Christine Wiedinmyer, PhD – Associate Director for Science, Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, University of Colorado Boulder
Dr. Christine Wiedinmyer is formerly a Scientist III at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado. In 2017, she took over as Associate Director for Science at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her training is in the areas of chemical engineering and atmospheric chemistry, and her research for NCAR’s Atmospheric Chemistry Observations & Modeling Laboratory focused on identifying the impacts of pollutants in the atmosphere. She is also a longtime member of the Earth Science Women’s Network (ESWN), and currently serves on the organization’s Leadership Board. Dr. Wiedinmyer holds a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering from Tulane University and a PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin).
[OnlineEducation.com] Your training is in chemical engineering, but is it fair to say that the work you were doing at NCAR is in the field of climate science research?
[Dr. Wiedinmyer] Yes, all my degrees are in chemical engineering. And, yes, the work I do falls into that broad category of climate research. My position title was “Scientist”, so I consider myself an atmospheric scientist rather than an engineer, although I feel like a lot of my science is driven by engineering principles.
[OnlineEducation.com] Is chemical engineering a typical route to working in climate and/or atmospheric science?
[Dr. Wiedinmyer] Not necessarily for climate science, but I would say definitely for air quality and air pollution research. There are great engineering programs that have strong air quality components. The professor with whom I studied with at UT Austin was a chemical engineer who came from Caltech, where they have an extremely strong atmospheric chemistry program. There are other great engineering programs across the country that focus on air quality and chemistry, performing measurements of the atmosphere, and building instrumentation. So, there is a large engineering component to atmospheric science.
[OnlineEducation.com] As an undergraduate, you studied chemical engineering. Was that the source of your initial interest in atmospheric chemistry?
[Dr. Wiedinmyer] It was completely unintentional. I loved math in high school, so as soon as I could drop foreign languages and take extra math classes I did. As an undergraduate, I applied to the Arts and Sciences School with the intention of declaring a math major. I got a notice the summer before I began college that said I would have to take three semesters of a foreign language as an arts and sciences major. There were no foreign language requirements for engineering, so I transferred into engineering.
I started out in biomedical engineering because I thought I wanted to go to medical school. All the freshmen engineers took the same classes together, and there was a Wednesday seminar where they had different department chairs come in to talk about their fields – chemical engineering, civil engineering, mechanical engineering… The head of the chemical engineering department was awesome. He said something like: “There are a bunch of you in here that are in biomedical engineering. Let me tell you something about biomedical engineering: you either have to go to graduate school or to medical school, and there really are very few jobs for undergrads. If you come into Chemical Engineering, you get all of your premed prerequisites done so you can go to medical school. But if you choose not to, you can get a really high-paying job as an undergrad.” I think thirty of us transferred into chemical engineering that day.
By my junior year, I realized that I loved the engineering, and I was less interested in the premed prerequisites. I also realized that if I went to graduate school in engineering, they would pay my way, whereas in medical school I would be in debt for a long time. That reinforced the engineering part for me.
[OnlineEducation.com] So, you were making practical decisions, which is in keeping with an engineering mindset.
[Dr. Wiedinmyer] My parents were professors, so I was exposed to higher education and advanced degrees. I didn’t know what I wanted to do after I finished college, but I knew I didn’t want to work at a refinery on the Gulf Coast. After I finished my undergraduate program, I took a year off to apply to grad schools. I had no idea what kind of research I wanted to do; I had no idea who I wanted to work with. I just applied to schools where I wanted to be or programs that I thought I might be able to get into.
In grad school I was introduced to the person who became my advisor and to the field of air quality and air pollution research. The work we did was identifying and developing effective strategies to reduce air pollution in the state of Texas. So, my career path was very unintentional, but I ended up loving what I do and the community I work with. I’ve been very fortunate in that regard. As a graduate student, I met most of the people that I eventually ended up working with at different organizations, including NCAR. I had a supervisor at NCAR for 13 years and he was somebody I met in graduate school.
[OnlineEducation.com] Did you participate in any internship programs along the way?
[Dr. Wiedinmyer] No. As an undergrad I did work with a professor, and I was an undergraduate lab assistant, so I did have exposure to research and working in a lab. In graduate school there was really no opportunity to do anything more than the PhD research. You’re getting paid as a graduate student to do research on specific projects, so there isn’t much opportunity for internships.
[OnlineEducation.com] As an undergraduate engineering major did you happen to notice the male/female composition of the classes you took? Engineering has traditionally been a male-dominated field.
[Dr. Wiedinmyer] It has. But what’s interesting is that my undergraduate chemical engineering class was pretty well mixed. I’d say 30-40% of the students were women. My graduate program at UT was less balanced. But the group that I was in was different: we had more women students than men. I don’t know if that’s an indicator of the topic, because I’ve noticed that more women tend to go into environmental areas, or if it had to do with my advisor, because I think he worked better with women then some of the other advisors. He was new professor at UT when I started, and he brought with him several women who had previously worked with him.
[OnlineEducation.com] How would you characterize the composition of the faculty?
[Dr. Wiedinmyer] I can’t remember any women at Tulane. None. And none of the post-docs; they were all men. When I was in the graduate program at UT, I think the department had 35-40 faculty members, and there was only one woman. There were some women faculty in civil engineering, but there was only one in chemical engineering.
[OnlineEducation.com] Did that make an impression on you?
[Dr. Wiedinmyer] Oh, yeah. It’s something that I recognized pretty early on. I remember, I had a conference in ’96 or ’97 – I was a first or second year student – and I had never been to a conference before. I asked my supervisor for advice so I would know what to expect, and I wanted to know what I should wear. He told me that he typically wore khakis, a button-down shirt, and a tie to conferences. That wasn’t very helpful to me. What I needed was the perspective of a woman. It may seem trivial, but it’s a topic that comes up again and again: What to wear? How to act? What is appropriate behavior? The answers to those questions may be different for men and women.
[OnlineEducation.com] How did you deal with that situation?
[Dr. Wiedinmyer] Luckily, my mother is an academic. She’s not a scientist, but I remember she helped me prepare for that first conference. I look back on my graduate experience, and I think there was a lot of advice that I should have been given. I do think that people are becoming more and more aware of some of these things. For example, there’s a lot more awareness now about doing fieldwork as a woman, about what’s safe, what’s right, what constitutes appropriate behavior. That has come to the attention of a larger community of women. I was fortunate enough as an early career researcher to be surrounded by peer mentors and friends across the community. If I couldn’t find them in my own organization, I found them elsewhere, through meetings and field experiences. It helped form a community that I could rely on. That’s how the Earth Science Women’s Network came about.
[OnlineEducation.com] If you were giving advice from your current position to yourself as a grad student, what kind of things do you think would have been useful for you to know?
[Dr. Wiedinmyer] Find a community with peers and mentors that can provide you the right inputs in terms of being a woman in science. If you can’t find people in your own department and they’re not in your immediate group, then look outside and be proactive about that. You really do need a team of mentors. That’s what I did and what I’ve done, and I think that’s helped me to be successful. I should have been more proactive with my supervisor in graduate school. I did a lot of fieldwork independently, and I wish he’d given me a bit more guidance in certain areas. And I would have benefitted from knowing more about appropriate behaviors in the field, and what the roles, responsibilities, and expectations are in fieldwork situations. I managed to navigate that on my own, which was fine, and maybe it helped me to becoming the independent researcher that I am. But I would like to have been presented with a more clearly defined idea of what constitutes acceptable behaviors at a conference and at field sites.
[OnlineEducation.com] The female scientist in a fieldwork situation is a comic motif of sorts that you see in a lot of movies. Typically, a female archeologist shows up at a site that is clearly set up for male researchers and it’s played for comic effect.
[Dr. Wiedinmyer] Oh yeah. Actually, there’s been a lot written out on the Twitter-sphere on women and fieldwork in just the last couple of weeks. It’s particularly important for geoscientists because we do so much in the field. Just having bathroom accommodations is a big thing.
[OnlineEducation.com] These are everyday, practical concerns, not large philosophical issues, and yet they can be barriers for women who are pursuing training and education in the Earth sciences.
[Dr. Wiedinmyer] That’s right. I’ve been in a fieldwork situation where eight of us shared a big bunkhouse, and with the exception of me, it was all men. I didn’t even think twice about it. Now I look back and I think that that was kind of inappropriate. I didn’t mind at the time, but there was no one to point out that that might not have been the best arrangement.
[OnlineEducation.com] Have you seen much improvement in these practical areas?
[Dr. Wiedinmyer] I think we’re getting there. These issues are being brought to the attention of a lot of people in the community, they’re being identified, and they’re being discussed. There are different issues in different fields. For example, there was an oceanographer at a recent ESWN lunch that’d returned from a fieldwork expedition. Being the only woman on a research vessel is an interesting thing. She said that she’d felt uncomfortable on a boat with 50 men, so she had spent much of her off time in her cabin.
As a result, she was not given a good recommendation because they said that she wasn’t social enough. It had nothing to do with the quality of her research.
[OnlineEducation.com] Let’s talk about the ESWN, because my understanding is that the organization had its genesis in discussions about topics just like that. You were involved in the founding of the organization, right?
[Dr. Wiedinmyer] So, not too long after I got my PhD, I met a woman who is now one of my best friends and mentors. She was finishing up her graduate degree and she told me about a couple of women she’d met at a conference; that they were all the only women in their departments; and that they’d discussed all of these issues that you wouldn’t really bring up with male colleagues. Issues like, when do we have babies? Do we change our names when we get married? What do we wear to a conference? How do we manage work and life responsibilities, particularly as we move on to our next career position? She invited me to join their email list. It was just six people, and we had these discussions, and we started inviting more and more women to join. Before we knew it, there were 50 people on the list.
The discussions we had, and continue to have, were open and honest conversations about all sorts of issues. We also shared job announcements, which we eventually split off so that anyone can look at our job list. It was obvious there was a need for a place for women to hold discussions that pertain to their work, but that they weren’t able to have in their work settings. We got funding from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration at one point, which enabled us to have our first board meeting. And from there, we wrote a grant proposal and got funding from the National Science Foundation to formalize the organization. We began providing workshops to early-career women to help them develop skills that you don’t necessarily get in graduate school – leadership building, professional development, that kind of thing.
One of our goals has been to make the ESWN a sustainable organization. We decided to become a non-profit a couple of years ago, and we’re still dealing with the issues that come with growing and supporting a non-profit.
On a personal note, I can say that I’m where I am today in my career because of interactions with and support from the women who are part of the ESWN. Without the peer mentoring, the discussions, the information, and the encouragement I’ve gotten from members of the ESWN, I would not be as successful as I am today.
[OnlineEducation.com] What were some of the more productive discussions you had in the ESWN in those formative years?
[Dr. Wiedinmyer] One topic that came up a lot was breastfeeding at conferences. Women who are going to a conference want to know what they should do about breastfeeding while they’re there. A lot of suggestions came out of those discussions, and the American Geophysical Union (AGU) now has a place for breastfeeding at its conferences. Another topic of conversation that comes up often is whether or not a woman should take her husband’s name when they get married, and how to navigate that. A lot of women will take their husband’s name legally, but not professionally, so what are the implications of that decision? There have also been discussions about harassment, and a lot of questions about finding and interviewing for jobs, negotiating, and becoming a tenured professor.
[OnlineEducation.com] All of these conversations are taking place in the context of data that indicates that women are in fact earning more advanced degrees in the physical sciences…
[Dr. Wiedinmyer] But then they don’t stay in the pipeline.
[OnlineEducation.com] Exactly. Roughly only a quarter of environmental scientists, for example, are women. Clearly, something isn’t working quite right. Do you think it’s implicit bias or are there structural issues?
[Dr. Wiedinmyer] I do think that implicit bias plays a big role. I see it everywhere. But it commonly isn’t any big, obvious action. It’s more like death by a thousand cuts.
[OnlineEducation.com] Do you think there’s a perception that work in a field like engineering or environmental science is both challenging and, to the extent that you’re out doing fieldwork, just plain dirty?
[Dr. Wiedinmyer] Yeah, but that’s the fun part. There is a stereotype that women don’t like to get dirty. But, I know plenty of women who really enjoy being out there doing fieldwork. For some, it’s the best part of our jobs; we get to go out to interesting places and get our hands and feet dirty.
[OnlineEducation.com] What are some of the bigger issues today that you think women should be aware of if they’re considering a career in chemical engineering, in atmospheric science, or in a broader range of STEM fields?
[Dr. Wiedinmyer] Things have improved in a lot of ways. However, there is still some blatant stereotyping and a lot of implicit bias when it comes to women in many of these fields. I don’t want to be discouraging because I think what I do is awesome, and I’m very fortunate to get to do something that I find interesting and rewarding. But there are real challenges for women, some of which I only began to appreciate more recently.
When I was younger, I didn’t feel like I had to deal with much in the way of bias, and I never really saw it. But, I’m much more aware of those issues now, and I’m also more likely to notice how limitations and barriers have impacted my own career at least partly because I’m a woman. At the same time, I’ve surrounded myself with an incredible network of mentors, and I’ve had the support and resources to succeed and overcome those barriers.
[OnlineEducation.com] If you wanted to encourage women to pursue careers in fields like chemical engineering and environmental science – and, I assume you would want to do that – what would you emphasize?
[Dr. Wiedinmyer] The jobs. It’s an amazing career. I love science and math. I love discovering new things. There are amazing people with whom to work and interesting places to visit. If those are things that appeal to you, there are great opportunities for women across all STEM fields. As more and more women have entered these fields, the climate has improved dramatically. There are so many more resources and opportunities now that women can take advantage of to help us become successful and advance in our careers. So I wouldn’t let past biases and stereotypes hold you back.