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Tracey Holloway, PhD – Professor of Environmental Studies, Nelson Institute Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment at the University of Wisconsin-Madison


Dr. Tracey Holloway is an atmospheric scientist who leads the air quality research program at the Nelson Institute Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She holds appointments in Environmental Studies, Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Mechanical Engineering departments at UW-Madison. She is also Team Lead of the NASA Health and Air Quality Applied Sciences Team, and a founding member of the Earth Science Women’s Network, for which she currently serves as president. Dr. Holloway earned a Bachelors of Science in Applied Mathematics from Brown University, a PhD in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences from Princeton University, and a post-graduate certificate in Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy from Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Interview Questions

[] How did you gravitate towards atmospheric science, and what were some of the key points along the way that drew you into the field?

[Dr. Holloway] The best place to start is when I was transitioning from high school to college. For many students, this is when they have to decide if they’re going pursue science or engineering, or something else. It’s really unfortunate that we have this split: you can do almost anything other than science or engineering, but if you want to major in science or engineering you have to get started that first semester of college with the math and science prerequisites.

Initially, I was expecting to major in political science or history. But, I decided to take calculus and an intro to chemistry class, just to have a well-rounded first-semester. I envisioned those being my last math and science classes. However, I enjoyed those classes and, just as importantly, I found my political science and foreign language classes to be harder and more frustrating. It was hard to know what you were supposed to know, or how exactly to answer an open-ended essay question on a test.

One reason I make that point is that there’s this myth that math and science are really difficult, and that everything else is easier. I don’t think that’s true at all. None of them are easy majors; it’s more a matter of each person finding what’s best for them. For me, math and chemistry were a better fit, and it helped that a lot of the new friends I was making in college were also on that track.

I had one friend who had gone to an all-girls school. Her dad was a computer scientist, and she believed that more women would – or should – go into science fields if it were not for certain norms and pressures that socialized girls out of those classes. It was a new idea to me. It made me question some of my own experiences, and it certainly opened my eyes to giving science more of a chance.

[] So, you gradually accepted the idea that math and science were the better fit for you?

[Dr. Holloway] I started to think about being an engineer or a scientist. I was keeping that on the table, considering chemistry, engineering, and math. By my sophomore year, I’d settled on applied math, in part because it kept the door open to banking or business or law. I probably envisioned myself going to law school, maybe doing something around economics or banking. Then I got a summer internship at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston in 1994. That connected my interest in math with these really cool research areas. The same summer I had applied to work at the FBI, at a New York State prosecutor’s office, and at a bank in Chicago. But once I started at NASA, I realized that atmospheric science drew on many of the same mathematical modeling tools that I’d been working with as an undergraduate. Suddenly, all the pieces came together.

[] Did you become aware at some point along the way that you were choosing a career path that was atypical for women?

[Dr. Holloway] Yes. When I was an undergraduate, there were programs for women in science, like luncheons and things like that. They often focused on the downsides, like harassment, which is a big issue. But that didn’t resonate with me at the time because I was having such a positive experience as an undergraduate. One of my roommates was an applied math major, and I was taking classes with female instructors and female grad students, so I didn’t feel isolated. Even though women were the minority in the department, I did not lack for female role models.

When I got to graduate school it was a different story. There were a few female students in the department when I arrived. After they graduated, I think I was the only female student in the program for a short time. Certainly our lab was mostly male, but I always had access to great mentors and role models. So, again, I did not feel isolated as a woman.

This gets at something that is part of the DNA of the Earth Science Women’s Network (ESWN): the women who formed the ESWN were all doing quite well in their fields and had a positive perspective when we formed the group. We came together because we valued the idea of connecting with one another, and because there were gender-specific issues we were dealing with that our male colleagues weren’t facing, or that might be awkward to bring up with male officemates. We felt there was a benefit to staying in touch with one another, and we thought it might benefit other women.

[] What kind of gender-specific issues came up in your discussions?

[Dr. Holloway] Whether or not you should break up with your boyfriend to take a post-doc position; what to wear to a job interview; how to balance having kids, and when to think about the biological clock. Those kind of issues. To get back to your initial question, I was aware that there were not that many women in the field that I was working in, but that wasn’t a problem for me personally. There were, however, times when I questioned whether this was really the best fit for me and for my personality. I have had well-intentioned friends and colleagues over the years ask whether I wasn’t wasting my talents by going into math and science because I’m chit-chatty, I’m social, I like hanging out with people, and these were not attributes people typically associate with scientists and mathematicians.

[] At Princeton you pursued a PhD in Atmospheric and Oceanic Science, but you also enrolled in the Environmental Policy program at the Woodrow Wilson School. I’m curious about the connections between atmospheric science and environmental policy and how that impacted your trajectory?

[Dr. Holloway] The applied math program at Brown had a big emphasis on fluid dynamics and mathematical modeling. My undergraduate thesis was in computational fluid dynamics (CFD). My advisor was Dr. Paul Fischer, who is now at the University of Illinois. It was exciting and fun to work with him, and by the time I graduated I felt like CFD was the way to go. So I was all in on CFD, which is the backbone of atmospheric modeling, when I applied to graduate schools. It’s a field that is sometimes pursued in mathematics departments, and sometimes pursued in engineering departments. Modeling internal combustion, for example, is CFD on a small scale, and modeling a hurricane is the same process on a large scale. I applied to engineering programs and mathematics programs, but it wasn’t until I began visiting schools that it became clear to me that I was most interested in the atmospheric applications of CFD.

I was happy at Princeton, but in my first couple of years I did have a crisis of confidence. I started wondering, “How did I wind up in this extremely mathematical, fluid dynamics, research lab when I had started college thinking I would go into political science or business?” Maybe it didn’t help to be one of the only women in the program, but I didn’t feel that it was a gender issue at the time. Even now I’m not sure if it was. I was just questioning the path I’d chosen, and thinking through my options. I considered graduating with a master’s degree and maybe going to work in DC. I wasn’t sure if I would be satisfied doing theoretical fluid dynamics work in isolation from the social impacts of science.

At that time, the Woodrow Wilson School had started a new Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy post-grad certificate program for science PhD students. Some of my mentors in the Atmospheric and Oceanic Science program at Princeton were actively connecting their scientific research with public policy. The director of the lab where I worked, the NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, was a climate scientist who often testified before Congress on climate change issues. My Ph.D. advisor was an atmospheric chemist, and he was very open and encouraging about policy implications of air pollution crossing national boundaries. Today, connecting science and public policy is fairly common. Back in 1996, it was a little bit radical. The idea of staying in atmospheric science and doing something with social policy relevance through the program at the Wilson school was very appealing to me.

[] So, it was important to you to connect your scientific research with real-world policy concerns.

[Dr. Holloway] Yes. It was a perfect fit: I had an advisor at the Wilson School who was interested in the way scientific tools could address policy-relevant questions, and an advisor in my PhD program who was an expert in atmospheric chemistry models. These perspectives, and others on my PhD committee, were a great fit with my research on how air pollution flows between countries.

[] I tend to bristle at gendered stereotypes, but there is a line of thinking in the larger conversation about women in STEM fields that is grounded in the idea that women often want to go into a field where they feel that they can be helping people or having a positive societal impact. Is it fair to say that you had that experience?

[Dr. Holloway] Yes, but I would put a slightly different slant on it, maybe because the gender stereotype make me bristle as well. I think that many men and women go through a process of trying to figure out their place in the world as they progress through their teenage years into college and grad school. What are your life values? What do you want out of your career? These are big questions with a lot of dimensions. What kind of an office do you want to work in? How abstract do you want your work to be? How important is it to connect your work to real-world problems? Ultimately, you’re asking yourself, “Who am I as a person? Where do I want to be as a professional? And what’s the right path to get me there?”

As a professor at the University of Wisconsin, I have these conversations with students all the time, with men and women who bring different priorities to the table. They may prioritize where they want to live, or maybe it’s important to have a career where they’re helping people. How your image of yourself maps onto a career is complicated, and it is bound up in social perceptions of what that career means and the type of people who we picture in a particular job.

For me, pivoting from abstract theory to applied research wasn’t necessarily about helping people. It’s nice to help people, but in my mind it was more about being practical. I’m a practical person. My dad is an attorney and my mom is an accountant. I like to be able to explain to people what I do in my work and why I do it. I think my nightmare career would be something like a string theory physicist. I felt like I was moving in an arcane direction with technical processes of CFD. But, as I got closer to applied research in air pollution I was looking at how one country’s actions impact another, and how energy choices affect public health, and how our current actions are changing the climate. These are practical questions, and that’s important to me on a personal level.

[] You are a founding member and the current president of the Earth Science Women’s Network. How did that come together and what were some of the key issues that led to its formation?

[Dr. Holloway] I think it was 2002, and Meredith Hastings, Arlene Fiore, and myself were coordinating a panel at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in Washington, DC. After the panel, we had a reception, which was not particularly common, but we thought we thought it would be a good networking opportunity. At the reception we saw a bunch of our peers – people we’d normally see once a year on a one-on-one basis, crossing paths in the hall, or at a meeting. But we were all together at this reception. We were all talking about finishing our PhDs, starting post-docs, figuring out what kind of jobs to apply for, and trying to balance personal concerns with career strategies. I think we were struck by the similarities in the challenges we were facing. Even though we didn’t all know each other very well, there were a lot of questions and issues that we had in common.

[] What were some of those commonalities?

[Dr. Holloway] There were a lot of practical questions. For example, if you’re in a long-term relationship, should you apply for a post-doc and then a permanent position, or should you skip the post-doc and go straight into a permanent position? It’s pretty typical to move across the country for grad school, and then relocate again for your post-doc, and then you have to move again for that permanent position, or for a second post-doc. That’s a lot of moving. Women in their late-twenties, which is when a lot of us are finishing PhDs, often have long-term life bonds in place, whether or not there are kids or a marriage involved. So you’re not just making decisions based on what’s best for your career; you’re often making decisions that affect a partner or a family. A number of the women at that reception were in that boat, weighing those kinds of issues.

A lot of the early members of the ESWN were atmospheric chemists, although the membership is now much broader. For atmospheric chemists, there is this question: do you fit better in an atmospheric science department, a chemistry department, or an engineering department? It’s an interdisciplinary field and trying to figure out what your next best step should be can be complicated because it may not be in the same field as your PhD program. So, there were discussions about that.

And then were conversations about what to wear to a job interview, or what to wear to give a talk at the AGU. Is it appropriate to wear capri pants to give a summertime professional talk, or not? These are questions that may seem superficial on the surface, but everybody is being judged in a professional context on how they present themselves, not just on the content of their work. If you have no one to advise you on what to wear, it can impact your career and certainly how comfortable you feel in that career.

Those are some examples the topics that came up early on. We felt that we should stay in touch with one another rather than waiting for these once-a-year meetings to touch base. We set up an email list and the discussions continued there. A lot of questions came up. Many of us were early-career scientists, so there were questions like: “I was invited to give this talk, do you think it’s a good choice?”; and “I’m writing my first research proposal, do any of you have examples of proposals that you’ve written?” These were professional questions that have a personal slant, and personal questions that have professional implications. I’ve described it as questions that are too work-related to ask your mom, but too personal to ask your advisor or your boss.

From there we started looping more people we knew into the email list, including Christine Wiedinmyer at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). She set us up on a list-serve through NCAR and we went from about a dozen women to over 1,000. It just grew from there until 2009-2010, when we got the National Science Foundation grant that allowed us to transition to a website. Our current membership is over 3,000.

[] Given the interdisciplinary nature of Earth science, it must be difficult to estimate how many women currently work in the field. What is your sense of that?

[Dr. Holloway] It’s a good question. It’s important to note that there is an organization called the Association for Women Geoscientists (AWG), which has been in existence for longer than the ESWN. Their membership tends to be more geology based. So if you were to walk into a geology department and start talking to the women, they’d probably be more likely to be members of AWG than ESWN. We welcome them 100% and we’d love to have more geologists. We’ve grown primarily through word-of-mouth, so departments that have ESWN members tend to bring in new recruits.

[] In addition to your leadership role with the ESWN, you teach, you conduct research at a large university, and you lead the NASA Health and Air Quality Applied Sciences Team. What are you seeing in terms of the gender balance today in atmospheric and environmental science and engineering?

[Dr. Holloway] My experience is broadly consistent with the data, which indicates that the representation of women appears better at the undergraduate level in the sense that there’s a better balance in classrooms. The snapshot that I see is probably not completely representative. I know women who’ve taken my class because I’m a female professor, and at the undergraduate level I see a higher fraction of women involved. Then, as we get to the graduate level, there are still a good number of women, but I think that this is where some of the roadblocks that have been documented in literature about women in STEM have big impact.

[] What types of roadblocks do you see?

[Dr. Holloway] In graduate school, women have to wrestle with the life transitions required to keep your career going, and also with the larger issue of what means to be a scientist. Those pressures have a different intensity in graduate school. As an undergraduate, you’re concerned with grades and doing well on tests. In graduate school, there are more politics involved. It’s more about your relationship with your advisor and with your committee members. Are you getting awards? Where is your funding is coming from? Are you being steered into the teaching positions or research positions? Those dynamics play out differently with each individual.

Then there are questions about of moving to do a post-doc, applying for faculty positions, and advancing in your career. The good news is that there are a lot of opportunities available in the environmental sciences for people who have graduate training, whether it’s a master’s or a PhD. Going into academia is not the only option. I say that because I’ve encountered men and women who don’t want to have to deal with moving from place to place and then spending six years fighting for tenure.

These aren’t just issues for women, but I think they’re issues that tend to lean on women a little more heavily because they overlap with concerns about having children, and with cultural attitudes about who does what in the home and in the family. If you have a couple who are debating whether or not to uproot their family so that one of them can take a faculty position in a small town somewhere, it can play out differently depending on who is the higher earner and who is further along in his or her career.

I do think you have to be careful about generalizing with these issues. I’ve known men who have turned down the job of their dreams because it didn’t fit their wife’s career, so it’s not one-sided. But there is a lot of evidence that women still carry the load more in terms of the professional consequences of their personal choices. In fact there was a report about this that came out in January of 2017 in Eos, the AGU’s publication – Data Illuminate a Mountain of Molehills Facing Women Scientists. So, these are real issues for women as they move forward in STEM fields.

[] What has your experience been with the roadblocks that women might encounter in STEM fields?

[Dr. Holloway] I’ve known women who were criticized because their voice was too high pitched and they didn’t sound authoritative enough. I’ve also heard from women who were hit on by an advisor, which made them question whether the good things they did were actually good, and whether the negative things they did were actually negative. These are all very specific things. When these kinds of things are happening across the whole community of women, it takes its toll. Some women experience one problem, and others experience different problems, and some may face the standard challenges in the field. If we can change the culture of science to be more inclusive, then we can redefine what we think of as the normal path and what women who are entering the field can expect as they move forward.

[] How are these issues being addressed, and what are some of the strategies that are working from your point of view?

[Dr. Holloway] A solution to many of these problems is information, transparency, and empowering women with the knowledge they need to know the rules of the game. What I mean is providing answers to questions like: how do you get your advisor’s attention and get him or her to send you to meetings? How do you get published in peer-review literature? How do you get a grant? How do you do well in a job interview?

Those are early-career questions. Later in your career, the questions change. How do you get nominated for awards? How do you get to know program managers? What makes a highly rated professor in the eyes of their students?

There are studies that have been shown that in any organization where there are a lot of unwritten rules, it favors the dominant group. The dominant group knows these rules of the game informally through socialized norms, or because they actually have mentors who take them aside and inform them. When you create more transparency around these unwritten rules, it empowers both women and men. I like that as a solution because it’s not saying we should do this special thing just for women; we’re saying, let’s let everybody know what it takes to succeed in this field.

One specific area where the rules of the game have favored men is in job negotiations. There’s a book called Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide. I heard one of the authors speak here at Wisconsin a few years ago. She made the point that often, when confronted with a decision, men see it as a negotiation opportunity and women do not. This is something I tend to talk about with women because it’s something that was news to me and to many of my colleagues. When we’re talking about ways to tackle work-life balance issues, ways to deal with departmental politics, and ways to handle complicated systems where there are unwritten rules, maybe we should approach it more like a negotiation. If someone, for example, asks you to be on a committee that meets at 8:00 a.m., you don’t have to say “yes” and then suddenly be in a pickle about who will take your kids to school. And you don’t have to say “no” and regret that you missed the opportunity. There’s a lot of room for saying, “Yes, if we can move it to a later time,” or, “No, unless x, y, or z.”

Science is very rooted in traditions that go back hundreds of years. Those traditions permeate everyday life, from what faculty meetings look like and who talks when, to the idea that when somebody visits campus from out of town you’re expected to take them out to dinner. These are nice traditions, but they’re also traditions that can bump up against the day-to-day realities of being a working mom, or the day-to-day realities of being the only woman in the room. With more transparency, and more negotiating, we can change some of these norms. They’re not set in stone. They can be easily modified. We can take guests out for breakfast rather than dinner. We can plan to leave our office at 3:00 p.m. and come back later to finish our work. There is flexibility.
[] Earlier you referenced the Eos piece that would seem to suggest that rather than facing one big obstacle, women in scientific fields often face an accumulation of smaller roadblocks or “molehills.” Can you think of an examples of ways in which these obstacles being removed?

[Dr. Holloway] A perfect example is mothers with babies, who are breastfeeding and need to pump milk over the course of a workday. Graduate students, post-docs, and many professionals share offices or work in open cubicles. If you’re pumping breast milk, that might take place every three hours over the course of the day. Figuring out where you’re going to do that presents a very real logistical challenge. You may be the first person in the history of your institution who’s ever asked if there’s a breastfeeding room! It’s such a personal issue, and it can be awkward to talk about it.

This is something I have personal experience with. I was once on a 20-person NASA review committee with one other woman. We both had young children, and we were both pumping in our hotel rooms during coffee breaks. At one point, we fell behind schedule and the guy who was running the meeting suggested that instead of a 15-minute break we cut it to five minutes. I looked across the room at the other woman, and we both knew this was not going to fly because we needed those 15 minutes. We both went over to him and explained that we needed the full break time, and it wasn’t a problem. But I think that I was lucky that I had a colleague on the committee who was also pumping. I mean, would I have had the guts to ask him to make everybody late on their schedule just for me? I’m not so sure.

[] That’s interesting, and I know it’s an issue that came up among members of the ESWN and that there are now breastfeeding rooms at more academic conferences. But I wanted to ask you about another issue that you’ve been involved with and that might help bring more women into STEM fields – more on-ramps into science fields. What can you tell me about that?

[Dr. Holloway] I was invited to give a TEDx talk in Madison a few years ago, and my talk was on creating more on-ramps to science. We discussed earlier how in STEM fields, it is expected that you start taking classes in the first semester of college – often at age 18. This really limits the opportunities for someone who decides at age 19 or 20 or later that they may want to pursue a career in science.

I believe that a master’s degree is one of the most under-recognized on-ramps into science, particularly for students who don’t discover their affinity for science until they’re more than halfway through their undergraduate program. At that point, it may be too late to change majors. For students in that position, a master’s program is a good option. It may require completing some undergraduate prerequisites, but it can lead to a scientific degree in a two-year period. I’ve spoken to students who want to change majors late in their college track, which would mean graduating in five or six years instead of four. My advice is to finish your major and plan on doing a master’s in the field you want to pivot towards because with two additional years or coursework you’re getting an advanced degree. Then, you have the credentials to pursue a career after undergraduate, or consider PhD program. Science fields offer a lot of great jobs and opportunities, so my goal is just to keep the door open to science for as many people as possible.