For women entering STEM fields today, there are more female role models than in the past, a representation vital for encouraging women and girls to enter scientific fields such as ecology. For young women who haven’t personally known another woman in a STEM field, it can sometimes be challenging to believe they belong in this type of professional or academic setting. This is why the ecologists profiled in Women in Ecology have emphasized the value of mentorship and supporting female students and early-career scientists.
We discussed this with Dana Chadwick, post-doctoral research fellow at Stanford University, who specializes in Earth Systems Science. She shared with us her experiences with mentorship, both as a mentee and as a source of support for her own students, and describes the importance of research opportunities around the world for building important skill sets.
Q: What inspired you to become involved in your current research field?
As an undergraduate I studied genetics and, while it was interesting, the scale didn’t really inspire me. So, I dual-majored in environmental economics, and after graduating I worked for a company that specialized in renewable energy credits and carbon offsets. I got experience in land-based carbon management and found it was really exciting. In exploring how those protocols were being developed, using really small plots to make large-scale inferences, it seemed impossible that the complexity of landscapes was being fully captured. When I went to graduate school, I was really interested in ecosystems at landscape-management scale and forest dynamics in particular. That’s how I found my way into ecology and biogeochemistry—thinking about how landscapes form and evolve, and how that dictates what lives where in a landscape.
Q: Please tell us a little about your career path.
I completed my undergraduate degree at UC Berkeley in 2008 and I got a job at 3Degrees, a renewable energy and carbon offset marketer. I worked there for three years, ultimately as a project manager. For me, taking the time off from school was incredibly valuable. I learned a lot about budgeting, project organization, and managing which has served me well because these skills are not often explicitly taught in graduate programs. I also learned a lot about the state of carbon offset markets and the fungibility of forest land as an asset—it can be used for conservation, carbon credits, pulp and paper, logging, and more. In that process I got really interested in sustainable forest harvesting and nutrient sustainability, so when the company began to wind down its consulting projects, I took the opportunity to apply to graduate school.
I was really interested in working with airborne data sets, and I was fortunate to receive my Ph.D. from Stanford working in Greg Asner’s group, then at the Carnegie Institution. At the time, this was one of very few groups working in the tropics at that scale, and I was thrilled to be accepted to work with them. In addition, there were very strong biogeochemistry, soils, and geomorphology groups who welcomed me and supported me in exploring landscape-scale biogeochemistry. I worked on what was then the Carnegie Airborne Observatory team, learning about flight planning in Peru and running large field sampling efforts. I feel incredibly lucky for the knowledge I’ve gained through these experiences.
Once I graduated I received an NSF postdoctoral fellowship to work with Kate Maher at Stanford and Eoin Brodie at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. It was through this position that I had the opportunity to work with the DOE Watershed Function Scientific Focus Area team to coordinate the first NEON AOP assignable asset survey in Crested Butte, CO. I am still a postdoctoral researcher with Kate, working on this project.
Q: Who were your most important influences/mentors in ecological science?
I guess I’d say that I’ve been fortunate to have a wide variety of research mentors that, while mostly outside of ecological science, have all played a role in helping me to develop myself as a researcher and scientist. My father is a soil chemist so while I initially tried to get away from environmental science through exploring genetics and economics in undergrad, I couldn’t help but be drawn back to it and I certainly see much of the environment through the lens that he shared with me. I would go out into the field with my dad and tag along on his undergrad field courses, and this molded my perspective of how the environment functions. My mom also has her Master’s in horticulture, and my brother is a geomicrobiologist, so nature and environmental science have always been common topics in our family. They are all, of course, incredibly important influences on me.
I was also fortunate to have had a very good early mentorship experience. As an undergraduate I assisted with research in a chemical biology lab and a graduate student at the time named Phung Gip was a wonderful mentor to me. She spent so much time with me, in the lab, practicing presentations, getting to know me, and inviting me to play intramural soccer. I learned so much from her and her support at that time boosted my confidence tremendously. Her mentoring provided me the guidance and support to take advantages of opportunities that subsequent advisers in graduate school and postdocs created for me.
When I transitioned to environmental economics at Berkeley, I worked with David Roland-Holst who led a project where I went to Laos for two months to conduct household surveys. I didn’t speak Laotian, and I had to figure out how to navigate the bureaucracy and the countryside, and it taught me a lot about resilience and trusting myself. Greg Asner, who I mentioned earlier, provided me with many opportunities from working on flight campaigns to leading field work in Peru and in Malaysian-Borneo. Now I’m working with Kate Maher at Stanford, and she has been very supportive of my research and professional development during my past several years as a post-doc in her lab group.
Q: What challenges do you think women may face getting into STEM fields? Have you experienced or overcome any of these?
Well, I think that it’s important to acknowledge that not all women’s experiences are the same. As a white woman raised by scientist parents, I grew up with a sense of belonging in the academic community and my challenges have been minimal. I certainly experience self-doubt, which can be exacerbated by gender dynamics, however, it has been relatively easy for me to envision myself in a research role because I had examples of what these roles entail and the career path has been encouraged, especially by female mentors like Kate.
There are still social obstacles for women broadly when pursuing field science, and this is why mentorship and representation are so important. I’ve had questions about my competency as a team leader and at the same time experienced the expectation to “be nicer” than my male counterparts. If you know people who’ve worked in various types of field science, it’s easier to imagine yourself in that leadership role, brush off these issues as they arise, and find people in the community willing to support you. But many people don’t have that luxury.
In addition, there are still big issues of sexual harassment, misogyny, and gendered power dynamics that arise within ecology and STEM, and these often are especially fraught in the context of fieldwork-based sciences. These issues tend to still be poorly handled at the institutional level and cause severe disruption and emotional strain on women who are victims of this type of discrimination and abuse.
These challenges are compounded for women of color, especially Black and Indigenous women, who are massively underrepresented in ecological and geological sciences and face the biggest challenges as a result of their intersecting identities and the lack of existing representation in STEM fields. While this is not new information, the geology and ecology communities continue to have a lot to learn and much work to do. It is essential that we pay attention to what is being shared on social media via efforts such as #BlackInTheIvory and #BlackInSTEM. We need to take our colleagues’ experiences to heart and continue the work required to make STEM and ecology more inclusive by dismantling structural barriers to entry.
Q: How can research and educational institutions inspire more women to study fields in ecology and to remain in the profession?
I think that there is a bit of a problem even with the phrasing of this question – I would argue that there are plenty of women that are inspired to study ecology and STEM fields, but that it is often problems within these institutions that cause them to turn away. We continue to hear discussion of the “leaky pipeline,” but I resist this notion because women in STEM fields are making decisions about what’s best for them, their families, and their careers, and often what they decide is that it is best for them to leave STEM research. So, we should really be asking ourselves why that is.
These are hard questions, especially acknowledging that all women do not have the same set of experiences and pressures. However, we do know that women continue to do a disproportionate amount of household work and childcare, in addition to experiencing significant wage gaps, which are even more significant for women of color. Pair this with an academic culture that often treats science as a lifestyle requiring 60+ hours per week of commitment to be ‘serious’ and it is easy to see where problems arise.
I’m not in organizational behavior or sociology, so I’m not going to pretend that I have the expertise to comment on what policies or other steps should be taken to reverse this trend at the institutional level. However, I am working to better educate myself on how to be more inclusive in my work and to promote spaces that are accepting and welcoming. I do think that both institutions and the individuals already employed by them need to be willing and able to accept feedback, reevaluate structures, and consider how people within institutions need to alter their own behaviors in order to make remaining in these research and educational institutions an appealing choice for women looking for careers in STEM.
Q: What work are you most proud of at this point in your career?
I would say two things: the first were studies I led, one in Peru and one in Borneo, to explore how landscape evolution affects the organization of ecosystems across different landscapes using trait maps from imaging spectroscopy. I’m happy I’ve been able to do that and pull together tools from different groups and disciplines, such as geomorphic modeling software. The findings of these studies were published in Ecology Letters, and I’ve been really excited to see these studies come to fruition.
The second thing I’m most proud of is working with a large, multidisciplinary team, including the NEON AOP group, on the first AOP Assignable Asset survey. During the 2018 AOP in Crested Butte, CO, I worked with a team from Lawrence Berkeley National Lab’s Watershed Function Science Focus Area, Stanford, and other universities for a large field collection project. I communicated with the flight team daily and coordinated the field collections—it was a really amazing opportunity to collect a wide range of sample types in tandem with the AOP collections. I’d never worked with that range of disciplines before. We had botanists, microbial ecologists, soil scientists, geochemists, and geophysicists working together - it was great to have that range of expertise in the field and was an amazing opportunity to develop collaborative relationships.
Q: What do you hope to do in your field in the future?
I’m really excited about working across disciplines including geomorphology, hydrology, and geology, and linking those with the field of ecology. Being part of the NEON community as well as a watershed-focused community has let me expand my network of people who are experts in fields far outside mine, and that’s allowed me to think differently about how future work will be defined and implemented. I believe that the future of environment and ecological sciences has to be multidisciplinary, and I have drawn a lot of inspiration from critical zone science. I’m looking forward to moving these ideas forward and utilizing the AOP platform as a part of that.
Q: What is the most satisfying part of being an ecologist? What is the most challenging?
I would say the most satisfying part is being out in the field. I love thinking about how to design field sampling that tells us what we want to know. Where the ideas meet the ground, if you will, is very satisfying. Recently, I’ve also been doing more mentoring and it’s been really fun to help people think through those things and give them space to explore their ideas and what they want to discover through their science.
As far as challenging, transitioning from field work to analysis coding and then to writing can be tough. With writing, I tend to have a particular nervousness and resistance to putting my thoughts and interpretations down on paper - it can be intimidating and leave me feeling quite vulnerable, and I hit writer’s block often. I think that’s a challenging part of the process for a lot of people. I’ve learned that part of my process is that I have to do a lot of composing in my head, mentally constructing and revising paragraphs, and I have to allow myself time for that process even if it looks like I’m not making a lot of tangible progress.
Q: Tell us more about your work studying the interconnections among ecosystems, critical zone processes, and the evolution of landscapes.
I’m looking at the process of designing integrated airborne campaigns and documenting the trait maps from NEON AOP data in Colorado, and those are now going to be publicly available. We have imaging spectroscopy data that informs foliar nitrogen concentrations and leaf water concentrations across different ecosystems including conifers, aspen forests, and willows in riparian zones, which are all very different systems than what I’ve worked in before. I’m also working with Kate Maher on a project funded through the National Science Foundation’s Signals in the Soils program to look at how the properties that we detect on the land surface may allow us to predict soil carbon composition. Now that we have our methods documented and these trait maps available, I’m excited about how we use these data sets to gain a deeper perspective of what the sub-surface is doing.
Q: What is the most alarming discovery you have made? What is the most promising?
My work has been mostly directed at studying processes over long timescales, so I’ve been mostly outside the realm of many alarming discoveries with regards to the impact of human disturbances and climate change. However, I am starting to explore how landscapes and their dynamics impact the vulnerability of vegetation species and the stability of soil carbon in the face of climate change. What does that mean for nutrient dynamics? It’s quite possible it could be alarming.
In terms of the most promising, I would say it’s being able to understand the above-ground and below-ground linkages and what that means for soil carbon stability. How does that play out over dynamic landscapes? This isn’t going to happen in small plots—it’s going to be spatially distributed. I think there are also a lot of interesting things coming out of NEON and similar networks, and as our capacity for collecting and interpreting that data expands, there is a lot of promise for understanding the feedback within ecosystems and critical zones that may allow us to manage them better into the future.