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Erika Marin-Spiotta, PhD – Associate Professor, Department of Geography, University of Wisconsin-Madison


Dr. Erika Marin-Spiotta is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison). She is affiliated with the school’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, and the Departments of Soil Science and Forest and Wildlife Ecology. Her work with Marin-Spiotta Biogeography and Biogeochemistry Research Group focuses on the impact of climate change on ecosystem biology. She was formerly Secretary of the Biogeosciences section at the American Geophysical Union (AGU), and is principal investigator on a National Science Foundation (NSF) ADVANCE Partnership grant to address sexual harassment in the geosciences. Dr. Marin-Spiotta is also on the leadership board of the Earth Science Women’s Network. She holds a BS in Biology from Stanford University and a PhD in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management from the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley).

Interview Questions

[] You’re part of the Department of Geography at UW-Madison, and you’re research is in the areas of biogeochemistry and climate change. How does that fit into the larger field of Earth and environmental sciences?

[Dr. Marin-Spiotta] My PhD training was in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at UC Berkeley, and we had different divisions. I was in the Ecosystem Science division. So I like to say that my PhD is in Ecosystem Science so that people don’t mistake me for a political scientist. We’re very interdisciplinary, so it is hard to define. 

[] You’re also affiliated with the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and the Departments of Soil Science, Forest, and Wildlife Ecology. So, I’m curious how those different elements fit together?

[Dr. Marin-Spiotta] That’s a good question, and I actually I don’t have one word to describe it other than saying “geography,” which itself is very interdisciplinary. Broadly speaking, geography covers interactions between people and their environment. So, sometimes I will identify myself as a geographer. That can be confusing because there are geography departments that mostly focus on social sciences. Sometimes I call myself an ecosystem ecologist, or a biogeochemist, or an Earth scientist. If I’m talking to someone from outside of the scientific community, I’ll just say I’m in environmental science. It’s hard to define because it is hard to define. The research I do is in the area of understanding climate change and its effects. But, I don’t call myself a climate scientist, because I’m not a climatologist or atmospheric scientist. I’m looking at biogeochemical interactions and the influence of changes on climate. 

[] Is biogeochemistry a good specific word for the type of science that you do?

[Dr. Marin-Spiotta] Yes. The reason I like it is that I have an undergraduate degree in biology. The “geo” could refer to geology or to geochemistry, which both fall under Earth sciences. And in my field we’re looking at chemistry that is biologically relevant, and how that interacts with different spheres of the Earth’s system, including the climate. I could also call myself an “Earth system scientist,” because we’re looking at interactions between biology, soil, rocks, water, and the atmosphere, as well as the biology of plants, microorganisms, and humans. It gives me the flexibility to work in different fields and apply knowledge and methods from different fields to answer complex questions.

[] As an undergraduate at Stanford you majored in biology. Is that a typical entry point for a person who wants to pursue a career in environmental science?

[Dr. Marin-Spiotta] When I started college, there was no environmental science department or degree program at Stanford. While I was still an undergraduate, Stanford started an Earth Systems Science program. I didn’t actually know what that meant, but in hindsight, if I were to redo college, I probably would have chosen that as a major instead of biology. But yes, biology-to-geoscience isn’t uncommon.

[] And how does that relate to geology?

[Dr. Marin-Spiotta] I never was really interested in hardcore rock geology. I was interested in how living things interacted with the environment, so that just naturally took me in the direction of biology. I didn’t have the kind of options that students might have now. These interdisciplinary environmental programs only started appearing when I was in college. That may be why a lot of people have come into environmental science via biology. And there are probably a lot of climate scientists whose undergraduate degree is in physics rather than climate science because those programs are relatively new too.

[] When did you gravitate toward environmental science?

[Dr. Marin-Spiotta] It was towards the end of my undergraduate degree. I was interested in ecology, but I wasn’t exposed to environmental science careers or jobs when I was growing up. I knew about biology, and I knew I wanted to do scientific research. What I found was that a majority of the biology majors at a place like Stanford were pre-med, and that wasn’t a direction I was interested in pursuing.

I remember I didn’t enjoy my biochemistry and molecular biology classes, and around my junior year I developed an interest in environmental science. I spent a quarter that year in Monterey at Hopkins Marine Station. It’s basically a marine biological research station. It was my attempt to find a way to enjoy biology, and I loved it. I got hooked on the ecology and environmental side of biology. When I returned to Stanford, I did a minor in political science and spent my senior year focusing on environmental policy and the environmental impacts of economic development.

[] The data I’ve seen indicates that women are fairly well represented in biology, especially at the undergraduate level. In other science fields, including the geosciences, women are less well represented, especially in graduate programs. Did your experience correlate with that?

[Dr. Marin-Spiotta] Yes and no. As an undergrad there were female biology majors. In my graduate program at UC Berkeley I had a female advisor and we had a female majority in the lab. So there were a lot of women in my program, and I had a lot of female professors and mentors. As a student, I didn’t feel unwelcome in the field because I was a woman. When I went to my first conferences, and later when I was on research teams, I started to look around and notice that there just weren’t that many other women. At conferences, for example, most of the people giving the talks were men. 

[] So your perspective on women in the field changed as you progressed in your professional career.

[Dr. Marin-Spiotta] Yes. I have friends who came into environmental science through geology, not biology, and they had a very different experience. I also had friends who were engineering majors, and they had a totally different experience. So, it depends on the school, the department, and the major. I think I was fortunate in a sense, coming from a strong biology background, and then going into environmental science and biogeochemistry. But once you start going to conferences and progressing in your career, you start to notice that there are fewer and fewer women.

[] This idea that there’s a fall-off in the number of women as you progress in STEM fields is supported by data. Depending on how you define environmental science, the estimate is that women are earning a slightly higher percentage of degrees than men in the field. Yet, at the professional level, it is still fairly male-dominated. What are your thoughts on the disparity?

[Dr. Marin-Spiotta] I can speak more to the academic track. I’ve read a lot about other tracks, but I don’t have personal experience with industry jobs per se. In academic geosciences you’ve probably got about 20% women who are professors and/or researchers in areas like Earth science, atmospheric science, oceanic science, geology, and other physical sciences. There are going to be more women who are assistant professors than associate professors, which is the next level up. And when you go to full professorships, women are probably in single digits nationally. I’ve looked at departmental websites and seen departments where they have 40 faculty and only two women faculty members. In my own department, I’m only the third woman ever to get tenure. So, it’s fair to conclude that there are real obstacles for women in academia. 

[] What are some of the obstacles from your point of view?

[Dr. Marin-Spiotta] There’s timing pressure for tenure, which usually happens when women may be thinking about starting families. You’re expected to work all the time, but it’s your childbearing years. There are also expectations that women will do more of the departmental work and more work around the university. This is work that doesn’t go toward research publications or grants, which is how you’re valued and promoted as a professor at a big university. Women tend to end up doing more mentoring, more teaching, more organizational and committee work. That helps keep the system running, but it doesn’t necessarily help your career.

There are also departments at some schools that have a reputation for not being good places for women, even if that’s not the case anymore. It may be a department that has a history of unconscious bias or discrimination. But the main problem we see is that there are double standards in terms of what’s expected from male and female professors, and this is something that can make it difficult to advance in your career as a woman.

[] What can you tell me about the experiences you’ve had through your affiliation with the ESWN?

[Dr. Marin-Spiotta] I got involved with the ESWN after I finished my PhD, through a person I met who was one of the organization’s founding members. At the time, I had an NSF Fellowship. I had also had, as I mentioned, numerous women faculty and women mentors. And I had experience with senior people of both sexes who were very supportive, as well as some others who were not.

Overall, I was lucky as a grad student. I had great peers in my lab. We supported one another and had a peer-mentoring network. When I moved into my NSF fellowship, I left that network behind. So it was a good time for me to join the ESWN because it was a way for women scientists to connect to other women, share thoughts about the challenges they were facing, and offer advice to one another. I found it to be empowering and inspiring. 

When I finished my PhD program, I had no idea what kind of job I was looking for. I only knew that I didn’t want to be a professor. At Stanford and Berkeley I hadn’t had many examples of what a healthy work/life balance looked like. The expectation in academia seemed to be that if you wanted to make it as a scientist you had to work all the time, and if you cared about other things, if you wanted to have a life, then you weren’t a real scientist. That was one of the challenges I was facing. The ESWN turned out to be an incredible source of support and friendship in that regard. I learned a lot about myself and about barriers for women, some of which I hadn’t experienced myself. And, I love the work I do now.

[] It strikes me that you’re pointing to one of the real strengths of an organization like the ESWN. If you’re a woman who encounters road bumps or barriers, you may just think that a career in science isn’t for you. It’s not until you start hearing stories from other women who have overcome those barriers that you realize, “Oh wait, that’s not necessarily unique to me. Other people are experiencing this as well.”
[Dr. Marin-Spiotta] I think you hit the nail on the head, and that for me is the most valuable aspect of it. 

[] You’ve encountered the attitude or the perception that if you’re not willing to devote all of your time to your work as a research scientist/professor, then you’re not serious enough. Initially, that deterred you from wanting to pursue a career in academia. How did you resolve that?
[Dr. Marin-Spiotta] I decided to go into academia in part because I wasn’t sure what else to do. More seriously, once I started my postdoc in an agricultural lab, I missed the university environment. I missed working with students. I missed mentoring, which I did a lot of as a graduate student. And I missed the intellectual stimulation and social environment. 

I applied for faculty positions because I like teaching and I like working with students. My attitude was, if I don’t enjoy it and I don’t get tenure, then I’ll just find something else to do. I worked a lot during my pre-tenure years. My hair started graying right before I went up for tenure. It was definitely a stressful time. But my strategy was to work as hard as I could and also to have my own life and my own activities outside of school. I am passionate about mentoring and my involvement with the ESWN. That takes time, and it can interfere with your ability to publish papers and do other academic work that is important for tenure. But I wasn’t willing to sacrifice things that make me happy and that I feel are important. That was a risk. But it was a risk worth taking. 

[] What are some of the existing barriers that have to be or should be overcome if we’re going to see women’s participation in STEM fields grow?
[Dr. Marin-Spiotta] I would say that the tenure system, including the way we evaluate candidates and the timing of the process, should be reformed. It was built for men who had somebody at home dealing with their lives. It’s an antiquated system. I would adjust the timing of the tenure process, and I would look at changing evaluation standards, because if you’re at a research university the emphasis is placed on publications, publications, and more publications. Teaching is secondary, as is mentoring. So, it doesn’t take into account whether or not you’re trying to make the field, the university, or the community a better place. And, as I mentioned, women tend to be working toward tenure at a time in life when the biological clock is ticking, so that needs to be taken into account.

I also think that there are still places where women feel unwelcome. You might be the only woman in a department or in a professional setting, and there can be men talking about things you really don’t want to be listening to as a woman. It makes you feel like you don’t belong. We do a lot of fieldwork in the geosciences. I’ve been fortunate with my fieldwork experiences. But, through the ESWN and the AGU, I’ve done work on sexual harassment. The stories I hear about what women deal with as students, as researchers, as faculty members, and as workers going out into the field are horrible. That should be an easy thing to identify and fix because we know it’s wrong.

There are also a lot of little biases in terms of collaboration. At professional conferences a lot of the connections, networking, and invitations to collaborate happen at the bar after dinner. It’s not that women can’t go to the bar for a drink, but if you are not into the bar scene or have to go back to the hotel to check on your kids or call home then it puts you at a disadvantage. You end up feeling excluded, even though it may not be intentional.

We also need to recognize that when it comes to speaking invitations and awards there’s a noticeable underrepresentation of women. You find yourself asking, “why are eight out of the ten invited speakers at a meeting men when there are plenty of women who are equally qualified?” Again, I don’t think the intention is to exclude women, but the result is that women are underrepresented and it perpetuates the perception that there just aren’t qualified women in the field. I could give you the names of ten top scientists in my field who are women right now. If you were to ask someone else, you might get the names of ten men. So, we need to make sure that the people who are making decisions about speaking invitations are addressing this issue.

[] In the meantime, as those issues are hopefully being addressed, what kind encouraging advice would you give to a woman who is considering geoscience as a career path?
[Dr. Marin-Spiotta] First, there is not one correct path to becoming an environmental scientist or a faculty member. There are traditional paths, which may or may not be suitable for an individual. But those paths are not the only way to have a career in the field. It’s important to realize as you progress that even if you do have a bad experience with a PhD advisor or a fieldwork assignment, that does not mean you have to leave science altogether. You can go elsewhere, find a different advisor, and develop a network of mentors. You may find a wonderful environment.

So, there are many ways of having a successful career in science. More and more people in the field are acknowledging this, and acknowledging that you can take time off for family, or go off and work in the industry, and then come back to teaching and research and still get tenure. The only way to find out about these alternate paths is by talking to people in the field and hearing their stories. For example, when I finished grad school, I had never talked to people who weren’t in academic science, so that’s the only path I knew. Now that I’m part of a larger network, I have a much broader awareness of the options that are open to students in science.

[] Most experts I’ve spoken to do emphasize the importance of mentors.

[Dr. Marin-Spiotta] Yes. The biggest piece of advice I would give is to build a broad network of mentors and peers. We’re trained to have a mentor and an advisor. Sometimes they’re great; sometimes they’re not. But it’s rare to find an advisor or a mentor who is an expert on everything. Don’t just look to one or two people to answer your questions and help solve your problems: find mentors at different levels and build a community of mentors.