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Lisa White, PhD – Assistant Director for Education and Public Programs, University of California Museum of Paleontology


Dr. Lisa White is a geologist and the Assistant Director for Education and Public Programs at the University of California Museum of Paleontology at UC Berkeley. Prior to that she was on the faculty at San Francisco State University, as a Professor of Geology and Chair of the Geosciences Department. During her 22-year tenure at SF State she also held the positions of Associate Dean of the Graduate Division and Associate Dean of the College of Science and Engineering. She was the principal investigator and director of the Reaching Out to Communities and Kids with Science in San Francisco (SF-ROCKS) program from 2001-2008. From 1988-1995 Dr. White coordinated the Minority Participation in the Earth Sciences (MPES) Program at the US Geological Survey, and from 2000-01 she was appointed to chair the Geological Society of America (GSA) Committee on Minorities and Women in the Geosciences. Dr. White holds a PhD in Earth Sciences from UC Santa Cruz and a Bachelor of Arts in Geology from SF State.

Interview Questions

[] You pursued a degree and a career in geology at a time when that wasn’t a common path for women. Did you have a particular formative experience that drew you to geology, or was it a gradual process?

[Dr. White] It was definitely gradual. I’ve been asked that question numerous times over the course of my career and I’ve looked for things in my childhood that may have connected me to science. I recall my visits to the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, and how formative a museum experience can be for a child. But my interest didn’t really gel until my college years, which is late for a scientist, particularly a paleontologist. I’m surrounded by a lot of paleontologists who knew they wanted to pursue the field when they were kids. They wanted to study dinosaurs and fossils, which is a common entry to the Earth sciences. I see the importance of an early introduction to Earth science in the work that I do to try to increase diversity by raising awareness of the field to K-12 students. Right now there aren’t typically AP level Earth science classes in high school, and there isn’t much instruction offered in the Earth sciences beyond middle school or freshman year in high school. It’s unfortunate, because kids like fossils. They tend to be fascinated by volcanoes and earthquakes. But, unless you’re in a K-12 district that has Earth science woven into the science curriculum, you’re not being exposed to many geoscience subjects.

I was one of those kids. But I’m also from a family where intellectual pursuits were valued. My father is a psychology professor and my mother was a public health nurse. In fact, they met at San Francisco State, where I received my undergraduate degree. So, education was emphasized in the home, and my sisters and I had a lot of freedom to follow our interests.

It’s funny; San Francisco just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love. In 1967 I was only six years old, but I remember going to hear a lot of music and seeing all of the art. My leanings as a high school student were in the arts, and photography was my first major in college. I didn’t see myself as a scientist or think science was for me. It wasn’t until I was a junior at SF State that I took my first geology class. It was the year of, or the year after Mount St. Helens erupted, and I remember the instructor using that as an example in class. That helped generate an interest that I didn’t realize I had in Earth science.

I think my path to geoscience was also influenced by my love of landscape photography and the photographer Ansel Adams. I found myself wanting to learn more about what shaped those beautiful landscapes, and wanting to learn more about what shapes the land. After my first geology class, the instructor encouraged me to apply for an internship at the U S Geological Survey (USGS). Getting mentoring from professional geoscientists and having the hands-on experience sort of sealed the deal for me

[] When you were studying geology as an undergraduate and then a graduate student, was it your sense that it was an atypical choice for a woman?

[Dr. White] Not really. I was fortunate because of the USGS internship. I started there in 1981 as an undergraduate and continued working there until 1994. It was very unique. The Survey was very male dominated. But I was fortunate to work with a number of women geologists. One of them was particularly challenging. Her attitude was that it’s tough field so get used to it. She was also very encouraging. That helped me see that a lot is possible if you have the right network and the right mentors and people who can guide and inspire you. I was able to look past the barriers and see women achieving in geosciences. Mind you, the department or both of the departments in which I was a student had very few women faculty. There were women undergraduates and women graduate students but only a handful of women faculty members.

[] Did your tenure as Associate Dean of the College of Science and Engineering at SF State coincide with the emergence initiatives aimed at bringing women into STEM fields?

[Dr. White] I have to say that Women in STEM conversations started before that. As long as I’ve been in the geosciences, I’ve been aware of the need for more women and minorities in the field. At SF State, I was Associate Dean of the Graduate Division from 2006-2008 and Associate Dean of the College of Engineering from 2008-2012. The advantage of being in the Dean’s office at that time was that there was a lot of energy and support from the college administration for prioritizing women and minorities in the field. The university’s provost was a scholar on women in science and she gave us a great deal of support.

[] What types of programs or initiatives were you able to implement?

[Dr. White] We formed a group called Women in Science and Engineering (WISE), created annual scholarships for women, and organized a lecture series that brought prominent women in science and engineering fields to campus. There were lots of loosely formed groups and gatherings of the women in the College of Science and Engineering. We were a very visible presence on campus by 2010. Women were increasingly taking on leadership roles in the college and getting all sorts of terrific grants to encourage more women in science. The formation of WISE helped structure those efforts and created the right alignment for administrative support. We began the initial research to apply for National Science Foundation (NSF) Advance grants, which are focused on encouraging women in science to seek positions as administrators, chairs, deans, and in other leadership roles. After I came to Berkeley in 2012 those efforts continued at San Francisco State.

[] Were you there long enough to gauge the effectiveness of that work?

[Dr. White] I think the work we did had a positive effect. I can mostly speak to what I’ve seen in the geosciences. The trends are different in the various fields of science. In my time at SF State, I saw more willingness to work across disciplines and put energy into strategies for mentoring and promoting women in the sciences. It’s well documented that women undergraduates outnumber men in many geology programs at universities across the country. That was not true when I was an undergraduate in the ’80s. So I’ve seen it increase over time.

I also think that highlighting the geosciences and increasing awareness about the field at an early age is key. When women come into college with a better idea of what the Earth and environmental sciences are, they’re more likely to pursue those fields.

[] You were chaired the GSA’s Committee on Minorities and Women in the Geosciences in 2000. What were your primary concerns at the time, and how have those changed in the past 17 years?

[Dr. White] I served on the committee for a number of years and was chair for two years. Now the committee is called the Committee on Diversity, which is good. Changing the name and strategy acknowledges that it’s about diversity and inclusion. That was where a lot of our energy went at the GSA – recruiting more members from a diversity of groups and moving them into leadership roles. In my more than 30 years of membership in GSA, there have been more GSA female presidents and the current executive director of the GSA is a woman.

That said, people of color are still significantly underrepresented. If you examine data collected by the American Geosciences Institute (AGI) and the American Physical Society (APS), the lines are pretty flat. There are increases in Hispanic/Latino geoscientists, but not as much for African-Americans and Native Americans. That’s why I’ve dedicated a lot of my professional efforts to increasing representation of minorities.

[] What do you think accounts for underrepresentation among certain groups?

[Dr. White] There’s no one reason. There are a range of factors, from not as much exposure to the field in pre-college years, to the stereotypes that people have about fields like geology and the kinds of people who become geoscientists. Many people still see the typical geoscientist as a big burly outdoorsy type of person working in the field at a remote site. Those images are strong and impactful.

[] You delivered a paper on “Techniques and tools for effective recruitment, retention and promotion of women and minorities in the geosciences” in 2009. What were some of the solutions you put forth and what conclusions did you draw from that research?

[Dr. White] Role models are very important. Once there are more women in a field, we should be encouraging those women to form research teams, take on leadership positions at labs, and create more collaborative environments where women and people with diverse backgrounds are included and promoted.

Women like myself, who have been in the profession for 25 years, should be working to expand networks and bring students on board. To help overcome barriers young women commonly encounter, we hope these women entering the field see other women who have achieved success. There are women doing amazing things in the geosciences, setting trends in the field, and coming up with new creative solutions to traditional impediments to success. It is important to raise awareness about biases, barriers, and the ways that we’ve unintentionally made it difficult for women at times. But it’s also important to point out how far we’ve advanced.

[] When you mention barriers, what comes to mind?

[Dr. White] Raising families is an important issue. We need more work environments that can accommodate women who want to have home lives and family. When I entered the professoriate in the early ‘90s, there was little to no policy on maternity leave and the impact the leave can have on the tenure clock. The attitude was, “We’ll take it on a case-by-case basis.” I was one of two women in the department. We had been hired around the same time, and neither of us had children so we didn’t think much about it. That has changed over the years with the addition of more female faculty members and family-friendly policies

When I became active in leadership roles in GSA and other professional societies, I started hearing stories about the challenges faced by women who were planning families and had to work within the expectations of the tenure clock. Most faculty tenure-track appointments come up for review in the sixth year. If you needed an additional year because you were having children, it was difficult. Now, with greater flexibility, it is becoming more common for colleges and universities to make allowances for women who may be starting a family and may need additional time before they come up for tenure.

General awareness about these issues always helps. As awareness about an issue is raised and people get behind the mission to solve a problem, it creates a critical mass and all kinds of great things can happen. As more women move into leadership roles and are in a position to influence and direct improvements in the field more inclusive policies result. I recently had a conversation with a colleague about this, and she reflected on the early years when women were severely underrepresented in the geosciences. When women became more visible in the ’80s and ’90s, stereotypes started falling away and the barriers started coming down. It’s finally getting to the point where it feels like the culture in the geosciences really has changed.

[] In the outreach you do through the Museum of Paleontology, do you specifically target young women?

[Dr. White] We’re primarily a research museum without much exhibit space. Historically our outreach is through our online materials, like Understanding Evolution and Understanding Science. These materials and others on the website reach a broad audience and raise awareness about a broad range of Earth and life science topics.

The diversity work that I started at SF State has continued here through programs that I direct to bring students on field trips to national park areas to introduce them to geology. Involving graduate students at the UC Museum of Paleontology, many of whom are women, provides important role models for the high school students. An interesting project I recently participated in is The Bearded Lady Project. It’s a film and photography project spotlighting the experiences of women in paleontology. The project invites female paleontologists in the field to don a beard and be photographed, and they’ve created an online gallery of these images. It starts a productive conversation about what it means to be a paleontologist now and in the past, and what reactions happens when people see women appearing to be dressed as male paleontologists.

[] So, they’re upending or appropriating the gendered stereotypes of what it means or looks like to be a paleontologist?

[Dr. White] Yes. Stereotypes die hard. A broad range of people – men and women – work in the field of geology and paleontology but the old-school image of a guy with a pick and a shovel heading out on a dig is very entrenched.

[] That’s an issue of perception, and that may explain part of what is going on in the geosciences according to some of the recent data from the NSF. It suggests that many women are earning advanced degrees in the Earth sciences – slightly more women than men. But there’s still a fairly substantial gender gap among professionals in environmental science. What do you think accounts for this disparity?

[Dr. White] We consider this question often. If we use a pyramid analogy, the bottom of the pyramid is filled with many women in undergraduate programs. There are also a significant number of women in graduate programs. Where do they go from here? Are they not getting jobs at certain companies or in academia? Are the available jobs not attractive to women candidates? Old-boy networks persist in the industry and in universities. With the number of female majors in the geosciences you’d expect women would be more visible in faculty positions. At SF State there were two of us out of twelve faculty members when I arrived, and four by the time I left. It’s a slow uptick, but it is happening. You have a fair amount of career flexibility in academia, which should be attractive to women but if you are part of a dual career couple, special challenges arise when women geoscientists have partners who are also geoscientists. It can be difficult for two people to find academic appointments at the same university or even in the same region.

[] What advice would you give to young women who are considering a degree and a career in environmental science?

[Dr. White] I’d say it’s a great field with plenty of opportunity and high degree of job satisfaction. It’s also a great discipline if you’re someone who cares about how the environmental change and seeking solutions. We need diverse people to investigate these changes, to solve environmental problems, and to come up with alternative approaches to the environmental problems we’re facing. Women and men in my networks are very optimistic about the prospects for broader and more cross-disciplinary initiatives that should help bring more women into the field. We continue to battle the perception people have that geoscience is just about digging up rocks. We need to spread the word that it’s more than rocks and the solid Earth; the field includes climate, oceans, and environmental change.

[] Can you elaborate on the cross-disciplinary initiatives?

[Dr. White] I’ve seen a shift in many geoscience degree programs from very classic, rock-centric focus to programs that are more embracing of Earth systems. Programs present opportunities to examine the Earth and its connection to the atmosphere, the biosphere, and the hydrosphere. It moves the field of geoscience beyond geology and embraces more cross-cutting disciplines. I think it’s great for the field because now a chemistry student or a biology student may be more drawn into the geosciences. The cross-disciplinarily has always been there; I just think that the way we’re teaching it and talking about it now puts more emphasis on the intersections of the field. Many modern roles, contributions, and ways to be a geoscientist may not involve the stereotypical idea of going out and collecting rocks. Geoscientists still collect rocks, but they also collect data from other places: it might be from a ship, or from the atmosphere, or the ocean. It’s no longer just burly guys who are geoscientists and we study more than rocks. I think this awareness helps make the field more attractive to women and minorities reduces the limits of what can be pursued in the geoscience disciplines.