Eyes on Earth Episode 47 – Ladies of Landsat

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Detailed Description

Ladies of Landsat aims to help women and other underrepresented groups feel welcomed and supported in the field of remote sensing. The Twitter group has grown to 5,700 members and counting since Dr. Kate Fickas started it in 2018 during a Landsat Science Team meeting at EROS. In this episode of Eyes on Earth, we learn about the ambitions and actions of the group, why a sense of community is so important, and how Landsat is meaningful in this.
 

Details

Episode Number: 47

Date Taken:

Length: 00:17:00

Location Taken: Sioux Falls, SD, US

Credits

Guest: Dr. Kate Fickas, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Utah State University

Host: John Hult (Contractor for USGS EROS Center)
 

Transcript

KATE FICKAS:
The message here ends up being, "Sorry, ladies. But men are just better." And that why we have more men in these leadership roles. We're tired of that as Ladies of Landsat.
JANE LAWSON:
Hello everyone, and welcome to another episode of Eyes on Earth. Our podcast focuses on our ever-changing planet, and on the people at EROS and across the globe who use remote sensing to monitor the health of Earth. My name is Jane Lawson and I will be hosting today's episode. The growing Twitter page Ladies of Landsat connects women who work in the male-dominated field of remote sensing to share their experiences and feel the support of a community. Kate Fickas created Ladies of Landsat at a Landsat Science Team meeting in 2018 at EROS. Through it, she created the connections and support and platform she wished she had, had during her PhD years, while she attended conferences and rarely saw other women. With the help of fellow scientist Morgan Crowley, Ladies of Landsat has gained more than 5,000 followers in three years. A weekly Twitter series highlights research lead by people in remote sensing. They've held in-person and virtual networking events and conference symposiums. They have even created videos. Kate Fickas works as a Remote Sensing Ecologist using Landsat to help natural resource and conservation managers make decisions about aquatic eco-systems. She is research faculty at both University of Massachusetts Amherst and Utah State University. Dr. Fickas, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule and welcome to Eyes on Earth!
FICKAS:
Thank you! Thank you so much for having me.
LAWSON:
Sure. First of all, do you want to tell us more about the dream you had for the Ladies of Landsat Twitter group?
FICKAS:
Yeah. Absolutely. So, I have been a remote sensing ecologist for about eight years now. I came from a background in more wildlife ecology. There are a lot more women in ecology and biology. There was a real sense of community that I had in my undergraduate years, that I really didn't see into my graduate career. I would travel around the world and not see many other women join the conversation about what they were doing (and) what applications they had for remote sensing imagery. And a lot of it was really algorithmic development for Landsat and other remote sensing products. I started really feeling lonely and left out, because my research was application based. I was looking at wetlands and how we can use Landsat for conservation. When you start to feel lonely, you start to feel that you don't have a community to be a part of. The isolation, self-doubt and unworthiness ... those feelings can be insidious. I was craving a group like Ladies of Landsat to really connect with other women and share my experience. So when I started the Ladies at Landsat Twitter group, it launched at EROS in Sioux Falls, SD at a Landsat Science Team meeting the hope would just be at its core, that I could connect with other women across the globe who are also using Landsat and remote sensing data just to begin to start a community. I had no idea that it would blossom into what it is now.
LAWSON:
So, what are the intents or the goals of Ladies of Landsat?
FICKAS:
We want to create a community to support and amplify voices of women and under-represented groups in remote sensing. We hear a lot that women are just tired of being pushed aside. A community like Ladies of Landsat helps women find their voices to change the status quo. We tend to do this through both the bottom up amplification and representation of female voices, and then calling for action from the top down. So asking those in power, what we call our active allies, to change the landscape. There is a lot of gate keeping that goes on in remote sensing. Someone, or groups of specific people, might be limiting access, intentionally or unintentionally, to the voices represented being heard in Earth observation. And this could be through graduate applications, leadership roles, conference panels or even publishing bias. You will hear them say, "we don't consider gender. We only chose the top candidates". First of all, that ignores and delegitimizes the very real experience that women and other underrepresented groups feel when they express frustration and hurt with the way the current system is set-up. Second, it takes really a conscious effort to change the structure. We're trying to shift that change, putting the remote sensing community at large to shift their perspectives. I often like to use that Landsat analogy of near infrared and shortwave infrared. Near infrared was the original way we were evaluating vegetation through multispectral information. And we are talking really cool folks, walking around in the rainforest, pointing an NIR spectrometer at trees and shouting "eureka!" We have the remote sensing community out of that. Near infra-red was the standard for monitoring vegetation and landscape dynamics of Landsat. And rightly so. We've learned a lot of wonderful things about the world through NIR itself. And it's spectral indices like NDVI. They've helped shape this field. However, in the past five years or so there's been a real push to be using more SWIR - shortwave infrared. Often where near infrared fails, SWIR is able to shine. For example, many users are finding SWIR to be critical in vegetation species differentiation, burn indices. For me, it's invaluable for my research in aquatic ecosystems. So, the question is, what if this whole time we had only been focused on near infra-red but really should have been paying a lot closer attention to SWIR? Think about all that we could have learned from this new perspective. What's even better would be using all the bands. Or all the perspective in an index like Tassled Cap Transformation. I will make a side not there and say that I have a big bias there because I am a Tassled Cap evangelist. Sometimes, we've been looking through (and I say we as a society in the global remote sensing community) have been looking through a specific bandwidth filter and that limits the brilliance of other perspectives.
LAWSON:
The Ladies of Landsat helps bring awareness to that.
FICKAS:
Absolutely.
LAWSON:
Could you explain a little more about the group? Is it like a formal membership? Do people just sign up on Twitter? Or what are their different areas of work or interest in remote sensing?

FICKAS:
We're informal in the sense that we don't have a formal membership. If you like us on Twitter, you're in. And if you want to be a Lady of Landsat, you're in. Regardless of any gender. At a Landsat Science Team meeting my male advisor introduced himself and shouted, "I'm a Lady of Landsat!" This informality of the group has allowed us to be dynamic and flexible with who's involved. And really create a place where the whole thing is a passion project. But then respecting our own needs of rest and self-care. And these are really important aspects of life that so often times gets ignored for women because they have to be part of the hustle in order to keep up. I deeply respect the women that have turned Women in STEM groups into formal memberships, but Ladies of Landsat just isn't there yet. Those of us who are running the Ladies of Landsat Twitter are responding to collaboration requests at any given time. We all have full time jobs, some of us are mothers and we all have personal lives of varying degrees. And we have created a place and a group without a hierarchy in which we can say to each other, "hey, I don't really have the capacity to respond to this right now," and someone else will say, "don't worry. I have the time. I've got your back." And it is such a safe and supportive and wonderful place to exist. Because of that, anyone can be a Lady of Landsat. Our hope is that Ladies of Landsat will make someone more excited about using Landsat in their work and not intimidated.
LAWSON:
So then how do people connect with each other? Do they connect with each other mainly over Twitter? Or, I understand you have some events at conventions and things like that, too?
FICKAS:
Twitter can be used as a real force for good. Morgan and I met over Twitter and were then able to meet up in Ireland. That's where this whole thing really started to blossom. Pre-COVID we would have a lot of in person events. Right now, we have a lot of virtual events so that as many Ladies of Landsat have the opportunity to meet as many other Ladies of Landsat as possible.
LAWSON:
Do you want to talk a little about your new video series? That's pretty exciting!
FICKAS:
I would love to, yeah. That has been a creative and wonderful project. I met Crista Straub, who is a USGS Social Scientist out of Fort Collins Science Center in 2020, and it was a classic interaction. I said, "hey Crista, are you a Lady of Landsat?" And she said, "I don't know. Am I?" I said, "well, now you are." Crista really wanted to be able to interview folks about how Landsat has been valuable to their research and helped drive their research forward. We were able to marry that with Ladies of Landsat. We interview women, and then we work on a storyboard together, and Morgan, Crista and I really try to perfect the narrative. It was a new journey for me as a creative process. Then we turned to Heartwood Visuals. She turns it into this beautiful animated series. I spend so much of my time in an analytical phase that these videos for me have been such a wonderful and joyful diversion and really helped me get through quarantine. We're so please that everybody else is responding to them with the same amount of joy.

LAWSON:
Landsat seems pretty meaningful to a lot of people in this group. Do you want to talk about that? Also, tell me what your favorite Landsat is.
FICKAS:
Landsat, and especially Landsat's unique free and open data policy, has really led to an excellent opportunity for gender inclusion. The democratization of cyber infrastructure and cloud-based technologies being more accessible to new users. And really more importantly for Ladies of Landsat, more women. It means less inherent gatekeeping and more accessibility to users worldwide. And just as important, the education about these technologies is now more accessible, as well. Like this podcast. And then Landsat allows us to start to level the playing field and lowers the cost of entry into this remote sensing world, which is so often the barrier to entry for women around the world. And with Landsat Collections, users don't need to have the software or computing power to connect dozens, if not hundreds of images together. And this supports more applied solutions to questions of things like sustainability and user-informed and directed solutions. Rather than black boxes of research done in the absence of those who are impacted and most vulnerable around the world. We also hear from a lot of our members that they feel their work is undervalued or not worthy because it is specifically application-based rather than algorithmic development or continent-wide or global mapping. We are trying to help change that perspective and show the dynamism of Landsat data. So, yes you can use it to map every single tree on Earth, but you can also use it to make sure at one instance in time your city or village is safe and free from harmful algal blooms in the drinking water. For my favorite Landsat, I've always liked an underdog, so my favorite has always been Landsat 7. I think everyone takes 7 for granted, but look at what it's accomplished, even being a little rough around the edges-pun intended there. I'm also really fond of Landsats 1-3 and MSS data in general. My research looks at a lot of policies surrounding the U.S. Clean Water Act which was established in 1972 along side Landsat 1. MSS data is so valuable to exploring the impact of water policy across five decades. That would have been over a decade of data lost if MSS data isn't included.
LAWSON:
What kind of value do you women find through the connections of Ladies of Landsat? Both personally, for themselves, and then also about that group connection and promotion of women in remote sensing. Has it led to any work being funded or research papers being picked up that you know of?
FICKAS:
First and foremost, I think community is everything. We're all hard-wired for connection, and we all want to belong. So I think the biggest thing that we find through these connections is helping women find a place of belonging in a world that can be intimidating for those who first enter. And trust also creates this space to be vulnerable. I've had dozens of women either write me to tell me in person about their experiences from things like bias to sexual assault. And I include myself here-being heard or believed is a huge relief. So we don't have to carry this hurt and anger around alone. We're here for each other to say, "hey, that wasn't ok, and your feelings are valid." It's hard to believe but that sentiment is hard to find in STEM. On the professional side, we've had new groups pop up like Sisters of SAR, so women who use synthetic aperture radar, which is so much fun and so joyous. Because like myself, I was a hardcore Landsat user, really intimidated by synthetic aperture radar. With the creation of Sisters of SAR, I now feel more apt to use it in my research. Morgan and I are also in a group for MDPI for Remote Sensing Journal called Discoveries in Remote Sensing where we are trying to breakdown barriers to publishing in the remote sensing world. Specifically focused on underrepresented groups. I think that we're in a real renaissance where women's voices are being heard, not only through the research. But research papers on how women are moving through the world as women in STEM. We are just happy to be a small part of that.
LAWSON:
How about for you personally. What kind of value and what does it mean to you that you've been led to all of this?
FICKAS:
The myth is that as you get older or move through your career, the sense of imposter syndrome or this feeling of loneliness starts to dissipate. But I and others that I have heard from have found that not to be the case. I frequently get lonely and feel like an imposter. I still turn to my Ladies of Landsat that I reach for to be vulnerable for advice or guidance or help. And they always have my back. So for me to be able to give that back to other women so they can feel safe and supported and they can go out and do this amazing research is so rewarding for me. Ladies of Landsat has totally changed they way that I approach mentoring. It's hard to believe, but even just kindness and understanding can be a novelty in mentorship. Especially in academia. Men who come up through under-graduate and enter their graduate career have a base level sense of confidence that women simply don't have. Providing that safe space to really boost up women is one of my core values and it's one of the favorite things that I do every day.
LAWSON:
What would you like the future to look like for the group? And also, for just women in the field in general. What do you hope for?
FICKAS:
In the past several years we have really focused on kind of a grass roots effort to increase visibility and representation of women and minorities in remote sensing. But we hope that our group and other groups, women in STEM continue to make a conscious effort to develop intersectionality of groups mission statements and actions with intersectional feminism, holding the tenant that oppression of one group is oppression of all groups. Recognizing, however, that we also have our own unique experience. For example, with the Black Lives Matter protests last year it became clear that the scientific world is not doing nearly enough to support people of color and their experiences. So for Ladies of Landsat it means we are trying to recognize our own privileges, and using our privilege to engage in anti-racist actions, the same way that we ask our allies to stand-up for women in STEM. Right now, we try to showcase as many people of color as we can through our Manuscript Monday, and are now listening to our community to try and understand how we can do better. Going forward we would also really like to tackle some of the harder subjects in STEM, like sexual harassment and assault, motherhood for women in STEM. Women have to pretend that there's no problem in order to be taken seriously. In the future we want that to end. We want our experiences to be real and all women to feel safe and supported regardless of their experience.
LAWSON:
Any closing thoughts that we haven't touched on today?
FICKAS:
I would like to thank all of the Ladies of Landsat who have helped support my path. That's Morgan Crawley, Jody Vogeler, Meghan Halabisky. I couldn't have done any of this without them and their perspectives. And I would like to have another thank you to the incredible community of Ladies of Landsat on Twitter and around the world. Thank you for engaging in this group and helping make it better and creating a safe and supportive place for folks to exist. And a final thank you to our active allies, people in power who are making sure that women are represented. They are asking the question, who's in the room. And if Ladies of Landsat are not in the room. They try and make sure they are. And that's deeply appreciated.
LAWSON:
Thank you Dr. Fickas for joining us for this episode of Eyes on Earth.
FICKAS:
Thank you so much for having me.
LAWSON:
And thanks to the listeners as well. Check out our EROS Facebook and Twitter pages to watch for our newest episodes. You can also subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts. This podcast is a product of the U.S. Geological Survey, Department of the Interior.