At geology symposium, women rock

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Students at a lab run by geology professor Rowan Lockwood, who helped organize the symposium. ADRIENNE BERARD / WM.EDU

Six distinguished female alumnae from the College of William and Mary’s geology department presented Thursday Oct. 18 at a symposium in conjunction with the celebration of 100 years of women. The event was organized by College’s Association of Women Geoscientists chapter and by geology professors at the College.

The symposium was designed to engage the College community in current events surrounding the Geology department, but also to address the low numbers of women in the field of geology. The department saw this as an opportunity to bring in female voices who could talk about the College’s impact on their careers and on their identities as women in a science, technology, engineering and math field.  

Director of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum Ellen Stofan ’83, who served as the event’s keynote speaker, saw the symposium as an opportunity to foster the growth of women in STEM fields. As the first female head of the National Air and Space Museum, she believes the number of women working in science careers can be raised by inviting them to engage with and be inspired by other women role models in the field.

“… Unless girls can see themselves in some role, they are going to think, ‘Oh people like me don’t do that,’” Stofan said.    

“When I was 12 or 13 years old and I was looking for women role models, there were only two or three,” Stofan said. “So, I do think it is important for women like me in the sciences, who have taken positions of leadership, to really get out there and speak up, because unless girls can see themselves in some role, they are going to think, ‘Oh people like me don’t do that.’”  

Stofan acknowledged the role she plays in making sure young girls are aware of the opportunities for them in STEM fields. She said that her position at the Air and Space Museum is a perfect chance to create an engaging environment for those young women.   

During the symposium, presenters revealed tools and methods they had created for collecting and interpreting data that can be applied to other areas. 

Becky Flowers ’98 conducted research with the aim of unveiling the Grand Canyon’s timeline of creation using thermochronology. Thermochronology is a technique which dates the cooling patterns of rock to develop a historical timeline. This technique, which Flowers is helping to perfect, can be used in many other study sites and can shed light on new geological information.   

Seema Turner ’93 reflected on her time here being formative for mentorship. She, along with some of the other presenters, received invaluable guidance from the professors in the geology department, and Turner specifically has taken those experiences and applied them to her current career. The characteristics of those professors inform the way she mentors: such things as taking the time to listen, being present and valuing the connections with the people she surrounds herself with.  

Jessica Ball ’07 knew she wanted to be a volcanologist for as long as she can remember, and the geology department at the College helped her attain that goal. The knowledge she gained while here helped play a key role in rapidly disseminating factual information after the explosion of the Kilauea volcano on Hawaii’s big island as part of the US Geological Survey.  

Virginia Department of Environmental Quality Groundwater Geologist Todd Beach ’88 said that he enjoyed Ball’s footage of the Kilauea Volcano’s eruptions.  

“My favorite part was Jessica Ball’s time lapse videos of eruptions and the caldera collapse from the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii because it’s the next best thing to actually being there to see it,” Beach said in an email. “I think it was a great way to highlight and honor some of the contributions by W&M’s female geologists and illustrate the Geology department’s commitment to educating female scientists since the geology department’s inception here at W&M.” 

Nancy Lauer ’13 uses radium decay to look at when traces of toxic waste were introduced into water sources as a result of hydraulic fracturing. Lynn Wingard ’79 designed a data collection model for examining historical records in sediment coring samples. She can use this information to predict sea level rise and climate change effects in the future.  

Each speaker attributed a certain aspect of their career path to the College. Stofan said her success was a result of support she received during her time at the College.   

“I hear so many stories of women who were actively discouraged and I think if that had been me I would’ve left,” Stofan said. “That is why it is important for me to really work on diversity and inclusion because I had an unusual experience of incredible support here.”  

Kirsten Maygaard ’21, who is an economics and Hispanic studies double major, attended the event. 

“I think people think it’s only recently that there has been a bigger push for women in STEM, so being able to see how William and Mary geology has been able to do this for decades and decades makes me feel good to go to this school,” Maygaard said.  

Stofan said that the push for women in STEM is not recent, but it is important now more than ever. 

 She said, people need to ask themselves “Are we telling everyone’s stories?” because that is important in order to facilitate a well-rounded and inclusive environment.