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Science: The Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me

It’s new-semester’s eve—the night before classes begin at the university where I teach. As I stand on the precipice of academic year 2016-2017, looking with hopeful eyes toward an always-uncertain semester, my mind wanders back to the beginning of my foray into the world of science. Tonight, my message is tailor made for the young women out there who might find themselves in a science class that they don’t want to be in. I know, it kind of sucks.

My guess (and it is an educated one) is that most of you are taking my class because 1) you have to take a science class, and 2) either your advisor told you this class fits your schedule, or you heard from someone that the class is not too hard.

There might be a handful of you who are somewhat intrigued by geology—earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, landslides, and other natural disasters may have caught your attention via a show on the Discovery Channel, or some personal experience growing up in a hazard-prone location (AKA, California)

Mt. St. Helens ash explosion May, 1980.

Mt. St. Helens ash explosion – May, 1980. Isn’t it sexy?

For others, you may have no idea what geology is, but you figure it is easier than chemistry, physics, or biology and so why not give it a shot?

To all of you in any of these categories, I say proudly that I WAS YOU! My scientific career began the day I wandered into Geology 101 at Syracuse University, a cranky freshman English major determined to hate the class and just get through it with a decent grade. I sat in the back row in my Doc Marten combat boots, sulked, and tried not to fall asleep. (We didn’t have smart phones then so I didn’t have many options)

I wanted to be a dancer. Science was never part of the discussion when I was a kid.

I wanted to be a dancer or a writer. Science was never part of the discussion when I was a kid.

Much to my surprise, I found myself intrigued. Images of mountains and valleys and rivers and volcanic eruptions all invaded my non-science-y brain and refused to let go. It scared me a little. I thought to myself, “I might like this stuff but there is no way I can be a science major. I am not good at math or science. Science is too hard for me.”

And there it was—the phrase that creeps into the minds of bright little girls everywhere and begins to unfairly degrade their confidence:

Science is too hard.

Look, I am a scientist and I can confirm that science is hard. It is really freaking hard. But it is not TOO hard. What does that even mean, really? If it were too hard, nobody would be able to do it.

But people do it. Even people like me do it, and I was not the ideal candidate for a science program. I had always been a writer. I was interested in literature and poetry. My parents weren’t professors or engineers or even teachers. My dad was a musician and my mom was a housewife. Neither of them went to college. I always liked school, but I struggled with math and science. In high school I took advanced placement English and opted out of pre-calculus. Instead, I took “modern” math, which was a mixture of probability and statistics and other stuff that didn’t hurt my brain too much. So when I went to college I knew exactly where I was headed: I would be a writer, and to hell with math and science.

They were too hard.

Here’s the tragedy of all of this: my story is not unique. It is a well established fact that young girls are just as interested in math and science as boys are in elementary school, but somewhere around middle school girls are far more likely to utter that dreaded phrase, “science is too hard,” or its equally crappy counterpart, “math is too hard,” than boys are.

What the actual fuck.

It is just one more example of why we, as women, have to work that much harder to put this kind of nonsense to rest. We, as strong, smart, capable, unique, thinking women have to do even more to prove that we can do everything men can do, and better.

So here is my plea to all of the young women who will set foot in my sacred hall of learning this semester—

Come to crush it. Come ready to rock the hell out of some science. Come ready to show the boys what you are made of.

Me after crushing a five-day excursion in a snowy Tibet valley, doing geology for my PhD research.

Me after crushing a five-day excursion in a snowy Tibet valley, doing geology for my PhD research.

Now I know most of you will not end up pursuing science as a career. That is irrelevant. Having basic knowledge of the scientific process is absolutely invaluable to the overall impact you can have on the world around you. Understanding how data is gathered and analyzed, being able to read and decipher a graph, and engaging in critical thinking, are all skills that will make you a better, deeper, more intelligent person. Period.

And ladies, in this critical time in our nation’s evolution toward being a more equal and just place, you cannot underestimate the importance of using your voice, your brain, and your free will. This is the time to push yourselves to the boundaries of your comfort zones and beyond.

Ladies, this is the time.

I wasn’t born destined to be a scientist, but science was the best thing that ever happened to me. It took me well beyond my comfort zone and forced me to work harder than I ever had, think more deeply that I ever had, and fight harder than I ever had to gain recognition and respect in a field dominated by men. And you know what?

Doing science was hard. Becoming a scientist was the most difficult thing I ever did. But it was also the most rewarding.

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Seventeen Years Since Tibet

It has been almost seventeen years since my feet touched terra firma at 11,450 feet elevation, on the outskirts of Lhasa, Tibet. My first time at “high” altitude was both exhilarating, and utterly terrifying. I was embarking on an adventure that was meant to be no nonsense research for my PhD studies, but unbeknownst to me would end up being so much more. In short, it would shake me to my core. It forever changed, at least in part, who I am as a scientist, a woman, and a person.

Let’s start with the science. If you know anything about geology you have probably heard of a little thing called plate tectonics. It is pretty much the unifying theory of how the Earth works, and explains such trivial things as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, mountain formation…you get the picture. The basic idea is that the Earth’s rigid, outer shell, called the lithosphere, is broken into several large plates that move around and interact at their edges, kind of like big, moving puzzle pieces. At the plates’ edges, or boundaries, is where the action is! Rumbling earthquakes, explosive volcanic eruptions, and rocks being buckled, folded, and thrust toward the sky, all happen at plate boundaries. They are by and large the premier locales for geologic mayhem.

Earth's plates. The bold black lines indicate the plate boundaries.

Earth’s plates. The bold black lines indicate the plate boundaries (continents are green).

The Tibetan Plateau, covering an area of 965,000 square miles at an average elevation of over 15,000 feet (that’s 2,500,000 square kilometers and 4,572 meters, respectively, in geek speak) is the biggest, highest, bad-assest plateau on the planet. Tectonically speaking, Tibet is on the Eurasian side of the Indo-Asian collision, where two continents collide. This collision is famously responsible for the formation of the Himalayas. You know, the Himalayas – the highest mountains on Earth? Home to Mt. Everest? Yeah, those Himalayas. The Himalayas and Tibet are the result of processes related India smashing into Asia over 50 million years ago. By the way, India is still pushing her way into Asia to this day, making this place the ONE real-life, in real time, natural laboratory for continental collision. Needless to say, Tibet is a geologist’s playground, a dream come true for fieldwork.


The Tibetan Plateau (in red box), with India to the south and Eurasia to the north. The Himalayas are the arcuate mountain range on the southern edge of the plateau.

Before I started my PhD at UCLA, I completed a masters degree at Vanderbilt University, under the kind and gentle tutelage of Dr. Calvin F. Miller. We did field work together in southern Nevada in a sweet little mountain range called the El Dorado Mountains. The highest peak, Ireteba, is just over 5,000 feet high (did I mention Mt. Everest sits at 29,028 feet, and the average elevation on the Tibetan plateau is 15,000 feet?). The El Dorado Wilderness covers roughly 40 square miles (121 square kilometers), and would basically look like a pimple on the ass of the great Himalayas. My perspective on fieldwork was quite limited pre-Tibetan plateau. Don’t get me wrong, the work I did in Nevada was fun, interesting, and a great learning experience. But I would not have called myself a seasoned field geologist after spending a total of about four weeks of my life, spread over several trips, in the El Dorados, camping at designated campgrounds with restrooms and showers, shopping for food at the local Vons, and just generally being a spoiled suburban girl with only a slight taste for adventure.

My rock drawer at Vanderbilt. It is still there today, full of El Dorado granitoids.

My rock drawer at Vanderbilt. It is still there today, full of El Dorado granitoids.

And then, there’s the science. The science of the Himalayas and Tibet is on a scale that is hard to explain. For those who study the geology of this place, a lifetime of work is still not enough to fully understand the mysteries. Many geologists have spent years, decades even, doing their best to unravel the primary question, “When did India collide with Eurasia?” Some of the first ideas date back to the 1920s. In the 1980s an age of about 55 million years ago was proposed as the timing of contact between the continent of India and the southern edge of Eurasia, and almost 40 years later the evidence still largely supports this age. But the intricacies of what went on before, during, and after collision are too numerous, and too complicated, to have yet been fully understood. Even the Earth’s climate was not immune to the effects of the growth of the Himalayas. In other words, for a geologist, Tibet is a compelling opportunity as well as a seemingly untenable problem. How can one little lady from upstate NY, land of no topography except that left behind by moving ice, contribute anything of scientific value to this vast, overwhelming, excessively complicated geologic puzzle? And how could I do it all while keeping up with the some of the brightest minds (and toughest bodies) in Tibetan geologic studies?  I didn’t think I could.

Before going to Tibet, I went on many a class field trip. This is fall 1998, on a trip to the California coast, chilling with my future husband Paul, one of my fellow graduate students, who worked in Tibet.

Before going to Tibet, I went on many class field trips. This is fall 1998, on a trip to the California coast, chilling with my future husband Paul, one of my fellow UCLA graduate students, who also worked in Tibet.

After much debate between my advisor and the advisor of my fellow graduate students working in Tibet (who were both male), I was granted the opportunity to accompany them on their field expedition. Yes, that is what it felt like. Not that I was going to Tibet to conduct field studies of my own, but instead, more like, please don’t slow the guys down as they drag your sorry ass all over the Tibetan plateau. “If you get sick,” said their advisor, “they will send you back to Lhasa alone on a bus.” And the ever so confidence boosting, “Even big, strong guys get sick in Tibet.” I was convinced I would be the ball on the end of their chain, the molasses in their gas tank, the scarlet “A” emblazoned on their fleece jackets (“A” for asshole). I contemplated throwing in the towel, wiping the superficial smile off of my face, and revealing that I was petrified that I would die over there. Instead, I went.

Paul and me right after landing in Lhasa on my very first trip to Tibet (1999). We were both students at UCLA, and less than a year into our relationship. This is before any real 'roughing it' happened. Notice the big, hopeful smile. I had no idea what I was in for!

Me and Paul, right after landing in Lhasa on my very first trip to Tibet (1999). We were both students at UCLA, and less than a year into our relationship. This is before any real ‘roughing it’ happened. Notice the big, hopeful smile. I had no idea what I was in for!

The project had started out as me dating some rocks that had been collecting dust for six years in my advisor’s office. The rocks had been collected in 1992 from the Nyainqentanglha Range in southern Tibet. It is a bitch of a mountain range, with ice-covered peaks that reach over 19,000 feet elevation, and raging ice-fed rivers slicing through its northern and southern faces. It generates its own shitty weather, often spitting snow and rain out of its rugged canyons into the adjacent valley, with ferocity and no regard for a skinny girl’s desire to hike into its depths and unlock its secrets. I had surveyed geologic maps of the area prior to my journey, noting that they showed the range as basically one huge body of 50-60 million year old granite. Of course, the rocks I had been analyzing were apparently not tuned in to that story, and they revealed ages ranging from as old as 200 million years to as young as 8 million. This mountain range had hidden in it more than those who had mapped it from afar could have known.

Me after a week-long expedition (on foot, with yaks toting our gear) into the heart of the Nyainqentanglha range. Notice the dark storm clouds in the background - we had recently exited that canyon into the mild weather of the valley.

Me, after a week-long expedition (on foot, with yaks toting our gear) into the heart of the Nyainqentanglha range. Notice the dark storm clouds in the background – we had recently exited that canyon into the milder weather of the valley.

In Tibet, my goal was to dig deeper into the story those rocks were beginning to tell. On my first trip, in 1999, I learned what it meant to abandon normal life and live in the field. I left civilization and all contact with my world back home and went off the grid for more than 100 days. It was a crash course in integrating mapping, large-scale observations, sampling, and physical ability. I began to see the beauty of big-picture science. Going from a map of a mountain range, to a fist-sized sample of rock from that mountain range, harvested with nothing but my own strength and a heavy rock hammer, to tiny crystals separated out of that rock sample, hand-picked under a microscope and mounted in epoxy, to age information zapped out of those crystals with a 20 micron diameter oxygen beam, telling us when those rocks were nothing but magma deep in the Earth – now THAT is the power of science. That is nothing short of miraculous. That is the result of hard-working people pursuing the advancement of knowledge. Being a part of that process made me feel like a real scientist. It was an education far beyond what a classroom can deliver. It changed the way I see the world.

Me and my all-male pack - my family for over 100 days of roughing it on the Tibetan plateau. [Left to right: Lou Sang (Tibetan driver), Paul, Mike Taylor (UCLA graduate student), Me, Doje (Tibetan Driver), Zhou Young (Chinese colleague)]

Me and my all-male pack – my family for over 100 days of roughing it on the Tibetan plateau. [Left to right: Lou Sang (Tibetan driver), Paul, Mike Taylor (UCLA graduate student), Me, Doje (Tibetan Driver), Zhou Young (Chinese colleague)]

And, I didn’t get sick. (Well, not sick enough to slow anyone down). They didn’t have to send me back to Lhasa alone on a bus. And along the way, I learned a lot more than when those rocks had formed, and how that mountain range had grown, and how it all fit into the bigger picture of Tibetan tectonics. I learned about my own strength, and my own abilities (and lack thereof). Squatting on the side of a scree-covered slope, belly rumbling from hunger, rain pissing down on my soggy rain jacket, trying to locate myself on an unfamiliar topographic map, I found a side of me that I never knew existed. Like that old geologic map with only one age for the mountains, what I knew about myself up to then was only part of the story.

Stay tuned…

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Why Is Everyone Here So Nice? (And Other Kauai Quandaries)

Kauai. A small-ish island in the middle of the largest ocean on Earth, forged over five million years ago from lava spilled onto the ocean floor. The oldest of the Hawaiian island chain, the Garden Isle is home to roughly 70,000 people, and boasts a single highway that can take you from one end of the island to the other in about 90 minutes. We recently relocated here (temporarily, for a sabbatical) and I find myself in awe at the many things that make Kauai special. This place just feels different. It exudes a distinctive energy. I think it is something you have to experience, but I can share some snapshots from our first ten days, and maybe tune you in to its frequency.

Our first night on the island, my oldest was catching giant tadpoles with his bare hands in a river. (Can you feel the difference already?) A local boy, also on the hunt, approached my son and handed him a net, silently inviting a team effort. In no time they had filled the young boy’s bucket, and his father had given my son the net to keep. This small gesture seemed excessively nice to me, and I ran after the man to thank him for the net. The man asked where we are from, how long we will be on Kauai, and told us before long we would be islanders. For comparison, you have to live in NYC for a decade before you are accepted as a New Yorker. So what is it about this place that makes people so welcoming? Why is everyone here so nice? Are they happier? Is it the simpler lifestyle? Are they all high on weed? Whatever it is, there should be more of it in the world.

First day at a new school for my boys, and I am greeted by happy “hellos” from every child I encounter at drop off. My son’s class went to the nurse for an uku (lice) check. They even make lice sound cute here! After drop off I head to Hanalei beach for a jog, and much like the schoolyard, hellos come in from all directions as I pass people walking their dogs, strolling with their honeys, or having their own morning workouts. Some smile, some nod, but not one has averted his gaze, turned her head away, or refused to make eye contact. Why does everyone here greet you warmly? I don’t know, but it makes for an instant sense of community. Even the grown-ass man getting ready to boogie board nodded a hello as I huffed passed.

My son, walking home from school barefoot with a new friend.

My son, walking home from school barefoot with a new friend.

Why do grown men boogie board here? It seems a bit silly, a six-foot-tall man holding a boogie board, reading the waves, timing them, preparing for a perfect ride, like a surfer. Here, it seems, people are drawn to the sea. From surfing to boogie boarding to paddling, even jumping off the end of the Hanalei pier with utter disregard for the “Do Not Jump” signs – grown ups find pleasure in the ocean, same as children do. My son often drags me out on that pier and begs me to jump with him. Why don’t I just freaking hurl myself off that pier? I really should. I suspect before long I will, maybe after a particularly hard and sweaty run.


Hanalei pier, one of our favorite places to play!

Speaking of which, why doesn’t exercise feel like a chore here? Back home, I run to fight middle-age spread. I run on a treadmill, while watching crappy sitcoms on Hulu, counting the minutes until it is over. If I don’t run I feel guilty, bloated, and cranky, and yet, I never look forward to it. Here, I cannot wait to get on the beach and run. I run to get to the steep and muddy trail leading to a tiny turquoise beach waiting just for me. I run because my boys think there is something to see at the end of two miles of sand. Here, running is a way of connecting with the landscape more than a chore to be completed. I suspect I would not give a second thought to exercising if I lived here, as it would simply be part of my life.

Hideaways beach, at the bottom of a steep, muddy trail.

Hideaways beach, at the bottom of a steep, muddy trail.

Driving on this island, through jungle-book type scenery, is quite pleasant. Why isn’t driving stressful here? Maybe because everyone is courteous, follows the rules of the road, and doesn’t seem to be in a hurry. Windows are down, surfboards strapped to car tops, and sand wisps out of truck beds, as people coast to their next adventure. Even better, using a device while driving is not tolerated here. Period. No texting. No talking on the phone. If a cop sees you with a phone in hand while operating a vehicle, you will get pulled over. I have been here for ten days, have circumnavigated pretty much the entire island, and have not once seen someone on a phone while driving. I haven’t heard one horn honk, nor seen one bird flipped. It is the complete opposite of driving back home.

Normally, I am a massive consumer. I pump my hard-earned money into the American economy via the purchase of imperative items such as the season’s trendiest high black boots, low black boots, fringed boots, a flashier pair of black boots, and…more boots. While I don’t have a clinical addiction or anything, the amount of stuff I have in my closet back home is completely unreasonable. I could get by with a few pairs of shorts and some sandals, but I don’t. And yet, I would give up 100% of my closet to come live a simpler life in Kauai. Some sandals, a few swimsuits, and purchases limited to necessities and outdoor recreational items. Why don’t I care as much about material things here? Because…the beach. No shoes, no shirt…no problem!

Warm greetings, sun and sand, physical activity, and fewer material possessions. I think I’m destined to hang loose.

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An Open Letter To My Students, On The Eve Of A New Semester.

It’s the night before we will begin our short adventure together. Like some of you, I have first day jitters. Not because I am nervous about teaching in front of a group of more than 200 strangers (I have done this many times), but because each new semester carries such promise – the potential to inspire, excite, and engage so many bright young minds. As a teacher, nothing feels better than connecting with the people who will move us forward into a bright future, filled with new ideas, innovations, and ground breaking discoveries. Yes, you are the people of whom I speak. You are the ones who will take us into the next wave of exploration.

For some of you, science has always been on your radar. Maybe you started collecting rocks as a kid, or love the discovery channel, or went to space camp. Maybe you grew up near the beach and dreamed of being a marine biologist. For others, science is boring. Geeky. Nerdy. Uninteresting. Maybe it is even scary. And some of you believe that science is “too hard.” Well, check this out – I WAS YOU! I never wanted to pursue science. I was quite happy to be a writer and leave the science to the uber-nerds. I didn’t believe I could do it.

But here’s the thing: I was wrong about science. Science is so freaking cool! It isn’t just cool, it is the way we ask and answer all of the important questions of our world. Science is how we will solve the grandest challenges we will face in the next 10-20 years, and believe me, they are grand. Lack of clean drinking water, the need for clean energy, climate change, disaster relief, overpopulation, hunger, and disease – ALL of these issues are real, and have already begun. Guess what will help us with these problems? Prayer? Nope. War? Don’t think so. Smart, hard-working people coming together to do science and figure this all out? YOU GOT IT!

For me, being a scientist wasn’t always easy. In fact, some of it downright sucked (General Chemistry, anyone?). But I have never once regretted becoming a scientist.

Now, I know not all of you will become scientists. I respect that we all have different interests, strengths, and talents. In fact, I am envious that you have your entire lives ahead of you to choose your path and follow your dreams! It is such an exciting time. Regardless of your plans today, I ask you for this small favor: come to class with an open mind, a courteous heart, and the willingness to learn something new. For only in this way do we become better people. Every bit of new knowledge you gain, every new skill you master, makes you a deeper individual. It makes you stronger. Knowledge is power! I promise as your instructor to do my very best to keep it interesting, and answer your questions to the best of my ability. Will you, as my students, promise to simply give it a chance, respect our time together, and maybe even try to learn a little something? Oh, and promise to ask questions when you want to know more. I love that.

Now ladies, this is a special part just for you. You have no idea how important this time in history is for us women. Well, maybe you do, but I want to reiterate. The time for women to rise up is now. The time for us to be, do, and say EVERYTHING we can is now. The time for equality is now. Science is not just for old, white men. Science is for everyone. It is for you.

Women are bringing it big time, in all sorts of ways. And not just in science – whatever you choose to pursue, bring it! Bring your A game. Push yourself to the very brink of your ability. Then push farther. You are strong. You are smart. You are valuable. You have what it takes.

Oh and by the way, you can be a scientist AND be a girly girl if you want. You can wear high heels, do your hair, wear make up, and still be an archaeologist digging in the dirt, or a physicist doing thought experiments. How about a professional athlete, or a doctor, or a stay at home mother, or an astronaut on the first mission to Mars. Don’t let anyone tell you your clothes, your hair, your sense of style, or anything else makes you less of a valuable resource, a serious contributor, or an independent person.

So ladies, my special request to you is to bring your very best to class. Show everyone what you are made of. Because in this time of change, this time when women are rising up, speaking up, and taking charge, you are an important part of the process. Don’t just be the pretty girl in the back row with 1,000 Facebook friends and perfect hair – be the kick ass woman who will run the next groundbreaking company, find the cure for cancer, or write the next great American novel. Or maybe even answer one of our biggest scientific questions.

Welcome to my class. Let’s rock the hell out of some science.


Dr. Jessica Kapp – scientist, teacher, mother, wife, runner, guitar player, girly girl.

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Mountain Woman Excerpt Featured on FindingEcstasy

The fabulous author Rebecca Pillsbury’s latest blog post features an excerpt from my memoir, The Making of a Mountain Woman: Lessons From the Tibetan Plateau, which will be out in 2015.  As part of her feature, which she calls Voices of Inspiration, Rebecca asked me some thoughtful and interesting interview questions.  You can read all of my interview responses, and see an exclusive excerpt from my memoir, by clicking the link below:


This is the very first time I have shared any of my memoir.  It is a very small sneak peek, but one I hope you will enjoy!  Don’t forget to check out Rebecca’s blog and book while you’re at it! She is one to watch.

As always, I say to you, do what you love, find your passion, and push past your comfort zone.  Amazing things can happen when you go where you never thought you could go.

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Those Who Cannot Do, Teach? I Think Not!

There’s a bit of a hubbub happening over the most recent Time Magazine cover featuring the headline, Rotten Apples – It’s Nearly Impossible to Fire a Bad Teacher. Wait, it gets better…Some Tech Millionaires May Have Found a Way to Change That. The story is all about the war on teacher tenure. Whoa. Seriously? The WAR on teacher tenure. Check out this cover, showing a gavel about to smash the most universally recognized symbol for teachers, an apple.

Time magazine cover, November 3, 2014 issue.

Time magazine cover, November 3, 2014 issue.

OK, I get it. I live in the world of academia. I completely understand, and have witnessed first hand, how tenure sometimes acts as a way for bad teachers to hang around and get paid, sometimes pretty well, for doing a poor job in the classroom. But this is not the norm. As a teacher, I understand how teachers might be offended by this cover. Yes, there are absolutely bad teachers out there. I have seen some of them in action and it is disturbing. But I have also seen the best of the best, and when you see a passionate teacher at work, it is magic. Why aren’t we raging about how good teachers are often underpaid, underappreciated, and not tenured? At my university, many of the best teachers I have ever seen are lecturers like me – not eligible for tenure. Sometimes the best cannot get tenured but we don’t see a magazine cover about that! Why aren’t we waging a war against the outdated publish or perish route to tenure? Why aren’t we waging a war against cuts to education budgets? Why aren’t we waging a war against ignorant plans that cut taxes to create jobs (which doesn’t work) thereby reducing the amount of available money for public schools? (e.g., read about Kansas) Instead we want to wage war against teachers having job security because a few of them might not deserve it. Wait…does this not happen in other professions? Are all CEO’s, athletes, actors, and tech millionaires exemplary in their professions, fully deserving of their job security and high salaries? Come on. There are plenty of highly paid folks out there who are impossible to get rid of even though they may not be doing a great job. Teachers don’t get paid millions (most don’t even break six figures) for doing a less than stellar job, but lots of others do.  Where’s the outrage over that?

Have you ever heard the expression, “Those who cannot do, teach?” Can I just say in response to this expression, What. The. Fuck. Are you fucking kidding me with this bullshit? I am a teacher. I teach. I don’t stand at the front of a room droning on and on about a topic that I think is utterly fascinating but my students find mind-numbingly boring, expecting that my words of wisdom are penetrating their young minds and settling in like gospel never to be forgotten. I teach. I think deeply about how to reach students, engage them, and guide them through their own thought process. Teaching has long been thought of in THIS country as a fall back career, one that people do not because it is particularly challenging, but because they have nothing else to do or are incapable of doing the truly important stuff like, oh, I don’t know, being in business or law or medicine or entertainment or fashion or sports, or being a tech millionaire, or whatever other industry seems more significant than guiding our children through their formative years and helping them become productive members of society. You see where I am going with this?  And people think teachers are not good enough to DO. Does anyone besides a teacher really knows what a day in the life of a teacher is like? It isn’t just about teaching. It’s comforting, motivating, disciplining (appropriately, so parents don’t flip out), listening, managing, herding, inspiring, facilitating, creating, innovating, cleaning up blood and barf and snot, and maybe, if you’re lucky, teaching. If that ain’t doing I don’t know what is.

Here’s what I know about what it means to be a teacher. Before I was a university lecturer, I taught high school math and science at a charter school in Tucson that served a neighborhood characterized by high rates of crime, poverty, gang activity, and drug activity. I had students held at gunpoint on their way into school, students who came to school with bruises from the previous night’s beating, high school students at a sixth grade level in math, students with disabilities who had never been diagnosed and couldn’t get the help they needed, students who spoke English as a second language and could barely understand what was being said in the classrooms, students who were pregnant at 13, bright students who refused to take books home to study because the gangs would beat them up if they were seen walking with a textbook, and the list goes on. I learned something very important from these students – education is not always the primary concern for a kid coming to school. Sometimes they are just happy to escape what’s going on at home. And sometimes, as a teacher, I found myself dealing with stuff other than teaching them algebra or chemistry. But when it came to the job of teaching, I tried to make the material accessible and interesting to this unique group of kids. No matter what anyone says, if they have not been a teacher, they have no idea what it really is to be a teacher. It is draining. And hard. And exhausting. It requires you to wear many hats. It is not just about teaching.  I guarantee that every teacher in America is working well beyond their salaried hours to come up with interesting ways of delivering material to a classroom full of diverse learners, yet teachers don’t get overtime pay. Teachers are spending evenings and weekends thinking about how best to help your children grow, learn, and succeed. And they are often fighting an uphill battle against ideas and beliefs drilled into kids’ heads by their parents that go against the scientific principles they are trying to teach. They not only have to figure out how to facilitate learning, they have to care for the feelings and physical well being of children that are not their own. All while being paid some of the lowest salaries in this country. Can you think of a harder gig?

So I ask you, does the saying, “Those who cannot do, teach,” make any sense? I think not. Instead I would say, those who cannot teach, do. Because whatever it is that people DO that isn’t teaching, it doesn’t compare to the depth of commitment it takes putting so much time and energy and care into the development of other people’s kids. Fostering the educational growth of kids – is there anything more profound than that?

Now that I teach college my life is simpler. The students I work with are legally adults, and I don’t often deal with their personal or emotional issues. On occasion I do, but it is a different situation dealing with adults than with children. Now I have the luxury of primarily focusing on the teaching, on how best to guide students through the process of critical thinking. I know that not all teachers out there are deeply invested in providing the absolute best educational experience for their students. There are some bad apples running classrooms all over the country, no doubt. But I firmly believe that by and large, people who teach do it because they love the idea of being a part of helping children grow into the exceptional adults they all have the potential to be. At the college level, those of us who chose teaching over research chose it because we love our subjects and want to bring our enthusiasm for learning our subjects to the masses. We want to share our knowledge in new and innovative ways. We teach. We are teachers. We are not bad apples. Please don’t let the few and far between be the driving force of a war. Don’t let bad teachers be this decade’s WMD’s – yes, they exist, but are they really so prevalent that we need to go to war?

We all have a favorite teacher from our past. What were the qualities of your favorite teacher? Chances are, he or she was an extremely good apple just trying to do the impossibly complex job of teaching. Let’s focus on the bright, red, shiny apples for a change, and thank them for DOING one of the hardest jobs in the world.   Those who cannot do, teach? Fuck that. Hey tech millionaire waging war against tenure – how about spending one day in a classroom of 25 other-people’s kids before deciding to wage war against any teacher? How about doing it for $30K a year? No? Doesn’t sound like fun?  How about standing up in front of a lecture hall of 500 students, 98% of whom don’t want to be in the class, and getting them pumped up about learning?  No?  Why not?  Sound difficult?

It IS difficult, and it isn’t always fun. It won’t make you rich. But I cannot think of anything more rewarding. Not even being a tech millionaire.

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Geo Porn – The Earth is Sexy!

It’s the weekend, so let’s get sexy. No, not that kind of sexy. Let’s talk about geo porn. The Earth is sexy as hell. I don’t know if you all know this, but geology is an extremely sexy science. From subduction to orogeny to cleavage and hot intrusions, geology is full of super sexy verbiage to get your scientific juices flowing. These titillating terms are great for blog post material, but can be tricky when teaching a bunch of freshman guys (no offense, guys, but you tend to giggle more at “cleavage” than the ladies do). I will admit I have all but eliminated the most provocative of geo terminology from my class to avoid the snickers and giggles, and my face turning red while holding a mineral up and saying something along the lines of, “Look at this beautiful cleavage!” I’ve done it…true story. Since I mainly teach students who are not geology majors I can get away with forsaking the frisky language and sticking to topics that are fairly chaste in their descriptive words. Although, I still catch myself slipping into sexy geo talk sometimes, as there are so many geology terms and phrases that sound kinky. In fact, people have made a living out of producing eye-catching bumper stickers, comic strips, and posters espousing some of the dirtiest sounding geo talk. Here’s an example:


Geologists getting all worked up!

Geologists getting all worked up!


Yes, the geologists are a sexy bunch, no doubt. Contrary to the nerds of TV sitcom fame calling us the dirt people (try, dirty people, ;), a tough geology dude in battered hiking boots, schlepping a pack full of rocks and wielding a hammer is a nice piece of eye candy, if you ask me. You might not think so at first, but a girly girl who can heft a pack of rocks and wield a sledgehammer is also quite a saucy sight! Confession time, so if you don’t want to hear a personal tidbit related to my love life you might want to tune out now. (Students of mine, if you are reading this…erase this part from your memory when next you come to class, as I know it is totally weird to think that your professors actually have a life outside of school). My first memory of feeling attracted to my husband, I mean, REALLY attracted to him, was when we were graduate students, sitting in his office late at night, unwrapping rock samples that had just arrived from his field season in Tibet. He was wearing Carhartt shorts and his battered La Sportiva Makalu boots, crouched on a small metal box unwrapping rocks, and I had a great view of the muscles in his thighs, earned through months of relentless hiking in Tibet. (Yes, I was shamelessly sneaking a peak of his thighs up inside his shorts, so sue me. That’s ogling #LikeAGirl. We do it too, ok, deal with it). My husband is not burly, but he is ripped. This all sounds completely un-feminist of me, but there has been a lot of estrogen flying around on this blog lately, and I had to shout out to my main man for a second, since we are talking about sexy geologists. But I digress……….

So the words are sexy (cleavage, thrust, intrusion, injection, orogeny, etc.). And the geologists themselves are sexy (I am serious…they are). But what I really want to point out is that the EARTH is hella sexy. This planet we live on is full of mouth-watering eye candy that we can all appreciate. Whether you like the watery oceans, the rugged mountains, the lush forests, the expansive plains, or the pink deserts (see what I did there…sexy!), you can find places on Earth that will make you weak in the knees. Here are some amazing Earth pics that are, in my opinion, excellent examples of geo porn (Disclosure – I did not take all of these pictures, most are by my husband, or are shamelessly stolen from the interwebs):

Catalina Mountains, Tucson, AZ.

Catalina Mountains, Tucson, AZ.


Let’s start local, y’all.  The Catalina mountains, right in our backyard, are so sexy you cannot believe it.  In the world of geology, this mountain range is a prime example of what we geologists call a core complex.  It is a 10.  No doubt.  In layman’s terms, those mountains used to be a big vat of hot melted rock (i.e., magma) that was underground.  Volcanoes were blowing off like mad.  Then, the volcanic activity stopped, the ground started stretching, and the Tucson mountains slid off the Catalina’s along that big, flat, tilted surface you see when you look to the north at the mountain range.  That’s called a detachment fault.  Anyway, these mountains are stunning, and so sexy.  We are lucky to have this naked display of deep, once hot intrusive rock in our backyard.  Tucson is a great place for geo porn.

Mount Everest.  Photo by Paul Kapp.

Mount Everest. Photo by Paul Kapp.

The big daddy of geo porn, Mount Everest.  The fact that this mountain is so revered by millions of people, and draws hundreds every year to attempt summiting, is proof that size does matter.  Standing at over 29,000 feet above sea level, this monster is majestic as fuck, and is the tallest mountain on Earth.  If that’s not sexy I don’t know what is.

Pamir.  Photo by Paul Kapp.

Pamir, Tajikistan. Photo by Paul Kapp.

There are several dirty things I could say about this photo, but I won’t.  It is just mouth-wateringly sexy. I love snow, so that helps.  But even with all the frozen H2O in this pic, it is hot as hell.  The gaping hole of sunlight, the welcoming, open valley below it…okay, I said all the dirty stuff.  I couldn’t help it.

Ripples, Dunhuang, China.  Photo by Paul Kapp.

Ripples, Dunhuang, China. Photo by Paul Kapp.

The texture in this photo is amaze-balls.  Don’t you just want to run your hand over those sexy ripples?  Actually, they are pretty large scale so you might do better to roll around in them, like the scene in Indecent Proposal with the money on the bed.  Sand is sexy.

Yardangs, China.  Photo by Paul Kapp.

Yardangs, Yardang National Park, China. Photo by Paul Kapp.

And from ripples to…nipples?  (Click on the photo to really see what I am talking about).  Though they may remind us of female anatomy, these are wind carved landforms, sandblasted by intense winds during periods of strong jet-stream activity.  Wind isn’t thought of as particularly efficient at causing the breakdown of materials at Earth’s surface, but come to find out if it is strong enough it can blow a lot of crap away!

Yardangs, China.  Photo by Paul Kapp.

Yardangs, Yardang National Park, China. Photo by Paul Kapp.

More nipple landforms…because I know you pervs wanted more nipples.

Qiadam yardangs.  Photo by Paul Kapp.

Qiadam yardangs. Photo by Paul Kapp.

How about some sexy geologists sitting on some huge, long, wind carved landforms.  Stunning, no?

Green sand beach, Big Island, Hawaii.  Photo by Jess Kapp.

Green sand beach, Big Island, Hawaii. Photo by Jess Kapp.

Want something wetter than all that wind blown dust?  Check out the vivid colors of the green sand beach superimposed against the crystal blue of the Pacific ocean.  This is close to the southern tip of the Big Island of Hawaii, which is the southernmost point of the U.S..  I know…there are several words in here that are extremely naughty but I won’t point them out.  It took us over two hours of hiking in driving wind to get here, and we never made it down to the actual beach because at that point we were like, fuck it, let’s go back to the resort and drink cocktails.  However, I am glad I saw this particularly pornographic location as there are almost no other places like it on Earth (none that humans can get to).  The sand is green because it is primarily composed of olivine, (you might know it as peridot).

Lunpola, central Tibet.  Photo by Paul Kapp.

Lunpola, central Tibet. Photo by Paul Kapp.

These rock layers are 23 million years old.  Sedimentary rock layers, like these (which were deposited in a lake) are laid down flat.  These aren’t flat.  So what’s up?  These beds are tilted.  The beds got tilted!  That’s some intense sexy right there.

Virunga volcanoes, Uganda, Africa.

Virunga volcanoes, Uganda, Africa. Photo by Jess Kapp.

A lush, green landscape in Uganda with the prominent, pointy Virunga mountains in the background. They are volcanoes that sit on the borders of Uganda, Rwanda, and the DRC.  The volcanoes exist in this part of the world because Africa has a huge gash in it, the Red Sea, which is a result of the continent being torn apart by plate tectonic forces.  Breathtaking.  Orgasmic.  Geo porn.

Now I am all hot and bothered and need to go to bed.  I could add geo porn pictures all night, but I am too old for that shit.  It is time to drift off to sleep and dream of my next adventure, somewhere sexy as hell. If you agree that the Earth is sexy, get out and work it!  See it.  Experience it.  Observe it. Photograph it.  Appreciate it. Share that appreciation with your kids (minus the nipple references, of course).

We have one hell of a sexy home planet here.  Show it some serious love.

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Girly-ness, Interrupted

Me, age 6ish, in my absolute all time favorite dance recital regalia. Bright yellow sateen, feathers in my hair, and gold sequins – now that is something special. I was happiest when I was dancing.

Me, age 6ish, in my absolute all time favorite dance recital regalia. Bright yellow sateen, feathers in my hair, and gold sequins – now that is something special. I was happiest when I was dancing.

I am not sure why, but in my young womanhood I was opposed to blatant girly-ness. Almost a curmudgeon, one could say, way before a curmudgeon-appropriate age. I started out loving dresses, ruffled bloomers, Easter hats, putting curlers in my long hair, and shiny patent leather dress shoes. I know that as a young girl I was already keyed in to the appeal of a super strong but super girly woman who was not only glamorous but could kick some serious ass. This is evidenced by the fact that I spent most of my evenings running around my house in Wonder Woman underoos, a towel wrapped around my shoulders as a makeshift cape, hair bands on my wrists as my power bracelets, and my mom’s knee high brown leather boots. At the time, nobody was telling me that Wonder Woman was an example of the exploitation of women, with her teeny tiny body suit and ample bosoms the focus of her persona. Wonder Woman was just that – a woman who was wonderful. She was strong, and independent, and able to protect herself and others, and still rocked the heeled boots and bosom-enhancing bodice of her spare super hero uniform. And why the hell not? Why can’t a woman be at once girly and tough as shit?

At some point, I think early in high school, I started to detest excessive girly-ness, and girls that were excessively girly. I really do not know why, but for some reason I wanted to be thought of as a girl who could hang with the guys. I am sure a psychologist would say it has something to do with my parents’ divorce, losing my father, and feeling the need to be strong to protect myself, or something equally deep and confusing.   Whatever the reason, I vividly remember a time in my life when hanging out with guys was just more appealing to me because I found girls silly and exhausting. I found being girly exhausting. I was uncomfortable in my womanhood. I didn’t like to draw attention to my body. More importantly, I wanted the guys I hung out with to think of me as tough and cool and not super girly. Here was the flaw in that plan: if you are a girl who is attracted to guys (as I was), and you are trying to be tough and not too girly (as I was), the guys tend to want to date girls who are not you, which really sucks. A lot of men like ‘em girly, ladies, just so you know. I learned this the hard way, and as a result did not have as much dating success early in my dating career as my friends did. Don’t get me wrong, I had long hair, sometimes painted my nails, and experimented with make up. But I would not have called myself girly. I had a lot of guy friends but not a lot of boyfriends. A lovely example of this attempt to be tough and hang with the guys culminated in my being tossed out of a high school hockey game for spitting over the Plexiglas onto a player, which was extremely gross, liberating and embarrassing, but that is another story. (Rochester peeps; I was banned from Lakeshore rinks for life and haven’t been back since).

I suspect that some of my success in the field of geology was a result of my deeply ingrained desire to be tough. To this day when I hear a fellow geologist say he spent two weeks in the field, my response is (silently, of course), “Two weeks? Pussy. Try three months.” This is of course all in good fun, as I respect all of my

Me holding a side of yak meat.  Our drivers carried this around in our supply truck for two months.  It was like an exceptionally large chunk of yak jerky.

Me holding a side of yak meat. Our drivers carried this around in our supply truck for two months. It was like an exceptionally large chunk of yak jerky.

fellow geologists and believe they are all tough as nails.   I still find myself unwilling to ask for help in many situations, and pride myself on being extremely self sufficient, which is not to knock anyone who is good at asking for help, just an observation about one of my many quirks. My success as a geologist also might be related to my willingness, back when I started, to forego heels and facials and spend extended amounts of time in fleece and hiking boots, and perfecting the art of peeing outdoors in the wind while squatting, and not getting urine on my boots. But the longer I spent in this world of geology, surrounded by women who were seemingly uninterested in girly pursuits, the more I started to question why, as a geologist, I had to choose between being a serious, tough, outdoorsy scientist and a rockin’ hot girly girl in a mini skirt and heels. Why can’t a woman be both jubilant in her girly-ness and strong enough to hike for months through snow and wind and cold at 15,00 feet elevation? I got tired of hiding in flannel shirts, baggy jeans, and combat boots. When I moved to Los Angeles, my office mate, a southern Californian, promptly told me that my wardrobe of khaki pants, brown paddock boots, and button down shirts was utterly unworthy of the L.A. scene. The look on her face when she witnessed me in such clothing, the first time we prepared to hit the town for a night out of dancing and drinking in L.A., was one of mild disgust and disbelief. I had to borrow clothes from her. “Don’t you have anything black,” she asked. I did, but it was a frumpy, long skirt that clearly would not do. Slowly, my evolution back toward that little girl who danced around in her ruffled bloomers and pink tights began to take shape. And thank God, because I don’t believe that my decision to hide inside flannel and khaki was one that was true to my authentic self. I am not in any way criticizing flannel and khaki, if that is your thing. It is just clothing and should not be the defining characteristic of a woman. But for me, it was a persona I built to help ensure I was taken seriously in a world full of, well, tough men.


Even more interesting, I think, is that my evolution back to being a girly girl took so long, and feeling completely unapologetic about it wasn’t natural to me at first. There were times I would dress a little sexy or girly and worry about what my geology colleagues would think of me when I arrived at work in a dress and heels. Would they think I didn’t fit the geologist mold? Would they wonder what the hell had happened to me and where did I put my rock hammer and vest? It took me over two decades to get to the point where I can embrace being a girly girl and a tough girl, and not give a crap one way or the other what anyone, geologist or non-geologist, thinks of me. Why do toughness and girly-ness have to be mutually exclusive? I don’t think they have to be. I am confident I could hang with the guys in the farthest reaches of the Tibetan plateau, but I still enjoy a mani/pedi now and then. I can put on a dress, leopard print heels, and pump my own gas on my way into work. One day I revel in having my highlights done, or getting dressed to the nines for a night out with my husband, and the next I choose to be barefoot, squatting in the dirt collecting bugs and worms with my boys. I love a long soak in my Jacuzzi tub, but enjoy a good poop in the woods under the stars too (Don’t knock it ‘til you try it)! I used to think you couldn’t have it both ways. Now I know you can.

I have not been back to the Tibetan plateau, the site of my most intense journey beyond my comfort zone, in over a decade, largely due to children and job commitments that I did not have when I was a graduate student. But I can tell you this for certain; I will get back to the plateau one day, and when I do, my toenails will be neon pink inside my hiking boots.


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Journeying Beyond Your Comfort Zone

This is me after a four-day excursion, on foot, up a steep walled, snowy valley in Tibet.  I was sunburned, bloated, exhausted, and could barely stand up, but damn was I feeling amazing!

This is me after a four-day excursion, on foot, up a steep walled, snowy valley in Tibet. I was sunburned, bloated, exhausted, and could barely stand up, but damn was I feeling amazing!

Welcome to my blog, where I will explore anything and everything related to journeying beyond your comfort zone. I write about topics such as pushing your limits, trying new things, being independent, adventure, the outdoors, scientific discoveries and advancements, women in science, women in the arts, womanhood, finding your true self, education, amazing things women are doing or have done, and how we are affected by the things we choose to do. While I consider myself a LOUD and PROUD advocate of all things womanly, I am not a man hater. This is not a place where I will rant uncontrollably about the evils of men, and implore women to rise up against them. I love men. I have been privileged enough to have exceptional men in my life. In fact, I may dedicate an entire blog post in the future to waxing poetic about the fabulous men I have had in my life. In this blog, I want to promote the ideals and experiences that make us, as women, stronger and more confident humans. I want to explore what it means to get off our asses, get out of our comfortable, sometimes mediocre existences, and try something that seems scary, or unusual, or impossible. I want to inspire women of all ages to live unabashedly the lives they want to live, and to explore possibilities that fall outside their norm.   Believe it or not, there are possibilities that may not even be on your radar yet, but they will present themselves when you least expect them. Take notice! You never know what waits just around the corner.

Let me be clear about what I mean when I say, “journey beyond your comfort zone.” Inevitably there will be someone, somewhere, who reads this and begins to rave about the fact that I am advocating for women to be pushed into situations that make them uncomfortable. That is absolutely NOT what I am advocating. There are things in life that each of us is completely uncomfortable with, for good reason. We all have individual boundaries that cannot be crossed, and things we would never do. Things that cause us to be less than our authentic selves. Things that we have tried before and had horrible experiences with. Things that cause us pain. I would never encourage anyone to do something that feels fundamentally wrong or uncomfortable. By journeying beyond our comfort zones I don’t mean we should do things that make us sacrifice our personal beliefs or lose our true selves. What I am suggesting is that there are places to go, experiences to have, which might seem off the beaten path of our normal lives, and that is exactly where we should go. I know some of these things are easier said than done. That is the whole freaking point!

I also want to put right out there that this blog is not a place where I wish to shame or judge anyone for the choices they have made and the lives they choose to live. I have read countless articles and blog posts, often written by women, that criticize stay-at-home moms, working moms, women who didn’t breast feed, women who cook dinner for their husbands, curvy women, skinny women, women who dress sexy, single women, women who home school, women who don’t indulge their child’s every whim, and so on. Look, I suspect all of us women are just trying to do the best we can do with the lives we are living. None of us knows what another woman’s life is all about. But no matter who we are, we don’t have to limit ourselves to things that are familiar, or usual, or easy. Housewife, hippie, CEO, artist, doctor, teacher, astronaut, porn star, scientist…we all deserve to take the journeys that will shape our human experience and make us better women.

I hope you will be entertained, and possibly inspired, by my words and experiences. My stories are often embarrassing, brutal, and outrageous, and I am happy to put my vulnerability on display for the sake of a good laugh and maybe an, “I’ve been there,” moment for a reader.   If you read something here you can relate to, please get in touch! I love connecting with other women and hearing about their experiences. If you have journeyed beyond your comfort zone, tell me about it! I am always looking for guest bloggers to add to the conversation.

Ultimately, nothing I have ever done that was life changing was easy. At the same time, I realize I have been fortunate in my opportunities. But there are all different forms of journeying beyond a comfort zone, and I believe everyone can find one. It doesn’t have to be a grand adventure. All it has to be is something that, when it is over, you look back on it and say, “I cannot believe I did that. I kick ass.” And you do. You will. So lace up your boots. Saddle up your horse. Pick up that microphone. Enroll in that class. Book that trip. Start your engines. Kick up your heels and put down your self-doubt. It’s time to take a journey beyond your comfort zone!