Emily Fischer, PhD – Assistant Professor, Department of Atmospheric Science, Colorado State University

Dr. Emily Fischer is an atmospheric chemist and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University. Her research focuses on air pollutants and their impact on climate change and on the atmosphere’s self-cleansing capacity. She holds a position on the leadership board of the Earth Science Women’s Network, and is the lead investigator on a National Science Foundation-funded research project aimed at bringing more women undergraduates into the geosciences. Dr. Fischer holds a BS in Atmospheric Science from the University of British Columbia, Vancouver; a master’s degree in Earth Sciences from the University of New Hampshire. Durham; and a PhD in Atmospheric Science from the University of Washington, Seattle.

Interview Questions

[OnlineEducation.com] Atmospheric science is a fairly specialized field. How did you develop an affinity for it?

[Dr. Fischer] Even as a young child, I was interested in weather. When I was in fourth or fifth grade I called the local TV meteorologist while he was on the air to ask him what made wind. He couldn’t respond right away, but he did call me back. Also, when I was a child Hurricane Bob hit in Rhode Island and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I also recall making my mom attend a weather class for adults with me. I don’t remember how old I was, but I was definitely the youngest one in the room.

[OnlineEducation.com] So you had an early inclination towards science.

[Dr. Fischer] I’ve always just wondered how things work, but not how everything works. I mean, I don’t wonder how bicycles work, even though I ride them all the time. But I often wonder how big-picture aspects of the Earth function.

[OnlineEducation.com] Were you one of what must be a small number of students who go to college intending to study atmospheric science?

[Dr. Fischer] No, because I didn’t know that you could study atmospheric science as an undergrad. I had poor high school guidance counseling. I was a talented student – I graduated second in my high school class. My guidance counselor suggested that I should go to the University of Rhode Island. I wasn’t given any real guidance beyond that. I ended up going to Colby for one year, which is where I met my husband. I was a chemistry/physics double major. It’s a great school, but when I realized that there were schools that had atmospheric science undergraduate programs I decided to transfer. I was accepted into the atmospheric science program at the University of British Columbia after that first year at Colby.

[OnlineEducation.com] I would imagine that even today you would need a guidance counselor or someone else who knows you well and knows higher education fairly well to steer you toward a school that offers an undergraduate program in atmospheric science.

[Dr. Fischer] Yes. I might be the only person to come out of my little high school who’s ever studied Atmospheric Science.

[OnlineEducation.com] You graduated in 1998, and you were clearly strong enough in math and science pursue either in college. Was there attention at that point directed to encouraging women to pursue science, math, engineering – the STEM fields?

[Dr. Fischer] There may have been some general STEM initiatives at that point. But I was in a high school in rural Rhode Island that was in danger of losing accreditation for space issues at that time. And there just wasn’t a lot of exposure to women in non-standard career paths. The University of Rhode Island was only like three miles from my house. I visited Colby because my friend’s mom had gone there. But, we didn’t have Internet at home in 1998, so I just didn’t know what the options were for someone like me.

[OnlineEducation.com] Did you have any awareness that atmospheric science wasn’t a common field of study for women, to the extent that it’s common for anyone at the undergraduate level? And, did you get the impression that science and math were an unusual choice for a woman?

[Dr. Fischer] I didn’t have many women professors as an undergrad. There were women in the chemistry department at Colby the year that I was there. But once I got to UBC and started studying atmospheric science, female professors were rare.

[OnlineEducation.com] Empirically, we know that women are underrepresented in certain areas of science and tech, including environmental sciences. But, in atmospheric science the numbers seem particularly low. That could be because it’s such a specialized area, one that you might not even know about as a high-school student or an undergraduate. Given your experience, does that make sense to you?

[Dr. Fischer] It does. That’s probably one factor.

[OnlineEducation.com] It sounds like you have other ideas as well.

[Dr. Fischer] There are probably a lot of things going on. There are perceptions about academic careers that might deter women. I’ve seen research that shows that there are problems in the way reference letters for women are written. That becomes particularly important in the transition from graduate school and post-docs to early-career faculty positions, which is a make-or-break time in academia.

I think programs lose a lot of women at the point between master’s and PhD programs for a variety of reasons, and the story is different for every student. People follow their partners, or they’re not sure they can do a PhD. Each person has their own reasons and there’s lots of social science research that’s looked into these issues. It’s probably fair to say that it’s more societally driven than talent driven in most cases. I think we also have to look at the differences in the quality of the mentoring that the women are getting, as opposed to what’s typical for men in a lot of these fields. I’ve also witnessed blatant sexism, and there are more subtle biases that can discourage women from pursuing a particular field.

[OnlineEducation.com] Clearly, what we’re talking about is not unique to environmental science or atmospheric science. But, when you mention blatant sexism, what kinds of situations are you referencing?

[Dr. Fischer] No, it’s not unique to atmospheric science, although there is a gender issue here too. I’d rather not give specific examples of sexism in my own field because it’s such a small field. I’ll give you an example in the third-person so it’s not clear whom it happened to. For example, I’ve seen a male grad student and a female grad student standing at their posters at a professional conference, and the male supervisor comes up and says to the female graduate student something to the effect of: “We know why everybody’s looking at your poster.” The implication is that people aren’t interested in looking at her work; they’re interested in looking at her because she was attractive.

Comments like that can be made in a teaching evaluation context as well. You might hear things like: “Oh, we know why she’s gotten good reviews; students seem to love that class.” That comment can be made in a cutting way that suggests that students like a particular teacher because she is attractive. That can undermine a grad student’s sense of competence.

I’ve also heard people openly say that they have doubts about someone doing certain roles in atmospheric science related to fieldwork, specifically because the person in question is a woman.

These are pretty obvious examples of bias. You might hear it when people are comparing two largely identical CVs from two candidates for a position, one of whom is a woman. There may be questions about whether or not a woman would be the “right fit,” and whether it’s even worth bothering to interview the female candidate.

I’ve also seen examples of sexual harassment on field campaigns, where unwelcome advances are made toward a woman and it’s just uncomfortable. In fieldwork, you’re in a small space, you’re in a group, there are not a lot of places to go, and it can be very uncomfortable if people are making suggestive jokes. I haven’t seen direct sexual assault in a field setting, but I have seen lower level sexual harassment.

[OnlineEducation.com] My guess is that the lower level harassment is much easier to sweep under the rug or bypass than something like an outright assault.

[Dr. Fischer] Yes. Those are situations where it’s easy enough to think, “Oh, I’ll just get out of the weird situation and move on.” So, it doesn’t really get acted upon in terms of people stepping in and fixing the problem.

[OnlineEducation.com] Getting back to your own academic trajectory, you transferred into an atmospheric science program at UBC, and I assume you found what you were looking for there.

[Dr. Fisher] Yes, it was great. The mentors and faculty that I had there were great. I lived with two other women who were atmospheric science majors most of the time. Even though there weren’t that many of us in the program, we created our own little network.

[OnlineEducation.com] When do you recall becoming aware of the gender disparity in the field of atmospheric science?

[Dr. Fischer] I don’t think I became aware of it until I was finishing up my master’s in Earth Sciences at UNH. Even then, I didn’t really notice how few women there were because there were a lot of women graduate students around. I don’t think it dawned on me that there weren’t many women faculty members at first. But when I did begin to notice, it became pretty obvious that there were issues in our field. As a graduate student you become more aware of the academic environment, and you have a greater insight into faculty dynamics.

The other thing that happened during my master’s program that gave me some insight was that I made a connection with a female faculty member at another university. I emailed her for help with something, and she took me under her wing. In retrospect, I can see now how important that was for me. I went down to University of Virginia to spend a week or so with her, and I wasn’t afraid to ask her questions, or to tell her that I didn’t know something. The interaction was different from what I’d been used to. I did have some great mentors at UNH, but she was particularly generous. It was at about the same time that I became involved with the ESWN.

[OnlineEducation.com] It seems clear that having mentors and role models who are women can make a big difference.

[Dr. Fischer] A huge difference. You learn a lot how to become a scientist from role models, and that can be just as important as formal and informal mentoring. I think about [ESWN Vice President] Meredith Hastings, who I got to know through the ESWN. She was just a couple of years ahead of me, and that was great. I could look at what she had done, what kinds of things she had applied for, ask her about her experiences, and come away feeling like it was something I could do. There were a handful of women at that level just above me who I was able to learn from by watching and asking questions.

[Online Education.com] What kinds of questions?

[Dr. Fischer] A lot of practical things like how to apply for fellowships. There are also a lot of work issues that come up like, how do you go about nominating yourself for a position?

[OnlineEducation.com] There is data that indicates there are a large number of women getting degrees in the natural sciences, particularly at the undergraduate level. But then there’s a drop off in the number of women by the time you get to PhD programs. What do you think accounts for this?

[Dr. Fischer] I don’t know all of the reasons. But unless we’re all very intentional about being inclusive in our searches and our hiring practices, and we take this problem very seriously, it’s going to continue. Every step of the process should be examined. For example, for faculty positions we need to look carefully at the selection process for prestigious post-doc positions, because that is a gateway. The pathways are different in different fields. But if you want to be a faculty member, you need to write and publish a lot of papers, and you probably need to get one of the prestigious fellowships in that field. That’s a typical pathway. That process by which those selections are made and students are mentored into those programs needs to be examined carefully.

This needs to happen outside of academic science as well. I don’t know what the numbers are for the National Weather Service, for example, but we should look carefully at their hiring process too. Are they trying to recruit women? Is the pool of qualified women candidates too small? Or, are there plenty of women in the pool, but the women candidates aren’t making the final cut? Every hiring decision should be taken seriously, and we need to better understand whether women are leaving a field like atmospheric science intentionally or unintentionally.

If there are no women applying for jobs in the field, why is that? Is it because there aren’t any women on the faculty in a graduate program? Or is it because there was not attempt to reach out to women candidates? In specialized fields, training with the right faculty can be important. So, if we’re not training enough women, is it because the six faculty members in the US who are at the top of that specialization aren’t particularly good at training women? We should be spending the time to answer these questions and then we’ll have some solutions.

[OnlineEducation.com] You teach and interact with students, and you’re aware of all these issues. Are you seeing that women feel good about going into atmospheric science?

[Dr. Fischer] It’s hard to generalize because I have a pretty small sample size. Women are quieter in class. That’s a pattern that I’ve seen even among women who are likely to have the correct answer to a question that comes up.

My perspective may be skewed because we talk a lot about these issues in my classes. With my graduate students – the five in my group – we do implicit bias training. I talk to them about becoming leaders and about how important it is for leaders to be aware of these issues and not part of the problem. I frame it that way. I’m expecting that the men and women in my group will be in leadership positions someday.

[OnlineEducation.com] So, you do what you can on the ground level to push for changes in the next generation of atmospheric sciences.

[Dr. Fischer] Exactly. That’s something I have some control over. I’m actively looking for ways to incorporate bias and sexual harassment training into the training that our graduate students receive. I am okay with having these kinds of discussions with everyone on our campus. I’m also looking at how these kinds of initiatives would fit in our field, because I think that’s where changes have to be initiated. I know that I would be less likely to listen to someone from outside the field of atmospheric science on a big issue like this. There’s quite a bit of social science research that indicates that people inside a particular field are more likely to listen to new ideas when they come from members of their own community – people who understand how things actually work in that field.

[OnlineEducation.com] You are the lead investigator on NSF-funded initiative aimed at bringing more women into the geosciences. What can you tell me about that?

[Dr. Fischer] We have a paper in review on our initial findings and I’m writing about our research in terms that any scientist could understand. The type of program that I’ve implemented with Becca Barnes at Colorado College is for undergraduate women. What we’ve found is that typically these students have one person they think of as a mentor instead of a network of people. We put them into an expanded mentoring network, and in doing so, we’ve found that undergraduate women with a larger network of mentors are much more likely to identify as scientists, and to have the intention to persist in their STEM degree and seek a career in the Earth and environmental sciences. We have also found that having access to faculty members is important for undergraduate women. We don’t yet have the data to determine whether or not it matters if the faculty members are men or women. But, even without knowing that, it seems like we can actually make a difference for undergraduate women by expanding their mentoring networks and helping them get more direct access to faculty members.

[OnlineEducation.com] Becca Barnes is a fellow member of the ESWN. How did your collaboration on this project come together?

[Dr. Fischer] We wanted to create something like the Earth Science Women’s Network for undergraduate women, to see if we could initiate the kind of positive mentoring that takes place through the ESWN for students who maybe don’t yet identify as scientists. The women who are part of the ESWN already identify themselves as scientists in one way, shape, or form. For a lot of undergraduate women, that hasn’t happened yet.

[OnlineEducation.com] That makes sense: the ESWN is comprised of women who, even if they encountered roadblocks along the way, were not deterred from pursuing a career in science. At the undergraduate level, you’re getting to women who may encounter roadblocks in the future and providing them with support in advance. What kept you from being deterred once you realized that atmospheric science was a male-dominated field?

[Emily Fischer] I feel like I could have been deterred many times. But, I had a supportive partner, supportive friends, and supportive mentors. I’m also not sure what else I would have done. I really wasn’t interested in anything other than atmospheric science.

[OnlineEducation.com] What advice do you give to undergraduate women who are considering a career in atmospheric science?

[Dr. Fischer] I’m pretty realistic. I encourage them, but I also point out that you have to be really good to succeed in this field. As a woman, you need to exceed the bar. That’s what it takes. I’m encouraging and supportive. But I want them to know that women are still judged differently at crucial points in their careers. That’s based on social science research on women in STEM fields. I don’t personally hold my female students to different standards. But I want them to know that they may be judged by a different set of standards as they advance.

[OnlineEducation.com] What improvements have you seen in the situation for women in environmental and atmospheric science fields?

[Dr. Fischer] That’s a hard question for me to answer because I think I’m in a very progressive department where diversity is valued and where there have been significant efforts to address these issues. It’s going to be different at different universities. I can afford to get out in front on these issues because the risk to me personally is low. Not everybody has that luxury.

The political will and support exists here at Colorado State for me to lead a project aimed at bringing more women into the geosciences. And, I think that’s a good long-term strategy. The universities that encourage more women to enter STEM fields will become leaders in this area. Smart, talented people want to work at the leading institutions. So the leading institutions get the best people, some of whom will be women, and those women will help to close the gender gap. I’m hopeful about that.

[OnlineEducation.com] Not sure if you’ll have an answer to this question, but why is it important to have more women in a field like atmospheric science?

[Dr. Fischer] Because when you don’t have a more equal distribution of men and women then you’ve got a brain drain. If you are systematically losing a particular group of people, you’re going to be losing good people. If women aren’t staying the field, then good women probably aren’t staying in the field. The problems we’re trying to solve in atmospheric science are so complex. They require teams with diverse perspectives because diverse teams provide better solutions.