Today's post is a guest post by a friend of mine and Sister in Science. She and I met in college. I was an Agriculture major and she was a Geology major. At the time, we were both the only black female students in our respective departments. In fact, she was the very first African-American student to receive a degree in Geology, now the Department of Earth Sciences from our alma mater, Tennessee Technological University.

Here is her story of how she arrived at science.

Charlette Clark, Geologist

“You can do what you have to do, and sometimes you can do it even better than you think you can” ~ Jimmy Carter

I have this posted on my mirror, but I find that I do not look at it often enough. As a geologist/environmental compliance consultant, with nearly 15 years in the field, internships at noteworthy institutions and a couple of decent certifications under my belt, one would think that at this stage of my career I would be set and wouldn’t require the words of others or daily quotes as an inspiration to perform the daily grind of “saving the planet”. Still I do. I think, as a touchy feely scientist, we all need that little kick, that motivation to keep us at the top of our game. Heck, sometimes we need that motivation to even make it off the bench or to even make it to the game. Here’s my story.

Geology was never the vision for me as a young girl. I grew up drawing pictures of butterflies and flowers. I wanted to believe in fairies, flying horses, dragons and the power of what I considered to be the innate goodness of mankind. Because I connected so well with people of various backgrounds (beyond race, age, gender and class) I was told to go into social work or teaching. However, teaching (specifically the tact required to be a teacher) never appealed to me. The friends in high school that I was most drawn to (platonically) were adventurous, free spirited, outdoorsy males. By default of where I grew up (Powell, Tennessee), coupled with shared interests, these males were usually white. We discussed everything from the latest Metallica releases to hard-core survival tactics in the unlikely event that we ever found ourselves lost in the woods from some phenomenal outdoors expedition. From them, I learned of the best places to hike and it was in hiking that I found my peace, my center. So when it came time for me to attend college, there was no question that I would be doing something relative to the environment. I just didn’t know what. Then one day, during a visit home from college, my father (an employee at the Department of Energy in Oak Ridge, Tennessee) took me on a site visit to a restricted part of the X-10 plant where they used to make parts for nuclear weapons. On this visit, I saw where and how the government stored their radioactive waste materials. It changed my life and it was the deciding moment on how I would impact the environment. At 19 I decided that I wanted to help figure out a better way to store, reuse or dispose of things we discard on a grand scale. Landfills weren’t going to last forever and the bunkers that contained the radioactive material seemed to go on forever. As my dad drove me away from those bunkers, I remember the feeling of my heart literally beating faster and my brain stimulated so intensely at the endless possibilities of what laid in store for me!

Behind me are hazardous waste drums at a car manufacturing site that I am testing.

At my college, we did not have an environmental science or environmental engineering program. We only had a civil engineering program so I enrolled in that hoping to dabble a bit in remediation. However, I had to take a non-engineering science elective one semester and I chose “Introduction to Geology”. There, I met a room full of people adventurous, free spirited, outdoorsy males who “got it”. Who “got” my passion for the outdoors and who embraced the sensation of the sun of your face. The engineers I met were smart, but frankly lacked that depth of spirit, that interpersonal connection that was such an innate fabric of my being. So I switched majors and became a geology student and from there I developed critical thinking without having to sacrifice my soul to the “straight and narrow gods”. As the only African American person in that department, somehow I still never felt out of place because my zest for science and understanding the earth and her processes made me feel secure and at home. As oftentimes the lone female in the bunch, I managed to excel because I made bloody sure that I could do anything the boys could so…and sometimes I did it better than I thought I could. It was not to be competitive in a negative sense, but I did it to establish the fact that I BELONGED THERE. There were boys and professors who tried to discourage me, intimidate me but I outlasted them because I knew in my gut that I belonged in that building with those rocks and minerals. Somehow, even though they were not like me, I proved by default that I was a lot like them and my tenacity kept me in the game. My passion to learn rock formations and to perform intellectually what was asked of me superseded eating, sleeping, dancing and on occasion bathing (smile). In the end I succeeded. I did what I had to do and did it even better than I thought I could and oddly enough, in my plight to be a geologist, my “schooling” never superseded my natural gravitation to connect with people on a level beyond the superficial. It’s almost an oxymoron to me that a person who is so drawn to the most lifeless thing on this planet (rocks and dirt) can be so effortlessly in tune with the life force of nature…the life force that we all possess.

Geologist Charlette Clark on a roof doing a spill prevention assessment

Now, as a consultant, I see that oxymoron is a gift. That trait to look for the best in people has sustained me as a scientist. True, I have the degrees: BS Geology (Bachelor of Science degree), MSPH in Environmental Health (Masters of Science in Public Health), and CHMM (Certified Hazardous Materials Manager). I have worked on some extremely stressful, intense projects. I’m still working nights at times. Even more challenging is the fact that soil and groundwater remediation technology is ever evolving, as it should. Yet, what has consistently been more important to me has been to ensure that I understood the needs of others and then to go the extra mile to convey that understanding into a product they could walk away with. I take great joy in that. I’m still the only African American Geology graduate from Tennessee Technological University. I’m still questioned by colleagues who doubt that I belong in this field of study. I’m still getting up every day to prove myself to MYSELF and to others. I’m certainly still trying to find that balance between eating, sleeping, dancing, bathing and meeting that deadline. However, I am happy with my decision to be a scientist and not a teacher (as my father desired) nor a fairy (what I desired). Instead, I am a product of the best of both worlds and of many worlds. I am science.