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Scientists Inspiring Students

Several USGS Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center women scientists assembled a panel to discuss their exciting and fulfilling careers at Pacific Elementary School, with the goal of inspiring younger girls to stay engaged in science, technology, engineering, and math, and to pursue these professions.

This article is part of the May 2017 issue of the Sound Waves newsletter.

Starting in late elementary school, many girls lose interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Several USGS Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center employees wanted to help younger girls stay engaged and pursue these professions. So, they assembled a panel of very accomplished USGS women to discuss exciting and fulfilling careers, and to inspire these girls—and boys.

5 women in casual clothes sit near a wall talking to a group of children sitting on the floor, whose backs are to the camera
USGS scientists, from left to right, Li Erikson, Andrea O’Neill, Nadine Golden, Olivia Cheriton, and Amy East respond to questions from elementary-school students. Photo credit: USGS.

On February 24, 2017, Olivia Cheriton, Amy East, Li Erikson, Nadine Golden, and Andrea O’Neill presented “Making a Difference in the World: Careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics” to a young audience—about 40 third- through sixth-grade students from Pacific Elementary School in Davenport, California. Pacific Elementary was the third school to host this presentation, originally developed in 2013 by research geologist Curt Storlazzi, who also supported and handled logistics for this year’s panelists. “I’m the roadie,” he said, “and they’re the rock stars.”

Photo of a spiky brown rock with many dull points in all directions on a white background
This spiky mystery rock from Alaska is made of glendonite. Sample collected by Bruce Richmond, Ann Gibbs, and Li Erikson, USGS. Photo credit: Ferdinand Oberle, USGS.

The panelists shared their experiences, then answered questions about what they do, how they achieved their current positions, and some of their struggles and successes. The researchers used both computer presentations and old-fashioned show-and-tell. Erikson brought a glendonite sample from a beach in Alaska. “It looks like a ball with spikes on it,” she said. “I gave it to the kids to pass around, then posed the question: We’re not quite sure what it is or how it was formed.” The students were eager to help. “They started providing theories about what it might be,” said O’Neill.

Student questions also focused on one aspect of Golden’s presentation on undersea photos and videos. “They wanted to know if Nadine’s camera sled had ever been attacked by a shark, ever been attacked by an octopus, had ever seen a shark, every possible scenario,” Cheriton recalled. She also told the students that at their age, she wanted to be a poet. “It turns out poetry is harder than physics,” said Cheriton, who almost double-majored in English and physics as an undergraduate.“The focus on how some of you came to be where you are was especially good for the students,” wrote Pacific Elementary teacher Terra Barsanti after the event. Another teacher, Monica Hettenhausen, wrote: “It was powerful to hear from one panelist that she didn’t really know what she wanted to study when she got to college.”

“We never mentioned that we were all women,” said Erikson. “Somebody brought up the question, “What challenges have you seen?” and one of us said, “Well, being a woman,” and the conversation started.”

Photo of Pacific Elementary school from outside the chain-link-fenced walkway
Pacific Elementary School in Davenport, California. Photo credit: Rex Sanders, USGS. 

Pacific Elementary is the only school in the smallest school district in Santa Cruz County, California. With just 10 teachers, about 110 students in grades K-6, and supportive parents, the school can easily try new ideas. In their FoodLab, fifth-graders cook lunch for the entire school using fresh produce from a student-run garden.

Most of the panelists have given these school presentations before. “I always enjoy talking to the kids,” O’Neill said. “They’re the future scientists. They’re the ones that are actually going to make a difference.” But this was Cheriton’s first presentation to such young students. “It can be a tricky age range to figure out how to make your science interesting and accessible,” she said, “and also talk about the challenges of your career without talking beyond the experiences of the kids.”

Even these experienced scientists learned something in grade school that day. School principal and superintendent Eric Gross provided some constructive feedback. “Be careful of big words,” he wrote. “The kids don’t know what calculus is, but they do know what math is. Also, be careful of big concepts. They don’t know what workplace discrimination is, but everyone has been told that they aren’t good enough to do something they want to do.”

A woman points to a screen which is lit by a projected slide and illuminates her face where she blocks the screen
USGS oceanographer Li Erikson gestures during her presentation to grade-school students. Photo credit: USGS.

On a cool, breezy day in February, Pacific Elementary students heard from five women who are more than good enough to do what they want to do.

Accomplished USGS Women in STEM

Olivia Cheriton is a research oceanographer who has worked in California, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and the Marshall Islands. She currently studies how climate change and sea-level rise affect coastlines and coral reefs. Cheriton earned her Ph.D. in oceanography at the University of California, Santa Cruz. One of her most important USGS accomplishments was measuring extreme waves that flooded the Marshall Islands and contaminated freshwater.

Research geologist Amy East studies the environmental impacts of dams and dam removal on rivers, and the influence of human land use on coral reefs. Fieldwork has taken her on many adventures, including 30 whitewater raft trips down the Grand Canyon. East earned her Ph.D. in geology and geophysics at MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. She is author or co-author of more than 75 papers, and stars in a recent USGS video profile.

Li Erikson uses field observations and computer models to predict climate-change impacts to the U.S. Arctic and Pacific coasts. She earned her Ph.D. in coastal engineering from the Lund Institute of Technology in Sweden. Erikson joined the USGS in 2006 as a research oceanographer. She now serves as the modeling director for the California and Alaska studies at the Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center.

Nadine Golden is a geographer who has conducted seafloor mapping and spatial-data analysis for the USGS since 2004. She also developed the Coastal and Marine Geology Program Video and Photograph Portal, which presents thousands of seafloor photos and videos through an interactive map. Golden earned her master’s degree in geography at San Francisco State University. She recently became acting associate director of the USGS Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center.

An oceanographer developing computer models to study coastal flooding and other climate-change impacts along the California coast, Andrea O’Neill joined the USGS in 2012. Previously she worked for the U.S. Navy providing oceanography and meteorology forecasts that kept ships, aircraft, and people safe at sea. O’Neill earned her master’s degree in meteorology and physical oceanography at the Naval Postgraduate School. She is now a major contributor to the USGS Coastal Storm Modeling System.

A smiling woman.
Olivia Cheriton. Photo credit: USGS.
Close up of a woman in orange USGS t-shirt, PFD, red baseball hat, and sunglasses is shown in dappled light with trees behind
Amy East. Photo credit: USGS.
Woman in a heavy red and grey jacket and gloves, in front of a grey bank, holding a hammer and bar
Li Erikson. Photo credit: USGS.
Very close photo of a smiling woman with dark hair in front of a shaded relief map with mountains
Nadine Golden. Photo credit: USGS.
A woman wearing a blue jacket, red hood, and PFD, on the deck of a ship working with a large inflated red sphere
Andrea O’Neill. Photo credit: USGS.

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