female undergraduate students at Mount Holyoke College. It is unfortunately relatively rare to see a lab group led by a woman, composed mostly of women producing impactful science, and Darby’s success in running her lab and working with female undergraduates is inspiring. To me, Darby and her lab group highlight the fact that it is more than possible for women in science to thrive, and I aspire to help create the same welcoming, empowering environment for women at all levels in the geosciences.
Marilyn Fogel's work is relevant to many aspects of work that I've been a part of in Alex Bradley's lab, so I was well aware of her impact and importance in the stable isotope world before I had the pleasure of being introduced to her at Goldschmidt in 2018 by Derek Smith.
Marilyn has led an incredible life and an enviable career, filled with well deserved accolades and awards. She has studied fields varying from astrobiology to paleo and modern ecology, is a deft hand in instrument operation and repair, created the Endowment Fund for Internships with her husband, is a mother, has been a Track and Field Senior Olympian, and served as a mentor to untold numbers. Recently, she has been recounting her life and offering advice to scientists through her blog Isotope Queen and three books similarly titled. A diagnosis of ALS in 2016 changed the trajectory of her life, and she has recently retired from the University of California, Riverside as a result.
Her professional life started in such a time that she encountered expected as well as extreme occurrences of sexism – at one point she was infamously told, "This is not a mass spectrometer for a housewife!" Now, as a person who uses a wheelchair, she experiences the reality of navigating a built environment that is not designed for the disabled. In 2019, her son created a short film that honestly and fearlessly documents her lived experience as one with a debilitating disease.
In "retirement," she continues scientific writing, is a member of the DEI committee at UC, is the PhD advisor of Bobby Nakamoto at the UC Edge Institute, and is quick to offer advice to those seeking help on an Isogeochem Listserv. Marilyn, the other scientists I've mentioned above, and I are currently working on a manuscript for publication, so I've been fortunate to have many opportunities to discuss science and learn from her this past year. It is difficult to express how highly I value her example and friendship.
Molly McCanta is the Gerald D. Sisk Associate Professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville where she leads a variety of projects in the realm of igneous petrology and planetary science. By conducting experiments and analyzing samples with a variety of methods, including electron microscopy and Mössbauer spectroscopy, Molly’s research has addressed the stories of magmatic evolution preserved in samples from Mars and Earth, but has also clued us in to how minerals may alter on planetary bodies like Venus, Mars, and Mercury. Recently, she became an associate editor for the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets.
Molly was my undergraduate advisor at Tufts University. After having taken a few introductory geology courses at Tufts, I was still unsure as to whether or not I wanted to pursue a major in geological sciences. I decided to take one more course, "Introduction to Mineralogy," taught by Molly, which was a transformational experience for me. Through this class and later being advised by her, I gained the knowledge that I ultimately needed to be successful in my internships and applications to graduate school. After Molly left Tufts, she made herself available to discuss my progress as an undergraduate student, give me advice on applications, and even advise me on a senior thesis project remotely. Molly’s mentorship was key to my success as a student, and I hope that one day I am able to bring the same level of dedication that she has to the classroom.
Clara McLeod, WashU's Earth and planetary sciences librarian, is an invaluable resource in the department. We’re incredibly lucky to have someone so knowledgeable about the resources available to geoscientists across fields.
Over the years, Clara has helped faculty and students find the materials they need to develop, carry out, and publish original research. And Clara does all that with kindness and genuine interest in the work we’re doing.
Naomi Oreskes, the Henry Charles Lea Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University, is one of smartest people I've ever met. Her philosophical paper in a 1994 issue of Science on the validation of numerical models forever changed the way I see models in my own research areas, geodynamics and planetary evolution. Her 1999 book on the history of plate tectonics gave me a much deeper understanding of the culture and politics of American geology and why Alfred Wegener's ideas were rejected. Two decades ago, impressed by her work, I invited Oreskes for a colloquium. I felt lucky that she accepted my invitation but just did not realize how lucky I was. Nowadays she is famous for her insights into the history of climate change denial. An article in The New York Times called her “a lightning rod in a changing climate.”
I consider myself lucky to be advised by Rita Parai, assistant professor of Earth and planetary sciences at Washington University. Throughout her career, Rita has investigated a series of outstanding questions that pertain to the origin and evolution of volatile elements on Earth and how these processes have influenced our planet’s habitability over time. Current investigations taking place in her lab continue to look into these topics, in addition to the evolution of Venus’ atmosphere and the accretion and formation of Earth’s moon. Her state-of-the-art lab is built to obtain high-precision analyses of noble gas isotopes in geological samples that aid us in these investigations.
In addition to her exciting science, Rita has been a great advisor. In my time at WashU, she has helped me navigate every twist and turn that I’ve encountered. This past year, our regular one-on-one meetings have been key to helping me not fall behind on research productivity. When we meet, our discussions force me to think more deeply about my projects than I have before, and I have grown to be a more curious, dedicated worker while studying with her. Graduate school is a trying time for a lot of students, including myself, and this past year has only made our work more challenging, but Rita’s advising has kept me on track. Furthermore, she has pushed me to be more confident in a field where I used to feel like an outsider, which I am truly grateful for.
I would like to spotlight Barbara Romanowicz, currently professor of seismology at both UC Berkeley and the College of France in Paris, and former director for 20 years of the Berkeley Seismology Laboratory. She somehow managed to maintain simultaneous full-time careers at both Berkeley and in France, where she created one of the world’s first global digital seismic networks (GEOSCOPE). Barbara has been an inspiration to me throughout my career, starting with her helpful advice when I was a graduate student and continuing with helpful conversations throughout my career. Barbara has made multiple brilliant contributions to our understanding of the deep Earth, establishing some of the best three-dimensional mantle tomographic methods. I have had the honor of serving on several committees with her, and she is a brilliant administrator and tough-as-nails negotiator. In person, Barbara is humorous and witty and enjoys collegial collaborations. She is also a cultural polymath – I have run into her at a San Francisco Symphony sing-along of Handel’s Messiah and played music with her at a geophysics conference (she plays an excellent flute).
Donna Shillington, associate professor at Northern Arizona University, is a leading researcher in active-source seismology. While her work is centered around seismic imaging, she combines active-source data with other geophysical and geological information to look more broadly at deformation and magmatism at plate boundaries. She has done a lot of work on the Alaska subduction zone, in particular studying water cycling there, and her work from the ALEUT experiment looking at faulting and seismicity near the Shumagin gap is a big part of the inspiration behind my research on faulting and water at the Marianas trench.
Donna has been involved in a number of interesting experiments everywhere from the eastern United States to Newfoundland to the Gulf of Corinth, but another particularly neat and unique project she co-led was an active-source experiment in and around Lake Malawi in the East African Rift System, looking at structural controls on rift initiation. In the geoscience community, she's involved in numerous committees and in running workshops for programs like GeoPRISMS and SZ4D. Donna is also one of the few scientists I know who really follows through on publishing fieldwork blogs – they're always fun and interesting to read (an excellent application of her undergraduate degree in journalism).
On a more personal note, Donna has always been incredibly generous with her time and advice. I had no direct scientific connections to her during my PhD (though she and my thesis advisor are frequent collaborators), but she was always willing to answer questions and gave me a lot of support when I was applying for postdocs. Also, I sailed with her on the Langseth on a cruise out to the Aleutians last fall, so I can say with certainty that she's a great colleague to hang out on a boat with for 40-ish days. I'm especially grateful that she brought her mandolin along and let me learn to play it in my off hours.
Jan Tullis, professor emerita of geological sciences at Brown University, is a strong supporter of women and minorities in the sciences. She often experienced unfair treatment from her male colleagues as a junior professor in the 1970s. She did not want this tradition to continue in the geosciences, as she believes that everyone can learn and become a geologist. Tullis has worked toward achieving equality by chairing her department’s undergraduate program committee since 1981. She is not only committed to increasing women and minority representation in her department (both for students and new faculty), but she has also dedicated her life to mentoring new generations of young geoscientists, mentoring many new students each year even now in her retirement.
Tullis was my advisor when I was an undergraduate at Brown University. She contacted me to introduce herself and make me feel welcome in the department even before my first semester started. During my time at Brown, she had helped me navigate through different branches of geology and helped me connect with paleoclimate professors in our department including Yongsong Huang and Jim Russell. She also encouraged me to do a PhD after Brown. I would not be where I am now without her guidance.
Aubrey Zerkle is an established geoscientist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland where she leads the quadruple sulfur isotope analytical facilities in the St. Andrews Stable Isotope Group. She is a biogeochemist with a strong interest in the early Earth and extraterrestrial environments. Her current interests revolve around looking for biosignatures on early Earth and beyond, microbial life in extreme environments, and feedbacks between the geosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere during important transitions in Earth history. In her research, she uses a multi-disciplinary approach that uses various geochemical tools to examine how microbes interact with their environments on Earth and potentially elsewhere. She has built up a successful career in academia, is an active member of the scientific community, and is still very down to Earth.
The first time I met Aubrey was at a small seminar series organized by my then supervisor K. Kirsimäe at the University of Tartu (UT) in Estonia. At that time, I was at a turning point whether to apply for a PhD position at UiT The Arctic University of Norway after finishing my MSc degree. Without Aubrey’s encouragement, I probably would have passed the opportunity. Instead, she gave me the much-needed final push to build up the confidence to apply for the position, and I got it. That was the start of my academic career and fruitful collaboration with her and other geoscientists interested in the co-evolution of life with planetary environments over geologic timescales. While every researcher I had contact with during my studies influenced me in one way or another, Aubrey helped me build confidence as an early career scientist and fueled my interest in the role of life in shaping Earth’s surface environments.
Throughout my PhD studies, I had the opportunity to visit and work in her lab, which was buzzing with young people conducting various experiments in a stimulating environment. During such visits, the most valuable lessons I learned were to remain curious, open to new ideas, and learning new skills. Aubrey’s always supportive and enthusiastic attitude helped me build confidence at a vulnerable time in my personal and professional development.