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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