Conversation with Prof. Olivia Jensen, Professor at the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, McGill University

Interview transcribed by Ms. Margaret Whelan (she/her), and Ms. Meghomita Das (she/her)

Question

Please introduce yourself and your research!

Answer

Dr Olivia Jensen, Professor at the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, McGill University

I am Dr. Olivia Jensen and I have never taken a geology course in my life! I did, however, complete my undergraduate and graduate degree at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Geophysics and Astronomy as they were considered closely related at the time. UBC was very comfortable to me. I played the industry game in Texas for a while after my undergrad and master’s but ultimately came back to UBC and British Columbia (my home province) to complete my Ph.D. I came to McGill in 1973 and joined the faculty of Engineering in what was then called the Department of Mining Engineering and Applied Geophysics. In 1984, I and my colleagues, who considered ourselves to be scientists and not engineers, joined the Department of Geological Sciences. The 1980s were a very difficult time for the university and eventually, the department morphed into what it is now called: the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.

At present, I am not conducting any active research but what I used to focus on were the characteristics of the processes happening in the deep earth. I was trained as a seismologist but my background is in physics so I have a very physical view of the earth sciences. More recently, my role in the EPSC department at McGill is teaching/lecturing undergraduate introductory courses. I don’t know if that has been affected by my being transgender (it isn’t the case as far as I’m concerned) but I do feel I became ever less involved in the research community after I went through my transition in 1989.

 

Question

What induced your move from UBC to McGill?

Answer

I came to McGill intending to stay one year but my life changed dramatically when I met my wife here and started a family. At this point in my life, I was doing research that was quite interesting to the public which involved looking at how time may be changed due to the rotation of the earth through general relativity. We ended up being entirely wrong and sometimes I joke that my way out of such a major blunder was to change my sex and name (this was obviously not the case). Anyways, I was smitten by this person who planned wonderful international research trips at McGill and decided to abandon my aspirations to work at other universities. We ended up divorcing in 1989 because I am me and while I do play father really well, I don’t do it looking like a father all the time. I am no longer attached to anybody but I think I am happy however I am still not sure I fully understand what happiness is.

 

Question

What does EDI mean to you?

Answer

The EDI concept is new to me. I feel that the policies related to EDI blossomed very late at McGill. When I transitioned back in the 80s, I found McGill to be an insular place that wasn’t welcoming to differences amongst its members. It had a very conservative outlook. Over the years, the growing student population has somewhat “shaken McGill’s tree” and forced the faculty to consider all types of people on this planet. I like to think of it as a flower that has been growing for a long time at McGill but now it has finally blossomed. 

 

Question

Have you ever taken part in initiatives/projects similar to this in the past? If so what shortcomings do you feel those had and what can we do to improve these initiatives? Is there room for McGill to do more?

Answer

There was a group called LAGEM (Lesbian and Gay Employees at McGill) which was formed by a few McGill faculty members in the 1980s. They were about 5 people, composed of gay men and one lesbian woman, and they would regularly meet at Thomson House but entered through the backdoor so as not to be seen. I didn’t join the group until 1991 and I joined as an associate member because, while they were nice to me, they still didn’t quite understand my experience. I really didn’t understand the need to hide our identities and so at these meetings, I would use the front door to enter. I refused to be closeted after my transition and wanted to be seen as me.

LAGEM disbanded in 1995 or 1996. After that, I started giving lectures about my trans identity and personal history for a course at McGill called Human Sexuality and Its Problems, run by the Department of Psychology. I quickly became a regular guest lecturer for this course and still am to this day. Over my 25-or-so years doing this, I have seen a considerable shift in identities through my interactions with the students. In the courses early years, I would start the lecture by asking if anyone had ever met a transgender person; very few students would raise their hands. Now when I ask the same question, I get more responses and some students are even comfortable sharing their own identities during the class. I think this is largely due to LGBTQ2+ people becoming visible people. For the longest time we were invisible. I like to think that my standing up and deciding to be visible had something to do with this.

 

Question

Do you have any formative experiences or reasons for pursuing earth sciences that you wish to share? These could be from your childhood, undergrad, grad school, or professional career.

Answer

I would like to talk about the transition first. People like me at that time (in the late 80s) typically transitioned after a rather desperate feeling known as gender dysphoria. Which is basically the feeling of being trapped and held away from “being” altogether. Around this time I began organizing my coming out by talking to psychologists and therapists over quite a long time. I really didn’t want it to be a “medical coming out” whereby the procedure is highly medicalized and people essentially manage your (my) life. In 1989 I remember my first time going into work at McGill as Olivia. It was rather an interesting experience. The chair of the department at the time, Bob Martin, was actually sitting outside my office and all he said to me was “hello” before he walked away. It wasn’t the most hostile of welcomes but it definitely wasn’t welcome. There was a professor in

Dr Olivia Jensen before her transition.

the faculty of engineering, John Jonas, who left me a letter inviting me to lunch. He has since been a very supportive figure in my life. The last thing that was particularly interesting to me that day was my interaction with the janitor. He would normally throw open the door to do his duties. On that day in 1989 he threw open the door, looked at me, and exclaimed:

“Hey, what’s this?”

To which I gave him a short explanation of the direction I was heading. He responded:

“That’s okay.”

This was a very important affirmation for me, for some reason. It was a good day.

Around the same time as my transition, two other notable things happened to me. I remember there was a big inter-university meeting regarding the broader part of my research and someone had said to me that what I had done was going to ruin my career. This wasn’t terribly important to me at the time because I am not terribly career-ist or career-oriented anyway. I was never chasing awards or seeking to impress, I was more so doing a job. On the other hand, a colleague of mine told me to be twice as good as everybody else after hearing about my transition. I thought to myself, I’m not going to do that that’s ridiculous.

I think that every trans person that I know (perhaps) knew there was something different about them by the time they were maybe four years old. So, from about 4 years old, I tried to keep the whole story hidden from others. One thing, in particular, I had to hide was my early interest in cross-dressing. This lifestyle took me to about 50 years old when I finally said to myself I have to do something about this, I can’t hide forever.

 

Question

Do you feel that being transgender has brought about any specific challenges in your academic career that you feel comfortable sharing?

Answer

I think LGBTQ2+ people are discounted, without question. Women are also discounted, without question. Something positive I have noticed, however, is that women seem to have blossomed in geosciences. This is particularly the case for seismology and structural geology where there are now more women seismologists than men. Once upon a time, this would not have been possible.

I would also like to talk about my history of going to the American Geophysical Union (AGU) annual meeting. Well into the 1990s, the AGU was still very one-dimensional and nondiverse. There were zero BIPOC people and an incredibly small group of LGBTQ2+ people. In fact, I was the only openly transgender person until another American scientist came out. What I found interesting was that shortly after, in the same venue, the American computer scientists held their annual meeting where there would be almost one hundred LGBTQ2+ people. I think this demonstrates how geology was once a very “macho” discipline and how now when you look through our department, in particular, the female and international presence is not only strong but numerous. This is an incredible shift.

 

Question

How did you overcome these challenges? 

Answer

My approach to overcoming any challenge is pure defiance and no apologies. I remember my signature line on my emails after my transition basically said I wasn’t going to apologize for being who I am. People in the LGBTQ2+ and BIPOC communities once felt they had to apologize for being who they are. You don’t have to apologize for this! Once we show our defiance and stop apologizing, things work out for us. We belong too and we have to say it. I had to support my own defiance by repeating this to myself.

 

Question

Is there anyone, perhaps a role model or mentor, that got you through these tougher periods? If there isn’t anyone, do you think that’s a reason trans people feel discouraged to join fields like this? 

Answer

There were very few role models out there in the 1980s. The Montreal trans scene basically came out of the cabaret world and I enjoyed that world. However, there was no success for trans people outside of this scene and so, no, I don’t think there were any models to follow. Someone whom I have never met but do know about, named Dr. Carolyne Van Vliet of the Université de Montréal, was a strident trans person. She sued Sears (the department store) because a guard had abused her for using the women’s change rooms. I think she actually won a substantial damage claim and I’m not sure there have been “change room issues” for trans people in Quebec since.

One other notable person in Montreal is Dr. Vivian Namaste. She was appointed as Principal of the Simone de Beauvoir Institute at Concordia University in 2006-2008 and is one of the only trans people I know that was hired into a university position after transitioning. I think this was a very good thing.

 

Question

Do you feel any pressure being a role model for other trans people in STEM or the Earth Sciences specifically? If so, how do you deal with that and how do you feel you can be supported?

Answer

I don’t think being a role model is the pressure or my goal. I am just being me and I might not be a very good role model actually. In the 1980s people wanted to transition and become invisible, but I knew that could never happen for me because you can’t just erase your history; history comes with us. We actually have to live with this history, and it’s so much easier to live with it than to try to re-hide or go “stealth” (a common term for going invisible at this time). The fact of the matter is this doesn’t work, and there is always a hole in your story. You might as well confront this story upfront and say well this is who I was and this is who I am. I think that who I was, is a very important part of who I am because who I was, was a strong enough person to become who I am. I would never hide that person.

 

Question

Do you have a closing message to the students (both old and new), faculty, and staff who will likely see/read this interview? 

Answer

I think in general students have been very good to me. I remember a time when I was being seriously challenged by a group of students (who have since become friends) and they actually held a presentation to ask if I could no longer teach them any classes. This was sort of the last challenge I really experienced in the department. Nowadays, people coming into this department from all sorts of different backgrounds, will generally TA one of my introductory classes by default and they display no hostility towards me. I think the students in this department are remarkably good at accepting all people of all kinds. 

I would also like to say that many of the stellar hires in recent years have been women. We have gone from a predominantly male department to one with some very remarkable and “high-flying” female scientists. I suppose my message is that I want people to know there are opportunities out there for them despite the gender box they tick on their applications.

 

Resources

https://speakingofgeoscience.org/2020/10/28/queer-visibility-in-geoscience-has-been-almost-nonexistent-for-decades-a-new-generation-is-working-to-change-that/

https://eos.org/articles/shining-a-spotlight-on-lgbtq-visibility-in-stem

Honourable Mentions

 

What it feels like to be queer in the Earth Sciences?

Authors: Jessica Salas (she/her) and Meghomita Das (she/her)

Two spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual (2SLGBTQIA+) individuals scientists face higher rates of workplace discrimination, exclusion, harassment, assault, and more than their straight colleagues in their professional and academic environments. 

In June 2019, The Institute of Physics, Royal Astronomical Society, and Royal Society of Chemistry surveyed more than 600 scientists working in academia and industry. The purpose of the survey was to explore the working place for 2SLGBTQIA+ people in the UK and Ireland. The survey reported that 18% of the 2SLGBTQIA+ responders have experienced exclusionary behavior in their workplace, while 30% of all respondents have reported witnessing exclusionary behavior towards 2SLGBTQIA+ community members. 

2SLGBTQIA+ people are misrepresented in STEM due to a reinforced heteronormative standard in science careers. The lack of visibility of 2SLGBTQIA+ members is strengthened by a STEM culture that encourages 2SLGBTQIA+ people to remain closeted at work.  A 2013 survey found that more than 40% 2SLGBTQIA+ identified respondents working in STEM are not out to their colleagues.  The fact that scientists interact within an international community that includes many less inclusive cultures is one of the most common reasons why 2SLGBTQIA+ people keep themselves closeted. 

Sciences that have a significant field-based component, like the geosciences, pose an additional challenge for members of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community. Field-based sciences are riddled with cases of sexual harassment and assault during fieldwork. Alison Olcott and Matthew Downen conducted an online survey of geoscientists to understand the diversity in the field. Part of the survey also asked specific questions about fieldwork and remote research. Their survey showed that almost 55% of respondents indicated that the researcher did not feel safe because of their identity, expression, or presentation while doing fieldwork. A third of the respondents refused to do fieldwork due to concerns about personal safety related to their identity. As of July 2020, there are 72 countries where homosexuality is illegal, and many other countries or parts of countries where it is not illegal but the culture is not 2SLGBTQIA+ friendly. There is also a lack of faculty and department support for 2SLGBTQIA+ graduate students who are pursuing fieldwork in these countries. There should be awareness programs available for institutions and faculties related to safety issues associated with fieldwork and the potential dangers to 2SLGBTQIA+ geoscientists at field sites. 

The rainbow flag, as designed by Daniel Quasar in 2018.
Photo credits: iambirmingham.co.uk

This invisibility of 2SLGBTQIA+ in STEM, and the lack of prominent 2SLGBTQIA+ individuals in faculty and leadership positions, leads to a lack of mentorship for current and future generations. It causes a sense of isolation within STEM that could potentially alter a person’s career trajectory within the field. As we move towards more inclusive policies and initiatives in STEM, we should engage with the 2SLGBTQIA+ communities to understand and develop training programs and resources that will address their representation in STEM. Some things to start of could include: 2SLGBTQIA+ specific mentorship programs, dedicated funds for graduate students to attend conferences like Gay AGU* (American Geophysical Union), field safety training programs in the department, and using gender-neutral lesson plans in class. While looking for more visibility, online 2SLGBTQIA+ in STEM communities are becoming more important to fight back against the reality that STEM has offered to this community over the past decades. Below you can find links to the most popular online 2SLGBTQIA+ in STEM communities:

-Out in STEM: https://www.ostem.org/

-500 queer scientist: https://500queerscientists.com/

Recommend reading and references:

 

*Gay AGU: This year, AGU 2020 had a special session and panel related to Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Policies in Geosciences, and 2sLGBTQIA+ representations were discussed during that session. Unfortunately, the authors were not able to find a dedicated link for Gay AGU.

Life of a Climate Scientist: A Grad Student Spotlight on Holly Kyeore Han

Introduction by Holly Kyeore Han (she/her) and original interview by Ichiko Sugiyama (she/her)* 

Holly at a gate of the Serengeti National Park during the SEG trip to Tanzania.

Holly did an interview with the EGU (European Geosciences Union) Climate Science Division back in January 2021, as part of their Life of Climate Scientist series. She was excited to do it because it allowed her to share her academic journey and her perspectives on science and life in general. In the interview, she talks about how she entered a graduate program and her research in geophysics. She also shares what motivates her in science, how science helps her achieve her life goals, and what she thinks we as graduate students and scientists could find values in many other things than just scientific achievements.

 

Here is the link to the interview: https://blogs.egu.eu/divisions/cl/2021/03/08/life-of-a-climate-scientist-presents-holly-kyeore-han/

 

Holly on frozen Lake Baikal during her trans-Siberian railway trip in Russia.

Holly says, “Doing science is meaningful and exciting because it allows me to explore nature across time and space while connecting me to society in many practical ways. And I am sure everyone has different motivations in pursuing their science. Speaking up, listening, and respecting each other’s stories and causes will strengthen our community and allow us to level up EDI (Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion). So, what are your story and your motivation? I hope this interview gives you a chance to step back and think/share your passion, reasons, or whatever makes you continue (or stop) in life. I hope everyone stays healthy and safe! Big Hugs!”

 

 

*Ichiko Sugiyama is a Ph.D. candidate in the field of biogeochemistry at the Weizmann Institute of Science, and part of the editorial team for the EGU climate division blog. Her research combines experiments and models to understand the ancient marine iron cycle as well as better constrain metal and nutrient cycling in the Precambrian ocean.”

 

 

Soy Jessica: A Grad Student Spotlight on Ms Jessica Salas

Author: Ms Jessica Salas (she/her/ella)

**The English version follows the Spanish version**

Soy Jessica (ella). Soy Costarricense, primera generación y queer.

Viví en Costa Rica hasta los 24 años, con mis papás y mis dos hermanos. Vivimos en un barrio conflictivo donde la pobreza y problemas de drogas no pasan desapercibidos. Sin embargo, es un barrio ubicado en un hermoso valle, rodeado de vibrantes montañas y  volcanes. 

Water sampling in Rio Celeste, Volcan Tenorio, Costa Rica. November, 2018.

Mis papás no terminaron la secundaria y se desempeñan en trabajos modestos donde no siempre ganan el salario mínimo. Para ellos, la educación de sus hijos siempre fue una prioridad y se esforzaron mucho para que mis hermanos y yo tuviésemos acceso a educación de calidad. Aunque la cantidad de dinero ha sido siempre una limitante, tuve la dicha de crecer en un hogar lleno de amor, respeto y comprensión.

Gracias al esfuerzo de mis papás y al apoyo de mis hermanos, terminé mi Licenciatura (título académico entre el bachillerato y la maestría) en Química Ambiental en la Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica, en el año 2018.

Durante mis últimos años en la Universidad Nacional, trabajé como asistente de investigación en el Observatorio Vulcanológico y Sismológico de Costa Rica (OVSICORI-UNA). Las inolvidables experiencias en los cráteres activos de los volcanes de Costa Rica y la curiosidad que siempre había tenido por entender cómo funcionaban tan impresionantes procesos de la tierra, me inspiraron a formar una carrera en vulcanología. 

Las oportunidades para hacer investigación en Costa Rica son limitadas y ni yo ni mi familia sabíamos cuáles podrían ser mis opciones para lograrlo, ya que la academia nunca ha sido parte de nuestras vidas. En los investigadores del OVSICORI, muy especialmente en Maarten deMoor, encontré un mentor. Él me acompañó y guió para encontrar una universidad fuera de Costa Rica donde yo pudiera especializarme en este campo.

En agosto del 2019, llegué a Montreal, donde actualmente soy estudiante de segundo año de doctorado en el departamento de Ciencias de la Tierra y Planetarias, en McGill University. 

Mi proyecto de doctorado lo realizaré en mi país, Costa Rica. Costa Rica alberga 5 volcanes activos, los cuales son una gran amenaza para las poblaciones que habitan cerca de ellos. Mi proyecto consiste en diseñar un instrumento que sea capaz de medir las concentraciones de los gases volcánicos en las fuentes termales en tiempo real. Con este equipo se medirá la relación entre los gases que provienen del manto y los gases que provienen de las fuentes termales antes, durante y después de una erupción. El incremento en la relación de estos gases podrá ser utilizada como un parámetro para pronosticar una erupción volcánica. Con este proyecto espero cooperar con la toma de decisiones para la prevención de riesgos en mi país.

Finalmente, otro aspecto de quien soy, es mi orientación sexual. Yo me identifico como “queer”. Mi orientación sexual la he mantenido en secreto por algunos años y hoy es aún un secreto para algunos de mis familiares. En  las carreras de STEM, los miembros de la comunidad 2SLGBTQIA+ carecen de representación (» What it feels like to be queer in the Earth Sciences? GéoBlog (mcgill.ca)). Por lo tanto, la visibilidad para las personas de la comunidad 2SLGBTQIA+ en STEM es crucial, ya que proporciona una sensación de apoyo e inspiración para personas como yo, están tratando de navegar en este campo. Es por eso que decidí compartir mi historia como queer, primera generación y latinoamericana en STEM.

 

**English Version**

I am Jessica (she/her). I am Costa Rican, a first-generation University student, and queer.

I lived in Costa Rica with my parents and two brothers until I was 24. We lived in a conflict-ridden neighborhood where poverty and drug abuse were common. This said the town is located in a picturesque valley, surrounded by scenic mountains and volcanoes.

My parents did not finish high school. They have always had modest jobs, and at times this has meant not earning the minimum income. Nevertheless, my parents always prioritized the education of their children, working relentlessly to make sure my brothers and I could access high-quality education. Despite our financial situation, I consider myself lucky to have grown up in a family filled with love, care, and respect. 

Thanks to my parents’ effort and my brothers’ support, I graduated from the National University of Costa Rica with a “Licenciatura,” a degree between my Bachelors and Masters, in Environmental Chemistry in 2019.

The last years of that degree were spent working as a research assistant in the Volcanological and Seismological Observatory of Costa Rica (Observatorio Vulcanológico y Sismológico de Costa Rica OVSICORI-UNA). The unforgettable experiences in the active craters of Costa Rica’s volcanoes, combined with my long-held curiosity for better understanding Earth’s processes, inspired me to pursue a career in volcanology.

The opportunities for academic research in Costa Rica are limited. My family and I did not know what my potential options were, since academia had never been a part of our lives. Fortunately, my research mentor from OVSICORI, Maarten de Moor, introduced me to the academic world and guided me in finding an institution where I could build a career in volcanology.

I arrived in Montreal in August of 2019, where I am currently a second-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, at McGill University. 

Volcanic gas sampling in the active crater of Poas volcano, Costa Rica. January, 2019

My Ph.D. project takes me to my home country. Costa Rica is home to five currently active volcanoes that pose threats to the communities living nearby. My Ph.D. project involves designing an instrument that is capable of measuring concentrations of volcanic gases in hot springs in real-time. More specifically, the instrument can measure gas ratios between gas sources from the mantle and those from hot springs, before, during, and after eruptions. This research can potentially be used as a parameter to forecast volcanic eruptions. Therefore, I hope to mobilize this research with regards to decision-making in my country for risk prevention and hazard assessment. 

Finally, another aspect of who I am is my sexual orientation. I identify as queer. My sexual orientation was a secret for a long time, and even today, it is still a secret for some of my closest relatives. In STEM fields, the  2SLGBTQIA+ community is underrepresented ( See: What it feels like to be queer in the Earth Sciences? GéoBlog (mcgill.ca)). Therefore, visibility for people from the 2SLGBTQIA+ community in STEM is crucial as it lends a sense of support and inspiration for people like me who are currently trying to navigate in this field. As a Latin American, first-generation and self-identifying member of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community, I want to lend my support to those who are facing similar challenges, and that is why I decided to share my story.

 

Resources:

https://geolatinas.weebly.com/

Being First-Gen in STEM: https://blogs.agu.org/onthejob/2019/10/21/first-gen-stem/

https://500queerscientists.com/

https://queerinstem.org/

Subcommittee on Queer People, McGill University of the Joint Board-Senate Committee on Equity: https://www.mcgill.ca/queerequity/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Conversation with Prof. Christie Rowe, Associate Professor at the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, McGill University

Interview transcribed by Ms. Debarati Das (she/her), Ms. Meghomita Das (she/her), and Ms. Margaret Whelan (she/her)

Question

Please introduce your work and your research group!

Black and white headshot of Professor Christie Rowe

Prof Christie Rowe. Photo credits: Tim Sherry.

Answer

I am a structural/field geologist and I have been at McGill for 9 years. I am an associate professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and I currently supervise a research group of about 10 students that includes Post-docs, PhDs, Masters, and Undergrads. We all work on rock deformation and faults and shear zones. Most of our projects in some way incorporate reference to how the earthquake cycle is controlled or look for records of the earthquake cycle that reveal what causes punctuation in geologic events. We are broadly focused on observational scientific methods which include a lot of fieldwork or microscopy work. We also spend a lot of time talking to experimentalists and geophysicists to try to have a well-rounded view of rock deformation and what causes catastrophic earthquakes.

Question

What does EDI (equity, diversity and inclusion) mean to you?

Answer

It’s such a journey to try to understand all the combinations and permutations that are folded under the umbrella that is EDI. An ideal to work towards would be the idea that people should always feel that they are being judged the same as anyone else, they have the same opportunities as everyone, and that their actions will lead to the same outcomes as anyone else’s. That would be the most fair or equitable case – but I think it goes much further than this. I also want everyone to feel supported as part of a network and part of a whole. That isn’t intrinsically what EDI means but it’s an essential part of it because it is where EDI failures occur a lot of the time. For example, networks have been established in STEM over millennia of cultural development that explicitly don’t address the needs of all people equally. Because that community is such an essential part of how we do science and recognize excellence in science, we have to strongly engage with who we are as scientists and how we can ensure everyone is getting the same opportunities. Part of this struggle comes from a built-in narrative that has been established in science which dictates that certain levels of performance and intelligence are not compatible with a variety of lifestyles or backgrounds. 

I’ve been through a lot of changes and learned a lot in the past few months especially but EDI is something that has been discussed throughout my whole career. I started thinking early on about the dynamics of gender roles in the sciences and experienced the direct effects of sexism in science. Now I’m starting to understand and am hearing more stories from people who are facing discrimination as members of communities that I am not a part of which helps to paint the picture of what the scientific community is built on. 

I think my most important role is to make sure that people come into my group and are given the tools they need to succeed. I also need to prepare the world for them and try to change the world so that their excellence and their genius can be recognized. As I get older I feel I am on safer ground to take more aggressive action on both of those points. It’s a good time to learn about this right now as so many people are sharing their experiences and their voices and their resources.

Question

How have you incorporated EDI policies into your research group? Any particular criteria used for selecting candidates in your group?

Answer

When I started at McGill, I brought in 3 grad students who were people I had known and worked with before. That really reflects where I was career-wise at the time. I did not feel confident in my ability to assess people who were from different educational backgrounds that I didn’t understand. That is a prime example of me having formalized bias in my admissions policy. I do understand why I did it at the time because it feels like you are making a safe decision by choosing someone who looks like you, has the same background as you, and knows the same people as you. Two things that I have learned over the arc of the last decade however are: it’s not right to do that and characteristics like these will not guarantee that a person is a good grad student or that I will be a good mentor to them. I think I placed too much confidence in the metrics that I understood for assessing people but in reality, students will blossom in their own way. Having observed that, I am willing to take what would have formerly been a risk, and admit students because they seem passionate. I also recognize that a lot of the traditional metrics rely on standardized testing and none of these predict grad school success very well. Being in a place where you work well however has everything to do with a good fit for your goals and your activities. This is done through personal interactions which are so important in the STEM culture.

Now, I do a 15-minute interview with every person who looks like they have at least an educational background in a field that would prepare them to join my group. I no longer filter that by whether I understand how their education was or not. This is a really time-consuming way of finding grad students, but when someone shows me a lot of interest and is driven, then I actually think it doesn’t matter what their precise background is because you learn everything you need and fast during your PhD.

group of students with their professor sitting at various tables

Prof Christie with her students having a post fieldwork chat with her students at a pizza bar in Maine.

Question

Can you comment on the output of your research group and how your mentorship has helped them pursue their own journeys? 

Answer

The type of mentorship I have with each member of my group is so individual and has to do with where we are in both of our lives at the time. If a student or postdoc is interested in the career that I have right now, then I can give them more personal and professional advice. If they want something different, I often can’t help them in the same way but I try to find ways for them to succeed in the life they choose! There is generally an arc to the relationship over the course of a PhD especially. As the student proceeds and if the PhD is successful, the dynamic moves from me leading more at the beginning to a more peer-to-peer relationship.

The key thing relative to EDI here is that it doesn’t mean that every interpersonal relationship is going to be the same but it should mean that whatever happens, there is no selection bias in the opportunities of a group. I try to always take feedback and listen, and sometimes I don’t always rise to the bar that I set for myself as an advisor and supporter. In this sense, I count on having a good culture between the students and emphasize this as a cultural value.

Question

How have you seen this “lab wide safe space” amongst the alumni and current members of your research group change and grow over the years?

Answer

I try to encourage this so much and I get in trouble sometimes for buying merch pitchers for “Rowe Group” reunions at conferences. I think of it in terms of high school sports whereby your team changes every year and sometimes you have a team with great chemistry and other times you don’t. I definitely try to have a disproportionate influence on it but I can’t control that. One of the things that have been really great for the social fabric of the group is having incredible postdocs. They play a really important role in soft mentoring because the older I get the larger the gap between me and my students. It’s nice having someone to partially fill that gap.

Question

Do you have any role models? Who are they and why? 

Answer

I definitely admire and try to emulate certain things from certain people. Some are people I have had very little contact with and others that I have worked with for a very long time. My former Phd advisor (Casey Moore) is definitely one of them. He was naturally very fair and got along with everyone. I realized how unusual he was when there was a graduate student in my program who was displaying very obvious signs of mental illness and Casey took him in and did everything in his power to make it work for this student. I found that a very inspiring act of principle and fairness that you very rarely see. 

three geologists working in the field

Prof Christie back in her PhD days in Alaska, circa 2004.

I have had to look elsewhere for strong female role models which are harder to find probably because of gender behavior traditions in society. My postdoc advisor (Emily Brodsky) is a really interesting example. She is very strong and very capable of self-promoting. I feel like I think about her when I need to summon some energy to put myself out there.

My very good friend Heather Savage is in many ways a role model and a huge resource for me as well. I look to her for advice on making it work in my familial life (being a good parent and partner) while also having a cool lab and doing interesting and diverse science. She generally just works with positive/healthy people and balances everything!

Question

What do you wish your mentors had done differently (if anything) while you were a grad student?

Answer

I had a different view at that time in terms of what a mentor or graduate advisor is. I think with my current views on EDI we have to be interventionist in some way. I don’t think it’s possible to expect only students to do the work to make an equitable inclusive culture. People in leadership positions need to proactively acknowledge this fact and decide on ways they are going to make and promote an equitable safe space within STEM. 

I went to grad school in 2001 and I think that if someone acted like a 2020 professor in 2001 it would be very out of context and ineffective. That being said, there were people quietly doing effective things and I wish I had thought about it more and been a part of it. We were very concerned about bringing women into STEM in 2001. You can see the effect of it as there is a groundswell of women in their early 40s currently in geosciences. If you move up that age bracket (into women currently in their early 50s) there are still very few. In fact, a lot of the women in that older age bracket still negate to acknowledge the sexism and sexual assault/harassment that existed and I can’t believe that it was less rampant back then when there were fewer women and less dialogue. With every potential case of prejudice, there is normally an alibi situation and some ambiguity involved which was always used as a justification. This is probably what was happening with women and like I said now we are on much safer ground and so that gives us power and we need to use it. 

Question

How do you wish to champion EDI efforts in geosciences in the future (getting diverse speakers, hiring committees, outreach activities, and group-level activities)?

Answer

There are some things that are obviously part of my responsibility sphere already that need design help and intervention. For example, I am working on putting forth field safety plans that ensure any student or person conducting fieldwork has the tools to do so safely.

On the department scale, our recruitment process is very ad hoc right now and we don’t discuss the standards, criteria, or policies between research groups. I know this will confront the autonomous aspect of the department’s culture which is what allowed me to explore my interviewing process (and I am grateful for that) but I think we need to develop some good guidance/code of conduct in order to enable people to recruit students/faculty according to good principles.

Question

What would be your message to the students who might see/read this? A parting message if you will.

Answer

A lot of students that are entering grad school do not realize what the life of a grad student is. They anticipate some sort of confirmation of their merit and they don’t realize the individuality of the project – you are applying for one job and it’s about fit. I want students to know that they should be interviewing their prospective advisors as hard or harder than the advisors are assessing them. They should also find out everything they can about the local culture and the health of the research group by talking to students above/below and alumni. 

Woman sitting on a rock outcrop with a notebook

Prof Christie in her field area in Alaska, making important observations of the outcrops.

You should also be able to talk about your long term goals. If you put the time in to really think about where this potential graduate program might take you, you are much better equipped to assess if that advisor is the right person to help you get there. I think sometimes people don’t develop their own vision so they think the prof will take care of the vision for them.

 

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