Meredith Hastings, PhD - Associate Professor of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences, Brown University

Dr. Meredith Hastings is an atmospheric chemist, a biogeochemical research scientist, and an Associate Professor of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences at Brown University. Her work focuses on the global N cycle, the biogeochemical record in ice cores, and global connections between atmospheric chemistry and climate. In 2014, she received the Atmospheric Sciences Ascent Award from the American Geophysical Union (AGU). She is also on the leadership board and the current Vice President of the Earth Science Women’s Network. Dr. Hastings holds a PhD in Geosciences from Princeton University and a Bachelor of Science degree in Marine Science and Chemistry from the University of Miami.

Interview Questions

[OnlineEducation.com] You studied marine science and chemistry as an undergraduate, and then moved into atmospheric chemistry and geoscience in your graduate program, correct?

[Dr. Hastings] Yes. I got into atmospheric chemistry in the year between my undergraduate degree and grad school while working at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL).

[OnlineEducation.com] Was there a particular formative experience you had or was you move into atmospheric and climate science more gradual?

[Dr. Hastings] My formative experience was an eighth grade physical science teacher who was an oceanographer by training. He had a way of relating everything he taught to the ocean. I already liked science and math, but learning to connect science to the world around me was exciting. That got me interested in oceanography and in ninth grade I applied to a magnet school in South Florida called the Marine and Science Technology High School, or MAST Academy. The school was located near the Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science (RSMAS) at the University of Miami, and a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) lab. I was next door and across the street from Scientists at Sea World, RSMAS, and NOAA.

I got it into my head in high school that to be a scientist you had to have a PhD, and that’s what I set out to do. I did a double major in Marine Science and Chemistry as an undergraduate and worked at RSMAS in my junior and senior years. I liked research, but I was intimidated at the prospect of finding a topic for a PhD program. I also wasn’t totally happy with my experiences in the lab. There were some issues I didn’t fully understand at the time, which now I would diagnose as gender related. Basically, a graduate student was taking credit for my work, and I felt like my side wasn’t being taken because he was a man and I was a woman. That was frustrating.

[OnlineEducation.com] Did that have anything to do with waiting to apply to graduate school?

[Dr. Hastings] The summer after I graduated from the University of Miami, I got a research internship at NOAA’s lab in Princeton, which is where the GFDL is located. That was my introduction to atmospheric chemistry. My advisor there was fantastic, and the work I was doing was really interesting. So, I stayed on for a year and was hired in a technical staff position. GFDL is affiliated with Princeton, so I was I was becoming friends with graduate students, going to research seminars, and doing lab work that I enjoyed.

By the time I applied to Princeton’s PhD program, I had a defined interest in atmospheric chemistry. I wanted to do atmospheric measurements and modeling, atmospheric chemistry, and ocean chemistry. Of course, that was way too much to do. So I scaled back a bit. But I’m still doing all of that in some ways: I work on ocean atmosphere processes, atmospheric chemistry, and on aspects of chemistry that influence the land and ocean surfaces.

[OnlineEducation.com] Outside of the lab experience you had as an undergraduate, did you see any indications that marine science, for example, might be an atypical major for a woman?

[Dr. Hastings] I wasn’t thinking that much about role models when I entered as an undergraduate. As an undergraduate, you think you’re trying to figure out what you want to do for the rest of your life, but you may have no idea. For graduate students there’s more of a formula and more of a path to follow. So, a lot of the experiences I had in college and in high school I chalked up to being the youngest person in the room at the time, or the only high school student or undergraduate in a particular situation. I never thought of the gender dynamics. In retrospect, I look at some of those experiences and I see things that were very symptomatic of gender bias.

[OnlineEducation.com] Were there female role models or faculty?

[Dr. Hastings] In graduate school I didn’t have a lot of female role models around me. There were two female professors in my department – one who was very senior and other who came in as a tenured professor. Neither of them had children. So, it was hard to assess what my life would look like as an academic researcher.

In my undergraduate program, there was only one female chemistry professor, but there were a lot of women in my courses and several female faculty members in marine science. So, it wasn’t until graduate school that it dawned on me that there really wasn’t anyone who had the kind of life I imagined for myself. That realization helped plant the seeds for what would become the Earth Science Women’s Network, which my friend Tracey Holloway and I cofounded.

We talk a lot about critical mass in STEM fields. There’s research that suggests that having a critical mass of women in a particular field is important. It’s how we can encourage more women to go into the sciences. Basically, the more people around who look like you, the more likely you are to picture yourself in that role.

[OnlineEducation.com] Was it different at NOAA?

[Dr. Hastings] When I think back, there were no female scientists at the GFDL, only female staff members. Tracey was a graduate student at Princeton during that time, and we both noticed that there were no other women around, no women ahead of us who we could take cues from. We both benefitted from mentoring each other, and from meeting women like us who were graduate students and post-docs at other institutions.

[OnlineEducation.com] Have you seen much improvement in the gender balance in atmospheric science and chemistry in the ten years since you graduated?

[Dr. Hastings] Yes. Because of our work in the ESWN I’m aware of a lot of the specifics. In terms of faculty in atmospheric science, it’s about 20% female. So, it has probably doubled in the last 15 to 20 years. From 10% to 20% is a big jump, but it’s still only 20%. Where I’ve really noticed a change from the early days is at conferences. Often it felt like Tracey and I were the only two women or part of just a handful of women in a room of a hundred scientists back in the early 2000s. Over the years that’s become less common.

The networking we’ve done with the ESWN has also changed my perspective. There are a lot of women I know in the Earth sciences now. When I get invited to give a talk, or I go to a meeting, I generally know that there will be women from the ESWN there. But I was just at a meeting this week in the UK, and I can’t say for sure how the gender percentages broke down, but I was surprised at how many times in three days I was the only woman in a group of five men holding a discussion. So, it still happens.

[OnlineEducation.com] Is that fairly typical among your colleagues?

[Dr. Hastings] There are a lot of women in Earth science fields and in the ESWN who are in a department with no other women. Or, there may be no tenured female faculty in their department. I’m surprised that’s still true, but that’s the reality.

I would also say that there has been significant improvement. There certainly isn’t parity in the hiring and advancement of women. But it is much better now. Over the last decade, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has funded initiatives aimed at creating more gender diversity and promoting more women from the assistant level to more senior and leadership positions. That has had a significant impact in STEM in higher education. Now there’s a greater focus on increasing racial and ethnic diversity. So we’ve made some progress on the gender front, and we need the same kind of progress on the racial and ethnic fronts.

[OnlineEducation.com] The optimistic view is that it’s only a matter of time before we see more women in leadership roles in many of these STEM fields. What do you think has changed?

[Dr. Hastings] A lot has been done to create awareness about biases and barriers that prevent women from succeeding. Again, there has been progress, but it hasn’t totally changed. You have to look at our society as a whole, not just STEM fields. It may be magnified in STEM fields because that’s where so much of the focus is, but we see the same issues in business, in politics, and other places. I also think there’s a generational divide. An older generation of people who are either not very open to diversity or not cognizant of the need for greater diversity are retiring. In their place, we’re getting a different mentality about gender and diversity. As that change happens I think we’ll see a lot of progress.

[OnlineEducation.com] You brought up some data about faculty positions a moment ago, and I’d like to ask you to comment on an NSF report that showed a big disparity in the number of women getting science degrees and the number of women employed in those fields. Women slightly edge out men when it comes to earning degrees in the natural sciences, but they’re still only about a quarter, or 27% of the workforce in a field like environmental science. My guess is the number is even lower in atmospheric science.

[Dr. Hastings] Oh, definitely.

[OnlineEducation.com] There probably is a natural or generational lag because it can take a while for upper level research and academic positions to open. What other factors do you think accounts for gender disparity?

[Dr. Hastings] Some of it has to do with role models, which contributes to that lag. There’s a lag in positions opening in the field, but once a position is open we need to promote women in junior positions to senior positions. That’s how you influence the next generation.

The disparity also has to do with structural issues, like the way we handle family care, maternity leave, and tenure. When the system was set up, men were the only ones seeking tenure. Many of those men had a support system at home, and often they weren’t expected to contribute to home life. They were supposed to succeed in their careers while their spouse took care of things on the family side, if they had a family. The dynamic in our society today is vastly different than that. Men are expected to contribute more at home. Their wives or partners may also be working outside of the home. Women in tenure track jobs may have a partner who also has a career. So, you’ve got this system for career advancement that doesn’t fit anymore and doesn’t work for everyone.

Another issue that Tracey Holloway has been talking about for several years is the barriers we have to pursuing a science degree if you’re not already interested in science when you first enter college. That makes getting into a challenging field even more challenging. But that’s a different issue. If we’re talking about women who are already in science programs and already getting a degree, why don’t they go on to have a career in science? In addition to institutional barriers, there are issues related to the lack of role models. I meet a lot of women who don’t think they can succeed in sciences. Even though they pursue a science degree, they don’t necessarily see themselves as a scientist.

I look at job applications, and I don’t see gender equity there. So it’s not like we’re getting an equal distribution of men and women applying for open jobs and somehow women aren’t getting hired. Women may be 20% of the applicants for a tenure track position. In some cases I’ve seen that number be as low as 10%. That’s something I’ve paid more attention to in the last few years. I try to encourage women to apply for these jobs, to go on interviews, and figure out if the job is a good fit.

[OnlineEducation.com] Are there specific factors that might discourage women from applying for these positions?

[Dr. Hastings] There used to be a sense that you had to choose between having a family or having a career. Many of the women in more senior positions who I was exposed to did not have children. Then, for my generation there was this idea that you should be a superwoman, that you could have it all. Now, I think we’re trying to set more realistic expectations. But, there are still women I meet who think that you can’t be a professor and have children. Why is that? What is it about my job that is any different from being a doctor, a lawyer, or a computer scientist? If anything, I feel like in academia we have a lot more flexibility.

One thing about being a scientist in academia that is different is that the job never ends. Part of my job is thinking, and I can always be thinking. The undergraduates I teach live on campus and they’re immersed in academia 24-hours a day. As a professor with a family, or even without, you should be able to have a life outside of campus. But it is easy to get pulled into things. Students want to do things in the evenings and on weekends; they want programming and seminars at times that are challenging if you have a family. And, the truth is that women are still much more likely than their male peers to be taking care of children or elderly parents. All these factors contribute to women not seeking full-time careers in the sciences.

Another factor that may be unique to academia is that there’s an expectation that you’re going to have to move around a lot for your career. That can be a challenge, especially if you have a spouse and/or children to consider. I accepted that it was part of what I would have to do, and my partner has been agreeable to that. But it can restrict you from pursuing the best opportunities in a field.

[OnlineEducation.com] Are you seeing something approaching parity in the composition of your classrooms?

[Dr. Hastings] I wouldn’t say parity, but roughly 40% of the students in my classes are female. I also don’t tend to see negative gender dynamics among my students. But, I have met with a lot of women in STEM disciplines at Brown and they’ve seen a tendency for male students to ask more questions and speak up more often than female students, especially in the larger introductory science courses. They feel that the men are more likely to dominate those classes. Brown is a relatively small school, so once you get past those introductory courses, the class sizes get smaller and smaller. I’m usually teaching mid-level and advanced classes, where there tends to be more gender parity.

[OnlineEducation.com] That would seem to create an inherent or unconscious bias that might disadvantage otherwise promising female scientists.

[Dr. Hastings] There’s evidence that this happens at different stages, in high school, in college, in graduate school, and beyond. The dynamics are different, but the issues are the same. Something that’s come up a number of times in the last few years is letters of recommendation. We write differently about our female students than we do about our male students. We characterize our female students as “nice,” as “team players,” and as “nurturing.” For male students we say things like, “he’s a leader,” “he excels,” “he’s highly motivated.” I will admit that many of my female students are more well-rounded than my male students. So I may talk about their interest in education and outreach, as well as the fact that they are very good at the science. With male students, we focus on their research and their leadership qualities, and that may be what people are looking for when they read a letter of recommendation. It’s striking. It really does seem to be happening quite a bit.

Marcia McNutt is a geophysicist who’s now president of the National Academy of Sciences. Before that, she was editor of the journal Science, and she wrote an op-ed piece about this issue. She discussed how this dynamic plays out in the selection of fellowship candidates. As a member of the fellowship committee, she saw over and over again that women were characterized very differently than men in letters of recommendation, even though they were equally if not more qualified.

So, that’s something that’s happening at the very advanced level. At earlier stages, there isn’t enough exposure to atmospheric and environmental science as a profession. My six-year-old daughter knows that I’m a professor and a scientist. She’s being exposed to those things as real career options. My parents didn’t have advanced degrees. When I told them I wanted to get a PhD, my parents were like, “What’s that?” I told them, “I don’t know, but I’m going to get one.”

[OnlineEducation.com] There is a lot of social science research that shows striking parallels between what a person is exposed to as a kid, and what they go on to do later in life. If it’s not something your parents are introducing you to, then there is at least the possibility that something will click in school.

[Dr. Hastings] We teach physics, chemistry, biology, and math in high school. To the extent that we teach environmental science at that level, it tends to be treated as a soft science. For me, Earth science was a way of taking my interest in chemistry and applying it to something practical. I think we want our kids to have a solid background in math, physics, biology, and chemistry, but Earth and environmental science can be part of that, and it would help bring more people into the field.

[OnlineEducation.com] You’ve outlined some of the challenges for women who may be considering a career in atmospheric or environmental science. What are some of the ways in which progress is being made toward removing some of the barriers, and what kind of advice do you give to your female students and through your work with the ESWN?

[Dr. Hastings] Recognizing and acknowledging bias and barriers is important. There are unconscious bias tests, and I’m encouraging this in my department. If you’re going to serve on a search committee, for example, you should take an unconscious bias test. I don’t think the results need to be made public. The key is to recognize your own biases, and to understand the barriers that are out there for different people. If that informs your decision process, then you’re going to make better decisions. If you’re just looking for one pattern in the applications, you may be missing or overlooking other qualified applicants.

Once people are hired, mentoring can make a big difference. I see a lot of growth in mentoring, in the different kinds of mentoring that are available to people, and that can be really powerful. If what you really need are team players, then you cultivate that as part of your culture through mentoring. If what you want are individual leaders, then you can help foster that rather than waiting to see if someone sinks or swims.

I have also seen positive changes in terms of parental and family leave policies. A lot of schools now offer additional time on your tenure clock if you have a child. There are family leave policies if you need to care for an elderly or sick family member. Those are some positive changes just in terms of treating employees humanely, while recognizing the need for productivity. A lot of this is happening in STEM fields but also more generally in our society, and that’s a positive development for women and men.

[OnlineEducation.com] Are these improvements being felt by students in undergraduate and graduate programs?

[Dr. Hastings] This would be a good question for Tracey Holloway. She’s been involved in trying to create more on-ramps into STEM fields for undergraduates. A lot of the coursework in the sciences and engineering is sequential. If you don’t develop an interest in science or engineering until later in your undergraduate career it can be a problem. We see people with liberal arts degrees going on to graduate school in the sciences, so they do have the foundation. They may not have taken all of the intro courses, but they’re able to excel and succeed once they focus themselves in the sciences.

This fits into my concern about the unconscious biases that can impact hiring. If we’re looking for a specific pattern in the people we hire, we risk overlooking qualified candidates. If we broaden our ideas about what patterns are acceptable, or allow more flexibility in our thinking about those patterns, we can foster diversity, whether that’s diversity in educational background, diversity in skill sets, or diversity in gender, race, and ethnicity.

[OnlineEducation.com] Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to speak to, or additional advice that you would give to women who might be considering a career or degree in the earth sciences or atmospheric chemistry?

[Dr. Hastings] The strongest advice I can give is that you can be a scientist, if you want to be, even if the scientists you see around you don’t look like you. If you can find somebody like you to be a role model that’s great. But, even without a role model you can succeed. The ESWN is holding a Science-A-Thon on July 13. In part, it’s to raise money for the organization. But, a bigger part of what we’re doing is trying to change public perception of what a scientist looks like. Throughout the day, scientists will be posting photos – 12 photos over 12 hours. We want people to see that scientists eat breakfast like everyone else. Scientists don’t all wear lab coats. Scientists do field work; we have families; we do computer work; and do lab work; and there are all these different facets to our life. We’re not all white men in lab coats with glasses.

[OnlineEducation.com] Taking into account your own early lab experiences, I’d imagine that you also tell young science majors not to let one negative experience discourage you.

[Dr. Hastings] Absolutely. I feel strongly about that. Apply for the jobs. Go on interviews. If that institution doesn’t have any women, or there’s no precedent for what you want to do, or you feel like you’re banging your head up against a system that doesn’t work for you, then don’t work there. You have that option. I found a place that I could commit to and have the kind of life I wanted to have. So, don’t assume that you can’t have a family and be in academia. It can be done. I remember when I had my first daughter; it literally didn’t dawn on me until I was walking into my chair’s office to work out the details that there was no precedent for this in my department. Despite having had women faculty in the department for some years, none of them had children, and no one had taken time off to have a child. While I was in his office it dawned on him too, and he said, “Actually, I think this is great. And I think this is great for our graduate students to see.”