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Featured Girl in Real Life Science: Dr. Susan Kidwell

Interview with Dr. Susan Kidwell: Featured Girl in Real Life Science


Where are you from originally? Virginia, right outside Washington DC

Do you have any siblings? Yes, an older sister

What do you do for fun? Garden, cook, quilt/needlework

What is your first memory of science, either by reading, lecture, observation, etc? Just being outdoors and finding things like pine cones and sand really interesting, impossible not to collect and organize

What do you enjoy about science? Discovering new things, especially about how the natural world works and what lies behind everyday things we see. It’s also a very satisfying creative outlet once you get into it professionally, part of a spectrum with the visual and other arts. Science is about finding meaning or order in a complicated world thru a combination of observation, experimentation, and modeling – it’s about building new views of the natural world (and of human interactions with that world) that are both analytically robust and true. I have equally high respect for novelists and artists who find new insights into human experience by dint of determined, analytic thinking.

Is anyone from your family in a field of science? No, but some technical types. My father worked his way into computer graphics over the course of his career, working on the technical aspects of printing maps for the federal government. He always encouraged me to go into something technical in order to have a well-paying job – looking back, it was very unusual advice to give a daughter then.

Did you know anyone with this job before you decided on this career path? I heard about geologists from my dad talking about the ones he met at his job – they were always traveling to interesting places and working outside, so that sounded pretty great. From participating in science fairs and applying for programs, I also got a non-paying summer job with the federal government – the US Geological Survey — one summer. I also met some geologists at the Smithsonian because of a free course I took there during high school about minerals. So early on I realized that there were many kinds of jobs I could get using geology, but that I would have to go to grad school, beyond college, to get the research-focused jobs that most interested me. I thus started college knowing what I needed to do, where I wanted to end up. Only after I got to college did I met geologists who were university professors, and only late during grad school did I met geologists who worked for oil companies. So all during school it was unclear to me which kind of job I might end up with, they all had advantages. In the end, I decided to take a teaching job as a start, and then once in the job realized I loved it, so have stuck with it.


Were you considered a “good student” in elementary and junior high school? Yes, and I became one largely because I had some excellent teachers, especially in middle school. They opened my eyes to the idea of aiming high and *not out of competitiveness with others, but simply for the joy of scholarship. That was very liberating – I just followed my own drummer, it was the quality of the work that mattered, and in an absolute sense, not whether there were others around you doing it. In retrospect, I realize what exceptional role models these teachers were, because they both took pride in their teaching and had a genuine interest in their subject matter, whether it was history or biology or English.

Where did you go to school (HS and college)? In Virginia

What was your major? Geology

How long did you need to go to school? After 4 years of college, I spent 5 years working on my PhD degree full time. I left school to take my first teaching job, and so finished the PhD degree during my first year as an assistant professor. That sounds like a long time in total, but grad school was absolutely fantastic so it flew by. One of the great things about my teaching job is that I’m surrounded all the time by grad students, so it’s a way for me to continue to enjoy that entire atmosphere of discovering your vocation.


What is your job title? I’m a geology professor

How long have you done this job? 34 years — I taught first at the University of Arizona for 4 years, and then got offered a position at the University of Chicago, where I’ve been since 1985

What do you do for your job? My responsibilities are a combination of doing original science research, teaching and advising graduate students in our PhD program, and teaching college-level courses, both to students who are majoring in geology and to students who are taking geology to satisfy their physical science requirement.

What is a typical day like for someone with your job? Long and varied. A couple of hours of preparation for a class lecture, which is then typically an hour or an hour and a half long; maybe an hour meeting one-on-one with a grad student, or a 2-3 hour long grad seminar; an hour writing letters of recommendation for students applying for jobs or grants, or an hour or two reviewing a manuscript written by a student or colleague for publication. Some weeks all of my time when I’m not in class or in consultations with students is devoted to writing a grant proposal, and other weeks it’s spent on research in the library or writing a research paper for publication or making preparations for fieldwork. There are also one or more committee meetings each week devoted to departmental or university business, or contributing work to professional groups. So these are not 9 to 5, Mon thru Fri jobs — you know your basic responsibilities to students, to colleagues, and to original research, and are expected to be pulling hard without supervision. So there’s a great deal of independence and self-determination, with much of the work self-designed.

Are you working towards one specific goal? (A cure, invention, create a product or solution to a problem?) I study the formation of fossil records, and specifically how fossils can be used to reconstruct ecological conditions in the past – ‘paleoecology’. For the first phase of my career, I studied these problems using very old fossil records, tens of millions or hundreds of millions of years old – my research involved going out into the desert or to coastal cliffs, making observations in the field and sampling rocks with a rock hammer. Within the last 10-15 years, I’ve most worked on the same kinds of questions but in present-day environments, where I can do experiments on what happens to shells and bones between the death of the animal and final burial in sediments. So now I get my samples from fieldwork in modern environments, like bays and lagoons.

How will what you’re doing affect people, animals, plants, and/or the Earth? I’m trying to improve our understanding of how humans have altered present-day coastal ecosystems, and specifically am trying to improve our ability to reconstruct what these systems were like in the past so that we can do a better job of managing and restoring the environment. By using very young fossil records, that is the shells and bones of animals that have died within the last few 100s or thousands of years, we can figure out whether the local community has changed and, equally important, whether those changes were driven by entirely natural processes, by human stresses such as pollution or over-fishing, or by some combination of natural and human factors. We will then better know which regions need restoration effort and what those regions should look like, that is, what our target should be.

What do you still want to study/work on? Exactly what’s going on in clam shells, at a microscopic level, that permits them to persist so long in the seafloor – seashells that you pick up on a beach can be many hundreds to a few thousands of years old, and this great age is difficult to reconcile with how rapidly we know they can be destroyed during short-term experiments and just extrapolating from thermodynamics. So it’s one of the great ‘paradoxes’ of preservation. I’m starting to use scanning-electron microscopy and x-radiography to test for different kinds of physical and chemical alteration of the shell structure, aided by microbes – this is what I suspect is going on during the first few decades after death based on my work and that of others so far.

Has your job taken you any place interesting? I’ve traveled to China, Central America, Israel, Europe, Mexico, Canada, all over the US, and the grad students I advise have in addition traveled to South Africa, Madagascar, and the Seychelles for research (I should start insisting that I go with them). Right now I have projects that focus on modern environments along the Southern California coast and in the Red Sea.

What’s the coolest thing you have done at your job? I’ve loved all my fieldwork, all the driving vehicles off-road, climbing cliffs, camping, lugging rocks. But the total coolest was being lead scientist of an oceanographic cruise a few years ago. The ship was 285 feet long, had 7 decks, a crew of 23 to operate it and a team of 35 scientists and students working around the clock… it was an entire floating village, dedicating to taking seafloor samples exactly where my collaborators and I wanted them to be taken. It was insanely challenging to organize, very big stakes while at sea, but at the same time wildly fun and satisfying. I could tell the marine tech on deck, ‘tell the caption to shift the stern over a few meters’, and the entire ship would pivot to reposition the sampling gear… if only I had such power at home.

What’s your favorite thing about your job? As much as I love research and the interactions with inspiring colleagues, the greatest pleasure (and it is very very great) is working with students. The continual stream of smart, intellectually hungry people into your life is totally wonderful.

If a girl was interested in a career such as yours, what does she need to know?  Stick it out, don’t cave. There will be times you will be the odd-ball, especially in high school, but who really cares — almost all of life comes *after high school, and you will rule that.


Being a Girl in Real Life Science

Why do you think young women should study science? Because why should boys have all the fun? Or all the rewards?

Did you encounter any struggles on your path to this job? Of course, but everyone has struggles. These jobs aren’t easy, there will be plenty of ups and downs – experiments don’t always work, you don’t always get the research grant or first job you want, things can seem (or actually be) unfair sometimes. But I would absolutely without hesitation do it all over again including the tough patches, which taught me a lot – the rewards of being involved in science and working with other scientists far outweigh the rest.