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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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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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Midlife Crisis #LikeAGirl – Writing, Running, Rocking, and Red Wine.

Since about my 39th birthday I have been in the throes of a mid-life crisis. I don’t think it’s commonplace for people to think of women as candidates for mid-life crises. Mid-life crisis is a term that has a negative aura around it for the sad cliché it evokes of a man in a convertible sports car with a new earring and a hot younger woman in the passenger seat. But I think women are just as likely, and more entitled, to experience mid-life insanity. Why? Because, in my opinion, it is more acceptable for men to take off, explore, work late, adventure, and separate from the family for extended periods of time throughout their lives than it is for women. Yes, some women do this. But for most of us mothers/wives/career women, we are the primary nurturers, career or not. Moms are expected to be around. Wives are expected to be around. And many of us moms choose to be around, forsaking the freedom of an adventurous life.  Is it any wonder we might get antsy?

After years of being around, caring for the kids, caring for the husband, working hard at gaining career recognition, and generally being a nurturer, there came a moment in time when every fiber of my being screamed, “What the fuck am I doing with my life?” I was shaken. Even though I had a great job. Even though I had great kids. Even though I had a great husband, and a nice house, and lived in a warm, sunny place, I felt as if my life was mediocre and stagnant. I cannot explain why, I just did. For the first time in my life I felt entitled to pursue stuff just for me. Just. For. Me. The most momentous decision that resulted from this inner earthquake was the decision to write, for real. To get back to a core passion that had quietly lived inside me, like a hermit, for years, never daring to emerge lest it rock the boat. I had wanted to be a writer from a young age, and entered college with aspirations of being a reporter, while fostering my creative writing on the side. Writing is a compulsion. It is entwined with my cells. But I have always ignored it, believing that my path was clearly laid before me and all I needed to do was follow it to ensure success. But at 39, acutely aware of the “something’s missing” feeling taking hold of my guts, I decided it was time to revisit that old compulsion and give it the time and reverence it deserved. It was time to dust off the old writing skills, dig deep, and produce some shit I was proud of.

My first project was the memoir of my life changing trips to Tibet, and my transformation from sheltered suburban girl to full on mountain woman. I kept a journal every day when I was in Tibet, and a couple of years ago I re-read it with fresh, middle-aged eyes. I was astounded at how more than a decade of removal from those experiences gave me new perspective on what Tibet had meant to me as a woman and a person. I threw myself wholeheartedly into the writing of that book and am extremely proud of what I ended up with (p.s. – it’s coming out next year!).

My first trip to Tibet, 1999, getting to know a local. He wanted my sunglasses.  I obliged.

My first trip to Tibet, 1999, getting to know a local. I wanted a picture and he wanted my sunglasses. I obliged.

But perhaps the most surprising thing I discovered was my desire to write short stories. Fictional short stories seem to have taken root somewhere in my brain, and have been sprouting buds that need the light of day. I have always loved short stories. Now, at forty, I find that writing these stories allows me to explore the feelings, frustrations and frightening doubts that pop up in a woman’s mind in middle age. I don’t think many women talk about these feelings, because that would mean admitting that everything ain’t always peachy, even if you have a great job, a great man, and great kids. It is NOT CRAZY to have doubts about where your life is going, and if the path ahead is the one you want to travel forever and ever. It is not indulgent to pursue something solely for the purpose of feeling good about yourself, having fun, or just getting the hell out of your normal routine. Men do this shit all the time. Women need to. I am not ashamed to say hell yes I am having a mid-life crisis. It’s scary when you realize you are half way finished with your life and might want to do more, see more, BE more than you already are. I mean, shit, what the hell do you DO with that information!

Here’s what I am doing with that information. I am writing about it. I am writing about women in mid-life and all of the beautiful, complicated shit that entails. It doesn’t make me a bad person to explore these notions. It doesn’t mean I am unhappy, or unfaithful, or unstable. It means I am human. One of my stories will be published in a local magazine this year – it makes me giddy, and scared, and shy, and proud, all at the same time. It’s going to be out there for anyone to see. Well, shit. And, wow!

In addition to writing my heart out, I am also running, rocking out on guitar, and drinking a lot of red wine. That’s rocking a midlife crisis #LikeAGirl. Here’s to another forty years of living the hell out of this life. No convertible sports car necessary.  Cheers!

Lovin' on the guitar.

Lovin’ on the guitar.

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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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Girls in Science – Don’t Let ’em Go

OK, here are some sobering statistics about girls in science (don’t tune out just yet…) that a friend and colleague of mine shared with me today. Check this shit out:

39% of all undergraduate geosciences degrees are awarded to women.

47% of all Masters degrees in geosciences are awarded to women.

41% of all Doctorate degrees in geosciences are awarded to women.

Women only hold 30% of the jobs in geosciences.

All right, so the 47% isn’t so bad, and really, about half of the graduate students in geosciences in many programs across the nation are women. That’s progress, right? So why are so few of the actual jobs held by women? In my geosciences department we have about 32 faculty and 4 of them are women (including me, and I am not a tenured or tenure track faculty). That is about 13%. At UCLA, where I did my PhD, they have about 35 faculty and 4 are women (roughly 11%). So less than one seventh of the faculty in these stellar geosciences departments are women.  Yet quite a few women are getting degrees in geoscience fields. At the heart of the issue here, separate from the statistics (which are indeed important but can be boring as hell to think about), is why women generally don’t take the plunge into what we call STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). Believe it or not, there are actually people out there studying this very question using the scientific method, doing real research, and diligently trying to figure out how to attract more women to STEM fields. One of them is my colleague, Phil Stokes, whose recent work includes looking at gender differences and differences in underrepresented minorities in pursuing geoscience degrees.   In his review of the literature he found some interesting things in other people’s work on gender. First off, and probably not surprising, is that there is a gender bias in science that can put women at a disadvantage because of the way they are perceived professionally (Moss-Racusin et al., 2012). A study by Canetto et al. (2012) looked at women in atmospheric sciences and determined that they may have career goals that lead them out of science more often than men. Study or not, I can certainly relate to being less ambitious about thriving in the “publish or perish” world of academia, and more ambitious about teaching, outreach, being a mother, being a human being with outside interests other than work, being a writer, and so on. Perhaps I am not the only woman who can relate.

Now, let’s get anecdotal. In my experience, wanting to have more than the very singular goal of achieving tenure is a common feeling among women, and is not common among men. When I was in graduate school, I struggled to find a balance between being a graduate student, learning how to survive in the sometimes competitive and harsh world of science, and being a human with other interests, and a desire to get the hell out of the lab on occasion and live like the normal folk live. My male contemporaries, while they had other interests, had no such struggle, as far as I could tell. They lived in their offices. They worked all hours of the day and night. They ate, slept, and breathed their research. They thrived on this. In fact, my husband and his office mates were in the office all the time, at the same time, and so took to calling themselves the squirrels, and labeled their office the squirrels’ nest. The only time I saw them all leave was when the lot of them, including the two male advisors of our little cohort, would lace up and hit the stadium to run stadium stairs in training for the Tibet field season. I used to go with them quite regularly, and spent the entire time huffing and puffing and trying to keep up, only to end up running stadiums by myself, watching them kick my ass, and feeling like a complete fuck up. On a recent visit back to UCLA, more than ten years after graduating, the squirrels’ nest designation lives on. Whenever I used to visit my husband (boyfriend at the time) up in that office, I felt like an imposter in some sort of nerdy boys club. I must say, they were all sweet guys who never said or did anything to make me feel unwelcome. But they were strange, and nerdy, and had limited interpersonal skills for the greater part of their graduate school career, and I just did not get that whole jam. But to them, they were living the dream, and were on the straight and narrow path to academic glory, and I couldn’t help but feel less than worthy as I headed home at 7 pm to eat dinner, walk my dog, and watch Friends re-runs.

Feeling less than worthy among a group of confident, cocky, smart as hell men is likely one reason why women often find another path than the traditional tenure track academic long haul. Another might be growing babies in their bodies and then having to raise those babies, but that’s another story. But what about going back farther into a woman’s history, and thinking about the experiences girls have with science and math early in their educational and personal development? Again, I am going to spew a bunch of anecdotal information at you now, and I don’t have statistics at the tips of my polished fingers to throw at you in support of these suspicions, but research is emerging that suggests some of these ideas are at least partially true. I have seen time and time again, little girls (let’s say ten and younger) who love science and math. They say math is their favorite subject in school (my best friend’s seven year old daughter is one of these precocious little gals). They say they want to be astronauts or archaeologists or doctors when they grow up. The fear of science, or the belief that math is hard, has not set in to their developing minds yet. It is a delight to see. Then, at some point, usually around middle school, it changes. More and more girls start repeating this mantra, “science is too hard.” Or its ugly stepbrother, “I am not good at math.” And that is the end of that. Another perfectly capable, smart, creative girl out of the STEM pipeline. What the hell is going on here?

I just read an op-ed piece in the NY Times by a very accomplished woman scientist who argues that in the world of STEM there is a sexual assault problem. So let’s see…take this myth many girls believe that math and science are too hard and add to it the possibility that they might be treated inappropriately in the field while doing research, and see what that does to the number of women in science. Jesus, as if entering a male dominated field with very few female mentors and little in the way of emotional support wasn’t enough, you better wear a turtleneck at all times and never venture into field research without a posse of bodyguards and a wire under your fleece to record any sleazy remarks coming from your male colleagues. I really hope this is not as common an occurrence as the piece suggests, but I suspect it is more common than you would think. (See the piece here)


I, for one, was lucky enough to have absolutely amazing men with me when I worked for months at a time in the middle of nowhere, Tibet. After reading the piece in the NY Times I reflected on my time in Tibet and how utterly cut off from civilization I was for extended periods of time, and realized that if I had not had two fellow graduate students with me who were trusted friends I could have been very vulnerable. At the time I was doing field research we didn’t even have satellite phones. I couldn’t have made a phone call if I wanted (or needed) to. My only option for contacting the outside world was via postcard sent from a small town, and when I did so, I usually made it home long before the postcard did. But luckily, my Tibetan drivers were total gentlemen, even protective at times, and our Chinese colleague, although he thought I had no business being on the plateau because I am a woman, was polite enough too, so I was in good hands all around. But imagine being alone in a foreign land, far from civilization, with no easy way to communicate with the outside world, and feeling threatened by one of your own colleagues. If this happens even once, it needs to be dealt with. And the implications for women in science could be devastating. You cannot exactly, in good faith, encourage your daughter to go into a field that relies on exotic, far-flung field studies if it is likely a male colleague will mistreat her. Even if it is not sexual assault, but being talked down to, or doubted, or made to feel inadequate – why would you want your daughter to have to deal with that? But little girls don’t know about this, so little girls shouldn’t be worried about this. There is something else going on.

In addition, I would guess this happens in quite a few fields, not just science, so it is probably not something I would worry about when thinking about encouraging your daughter to go into science. Teaching them to stand up for themselves in any field is going to go a lot farther than scaring them away from a field because they may encounter bad behavior by male colleagues. They will likely encounter bad behavior by male colleagues in any field they choose to enter. They may even encounter bad behavior by female colleagues.

I think there is a deeply rooted idea that women are less able than men to thrive in academic scientific pursuits. We don’t see the same split in humanities fields. In fact, in many of the humanities, arts, and social sciences women dominate the faculty positions and the jobs. But our little girls don’t know this when they are five, or ten, or even seventeen. So why do they run for the hills when science comes their way? Why do they duck and cover when math comes at ‘em? Is it because nobody bought them a chemistry set when they were little? Or because they were encouraged to play with dolls instead of dirt? I don’t really know. I do know from experience that as a young girl I pictured myself as a dancer, or an actress, or a stay at home mother, and never even considered I would be a scientist. I didn’t know what a scientist was!  I know as a middle school student and high school student I bought into the whole idea that math was hard, and science was hard, and I was going to be a writer and never have to deal with those hard subjects. What a mistake that was! (Not to mention, writing is really fucking hard). I discovered that math and science were something I could actually do, and that they were a lot of fun! If only I had believed that throughout my childhood, I might have been better prepared when I finally did enter the world of science.

And so I implore all of you women out there who have access to young minds: talk up science and math! Tell your daughters how fun science is. Instead of watching Frozen again this weekend, find a simple science experiment online and do it with your daughter. Take her for a nature walk and pick up a goddamn bug or two. Take her outside at night before bed and tell her about the solar system, the constellations, and the moon. You can find out some pretty cool shit about that stuff with a simple Internet search. When she brings home some tricky math homework, don’t tell her that Dad will help when he gets home. Figure that shit out and help her yourself! Show her that women can do it just as well, if not better, than men. Model for her how utterly normal it is for a woman to be fascinated by science.

Then take her for a mani/pedi and belt out Let It Go on the way home. You deserve it!

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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!