We reflect on important role models, and the role of science idols, as a part of our path as scientists.
I’m grateful for the numerous individuals throughout my life who have served as my scientific mentors and role models. By the later, I’m referring to scientists who I’ve admired from afar; they’ve had a positive impact on humanity either during my time (e.g., United States Geological Survey researcher, Dr. Carol Kendall, who co-edited of a textbook describing stable oxygen and hydrogen isotope methods now used by many researchers studying the hydrologic cycle) or at another point in history (e.g., Ada Lovelace and Dr. Carl Segan). However, for this FeminaSci post, my mind keeps coming back to one person: Margaret Wooster. I met Margaret when I worked as an Americorps Member stationed in Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper (BNRK), a nonprofit in Buffalo, New York with the mission to “[protect] and [restore] our water and surrounding ecosystems for the benefit of current and future generations” (BNRK, 2018). Margaret is an ecologist, conservationist, naturalist, and writer. I only interacted with her a few times during my time at BNRK, but her book Living Waters: Reading the Rivers of the Lower Great Lakes made a strong impression on me. In reading about the natural, social, and political history of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario region while working at BNRK, I gained a deeper appreciation for the my local water resources. Growing up in Buffalo, I’d always loved swimming in Lake Erie, and fishing in local creeks, but didn’t realize how important these water resources were in shaping the past, present, and future of my community. Also, in reading her book, I realized that scientific writing didn’t always have to take the form of abstract, introduction, methods, results, discussion, and conclusion. That is, storytelling and instilling curiosity were also key ingredients to effective science communication. Beyond appreciation, Margaret’s writing and the work of BNRK staff, ultimately, inspired me to act. After working at BNRK, I realized that protecting and improving water resources was something I’d like to do full time. While my approach looks/will look different from those of my science role models, it’s fun to think about how I can follow their example and use my strengths to advance water resource management.
I struggle a little with the concept of having science idols. While I have had amazing mentors along my scientific journey so far, many of whom I consider role models, I think it is a bit dangerous to develop science idols. By elevating scientists to the level of idol, I find that I “other” them from myself and push them, or the kind of research they conduct, to a place of unattainability. That said, I know it has been important for me to have female, science role models throughout my education, who I look up to as I start a career in academia. Nancy Sheehy, my junior high biology instructor, was an incredible educator who loved the natural world and compelled us to work hard to understand the biology around through exploration of our local environments. In high school, Lori Gillam taught me the foundations of chemistry. In undergrad, I had many wonderful professors who never doubted my abilities to succeed in a field that was only starting to address its gender imbalance. I want this kind of welcoming environment for more traditionally underrepresented folks in STEM and think there is power in having role models who represent this diversity. During graduate school, I got to meet a science idol, Dr. Nicole Dubilier, when she spoke at a symposium on campus about her work in hydrothermal vents and the microbes and marine invertebrates that live in intricate symbioses there. I met and walked around campus with her between symposium talks. It was a pleasant surprise to learn I could fall into easy conversation with someone who’s research I so respected, and was intimidated by. I felt like I had a window into her straightforward and practical approach to research, while also chatting about work-life balance. So, personally, I’m reimagining the people I’ve elevated to science idol status, as role models I haven’t yet met!