Women In Science – Rhiannon Jones

Guest Author – Rhiannon Jones

Happy Women in Science day readers! And thanks to the BDP for making the first blog release a WiS special. I’m feeling very positive about Women in Science. With the odd exception at undergraduate, the only fossils I have come across so far in the industry are those presented to me by my paleo-oceanography peers. This is not to say I haven’t read countless anecdotes on various social media platforms about fantastic and incredibly hard-working women in science experiencing shocking sexism. However, my albeit limited experience has so far been a wonderfully positive one. OK, I’ve had my fair share of loud arguments in the pub about the gender pay gap, but I’m not counting that.

Rather than highlight the progress I think needs to be made, I’d like to talk about where I am today and how women have shaped that. The fun size version.

I am a Masters graduate in Environmental Geoscience, and am new to working in academia. I graduated in July and my Masters supervisor had me working on a grant with money to spare, and so I was hired as a post-graduate research assistant. In limbo between a Masters and a PhD, let loose to foray into the world of academia, paper publishing, conferences, and that whole continuously terrifying concept of inventing your own research and then pitching it to people more qualified than you. Such adulthood.

Up until my final year of university, I had no idea what direction I was going in, and what it was I really wanted to do. There were times when I’d say I was lazy, and without great lecturers and mentors, I doubt I would be where I am now. Those that really stand out in my mind are women. During a feedback session, a female lecturer who I found particularly daunting assured me I was capable of excelling, if only I dedicated myself a little more. My slight tendency to choose fun over study was not news to me. She was referring to the 3rd year dissertation I wrote up in 3 weeks after 8 weeks of travelling (I didn’t tell her this, but as she pointed bemused at my ridiculous graphs, she knew). I think that conversation really made a difference, mainly because she was so certain I could do better and encouraged me rather than put me down.

In my final year of university, I decided to specialise in climate modelling and oceanography. What I now research is how physical, chemical and biological aspects of the ocean interact to make the ocean a massive reservoir for carbon. The ocean holds around 35 – 40,000 Gigatons of carbon, or ~50 times the total CO2 held in the atmosphere. Essentially, I model potential changes to the earth system using a 3-D ocean model (cGENIE) that uses a vast set of rules to calculate interactions between the ocean, atmosphere and seafloor sediments. Models are incredibly powerful tools that have helped elucidate the response of our Earth system to environmental change. For example, during the last big ice age, atmospheric CO2 levels were only 190 ppm and the Earth was ~3°C cooler than pre-industrial levels.  We are certain the ocean held more carbon than it does today. Using models to investigate such scenarios helps us understand the sensitivity of our ocean and total Earth system to the rapid changes happening today.

I really lucked out with my choice of project. My supervisor was excellent. She provided a well thought out project, with a wide range of potential directions. I remember bragging that she replied to 90% of my emails within 30 minutes.  When I had some serious setbacks and asked for a 3-week extension, she marked my first project draft on a Saturday morning. That is above and beyond (it was not weekend reading).

Me at AGU still managing to smile about ocean modelling at 4pm on the Friday.

In December I joined my peers in travelling to an international geoscience conference (AGU) to present our current research on various topics relating to climate change. It was empowering to see the supportive environment created for women in science there. Workshops and mixers designed to support women, often for early career researchers by those more established. Being my first conference, this welcoming environment was highly motivating and inspiring, and I left with fresh enthusiasm to pursue a PhD (the free beer had nothing to do with that). One particular researcher whose work I highly admire brought along her young baby to a conference of 50,000 people to present her research. I was concurrently impressed by her exciting research and by her ability to explain it all so eloquently with a baby strapped to her front.

Something I’ve wondered is how much other people’s motivation and enthusiasm is heavily shaped by those around them. It is a massive part of life. What I’m trying to say is that in the circles I have found myself in, women have been incredibly open, supportive and encouraging to people like myself, and this has given me the confidence to pursue those paths that I previously thought were out of reach.

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