Staff scientist Sarah Elmendorf on what it was like growing up interested in STEM

May 08, 2015

By Leslie Goldman

This is the second interview of an ongoing series about Women in STEM who work at the National Ecological Observatory Network.

Meet Sarah Elmendorf

I’m Sarah Elemendorf and I'm a staff scientist at NEON. Together with other scientists and programmers, I develop algorithms for automated processing of the large volumes of field and lab data collected by NEON.  The algorithms serve to produce both quality controlled, standardized raw datasets, as well as variables derived from statistical models. All of these data are made freely available via our public data portal, where scientists, students, and the general public can access them to evaluate the impacts of climate change, land-use change, and invasive species on natural systems.

What inspires you to work for NEON?

I think NEON has the potential to radically advance the field of ecology.  Ecology as a discipline has a long history of site-specific case studies, but the generality of ecological principles can only be demonstrated or disproved by repeating the same experiment or monitoring protocol many times, in many places.  I have worked on several large ecological synthesis projects integrating disparate datasets that were collected by independent PIs. Frequently, we run into impasses due to data availability or methodological differences using these 'found' datasets.  My personal belief is that these limitations can only be overcome through data-standardization, open access data policies, and long-term, spatially distributed monitoring.

Are you working on any cool research outside of NEON?

Yes! I am currently collaborating with a large group of international scientists analyzing shrub rings collected throughout the circumpolar Arctic to understand the drivers of shrub expansion in tundra ecosystems. The goal is to understand the implications of rapid climate warming in high latitudes on the vegetation growth and composition.

When did you know you wanted pursue a career in STEM?

I think I actively fought off a career in STEM for most of junior high, high school, and even into college.  I recall being totally mortified about winning 2nd place in a state-wide math contest in 6th grade.  It just seemed irreparably uncool to be a female math/science person at that age/era.  In college, I started out in the humanities, and then moved to social sciences.  I switched majors two or three times until it finally dawned on me that I'm fundamentally an empiricist at heart, and the courses I liked best were these pesky science classes I had been taking to satisfy my 'distribution requirements.' I took up biology again at age 20, and amazingly that stuck.

Which parts of STEM are relevant to what you do?

Science, technology, mathematics

What relevant STEM schooling have you had?

B.A. Biology
M.A. Biology
Ph.D. Ecology

Any words of wisdom for girls or young women about STEM careers/schooling?

My 8 year old daughter and her best friend chose to sign up for computer coding and physics camps this summer, something I would never have done at that age.  I hope they love it.  I hope there will be tons of other girls in their class. I am optimistic that the Lean In era of the 2010s means girls today know that science and math are cool and that everyone should learn computer programming!

About the NEON #WomeninSTEM series

According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, women in fields commonly referred to as STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) made up only 25 percent of the STEM workforce in 2011. However, women earn more college and graduate degrees than men, and they make up half the national workforce. So, why aren't more women going into STEM careers? In this series of interviews of staff at National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), we will feature some of the amazing female STEM professionals at NEON and ask them to talk about how they found their way into the world of STEM and what words of advice they have to give the next generation of girls in STEM.

Sarah is just one of the many amazing STEM professionals that work at NEON. This series of staff spotlights will hopefully give women and girls some insight and inspiration about what it is like to be a STEM professional. NEON STEM-related positions include engineers, scientists, educators, computer scientists, system engineers and more. To learn about current career opportunities like being a staff scientist, visit our Careers page. NEON also offers an annual summer internship program to give qualified undergraduates the opportunity to gain work experience in an interdisciplinary STEM environment.

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