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Finding connections and a sense of community help make work more fulfilling. But a feeling of belonging can be harder for some people to find than others. A remote-sensing-focused Twitter group is trying to do something about that.

color photo of Dr. Kate Fickas with the graphic for the USGS EROS podcast Eyes on Earth
Dr. Kate Fickas, pictured with the graphic for the USGS EROS podcast Eyes on Earth. 

On the most recent episode of the USGS EROS podcast Eyes on Earth, listeners were introduced to the Twitter group Ladies of Landsat and how it connects women and other underrepresented groups working in the field of remote sensing. The group encourages people to share their experiences and feel the support of a community.

The guest on Episode 47 was remote sensing ecologist Kate Fickas, who created Ladies of Landsat at a Landsat Science Team meeting at EROS in 2018. Since then, with the help of fellow scientist Morgan Crowley, Ladies of Landsat has gained more than 5,000 followers. Dr. Fickas is research faculty with the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Utah State University using Landsat to help natural resource and conservation managers make decisions about aquatic ecosystems.

Visit the Episode 47 show page at this link to download the audio file and access links to the full transcript. Visit the Eyes on Earth main page at this link to access every episode.

Here are the highlights from the conversation with Dr. Fickas, edited for length and clarity.

EYES ON EARTH (EoE): First of all, do you want to tell us more about the dream you had for the Ladies of Landsat Twitter group?

KATE FICKAS (KF): I have been a remote sensing ecologist for about eight years now. I came from a background in 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. 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, the hope would be, at its core, that I could connect with other women across the globe who are also using Landsat and remote sensing data. I had no idea that it would blossom into what it is now.

EoE: So what are the intents or the goals of Ladies of Landsat?

KF: We want to create a community to support and amplify voices of women in underrepresented 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 gatekeeping that goes on in remote sensing; someone or groups of specific people might be limiting access, intentionally or unintentionally, to the voices represented or 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 choose the top candidates.” First of all, it 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 a conscious effort to change the structure. We’re trying to shift that change, getting the remote sensing community at large to shift their perspectives.

EoE: Could you explain a little more about the group? Is it a formal membership? Do people just sign up on Twitter?

KF: 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.

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. Our hope is that Ladies of Landsat will make someone more excited about using Landsat in their work and not intimidated.

EoE: How do people connect with each other?

Eyes on Earth Episode 47 - Ladies of Landsat

KF: 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.

EoE: Do you want to talk a little about your new video series?

KF: I would love to. 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. 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. She turns it into this beautiful animated series. These videos have been such a wonderful and joyful diversion and really helped me get through quarantine. We’re so pleased that everybody else is responding to them with the same amount of joy.

EoE: 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.

KF: 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 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. 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.

Earth Observation Case Study - Ladies of Landsat

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 continentwide 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 L7 for granted. But looks what it’s accomplished, even being a little rough around the edges. I’m also really fond of Landsat 1-3 and MSS data in general. My research looks at a lot of policies surrounding the US Clean Water Act, which was established in 1972 alongside 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.

EoE: What kind of value do women find through the connections of Ladies of Landsat?

KF: 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 or 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.” That sentiment is hard to find in STEM.

On the professional side, we’ve had new groups pop up like Sisters of SAR—women who use synthetic aperture radar—which is so much fun and so joyous. I was a hard-core 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 break down 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. We are just happy to be a small part of that.

EoE: How about for you personally—what does it mean to you that you’ve led to all of this?

KF: 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 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 the way that I approach mentoring. Even just kindness and understanding can be a novelty in mentorship, especially in academia. Men who come up through undergraduate 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.

EoE: What would you like the future to look like for the group? And for women in the field in general?

KF: In the past several years, we have really focused on kind of a grassroots effort to increase visibility and representation of women and minorities in remote sensing. But we hope that our group and other groups continue to make a conscious effort to develop intersectionality of groups’ mission statements and actions with intersectional feminism, holding the tenet that oppression of one group is oppression of all groups, and recognizing 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.

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