Stanford University
Researchers on hangar of ship at sunrise.

Q&A: Women in oceanography

BY Alex Fox
ClockDecember 21, 2018

Earth system science professor Karen Casciotti and her PhD student, Colette Kelly, recently returned from a research cruise through the Pacific Ocean along 152° W between Alaska and Tahiti with GEOTRACES GP15, part of an effort to better understand the world's oceans through chemistry and oceanography. They specialize in nitrogen cycle biogeochemistry, including how nitrate, nitrite and nitrous oxide (N2O) are produced and consumed in ocean waters – important components for marine plant life and climate stability. 

Casciotti served as co-chief scientist on the cruise along with Phoebe Lam of the University of California, Santa Cruz. Together, the pair made up the first female-led research expedition in the history of the U.S. GEOTRACES program. Kelly spent GP15 researching the marine nitrogen cycle and working as a “super technician,” a position that required her to collect and manage samples for researchers back on land.

Alex Fox, outreach ambassador for GEOGRACES 15, sat down with each of them to ask about their paths to oceanography, the challenges they’ve faced along the way and what changes they’ve seen in the culture and composition of oceanography.

The following Q&A originally appeared on the GEOTRACES GP15 website, https://geotraces-gp15.com/, and was adapted here with permission.

Karen Casciotti and Colette Kelly at port.
Colette Kelly (left) and Karen Casciotti are pictured loading supplies at a dock before departing for Alaska. (Photo credit: Alex Fox)

How did you first get interested in science and what drew you to oceanography?

CASCIOTTI: I’ve been interested in science as long as I can remember. It reaches all the way back to elementary school. I’ve been lucky to have some great teachers.

When I started college I wanted a major that helped me bring together my interests in a variety of different fields – chemistry, biology, physics and math. I went to school for environmental engineering and discovered oceanography along the way. Going to sea was what really got me hooked. I really enjoy the field work.

KELLY: I grew up around nature and spent a lot of time outside as a kid in Vermont. It sparked an interest in nature and the environment and in college I became interested in science and research. I became interested in oceanography in particular after spending a semester at sea during college.

Were there particular role models or people who encouraged you early in your life who made a big impact on you?

CASCIOTTI: Bess Ward was my PhD advisor, and she inspired me every step of the way. She was always asking amazing questions. She wasn’t a professor who just sat in her office. She was always in the lab doing research. She stayed current and always had her own experiments going. Her work ethic really stuck with me. She taught me to be more organized. Bess’ ethic of getting things done ahead of time is something I try to emulate.

Mary Lidstrom is also a big role model of mine. She is a microbiologist and was my undergraduate advisor at Caltech. I met with her often for academic advice and I still keep in touch with her. She was one of the rare female professors of her generation who also had kids.

KELLY: The people who really encouraged me to pursue that were mostly male advisors at Barnard College who really, really believed in me and encouraged me to keep pursuing research and seek out opportunities. Now, Karen Casciotti is my PhD advisor, and she is an incredible role model. Not just being a female scientist, but also being a mom. Watching her doing it has totally inverted my sense of what I thought was possible – especially at a high-powered institution like Stanford.

Bess Ward also made a huge impact on me. She was the chief scientist on my first oceanographic expedition in grad school. In Karenʼs lab we study nitrogen, and Bess is the queen of nitrogen. She was Karenʼs PhD advisor, and she’s a force of nature. Watching her operate I remember thinking, “wow, this is what I aspire to be.” Watching her execute experiments, interact with people and command respect was awe-inspiring.

Karen Casciotti on ship.
Karen Casciotti takes a sample from the CTD rosette in the R/V Roger Revelle’s hangar. (Photo credit: Alex Fox)

What gender dynamics have you observed since entering the field?

KELLY: It’s another example of the leaky pipeline. As you move up the hierarchy in science you find fewer and fewer women. There are lots of women in PhD programs, but not as many post docs, even fewer female assistant professors and the list goes on. One thing that surprised me was that the majority of lead researchers on this expedition are male. GEOTRACES has 27 funded research projects and many of them are led by men. Expeditions I’ve been on that were more focused on biological oceanography had more gender parity.

Are there more women in oceanography now than when you first entered the field?

CASCIOTTI: I’ve noticed that the number of women in the room at ocean sciences meetings has increased dramatically since I first started going. Biological oceanography seems to have more women. Chemical oceanography tends to be more male dominated, but lately that’s where I’ve noticed the biggest changes. Women are fairly well represented at the grad level in trace element biogeochemistry, and that is starting to trickle up to the faculty level. There have been a lot of amazing women chemical oceanographers coming up through the GEOTRACES program. These women are early career professors now and they came up as grad students doing expeditions like this one.

Research programs with long expeditions are difficult for scientists trying to start or maintain families. That’s something that impacts all genders. To make a name for yourself early in your career you have to show up and if you have a young family it’s hard to be away. I haven’t traveled as much as other people in my position. I hadn’t been on a cruise in ten years before GP15, and I only go to one or two meetings a year. That’s how I’ve decided to manage it, but it’s definitely a hurdle.

Karen Casciotti and Colette Kelly
Kelly and Casciotti work together in the main lab of the R/V Roger Revelle. (Photo credit: Alex Fox)

What motivates and inspires you? Is there a certain mentality you adopt when things get hard?

CASCIOTTI: I take pride in finishing things and making progress. I don’t have a lot of ego about what I do. I just love to talk science and brainstorm and ask questions – coming up with ideas and problem solving keeps me going. I take on more things than I should sometimes, but I like helping other people. It sounds weird but I thrive on working hard. I like being busy and having a purpose.

KELLY: I love my research. It feels relevant and important to me. Even when the usual backstops of enjoying it and getting paid for it seem paltry, I have the additional backstop of thinking that itʼs important for the world.

There is also something really enlivening about being at sea. Youʼre going out on the back deck carrying heavy bottles of water with waves hitting you and rain coming down sideways in the middle of the night, and the experience is so visceral that it becomes addictive. Itʼs really hard work, but there are moments that are so rewarding.

Do you have any advice to budding oceanographers who have trouble seeing themselves in the field?

CASCIOTTI: Keep at it. There is room for everyone in science. Just because something hasn’t been done before doesn’t mean you can’t do it. Also, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to talk to the leaders in your field and reach out to them at a conference or a talk. They’re people too and they were once in your position. If you’re thinking of becoming a research scientist and starting a family, I would say there is never a bad time but there’s also never a good time. There will always be struggles balancing family and work, especially in oceanography. Don’t bank on the next stage being easier, because it probably won’t be. I didn’t have many examples of other women in oceanography who had children. But I wanted to have a family and I wasn’t going to let my job interfere with that. I didn’t know for sure if I could do it, but it was important to me, so I went for it.

KELLY: There are so many tiny things that you wouldn’t know how to do without a support system. Even things as basic as knowing that you have to reach out to a potential grad school advisor before applying to grad school. Lastly, don’t be afraid to question experiences that make you feel badly about yourself. Don’t assume that it’s your fault if you’re made to feel incompetent or unworthy of respect – chances are, it’s not your fault.

Casciotti is a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and a member of Bio-X. GEOTRACES GP15 is supported by the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Media Contacts

Danielle T. Tucker

School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences

dttucker@stanford.edu, 650-497-9541

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