Source: GNS Science
There weren’t many women in geoscience that I could look up to in my early career. Often, I was the only woman in the room, and when I wasn’t, it was other young women joining me, all of us taking our first tentative steps into a male-dominated field.
Today is the International Day for Women and Girls in Science, and I’ve been reflecting on my career, the importance of mentors, and what changes we still need to see in science.
Growing up in Sheffield, UK meant that every Saturday, come rain or shine, my parents would haul me and my brother out the door to go walking in the Peak District.
My brother and I would clamber over ancient lava flows and try to pick out fossils that dotted the boulders. We were fascinated by the idea that, millions of years ago, this place had been shaped by tropical oceans and volcanic activity.
My parents always encouraged my passions. Despite the prescriptive gender roles that my Dad grew up with in the 1930s and 1940s, he would often remind me, “the world is your oyster”.
I enjoyed science in school and so applied to study natural sciences at Cambridge. I briefly considered specialising in physics, but geology was where I found my home.
My role models were my academic mentors, Professors Steve Sparks and Harry Pinkerton. They never made me feel like my gender affected the value of my science or the possible trajectory of my career. Steve is a world leading volcanologist and I owe much of my interest in volcanoes to him. He was my tutor at Cambridge and my biggest champion as I headed off to study magma rheology at Lancaster University (essentially how magma flows) for my PhD.
After my PhD, I started work at the British Geological Survey. With a deficit of active volcanoes in the UK, I pivoted to learn new skills and embrace new research fields. Then my career changed in 1995 with the start of the eruption of Soufrière Hills Volcano in Montserrat, West Indies – an eruption that waxed and waned over the following few years.
I arrived on in Montserrat for the first time in 1996. As the plane descended, I saw pyroclastic flows spilling from the volcano. Later that night, I was woken by someone yelling “the volcano is erupting”, with the largest eruption up until that time kicking off just before midnight
Over the next few years, I saw beyond ‘the science’ of volcanoes for the first time. I saw what it takes to monitor a volcano and provide real-time advice to decision-makers; and I saw first-hand the societal impact of the eruptions. It was a tough place to work in many different ways, but it focussed me on what was important – providing science to help communities live with volcanic activity.
I took on more leadership responsibilities and fronted the media when people needed answers, often whilst the volcano was erupting. And I met my future-husband, Art – another volcano scientist – during a stint on the island in 2000.
During my years on Montserrat, I supported an initiative to mentor Montserratians to be trained in volcano science and technical support with the aim that they would return to run the observatory. I’m pleased to report that today it’s run by a Montserratian scientist who completed his studies in the UK.
Art and I left Montserrat for the last time in 2005 and were faced with the predicament – whose career do we follow now? My base was in the UK and his in Hawaii.
Steve Sparks pointed us toward roles being advertised in New Zealand at GNS Science. Eventually, I was hired as a volcanologist, and Art, as a volcano seismologist. We felt fortunate to be moving together to a beautiful country with two young kids in tow.
In my years at GNS I have moved between focusing on the science and on developing the incredible people who make the science possible: scientists, technicians and a whole range of other specialists who deliver the science. I’ve tried my best to emulate the incredible mentors who shaped my early career.
In 2007, I became the head of the volcanology department and the first woman to lead one of GNS’ science departments. While I believe that more women in science leadership was inevitable and overdue, I hope that by being the first in my own corner of the sector, I encouraged other women to step up.
Today there are many brilliant women leaders at GNS. This is the result of many changes – including increased focus on the value of diversity and better support to balance work and families.
But women are still underrepresented in the wider research sector, particularly in science and senior leadership roles. There are sector wide gender discrepancies in pay and in successful funding applications.
I’ve seen a lot of change in my career, and I’m sure there is more just around the corner. I don’t have the solution, but I do have some advice, based on what got me to where I am today.
My advice to anyone considering a future in science is – follow your passion and seek out mentors and peers that support you for everything that you bring to the table. Embrace your uniqueness.
To my fellow scientists – take time to be a mentor. Your guidance will shape the next generation. I guarantee it will be one of the most fulfilling things you can do in your career. I know as well as anyone the impact of a great mentor.