Introducing our new mini series Elevator Science, where women in science give their elevator pitch for a current project they’re working on!
Enjoy learning about different research interests from so many talented and badass women in science from around the world! This episode features amazing work in conservation, zoo archeology, anthropology… and so much more! Listen in as Elise Osenga, Alex Fitzpatrick, Kadambari Lokesh, Catarina Silva, Jessica Wang, Becky Friesen, Christa Trexler, and Talia Shirazi fill us in on their fields of expertise and current projects.
Elise Osenga: Science Communication and Ecology!
Alex Fitzpatrick: Zooarcheology!
Kadambari Lokesh: Sustainability and Circular Thinking!
Catarina Silva: Conservation and Evolutionary Biology!
Aquaculture and Fisheries @JCU: https://www.jcu.edu.au/tropical-fisheries-and-aquaculture/research
Adaptation and dispersal of rock lobsters: http://www.catarinasilva.net/research-lobsters.html
Hotspots in world’s oceans warming faster than the global average: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-01-29/commercial-fishing-climate-change-hotspots-mapped/6054156
Jessica Wang: Earth System Science!
Becky Friesen: Wildlife Biodiversity Monitoring!
Conservation/STEM/Science communication Instagram account: @becky.outside
Christa Trexler: Cardiovascular Disease Research!
Talia Shirazi: Anthropology!
Cordon: Hi Everyone! Welcome to the Superwomen in Science Podcast, and this is part one of our super special Elevator Science Episode!
Nicole: So we asked you to send us your elevator pitch, or your three minute explanation of your work as a scientist, and man, did you deliver.
C: We got 16 submissions, which is crazy! We actually thought we were gonna get like, 3.
N: So since we got so many, we’ve decided to split the episode into two parts.
C: Yeah, more science ladies for you.
To start our first part today, we thought we would highlight some really awesome lady scientists who are not working in a lab.
N: And so one of our goals of our podcast in general is to highlight a wide variety of sciences and ladies to help change that perception that all science happens in the lab, by somebody wearing a lab coat.
C: So today we get to hear from Elise, Alex, Kadambari, Catarina, Jessica, and Becky, who do such cool and amazing things.
N: There’s a ton of field work, conservation, circular thinking, and caves! Super cool!
C: There are caves!
Elise: My name is Elise Osenga, and I work for the Aspen Global Change Institute. A lot of what I do is science communication and fostering collaboration between scientists in different fields, or between scientists and the public. But I do have one research project, and that project is my baby. It falls into that extremely glamorous category of long-term ecological research.
To be a little more specific about what I’m looking at, I look at soil moisture. Soil moisture is the amount of water held in the soil at any given time, and it’s actually a really important factor in ecology. It determines which plants can live where in an area, and it’s also useful for understanding things like how water is moving through a watershed, or what fire risk might be, or what landslide risk might be. So it’s a really important factor to understand.
What I’m doing is I’m looking at how soil moisture might be influenced by climate change over time. I have a series of nine stations in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado that are all at different elevations. The idea is to leave these stations in the ground for as long as possible, hopefully decades on end. If we’re able to do this, we can look at the data and start to look for patterns, relationships between things like air temperature and how much soil moisture is available, or timing of precipitation, like rain or snow and how much soil moisture is available. We will be able to better understand how changes in climate might influence soil moisture, which in turn lets us know what impacts it might have on local vegetation.
So it’s really pretty interesting work. I’d say the best part of my job and the best part of running this network is that I get to do field work. All of my stations are in beautiful locations and you just can’t beat it when you’re out there getting paid to take a hike on a beautiful day, and then get to tinker with a little bit of equipment to make sure it’s working right and just be outdoors in these beautiful locations. Some of my stations are places like the top of Independence Pass, other ones are down at about 6000 feet in elevation in some scrub oak, which is a really dense plant that you kinda have to bushwhack your way through. You never know what you’re going to find, and it’s always a constant challenge of trying to figure out how do I keep my equipment in shape, how do I keep things running properly, how do I store my data.
So I guess the truth is, I don’t necessarily think of myself as a woman in science, I think of myself as a person scrabbling to get just enough information to better understand this place where I live. And hopefully, through that better understanding, help to better protect these ecosystems that are the best part of my job and one of the best parts of my day.
Alex: Hi my name is Alex Fitzpatrick, I’m a PhD student at the University of Bradford, and I’m a zoo archeologist. For those who don’t know, a zoo archeologist is basically an archeologist who specializes in animal bones. So I look at animal bones from archaeological sites and I identify them to species and I analyze them.
So my PhD project is centered on the Covesea Caves, which are these caves on the northeast coast of Scotland. Particularly two caves, the Sculptor’s Cave and Covesea Caves 2. Now at these caves we’ve so far dug up a lot of human remains and a lot of animal remains. The idea is that these sites might be part of a larger mortuary complex where funerary rites may have been performed, and perhaps rituals may have been performed. So my job is to look at all of these animal bones and examine them for taphonomic characteristics, which means evidence of how they were treated after death, how they were buried or deposited, how they were used if they were used at all, were they even used by humans or were they used by animals. That’s the nice thing about zoo archeology, is that you get to find out a lot about not just the people who lived there, but also the animals who lived back in the later prehistoric, in my case.
In zoo archeology we also use different types of sciences. So in my project I’ll be using light isotope analysis, so I’ll be looking at carbon and nitrogen strontium levels in the animal bones and that will help me see their diet and where they may have come from. I’ll also be using things like bone histology and scanning electron microscopy and these will just help in identifying patterns of use and patterns of wear on these bones.
One of the nice things about this project is that my background comes from the humanities, so this is a nice combination of my love for science and my scientific skills, and my background as someone who has a degree in anthropology and archeology. I think this project also shows how archeology is moving towards applied science these days, and that we can apply different scientific methods to find out even the smallest details of people from the past. And, you know, I think that’s really exciting.
Child: Mum, where do chocolate biscuits come from?
Kadambari: Well, the biscuits are made of wheat from our farms, the chocolate comes from countries that grow cacao trees in warm humid forests. Please don’t jump on the sofa!
C: Okay. Hold on, where do sofas come from? Mum, where do babies come from?
K: Kids nowadays like to know where everything they like comes from. Our lives may get so busy, but it’s our duty to pass on this knowledge, so they appreciate all the efforts that have gone into making them. I also feel that they should know where things go after they’ve used them. That’s how you encourage circular thinking.
C: Mum? What’s circular thinking?
K: It’s using stuff responsibly and it’s very responsible of you when you think how you could utilize every part of the product you buy, even the wrappers. Fundamentally, nothing goes to waste. Just like how nature manages to create life from all the five abundant elements of the earth, and when they reach the end they go back to nature. Only recently has it got fancy names like life-cycle thinking and systems thinking. Simply put, circular economy is about closing the loops, and it’s underpinning principle is sustainability.
Bio-economy is one such pathway to a sustainable future to our children. Everyone around us can see it, the whole world does in fact. If not, the EU bioeconomy wouldn’t be worth 500 billion pounds, while the global bioeconomy is worth 2 trillion pounds.
C: That’s a lot of money!
K: It already is an established sector of 3.2 million jobs. And currently, our scientists have gone a step further to convert waste like straw, sludge, and even urban waste water into high-value products like detergents, personal care products, and energy. Waste isn’t really waste, we just don’t know what to do with it.
But when we talk about bio-based products, it invites a whole lot of questions and opinions. Bio-based products are expensive and are not that effective, what are they? A little bit of research always pays off. From googling a bit, I managed to find 100% recycled A4 sheets, 40 pence cheaper than our regular ones. There are edible spoons made out of barley, and even better, bread that’s gone past its use by date in the market, perfect for canapes.
There are a number of initiatives and research happening already, like StarProBio, which is a multi state quarter project involved in developing a sustainability framework for bio-based products so they can be tested, approved, and speedily be taken up by the commercial market, which is us! All we need for change to occur is to encourage everyone to think circular, think biobased. Please check our website for more information and feel free to send me your opinions, thoughts, and comments, whatever be it. Thanks for listening.
Catarina: Hi, I’m Catarina Silva. I’m a researcher at James Cook University in Australia. My field of science is conservation and evolutionary biology. I’m passionate about studying the way that species interact and adapt to the environment. Currently, I’m studying the evolution of rock lobsters.
These lobsters live in cold waters in the southern hemisphere. They are ideal models for my study because these species live in different marine environments across the world. Their ancestors might have originated as south as in Antarctica a very long time ago. Then, with increasing temperatures and habitat change, they shifted north, and adapted to their current environment such as the coast of Australia, Chile, and South Africa.
So looking at how species responded to past environmental fluctuations may give us clues into what will happen in the future. But how can we know what happened in the past? Well the DNA can tell us a lot of stories, because it contains signatures of what happened to these species in the past. For example, using genetic tools we can estimate the time when a common ancestor lived, and if there were changes in the demographic history, such as drastic reductions in the population sizes. By matching these signatures, these genetic signatures, with past geological events, as changes in sea level, we can better understand how species diversified. These research is very important because it will allow us to better predict how these animals will be affected by future climatic conditions. For example, the southern rock lobster in Australia lives in ocean temperatures which are increasing much faster than the global average. If these lobsters have adapted to a particular environmental condition, they might struggle in the face of rapid change.
So the results from this research can be applied to management and conservation of lobsters, as they are an important resource. And this is one of the reasons I really enjoy my work; I can contribute to progress of basic or fundamental research. As one of the main questions of evolutionary biology is how are distinct species formed. On the other hand my research can be applied to specific real world problems, and for example can help stakeholders to anticipate the potential effects of climate change on the resilience of fishery stocks.
Hi, I’m Jessica Wang, and I’m a graduate student at the University of California Irvine. And I’m interested in studying what earth’s climate was like in the past. We can use man-made tools, like thermometers or rain gauges, which tell us about past temperature and rainfall patterns. We can also turn to the tools that nature gave us, like trees, which also record the environment they live in. For example, we can look at the thickness of tree rings, which can tell us a little bit more about past temperature or rainfall patterns.
The biggest problem with using these tools is that they only give us a couple hundred years of data. To really understand the history and patterns of earth’s climate, we have to understand what the climate was like hundreds and thousands of years ago. And we simply can’t do that with only a couple hundred years of data. However, what we can do is crawl deep underground, into cave, to travel further back in the past.
Every year, my lab group travels over 23 hours to southeast Asia, to collect clues dripping inside caves. We have to crawl through spaces less than two feet high, and squeeze through cracks, with only the light from our headlamps guiding us through. We put on our caving harness, and clip on to the rope, and rappel down rocks to collect another one of nature’s tools: cave deposits. Specifically, stalagmites.
Stalagmites grow from the ground up as water containing minerals drip from the cave ceiling. These minerals then build up over time to form stalagmites. You may also be familiar with stalactites, which grow from the ceiling down. So similar to tree rings, the layers in the stalagmites can tell us about changes in the cave chemistry, precipitation, and temperature. We can measure the mineral content from each of the layers of the stalagmites, by using a dental drill to extract the powder. We can then analyse the chemistry of the powder, which can tell us about the history of past rainfall patterns.
For my dissertation work, I’m currently working on the very first set of stalagmite records from southeast Asia that span the last 2000 years. And these new records will help fill in the gaps that still remain in paleoclimate records. Together, with man-made tools and nature tools, I strive to answer the questions of when, why and how climate is going to change due to climate change, by studying the past, to understand the present, to better predict the future. Thank you.
Hi, my name is Becky and I do wildlife biodiversity monitoring. So basically what I’ve done so far, because careers are always changing, who knows where I’ll end up, but so far what I do is contribute to projects that just do long term monitoring of various types of ecosystems. And I’ve done this all around the Americas actually, so mostly in Peru and Honduras, and I’m currently working in Mexico. And really the importance of it is just to know what exists; what the ecosystems hold, and what the changes are.
So, any types of animals from snakes, birds, dung beetles, we do lots of tree measurements as well. I’m currently working on a project with butterflies, but I’ve worked with all different types of taxa. And it’s a long thing, so you go every year, or some projects that I’ve worked on people stay throughout the year, and just keep tabs on it really. And if a population declines or it increases, it’s trying to find out what changes in the environment causes those changes.
It’s an interesting area of work. What I find most interesting about it is that the purpose of it is to inform government. So the purpose is to then take this information and go to a government, or maybe a non-profit or a private business, anyone who has the power to affect these ecosystems, and say “look, this is what’s happening in this ecosystem, this is why, and now it’s on you to help us change it. And to change maybe policies, or business practices to then maintain ecosystems in a healthy state”. So the part of it that’s really fascinating for me is just the interaction between the science, and then translating that into policies, and then communicating that with the public, which can also influence policy. It’s almost this intersectional environmentalism thing, and the idea that environmentalism can’t exist without the corresponding politics and corresponding economy. It’s really fascinating, and I hope that anyone who gets into wildlife conservation, or anyone who is currently in it can also kind of appreciate it that conservation is part of a bigger picture, it’s not just science on it’s own.
N: To finish off our episode we have two badass ladies who are working on really important research.
C: Their research focuses on women in fields that have systematically ignored women in the past.
N: So shout out to Christa and Talia!
C: Hello, my name is Christa Trexler, I’m new to listening to the podcast but I’m really excited you guys are doing this, promoting women in STEM at each stage of our career is so important, so thanks for having the podcast. I recently got my PhD from the University of Colorado Boulder, this past may, in molecular biology, and I do cardiovascular research. I’m now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California in San Diego. And I’m still doing cardiovascular disease research, just kind of in a different field.
Yeah, so I think I’m what people typically think of when they think of a scientist, I just happen to also be a woman. I wear a labcoat everyday, I do benchwork, I do animal research, I mentor students. So I mentor undergraduate students in the lab, and graduate students. And that’s something that’s extremely important to me, because I think it’s something that’s so important, especially for the future of science, of being good teachers, and good communicators. So that’s something I try to work on everyday.
But as a graduate student I was really lucky to be able to work on a project that I was extremely passionate about. As I mention I work on cardiovascular disease research, and for my specific project I was trying to understand the differences in the heart between men and women. And this is something that’s really important because heart disease is the number one killer of both men and women in America. But most people don’t really think about that, or they don’t really know that it is the number one cause of death for women. Most people think, if you ask them, that breast cancer is the number one cause of death in women, but it’s actually heart disease.
But people don’t really understand why this is, for a variety of different reasons. But the main issue is that most of the past research for drug development for heart disease was either done in male animals or men in clinical trials. So the drugs that were utilized to treat men and women were the same, but they would either have adverse effects in the women, or they wouldn’t work at all. And that’s a big issue.
So my PhD project was just trying to understand at baseline and the absence of disease, what’s the fundamental difference between the male and the female heart. So I did this by isolating heart cells from the whole heart from animals, and performing an RNA sequencing experiment, to understand global gene expression differences. And we were able to identify some key pathways that will hopefully inform drug development in the future to develop drugs that will be specifically helpful to women.
And now I’m in my postdoc, it’s a really new and exciting experience. And I just wanted to thank you guys for doing this, it’s a really great area for discussion, so thank you!
Talia: Hey, my name’s Talia, and I’m currently an anthropology PhD student at Penn State, studying the link between hormones and sexuality in women. So, everyone knows that hormones do stuff, whether it’s because you’ve heard the stereotypes about hormones making women go crazy during pregnancy, or across their menstrual cycle, or because you’ve gone to the doctor to get prescribed a hormonal contraceptive and you’ve heard about the side effects of altering your hormone levels. We all know that hormones are super important when it comes to our health, our behaviour, and maybe our sanity. Surprisingly, what we don’t understand very well is how hormones affect sexuality in women, whether it be sexual desire, motivation, or arousal.
My current work probes that question from a couple different angles. So we’ve investigated whether women’s mate preferences, and specifically here their voiced preferences, are associated with hormone levels, or whether they’re in different reproductive states, so whether they are normally cycling or breast feeding. We’ve looked at physiological responses to sexual stimuli, which is basically just a fancy term for pornography, differ based on women’s hormone levels and where they are in their menstrual cycle. And we’ve also looked at how changes in hormones within an individual as well as differences in hormone levels across individuals, relate to changes or differences in various facets of sexual desire.
So, besides just being super interesting, these sorts of questions are relevant for anyone considering medically altering their hormones. So whether it be girls considering going on the pill, menopausal women who want to take hormone replacement therapy, or transgender women who want to go on hormone replacement therapy. It’s really important that before we recommend these hormone altering medications, we have a thorough understanding of the full range of effects that these medications can have. I’m super enthusiastic about the work I do, and I’m really looking forward to meaningfully contributing to conversations on the treatment and understanding of women’s sexual function, and the evolution of women’s sexuality. Thanks for listening!
C: So we hope you enjoyed the first part of our elevator science episode, or as Nicole and I have been lovingly calling it, our research dump episode. Make sure to subscribe (definitely said describe but let’s pretend it didn’t happen) to the podcast on iTunes, Soundcloud, or Stitcher so you can hear part two next week!
N: You can follow us on twitter at SuperwomenSci or on Facebook at Superwomen in Science Podcast. You can also find us on instagram again at SuperwomenSci or check out our website, superwomeninscience.wordpress.com.
C: A huge shout out to our amazing contributors this week, Elise, Alex, Kadambari and Catarina…
N: …Jessica, Becky, Christa, and Talia. You can find all of their links in the shownotes!
C: Thanks so much everybody!
*note: we have no bloopers this episode because our wonderful guests are much more skilled than we are! Don’t worry though, we’re not cutting out bloopers from our regular eps (AKA we’re not getting any less tongue tied).*