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Rebecca Barnes, PhD – Assistant Professor, Environmental Program, Colorado College


Rebecca Barnes is an Assistant Professor in the Environmental Program at Colorado College. She is a biogeochemist and ecosystem ecologist whose research focuses on the cycling of carbon and nitrogen in watersheds and other terrestrial-aquatic interfaces. She is also on the Leadership Board of the Earth Science Women’s Network and part of a National Science Foundation funded project to investigate the role of mentorship and leadership development in the recruitment and retention of women in the geosciences. Dr. Barnes holds a PhD in Forestry & Environmental Studies from Yale University; master’s degrees in Environmental Science and Environmental Policy & Natural Resource Management from Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs; and a BA in Geology from Oberlin College.

Interview Questions

[] Your educational path included majoring in Geology at Oberlin, earning master’s degrees in Environmental Science and Environmental Policy at Indiana University, and completing a PhD in Forestry & Environmental Studies at Yale. Your current work centers on the impact of climate change and other factors on carbon and nitrogen in soil and water. I’m curious to know how you gravitated toward this kind of work?

[Dr. Barnes] I went to college wanting to major in biology, mostly because I was the kid who was constantly covered in mud, always out in the forest or digging up turtles and frogs in the stream. Before I transferred to Oberlin, I was a biology major in a program that was very pre-med oriented. I wasn’t interested in that. During my sophomore year, I took a cell molecular biology class and oceanography, a class taught by a geologist. To me, those represent two extremes: the big broad brushstrokes in an intro class versus the detailed inter-workings of a cell, and I just sort of fell in love with the comprehensive approach that geologists took.

What I loved about geology was learning how to walk around a landscape and recreate the history of that space over millions of years. It was kind of like a super power. One of my advisors had suggested I attend a geology field camp, which I did. We started in South Dakota, drove across the West, and spent six weeks in Montana. It was as if all my geology books had come to life. Each Friday they would take us to a place we’d never been and have us map the area. It was an empowering experience for me. It made me feel like a scientist and I think that that was really important.

[] Your primary interest at that point was in geology, your doctorate is in Forestry & Environmental Studies, and your field is described a biogeochemistry. How do those elements fit together?

[Dr. Barnes] So I definitely think like a geologist and if I were going to be put into a traditional department it probably would be a geosciences department because my methods are more geological than ecological. I use geochemistry to explain ecological process, which puts me squarely in between geoscience and ecology… hence the biogeochemistry.

The School of Forestry at Yale, which is the oldest School of Forestry in the country, is quite diverse disciplinarily. There are economists, anthropologists, conservation biologists, hydrologists, and geologists, and we all finish with a PhD in Forestry & Environmental Studies.

[] What do you see as the difference between environmental science and environmental studies?

[Dr. Barnes] I would say that environmental studies incorporates social and natural sciences as well as humanities. It recognizes that if we want to address environmental problems we need need to take an interdisciplinary approach. Environmental science looks specifically at the natural science of the environment. In the Venn diagram, environmental studies would be the bigger circle with all these other disciplines within it, while environmental science degree would be more focused, with a lot more natural science and a lot less social science and very little humanities. At least, that’s my interpretation.

My work is in the environmental sciences. That’s what I say when people ask me what type of scientist I am. Sometimes I’ll say I’m a biogeochemist, but that leads to a very long explanation. Environmental science encapsulates a lot of different traditional sciences: you could be a molecular biologist or geologist who focuses on environmental questions. It really comes down to the question you’re looking at and the problems that you’re trying to solve, not the tools you’re using to examine it.

[] Your research focuses on carbon and nitrogen in soil and water, and the impact of climate change. How does that differ from climate science?

[Dr. Barnes] I don’t think of myself as a climate scientist because I’m not an atmospheric scientist. In my mind, climate scientists measure the atmosphere and create climate models. It is true that if you’re modeling the climate, you are also modeling the land and the ocean, because they are connected. But that is so far away from what I do. I look at impacts of global change on watersheds and the direct impacts of a warming atmosphere. Understanding carbon and nitrogen cycling in watersheds, for example, is important not only to figuring out how the environment is likely to change as the climate warms, but also in determining how land use change and acid deposition affect ecosystem function.

I’m working with scientists at Brown right now on restarting a project that looks at the effects of acid deposition in alpine areas. What happens when we add more nitrogen to the soil and water through rain and snow as the climate warms and glaciers and permafrost thaws? I’m also working with students at CC on a project that looks into the impacts of large fires in the western states, which are becoming more severe and more frequent, due to our shorter winters and warmer springs. That leads to snow melt happening earlier, but then everything dries out faster, which has effects throughout the ecosystem. If you’re an environmental scientist right now, it’s almost impossible to ignore the effects of climate change and warming because it’s so pervasive.

[] Over the course of your education and training in environmental science, was there a point at which it struck you that it was unusual for a woman to pursue a career in geology or the geosciences?

[Dr. Barnes] Certainly by the time I entered graduate school. At Oberlin the geology department now has a female faculty member, but it did not when I was there. Still, I’m not sure it occurred to me that it was odd to not have a woman science professor in an undergraduate program. But once I became a geology major, I did not have a woman professor in a science class, with one exception: as a graduate student in Indiana I took an environmental engineering class that was taught by a woman because the person who normally taught it was on sabbatical. She was the only woman professor I had a class with during my joint public policy and environmental science master’s program at Indiana.

At Yale I was in the School of Forestry, but I did all of my work in geology labs. I was on the geology softball team, not the forestry softball team. My peers were geology students and they were all male. There were more women students in the forestry program and, if you broadened it to look at ecology programs and evolutionary biology programs, you would find far more women than in a geoscience program. If I’d chosen to do my work in the area of biology rather than geology, I may have had a different experience.

As a graduate student, it became increasingly clear to me that I’d chosen a male-dominated field. I had the realization that I didn’t have any female professors and I wasn’t interacting with women as much as I had as an undergraduate. What’s interesting, and there is data to support this, is that there are actually a lot of female students in many areas of natural science. The problem is that many of them don’t go on to have careers in the field. The pipeline is “leaky,” as they say.

Once I was in a more professional setting, I wasn’t necessarily just associating with fellow grad students, and it did change. My professional world is populated by hydrologists, geochemists, and ecologists. When I talk to colleagues on the straight ecology side, they don’t see this big gender division in the same way that hydrologists and geochemists do. I’m not trying to suggest that gender parity exists in ecology, but I think the disparity is less severe. I believe something like 34% of undergrads are women in the geosciences, which is a pretty low number. We might beat physics and computer science, but otherwise we’re pretty much at the bottom. What’s interesting is that in computer science and physics the pipeline tends to be less leaky. They maintain their numbers better than geoscience does up through graduate and PhD programs. I honestly don’t know why that is.

[] The most recent data I’ve seen backs up what you’re saying. It suggests that there are slightly more women than men getting degrees in environmental sciences. But when you look at the aggregate of women in the field, they comprise only about a quarter of all professionals. There probably isn’t only one explanation for this disparity, but what do you think might account for it?

[Dr. Barnes] There was an interesting piece recently in the New York Times that talked about a study suggesting that grades are a less accurate predictor of success than having feeling or a sense of belonging in your field. I think that’s worth considering. One of our goals with the Earth Science Women’s Network (ESWN) is to make women feel like they belong in the field. If you don’t see yourself in the people who work in a field and who are successful in that field, it may not matter how well you do in a geology class. This has to do with gender, race, and ethnicity. Science is inherently difficult. If you don’t feel like you belong in a particular program or profession, that’s an added challenge. It was relatively easy for me to envision going to college because all four of my grandparents went to college, my parents went to college, and going to college was the norm for me. It’s not a norm for everyone.

Changing social norms is important. For example, there are studies that show if you ask elementary school students to draw a scientist, most of them draw someone who looks like Albert Einstein. But, if you introduce them to one scientist who doesn’t resemble Albert Einstein, when they draw a scientist again, they draw someone who looks more like they do.

For women, there can also be implicit bias in addition to this feeling of not belonging. This is particularly true in more informal lab and fieldwork environments. A professor might require students on a research project to sleep in their cars by a site so that they can be up at five in the morning to take samples. Unfortunately, male and female students are taking very different risks by doing that. In a lab setting, it may just be little remarks that people make, or the fact that there’s an inappropriate calendar hanging on the wall. All of this tiny stuff may point to the fact that you don’t belong.

[] Clearly, you weren’t deterred. But, how did you experience what we’ll politely call implicit bias?

[Dr. Barnes] Well, as a female scientist you often find yourself referred to by the way you look. For example, I’ve heard myself described many times as the “super chatty blonde scientist.” I have been referred to in many ways and, quite frankly, my blonde hair isn’t the worst of it. Does it piss me off when it happens? Yes. It’s happened my entire life, from professors and from colleagues. Often it’s jokey. Sometimes it might be slightly predatory. I have no idea. It’s just part of my life.

I remember the first time I presented at a national meeting I was a second year PhD student. I was nervous because it was my first time presenting. An older male scientist came up to me, asked me about my work, and after I gave my 3-minute spiel, he responded, “You are way smarter than you look. You should consider dying your hair.” It is a fact that I am blonde, female, and a natural scientist. Does that mean that when I teach students I get a different response from them than my colleagues who are male and the same age as me? For sure, but that shouldn’t be the case.

[] Why do you think it was that you weren’t deterred from pursuing a degree and a career in the geosciences when you became aware of some of these realities?

[Dr. Barnes] Probably because I’m a stubborn human. That’s my personality. Persistence and resilience, which aren’t the same as merely enduring, are important. When students ask me about getting a PhD, for example, and suggest that it’s difficult, I tell them that it is hard but not for the reasons that people often assume. Science is difficult. You have to to acquire a lot of knowledge and information. You need to acquire intuition about your data and how to interpret it. But you also have to develop the ability to deal with setbacks and overcome obstacles. I have an article that was rejected seven times before it was accepted and published. I knew the research was good, but usually someone will love it, another person will hate it, and rejection is part of the process of getting published. I think that that is a good microcosm of what it’s like to be a researcher. I tell my students that it’s called “re-search” for a reason. You have to do it again and again and again. If you got it right on the first time, you probably didn’t ask a very interesting question, and what did you really learn?

That said, there’s data that indicates that papers by male researchers are better received than papers submitted by female researchers. I must admit that I’ve never dwelled on that because lots of papers are rejected. It’s the same with grant proposals. The reality is, before you even factor in gender or sex, funding rates for scientific research are really low. Depending on the division, the National Science Foundation (NSF) approves grants at a rate of between 4-to-7%. A lot of us joke that we should just play the lottery.

The NSF and the people who are reviewing grant applications want to fund promising new research and diversify the pool of researchers who receive funding. They also have to ask themselves, “Is this a solid research team, and are they good for the proposal that they’re submitting?” If you’ve gotten funding before, you’ve probably published more and you’re a proven commodity. Funding begets funding. If you’re not a proven researcher – i.e., someone who has published – then you may appear less prepared. That may be because you’re not prepared, or it may be because you haven’t had the same opportunities as other researchers. It’s complicated.

[] Given that those kinds of complications exist, what advice do you give to the female students who come through you classes and who are aiming to pursue a degree and a career in environmental science?

[Dr. Barnes] I actually run an undergraduate mentoring program for women. One of the things I stress, and this has been sort of central to the ESWN since its founding, is mentoring and recognizing that you can gain a ton of strength and knowledge from your peers. One of the reasons I am so happy to put time and energy into the ESWN is because of all that I got from other ESWN members before they even knew me in person. When I was a PhD student, I emailed an ESWN board member about some data and a paper she had written. She responded and was super happy to help me. We didn’t meet in person for a couple years, and now we collaborate on research together.

One of the things that I do with my students is “mentor mapping.” It’s actually something that we do at a lot of in the workshops that we conduct with the ESWN. It’s based on the idea that you’re not likely to get everything you need from one human, whether that’s your partner in life or your academic advisor. That’s just not a realistic expectation, especially when you’re in an environment where your official mentors and advisors aren’t like you — i.e., you’re female and they are male. A male advisor may be able to offer certain kinds of advice, but he may not have the experience to offer advice on other types of issues. So, it helps to have a diverse array of mentors you can go to for different kinds of advice.

I do this in the summer with the undergrad researchers at Colorado College. We go through different parts of one’s life that can benefit from support or mentoring. There are different categories, from emotional support to problem-solving support to academic support. The students create a mentor map that includes people in all of these categories. Many mentors are going to be above you in the power hierarchy. But just as many of them can be friends and/or family members.

You do not need to have a perfect relationship with your research manager or academic advisor in order to progress as a researcher. They are there to provide feedback on the science. They may also provide feedback on life challenges, but that’s not really their job. And maybe it would be easier if you didn’t expect that from them. ESWN provides an open forum for members to post and get answers to all kinds of questions, from teaching strategies to women-specific challenges. For example, there was a long and reoccurring conversation around breastfeeding at professional conferences. Because of that conversation, we now have rooms for that at more conferences. That happened because some of our members who were part of the conversation were also on organizing committees, not because of any formal effort. The conversation about breastfeeding led to a realization that we should have these rooms, and it was not a difficult problem to solve.

That’s one example of a barrier faced by women that men might not even be aware of, and that we can address once the issue is raised. At one point a social scientist looked at the ESWN membership and the conversations on the site. The finding was that something like 50% of the conversations were about women’s issues, and the other 50% of them were general science topics.

Sometimes I am surprised at the level of personal information that women post on the site, and there are times when I read about something that I’ve just never had to go through. But, there are lots of people out there who can offer advice and support. For example, a woman might be having really difficult challenges with her advisor. She’ll post about it and get responses from 50 women. Every university is different, but most of them have a lot of student resources. As a student you aren’t necessarily aware of those resources. You may not be sure what your options are if your advisor is causing problems for you. Having a space like the ESWN, where women can communicate with and help each other overcome hurdles and challenges, is very powerful.