Saturday, May 22, 2021

A sense of belonging—what keeps a scientist engaged?

Dave Velinsky, Noreen Tuross, Marilyn, busy office, 1989

With a taste of research as an undergraduate student at Penn State University, I knew what I wanted to do with my career—become a scientist delving into how life had unfolded on earth and study its complexities now and in the past. I identified at this age (20 years old) as a scientist, not a stable isotope geochemist—that came later. As I neared graduation in August 1973, I was ready to take on a job as a scientist with a B.S. degree in biology. My first offer was to begin as a plant physiologist working for the Campbell’s Soup Company in Camden, New Jersey. I was offered the position at $5,000 per year. But I’d been bitten by the research bug. Prof. Peter Given, an organic geochemist at Penn State, opened up that science door for me (Penn State). I turned down the Campbell’s Soup offer and pursued grad school instead.


Marilyn and Nat Peters, 1973

I jumped in with both feet. I did a little project on iron binding compounds in the estuaries and mud flats of South Texas. I developed greater lab skills. I wrote my first scientific paper. I was engaged in the work. After I completed nine graduate classes, passed my German foreign language exam, and took the candidacy exam for my PhD, I had reached the competence level appropriate for a grad student (Grad student years).


I belonged to the profession of science. I was a scientist—now even a biogeochemist.


But there was something missing. Although I “belonged” to this small group of people who identify as such, I lacked the personal interactions with colleagues or my major professors that provide the social strings to belonging. I was a quiet student [I was known as The Phantom], one woman in a lab of all men, and an outlier in South Texas, since I hailed from New Jersey, which most Texans thought was a city or town part of an unknown state. I spoke to Chase Van Baalen, my closest major professor, maybe every other week. Pat Parker, then the Director of the Lab, was too busy. Bob Tabita, my microbiologist mentor, was based in Austin, far away from Port Aransas, where the Marine Science Institute was based. We interacted every 2-3 months. My fellow students were either born again Christians or Yahoo Texans. I was neither.


Seth Newsome, Anne J., Chris, post-vaccine

The reflections on “belonging” were sparked this past week, in the class I am teaching with 22 grad students via Zoom at UC Riverside. We read and discussed a paper (Rainey et al. cited below) that brought all of this to a sharp focus for me. The topic for the week was Women in Science, something I’m familiar with to say the least. Rainey et al.’s paper identified four aspects that solidified a person’s sense of belonging in science: identity, competence, interest, and personal interactions. In discussion with some of students, I was surprised to learn that although they had the interest and the personal connections, they did not identify, yet, as being a scientist. Some questioned their competence. The isolation of the pandemic hasn’t helped.


That sense of belonging for me now is all about people and personal interactions—and has been for some time. As my formal career as a scientist, a stable isotope geochemist, winds down, people have made the journey special.


I’ve been thinking this week about how I got to this sense of belonging. When I first arrived at the Geophysical Lab as a postdoc, I was even more a fish out of water than I was in Texas. I was a biologist with a degree in botany in the midst of high temperature/pressure petrologists. During those early years, I continued to grow in terms of identity—now a stable isotope biogeochemist—and competence, as well as a widening interest in what I wanted to study. It took a good five years for me to make those personal connections (New staff member).


I began my own lab group—Steve Macko was a first partner. We exchanged ideas daily, hourly. Then, Luis Cifuentes, David Velinsky, Noreen Tuross, and Paul Koch followed. My office was the center of a growing group of young biogeochemical stars. I had a silver bowl always filled with peanuts in their shells. People from the Lab drifted in for a quick snack, littered the floor with peanut husks, and shared their day. Tom Hoering and Doug Rumble, fellow staff members, became friends. The administrative and custodial folks dropped by for casual conversation, and some advice. Visitors from around the United States came to use my lab. I made connections with outside colleagues—Jon Sharp (Univ. of Delaware), Brad Tebo (Scripps), Hans Paerl (Univ. of North Carolina), and Ron Benner (Univ. of Georgia).


Will Porter and Associate Prof. Hoori Ajami, Salton Sea

Today, even with the pandemic and my inability to travel far, I am connected to several networks of people. The listserve Isogeochem offers the chance to reach into the labs of more than 3,500 scientists. As Equity Advisor for UC Riverside’s College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, I work with another 100 folkx of all sorts working to promote fairness and inclusion. I also engage weekly with the Salton Sea Task Force, a group of about 20, that I started in 2019 to study the environmental, medical, and energy problems surrounding Southern California’s largest inland lake. Further, I’m still working with students, postdocs, and collaborators finishing up projects that keep us all engaged—butterfly physiology, bacterial isotopes, diet experiments, wildlife isotope ecology, food webs, and new methods for measuring isotopes within molecules. Once a month since the pandemic began, the Geochem Girls (Kate Freeman, Hilairy Hartnett, Liz Sikes, and Liz Canuel) zoom on Saturday evenings with cocktails to hash out what we’re thinking about.


Hilairy, Liz S., Marilyn, Kate: GeochemGirls

Now, the Moderna vaccine has opened up in person visits! Chris and I are starting to host dinner parties with neighbors, welcome family, and look forward to welcoming those special science colleagues that have become dear friends.


As the world readjusts to seeing people in person, it is important, especially for those establishing their careers to make those personal interactions, jump back into active research, and yeah, don’t be hesitant to identify a special part of you as a scientist. You are the future. We need you!


Race and gender differences in how sense of belonging influences decisions to major in STEM, Katherine Rainey, Melissa Dancy, Roslyn Mickelson, Elizabeth Stearns & Stephanie Moller.


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