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Why Can’t I Be You: Meredith Kelly

In which we talk climate change, travel, and cosmogenic nuclide surface exposure dating. You know, the usual.

Illustration by Ruby A.

Geologist and paleoclimatologist Meredith Kelly is a total badass. Currently an assistant professor at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, she studies glacial and sedimentary evidence for clues on what Earth’s climate was like in the past to better understand how it might change in the future. Her focus on ancient fluctuations in temperature takes her to the most extreme landscapes on the planet to collect data, from the Dry Valleys of Antarctica to the far reaches of Greenland, from the tropical ice caps of the Peruvian Andes to the Rwenzori Mountains of Uganda. Her work is fascinating and SO IMPORTANT, and her life is shaped by her deep curiosity about how things work. Basically she’s living all of our scientist-superhero dreams.

What got you interested in science?

I always knew I liked the sciences. I liked that they were analytical, and they involved questions, and you could actually find answers to those questions. I always had a harder time with more abstract concepts. Even though I loved art, and I still love writing a lot, I felt like my analytical side was a lot more developed than my creative side. Then there’s also my absolute love for the outdoors. Growing up in Cleveland, we spent Saturdays and Sundays in the Metroparks. Some of my first memories are of walking around and appreciating the outdoors with my family. I think that’s part of why I always liked geology and earth sciences—because a lot of what I do now is wander around outside and look at things.

How did you end up becoming a professor?

I went to Tufts University as an undergrad, and I was thinking maybe I’d try biology. I took my first biology class, and it was filled with pre-med students who were very competitive and not very nice. I knew I didn’t want to study with those kinds of people for four years. So I took a geology class, and I absolutely fell in love with it. It was a really basic class, but we took field trips every week and went out around Boston and learned about landscape evolution and how North America was built, and it was just awesome. After I graduated from college, I took a bike trip with a friend, and we biked from Montana to Seattle. I realized that people have a really disconnected relationship with the environment. So I had the idea to do outdoor scientific education and work with kids. I got a temporary job at the North Cascades Institute in Washington and taught there for a little bit. It was really fun, but it was all temporary work, so I decided to get a master’s degree. I knew by then I wanted to study geologic history.

Why was that?

Well, my project in college involved studying glacial lake sediments in the Connecticut River Valley. The entire valley was once filled with a huge lake, created when the glacial ice sheet retreated northward through New England and left meltwater behind. I was trying to understand why the landscape, particularly in New England, looks like it does. So I went to the University of Maine to do my master’s. I got to study with this professor who did a lot of work in Antarctica, and for my thesis research I spent three months there. We flew to McMurdo Station—

Oh, I know about it from Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World, the documentary about the weirdo characters that live there!

Yeah, there are definitely some weirdo characters down there. I totally fit in with them! But instead of living in McMurdo, I took a helicopter with my undergraduate field assistant to this area called the Dry Valleys. We spent three months there without coming back to civilization, and it was just the two of us for most of the time. We didn’t have electricity, we didn’t have running water, we didn’t have heat. I actually didn’t shower for 98 days. I guess that places me in the weirdo category right there!

You were there in summer—isn’t that the time of the year when the sun never sets?

Yeah, it’s still cold, but you have 24 hours of daylight. Our tent was yellow—it’s really hard to fall asleep in a bright yellow tent!

What were you doing there?

We were, and are, trying to put together a history of the Antarctic ice sheet, and particularly trying to understand a time in the geologic past when the climate was warm—quite warm actually. So we are trying to figure out how stable that ice sheet has been in warm climates, and if ever it melted a lot or disappeared completely. And we’re trying to figure out how stable that ice sheet is going to be in our future.

What did you wear while you were in the field?

I had six pairs of socks. One pair of pants. And a couple pairs of long underwear and a jacket. For three months I didn’t think about what I was putting on for the day. It was dry enough down there that we didn’t get completely disgusting, but I definitely wanted to shower when I got back. The whole experience was amazing. At that point I thought: I want to be a scientist. This is SO MUCH FUN. I get to be outside, I get to travel to amazing places, I get to think about really interesting questions and test these questions with my data!

How did that experience affect you?

When I got back to civilization it was so hard to understand anything that was going on. Like people who were rushing in the morning to get their coffee and absolutely needed to have this particular thing…I couldn’t relate to that for a while.

What did you do after you got back?

I decided to pursue my Ph.D. at the University of Bern in Switzerland. I didn’t know any German, and I didn’t know anyone there. My field area had the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc in it, so I got to spend every summer for three summers walking through the Alps and looking at glacial features and making maps and taking samples.

Environmental scientists have been investigating the Swiss Alps for a long time. What were you doing that was new?

I was mapping the upper surface of the Alpine ice cap—and I was doing it in a much more detailed manner than it had been done before. I was using new technology to determine the age of rock surfaces, a method that’s called cosmogenic nuclide surface exposure dating. It allows me to take a piece of rock that’s exposed to Earth’s surface and be able to tell the last time that rock was uncovered by ice. One thing you can tell from the older Alpine ice cap is where the most precipitation occurred. From that we can map out where we think precipitation was coming from. These and other studies provide information about climate conditions of the past, and they can help predict future climate.

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20 Comments

  • Adrienne November 5th, 2012 11:16 PM

    Wow, what an inspiring woman!! I think I’d like to go into science in the future. In fact, when I was little, I told people that I wanted to be an archaeologist who found dinosaur bones every week. Right now, I’m more interested in Quantum Physics, but honors physics is so freaking hard…. ugh I’m trying to do my circular motion and vector forces homework right now. I just want to skip to Quantum Mechanics!

    http://theaverageasiangirl.blogspot.com

    • Yani November 6th, 2012 12:20 AM

      <3 quantum physics.
      skip! haha

  • Manning November 5th, 2012 11:24 PM

    Great article on an inspiring scientist. But it’s MarIE Tharpe!!!

  • jenaimarley November 5th, 2012 11:26 PM

    OH MY GODS LOVE LOVE LOVE!
    This woman is absolutely amazing and inspiring and so relavent to me (AND THE WORLD) right now!
    (Also random but I just went on a diversity pre-college fly-in to Tufts!)
    Anyway… It makes me so upset how something like climate change (and the need to lower greenhouse gas emissions) can be so politicized and argued over in partisan politics. Like guyyyyzz, please just work together to solve this stuff!!!

  • Ozma November 6th, 2012 12:09 AM

    Hell yes!!! Lady scientists!
    Seriously, Rookie is so astounding. It covers a really vast range of subjects and it is always real. :)

  • Yani November 6th, 2012 12:19 AM

    you are SO AWESOME meredith, I hope to see more women in the field / getting the information out there myself. what a cool job.

  • Maddy November 6th, 2012 8:34 AM

    Here’s all I know about glacial earth science: Milankovitch cycles, ice cores, moraines. Done. That’s cool you get to travel around and do geology. I think that really makes the field more active and less like you’re studying the distant irrelevant past, because, of course, the Earth is changing now so it’s not irrelevant.

  • Emilie November 6th, 2012 9:21 AM

    she is SO COOL

  • raggedyanarchy November 6th, 2012 9:28 AM

    Too cool! I was always really interested in science (anyone else go through a dinosaur phase?) and I still know my local Natural Science Museum by heart. I spent, like, my entire childhood there. Ha, the only problem is, I hate math. And I suck at physics. Or at least the math part. I get the theories and hypothetical problems and stuff, but the math kills me.
    I’m really interested in anatomy and chemistry, but I adore psychology. It’s a lot of fun to figure out why someone does something in a science-y way.

  • marimba_girl November 6th, 2012 9:34 AM

    AWESOMESAUCE!!! I’m so excited for college next year I just want to learn cool stuff and get the hell out of high school.

  • justbouton November 6th, 2012 11:05 AM

    I’m so glad Rookie is featuring female scientists! Yay!

    • AnaRuiz November 6th, 2012 5:38 PM

      Me too!! There’s such an amazing variety of heroines out there, and of the scientist kind is so cool! This interview especially made me want to get out and explore the Earth and gather up ants.

      anaruizwriting.blogspot.com

  • Sofia November 6th, 2012 2:21 PM

    I go to Tufts! (hi jenai!)

  • Isabelle97 November 6th, 2012 2:44 PM

    Awesome awesome awesome <3 Please lots more science/nature girl posts, I can't get enough of this stuff :)

  • tove November 6th, 2012 3:43 PM

    God, I love scientists. They are always the best of people, aren’t they?

  • ivoire November 7th, 2012 5:57 AM

    TAKE ME AS A STUDENT WHEN I AM OLDER!!!!!

  • joenjwang November 7th, 2012 1:13 PM

    omg, I am experiencing the same exact thing
    “I took my first biology class, and it was filled with pre-med students who were very competitive and not very nice. I knew I didn’t want to study with those kinds of people for four years. ” I EVEN THOUGHT OF SWITCHING TO GEOLOGY BUT!!! my university has no geology course whatsoever. I would lovelovelove to be a paleontologist gawddd I should transfer (then again, I don’t know if I would like geology. urgh)

    • justbouton November 7th, 2012 5:51 PM

      Wow, I have been in a very similar situation. I study geology as an undergrad, and I chose it for pretty much for this reason– biology folks were generally pre-med, and the geology department had a very supportive, lovely community. I don’t know your situation, so feel free to ignore my comments– I just had the exact same decision process when I was making this decision.

      In my experience, geologists are very, very passionate, and you don’t get as much of the pre-med stuff. Mostly, people really care about the earth, and you still get to do science. At my school, the study of geology/climate has a lot of overlap with ecology and present conditions. There is still some problematic stuff, though: if you go into geology, some people end up working for oil companies. Money is a big motivator :(. But, obviously Meredith Kelly was able to have an awesome, interesting intellectual life! And paleoclimatology is SO SO important.

      I would say– if you have a science-y brain and like research– and you’re interested in the history of the earth to the point of obsession–you would probably love geology! It’s fascinating stuff. You could also probably major in biology/chemistry/geography and then go to grad school for geology, if you like your school too much to transfer.

      Anyway, I didn’t think I’d run into these subjects on Rookie– very cool!

  • Cutesycreator aka Monica January 14th, 2013 3:45 PM

    I thoroughly enjoyed this article. Meredith Kelly is an inspiration! :)