Hello and welcome to another edition of GeoBits! Today, we're honoring International Women's Day with some most excellent bits featuring women in the geosciences.
I've been reading Mary Fairfax Somerville's memoirs, and it strikes me forcefully how sexism has robbed science of brilliant scientists on the basis that they were female instead of male. She speaks of all the battles she had to fight with her family and society to pursue her education in math, astronomy, and the geosciences. She tells of one well-educated woman whose work was published under her husband's name.
This wasn't uncommon. Women often had to publish their work under men's names, whether under the names of relatives or mentors, or under male pseudonyms, in order to get anything published at all. And even when we have women who, like Mary Somerville, were recognized in their time as brilliant scientists, whose husbands supported and encouraged their work, who published extensively under their own names, we don't often hear of them.
I don't recall any women of science referred to in my grade school years aside from Marie Curie. We weren't taught about other women in STEM. We weren't taught about women like Mary Horner Lyell, who worked alongside their husbands and were just as accomplished. I learned about William Herschel; I heard not a word about his sister Caroline, who was every bit the astronomer he was. Even women who attained honors in their day were erased from our curriculum.
Is it any wonder I grew up thinking STEM wasn't for me? It's only by a lot of fortunate accidents that I'm here talking geology with you. I'd never have dreamed this was a possibility when I was a kid.
Representation matters. And the links below represent only a tiny fraction of all of the awesome things past, present, and future women of STEM are doing.
“The GeoGirls field camp program is remarkable in that it allows young girls — the rising generation of scientists — to get out in the field and actually work with women scientists from the USGS, other federal, state and local agencies, universities and private geotechnical firms,” said Aimee Devaris, USGS Alaska regional director. “These interactions open a GeoGirl’s future to choosing careers these girls didn’t even know existed before this program, as well as a clear and attainable path forward. Moreover, women researchers are able to educate and encourage girls to pursue their passion for science.”
According to 14-year-old GeoGirl Megan Martin of Vancouver, Wash., the program was an outstanding experience. “It was amazing, knowing I was one of twenty-five girls to be accepted into this program. Working together with volunteers who care about this subject, and girls my age who were willing to fight and learn about the secrets of the stones all around us, was incredible.”
Fourteen-year-old Kayla Houk of Centralia, Wash., agreed. “This experience was unbelievable! I never could have imagined doing anything like this, pushing myself with all the hikes and meeting a bunch of new friends. Overall this experience was the time of my life, and I feel so empowered to get to spend these few days with such amazing women scientists.”
In partnership with their scientist mentors, the GeoGirls explore their outdoor laboratory, learning about ecology and ecosystems, soils and groundwater. They map ash and pumice deposits, observe subsurface layers of the volcano using ground-penetrating radar, examine rocks and minerals under a microscope, analyze seismic signatures, and, on their last day, participate in a volcano crisis mission, applying what they learned to a scenario of increasing volcanic unrest.
Florence Bascom was the first woman hired by the USGS in 1896. She combined teaching with field and laboratory work to become an authority on the rocks of the Piedmont. Julia Gardner followed, using her experience as a paleontologist during World War II to help pinpoint the Japanese military’s launch sites for balloonborne incendiary bomb attacks against the Pacific Northwest by analyzing seashells in the sand ballast of balloons.
The term “STEM” has been used to group together the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics and to describe education and professions related to these fields. The professional fields connected to STEM education are thought of as engineering, medicine, and computer technology. Yet these professional fields are merely the tip of the iceberg. Numerous opportunities in these fields encompass environmental research. The possibilities range from predicting the next earthquake to saving polar bears from extinction to developing a vaccine for salmon measles.
The science of natural systems is complex and often requires people from a variety of fields of expertise to make headway with a solution. To that end, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has long recognized the need for a diversity of STEM expertise to address the Nation’s environmental research needs and the vision to facilitate integration of these fields. We are team builders!
In this book, we point out the many facets of research carried out by USGS STEM scientists in an effort to show career options and pathways not typically pursued. The women portrayed were selected by USGS associate and regional directors as representative of particular fields and to inspire future generations.
Later this year is the centenary of the end of the First World War, one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history, which led to the deaths of nearly 20 million people. But as Patricia Fara shows in her new book, A Lab of One’s Own, the Great War also gave some women the chance to emerge from the shadows and show their mettle as scientists, whether by digging experimental trenches to research trench foot, x-raying wounded soldiers on the battlefront, or inventing explosives.
Speaking from Claire College, Cambridge, where she is a fellow and president of the British Society for the History of Science, Fara explains how Darwin’s theory of evolution put forward the idea that women were intellectually inferior to men; how American-born scientist Ray Costelloe became a leading member of Virginia Woolf’s Bloomsbury Group; and how, even today, women scientists still face enormous challenges, not least from a lack of child care.
“What gets remembered is determined by who is in the room doing the remembering,” Betty Reid Soskin likes to say. So she’s made it her singular purpose to always be in the room.
Today that room is the auditorium at the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California, where—at 97—she’s the oldest person now serving as a permanent National Park Service ranger. She packs the theater three times a week with talks about the Rosies and the typically white narrative about the women who served the war effort, but interweaves her experience as a young black woman in segregated America.
There are a few things you should know about my friend Betty. Barely five feet three inches tall, she is sylphlike and strong. When she walks, she leans slightly forward, as if facing a headwind, and strides with speed and purpose. Betty never planned to be a ranger. She got the job at the young age of 85, after working as a field representative for her California assemblywoman, Dion Aroner. Aroner asked her to sit in on planning meetings for what would become the park, and Betty quickly saw that, if she didn’t speak up, the park would portray a whitewashed version of history. “There was no conspiracy to leave my history out,” she says. “There was simply no one in that room with any reason to know it.”
Women have always been a part of science. We have always made valuable contributions, discoveries, and innovations. And current and future generations of women will expand our knowledge of the Earth and the Universe far beyond what we can even imagine today.
Here's to those women who persist.