There’s so much debate about climate change. Some people don’t think it’s a pressing issue. What are your thoughts?
Climate is definitely changing. Climate has always changed. Right now we’re in a relatively warm period that has lasted for about 10,000 years. There have been a lot of climate changes within this period, from a little bit warmer to colder and wetter. And it looks like one of the coldest and wettest times happened about 200 years ago. That was the Little Ice Age, when a lot of glaciers advanced and there were a lot of really cold winters, including the disastrous “Year Without a Summer” in New England. But we do know that people’s influence on climate, particularly emitting CO2 and methane and other greenhouse gasses, is causing warming. It’s a physical fact. The levels of greenhouse gases are out of the range of “natural.” And we have NO IDEA what’s going to happen. We have no idea how to handle what we’re doing to the climate. From my work in North Greenland I know that there were times when it was probably a couple degrees warmer than it is now. We are looking at that time and trying to figure out, “Hey, did the ice sheet melt a lot?” Because if it happens again, that melting is going to influence sea level, and it’s going to affect coastal areas everywhere. So that’s a big question.
Do you feel politicians are taking this seriously enough?
I am very concerned about the near-total lack of concern from politicians about climate change. We need to actively reduce our greenhouse-gas emissions. Scientists worldwide are in agreement that if we don’t do this, the climate will warm and cause significant impacts, such as major droughts and a rise in sea levels. I understand that issues such as the economy impact individuals on a daily basis and therefore are at the forefront of public and political concern, but I hope that reducing greenhouse-gas emissions becomes a public priority.
There was recently a study that found that science professors—both male and female—are biased against female students. Did you face resistance as you pursued your studies?
I feel like I’ve gotten lucky with advisors. All the people who have been my mentors and advisors have been really supportive. But I also tolerate a lot of shit. I’ve gone to people to ask, “Should I take this job or that job?” And one of them said, “I think you should just get married and have kids.” People are ruthless! I’ve heard from women professors who say, “I would never take a woman student into the field because they can’t lift stuff and they can’t carry stuff.” A lot of my strongest Ph.D. students are women! And I mean physically strongest! It’s still a really harsh environment for women. I think you have to have a thick skin. I would try to either laugh it off or go home and cry about it.
But then you have the Larry Summerses of the world suggesting that women may be innately worse at math and science—that must make you crazy.
Those are the things you just have to laugh off. Part of my goal is really to get women interested in science and involved in science. So I actively take women grad students. I make sure I’m taking half or more. I taught one of our intro classes this year, and I always talk about women in science, like Marie Curie and Marie Tharp, who was one of the first people to map the ocean floor. I really try to get women working in my lab. But it’s hard.
What’s the most difficult thing about being a woman in your field?
I’m always having to pick up and move. The hard thing for me was that I actually had to find someone who was willing to put up with my lifestyle. A lot of the male professors at Dartmouth came here with wives and kids, and a lot of the female professors are single. It’s such a different thing for a man to say, “Well, I’m going to give up my life and move around with you.” But I found one who will! I got lucky! He’s a professor as well, but he’s just resigned from his job because we were living apart, and we just decided that my job is more actively focused on what I want to be doing, so he’s gonna find something else to do. It’s awesome.
Now do you just basically jet around the world to work with all kinds of fascinating people?
I do, it’s crazy! Last summer I was in Peru. This summer I was in Uganda, I came home for a month, and then I went to north Greenland. Then I went to a field class in Wyoming, and then two weeks later I had my own wedding! I can go anywhere as long as I have a good idea. It’s really empowering to think: I’m the real deal, I’m a scientist now.
For me, high school was the point where science turned from being this fun thing where you got to make stuff and go on trips to a discipline that’s more about problem sets and lab work. What would you say to people who are just starting to get intimidated by the subject?
Try not to get intimidated. Try it out. If it seems hard, then keep trying. You do have to know the basics of math and physics and chemistry for pretty much every science. But if you can get through those, then a lot of science is really hands-on. I was drawn to earth science because you can actually hold things in your hand and look at them. If you’re comfortable with microbiology or chemistry or looking at things on Mars or whatever, don’t back down from it. Figuring out how the earth works is so much fun. And so dorky—but don’t ever worry that the dorkiness is not cool. ’Cause dorkiness is so cool. ♦