Renaissance women being scientists!

When I was living in Mexico last year, I spent most of my time working (as I should have since I was there conducting research for my dissertation). However, I was able to take a few days off to go to one of the most glorious places, the state of Oaxaca. While I was there, I went rafting with some really amazing people on the Copalita River. Afterward, one of the rafting guides and I were conversing about why I was in Mexico, and I emphasized my interest in food security without cost to conservation. As one might imagine, because he makes his living off the natural environment, the guide was super pleased to hear that I was working in sustainable agriculture. At the end of the conversation and as he was leaving, the guide told me to keep doing the work I do, because the world needs people like me. I think back to this moment often, because at the time all I could think of was staying in Zipolite and trying to be a beach bum, because, frankly, I was exhausted. Now that I am anxious about my looming comprehensive exam (“comps”) on July 14, I am reminded of this moment and reflecting on the fact that, yes, maybe the world needs people like me, but the world also needs people like him. I can’t happily be a scientist without the opportunity to go out and see the natural world as it should be, and this often means going to places and doing things that I should not do alone, simply because of logistics in many cases. So, while this gentleman, whose name of course escapes me, seemed to revere the work I do, clearly, I find his work equally as important.

In my pre-comps mode, I can’t help but think about that story and how I ended up on this life path, and per usual, I have also read some recent media that has made me reflect on this. Regardless of what we end up doing with ourselves for money, I do think it is important to find meaning in the work we do. Too, I think it is important to be mindful of the role different people may play in our lives in helping accomplish whatever personal and professional goals we may have. Personally, I find happiness in being (hopefully) a well-rounded food security conservation scientist (is that a thing? I just made that a thing), hence the reason I appreciate the training I can receive in my dual-title international agriculture and development (INTAD) PhD program at Penn State. In this program, we are required to take a broad view of our respective sciences, and think about how, for example, political ecology might affect a farmer’s decision making process.

I do think all scientists should have to take some social science theory, philosophy, or some other courses that may broaden their worldview. Apparently this is not a widely held view, however. Recently Neil deGrasse Tyson, for example, has been in a public discussion about the irrelevance of the philosophy of science. I know little about the field of philosophy, and probably less about Dr. Tyson, but I do find the argument offensive that scientists should avoid “branching out,” so-to-speak. Obviously, if we think back to some of the most-well known early scientists, these were renaissance people, with a very diverse set of interests. To neglect what we can learn from others outside our primary field of interest is incredibly irresponsible if we are attempting to train scientists who can effectively communicate with the layperson, or who may have mass appeal to the taxpayer (and, let’s be real, this is totally necessary with the way science is funded in the U.S.).

To go back to the INTAD program, I have had the great pleasure of meeting some amazing women through the INTAD courses I have taken. Again, thanks to these classes, I think I will be a better and more informed scientist than I would be otherwise, and this is in large part to some of the theory I have had to learn in the associated coursework. But I also think that the relationships I am building with my INTAD colleagues and others at Penn State will be extremely helpful for my scientific network in the future. It seems research is increasingly collaborative in the U.S., and I’m excited about having people like Paige Castellanos and Katie Tavenner in my professional (and personal!) network. These ladies study agriculture from a rural sociology perspective, e.g. in attempting to synthesize data for change-makers and using indigenous knowledge to conserve biodiversity, and I find them inspiring. Regardless of what Dr. Tyson may say, I think there is much overlap between the work that Paige, Katie and I do, and we are better off understanding the theory and motivations behind each others’ research. Katie and I are both interested in biodiversity conservation, and her policy work may help in implementing whatever conservation strategies come out of my science, for example.

While I am lucky to be able to draw on the experiences of Paige and Katie to emphasize my point on the need for being a broadly focused scientist, I don’t want to neglect what life scientists can learn from other social scientists, and vice versa. As my rafting friend in Mexico implied, we need a diversity of people, doing diverse work, from diverse perspectives. Since Dr. Tyson may be an advocate of diversity in science, this is why I find his rhetoric on avoiding philosophy so frustrating. To reference one of my earlier posts on diversity from a personality perspective, we need to stop limiting the discussion of diversity in science to gender and race, and expand it out to personality, ways of thinking, approaches to studying the same field, etc. So, to continue with the theme of featuring pictures of lady scientists that I admire, and feel represent the diversity of personality and perspectives that I am advocating for, I include pictures once again. Of Paige and Katie, but also of myself and a dear friend, Katie Bamberger, who also represents the diversity in the sciences well (she is a social scientist, but she grows basil better than anyone I know).

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