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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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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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Follow You, Follow Me.

Today, I watched helplessly as my number of followers on Twitter began to slowly dwindle. I watched the number tick down over the course of the day, and couldn’t help but wonder why it was bothering me.

Okay, here’s the situation. In the past few months I have gone from invisible geology instructor living in relative obscurity in Tucson, Arizona, to aspiring author putting her private thoughts on display while trying to gain followers that might actually like her work. It is fucking weird. Less than half a year ago I believed that nobody would ever be even remotely interested in anything I had to say. This feeling was not unfounded – try teaching a science class to a theater full of non-science majors with mobile device addictions. It is a strange feeling to care about how many people want to hear your stories, read what you write, and generally engage with your thoughts and experiences. While I am opinionated and love a good debate, even with a PhD in geology I defer to other geologists, believing that I cannot possibly have knowledge that they (or anyone else) want to hear. I mean, who the fuck am I?

But after my first meeting with a publisher, to discuss how to approach publication of my first book, a memoir, his suggestion was to build a platform. What the fuck is that, you might ask? FOLLOWERS! People who get to know you and your work and want to read more. A great way to do this is to blog, he said. My reaction was typical – why would I do that? Anyone and everyone has a fucking blog these days. Some of them are great, witty, fun, and well written. Others are utter garbage. Blogging seemed like the trendy thing for sassy women to do. It seemed predictable. Why would I want to be lumped in with every other woman putting her thoughts out into the world just because she can? I am a nobody, and I certainly don’t think I am a somebody (like many of these people must). Followers? Seriously. FOLLOWERS? This sounded like a cult. Like people in long, flowing capes swaying and chanting while drinking something dangerous (Kool-Aid?) out of paper cups. It all sounded hokey to me.

I am discovering that the truth is, when you have an unusual and amazing story to tell, if the story is interesting and well written, people might actually want to hear it. Chances are it will speak to someone. When I had that initial reaction, my inner skeptic had not yet realized the beauty of the blog – spreading ideas of all sorts to people far and wide to start a discussion, a movement, a support group, or simply a network of like-minded people to learn and share with. Not to mention being able to write, really WRITE, anytime, anywhere, and publish it for anyone to see and critique.  So here I am, several months later, with a blog and a twitter handle (what the hell does handle mean, anyway), and a separate Facebook page for me the author (not me the person), and a glossy preview card about my memoir that I can hand out to total strangers, and a link to a fictional short story I wrote that lays bare all of the fears and emotions of a 40 year old woman, and a stomach that flutters when I gain a new follower and drops when I lose one. Not because I think I should be followed, but because another potential connection was lost. As this semester comes to an end, a bunch of my students who followed me just for the exam hints I would post to my twitter account are unfollowing me. I totally get it, and it is fine, but I can’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment each time my number goes down. I seem to have become a fan of the Kool-Aid.

Look – all of us, at some point or another, have something interesting to say. We all have stories to tell. Some of us choose to write about them in gory detail, accepting that we are sharing some of our most private thoughts and experiences with complete strangers. Others choose not to share at all, preferring to keep their experiences to themselves. The beauty of human diversity is that we all have such varied experiences, and we all interpret those experiences differently. The way I felt during months living in a tent on the Tibetan plateau is completely different than someone else (say, my mother) might have felt in that situation.  I can imagine, for example, pooping on a mountainside while listening to the wind blow and staring at the stars, while liberating to me, likely would have terrified her into a coronary thrombosis situation.  Either way, great story.

And so, what I have to say about motherhood, career, science, being a woman in science, mid-life, marriage, adventure, and stepping out of your comfort zone IS worth saying. It may not appeal to everyone. Nothing ever will. But I know a thing or two about this shit. For all of us struggling writers, hoping to find an audience who will eat up our words, all we can do is put it out there, and have faith that someone, somewhere, will relate to our stories, and drink the Kool-Aid with us. It’s not narcissism. It’s not delusions of grandeur. It’s sharing the human experience, in whatever way works for you, and hoping your words will have an impact on someone. Maybe those words will spread some knowledge, joy, or just the feeling that we are not alone in this crazy little thing called life. I will share with you, if you will share with me. I will support you if you will support me. (Kumbaya…and all that shit).

I will follow you…will you follow me?





Phashionable PhDs

Today a student in my class came to my office to turn in a homework assignment. Out of the blue she said to me, “This has nothing to do with the class, but can I just say I really like the way you dress!” It got me thinking about all of the attention being paid lately to how appearance affects being a female academic. First, it was the sexy PhD Halloween costume and associated comments by actual women PhDs. Have you seen this costume? I am a woman with a PhD and I can say with complete confidence, women with PhDs, even sexy ones, wouldn’t wear that. And why does the costume look like a bad high school graduation robe? When you get a PhD you are regaled with a hood – where’s the hood?

Next came the piece on theguardian.com by Francesca Stavrakopoulou entitled Female Academics: Don’t power dress, forget heels – and no flowing hair allowed. In the piece Francesca, who is a female academic, discusses how female academics get more attention paid to their appearance than male academics, and that dressing too feminine can be thought to detract from the likelihood that people will take you seriously. My question is this: why do we take male academics who don’t brush their hair, have questionable hygiene habits, and wear mismatched clothing from 1989 seriously but have trouble taking a woman in a fashionable dress and heels seriously? Francesca says another female academic once told her that she shouldn’t wear her hair down, but should tie it back so people could concentrate better on what she was saying. As if by wearing your hair down, as a woman, you are inviting people to ignore your scientific contribution, check out of the conversation, and instead blankly stare at your silky mane admiringly. How lame does this woman think academics are that they would be distracted from science by a woman’s hair? The same guys who cannot be bothered to find a pair of socks that match, or buy a new and stylish jacket once in a while, or clean the egg yolk off their ties, are somehow completely incapacitated intellectually by a lady’s long locks? Wow. That is some bullshit right there. Francesca, you keep right on being your beautiful self.  Those who care about your work will pay attention, regardless of the length of your hair or the height of your heels.

I, for one, believe everyone should be able to dress in a way that makes them feel comfortable, confident, and attractive, and that depends on the individual’s idea of what is comfortable and what looks good on them. We don’t all agree on what looks best, which is why it is so wonderful that in this country we are free to choose what we want to wear and shop for our own clothes. But the idea that there is a right or a wrong way to dress as a female academic, with no such boundary conditions for men, is ludicrous. (I do think there are inappropriate clothing choices for the workplace that everyone should avoid, such as ultra miniskirts, tube tops, and sheer blouses without proper undergarments – apparently Kim Kardashian didn’t get the memo…oh wait…she doesn’t have a job).

My point is that, just like my uterus, my birth control method, and whether or not I want to get married and have kids, what I wear is MY choice, and personally I dress in a way that reflects my individual style. I wear what I like to wear. I like to look put together. I enjoy following fashion trends and trying the latest styles. I like getting my hair did and having a pretty mani/pedi once in a while. This doesn’t make me less of a scientist, or a professional. It is just part of who I am. A part that I suppressed for a long time because I thought geologists didn’t dress girly.

Last week I found an adorable navy blue, scallop edged romper at TJMaxx for twenty bucks. I tried it on and it fit perfectly. It was comfortable and cute, and could be dressed up for work or down for weekend. I loved it, and snapped it up, imagining which shoes I would pair it with for work the following week. The day I decided to wear it, I put it on with a fitted black blazer, sapphire studs, and leopard print pumps. It was a great little outfit and I felt pretty amazing in it. As I was walking out of my closet I stopped in front of my full-length mirror one more time and actually had a moment when I thought, “Should I be wearing this to work? Is it too girly? Is it too casual?” I stood in front of that mirror, wasting time worrying about what someone at work might think about the outfit. I actually took it off for a few minutes, throwing on a more conservative, mid-calf length dress instead. Then I got pissed. Why was I even worrying about this? It wasn’t like I had on a slutty, inappropriate outfit. And casual…half the men in my department wear a uniform of jeans and Tevas to work.  I looked polished and professional, even if I was wearing a romper. It wasn’t neon pink or made out of crushed velvet.  It wasn’t low cut, my ass cheeks weren’t hanging out, and it wasn’t too tight. What the fuck was I worried about?

In the end I put that cute little romper back on, with my leopard heels and black blazer, and strutted (oh yes, one must strut in such a get up) out my front door feeling like a million bucks. And here’s the reality – my clothing choices should be the least of anyone’s concerns, and nobody I know really gives a flying fuck what I wear except me. So I better choose something that makes me feel good.

Incidentally, I got more compliments from female students and friends that day than I had in a long time. The outfit was a hit! And you know what? I LOVE that. First, it feels great to have someone tell you that you look adorable (especially at 40, am I right?). Second, if I can garner some attention from young women who might see me, a female scientist, looking stylish and think that is cool, then I am all for it. Maybe as more women become confident in dressing how they choose, young women will start to realize hey, I can be girly and stylish and pay attention to my appearance and STILL be a professional and a scientist. The image of the female scientist will change, and it must change. Girls want to be girls, and that shouldn’t stop them from wanting to be a scientist, or from believing they will be taken seriously in a male dominated field. I shouldn’t be an anomaly, an oddity, or someone who even gets any attention for her appearance. Women dressing like women shouldn’t be cause for concern. It should be celebrated!

And now it is time to plan tomorrow’s outfit. Skinnies and tall boots? A flowy dress and chunky sandals? No matter what I choose, I will feel great, and get a ton of kick ass science done, too.

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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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Gone Girl

Haven’t you ever just wanted to disappear? Be a gone girl? Just take off on a personal journey and not worry about anyone else but yourself? Or maybe it isn’t even as meaningful as taking a personal journey, but just get the hell outta Dodge and take a break from reality? I have a friend, an amazing woman, who recently decided to take off for Kashmir for several weeks because, well, she wanted to. While she was there she discovered some interesting pathways she could follow in her PhD research, which was an added bonus, but she was initially driven by her deep desire to experience this place that she felt a longing for, a connection to. This all sounds great, right? Here’s the rub – she is a mother of three and she caught some heat because of her decision. She didn’t go for very long, but she still experienced judgment and disapproval. It got me thinking about being a woman and a mother and an adventurer, and how those things sometimes have a hard time coexisting, especially when women are often quick to judge and criticize other women for their choices.

Back in the 90s I used to watch the sitcom Mad About You with the incredible Helen Hunt and hilarious Paul Reiser. They played an adorable married couple, Paul and Jaime Buchman, navigating life in NYC, marriage, careers, and all of the other things young married couples must navigate. In the last season of the show they had a baby. I will never forget the scene when, before the baby is born, it hits Jaime that she is going to be tied to this child in a way that Paul isn’t. She is spinning out a bit, ranting about how she doesn’t understand why Paul won’t be able to assume more of the responsibility, and why will she have to stay home more, work less, etc. His response is, “Because you’re the mommy.” She stops dead, her face drops, and she responds with heart racing, “Oh My God, I’m the mommy, I’M THE MOMMY!” Paul immediately rushes to her side to comfort her, but calmly affirms that yes, you are going to be the primary care giver because you will, in fact, be the mommy. This scene has stayed with me all these years because I remember feeling what she was feeling in that moment, that as a woman, if you have a child, like it or not you are the mommy! You are the one who will be expected to be the primary nurturer of the child. Yes, I know there are all sorts of modern families, and more and more families are non traditional, with moms working more and dads staying home, or two moms raising children together, or two dads, and all of that is absolutely fantastic! But the bottom line is, even with the changing landscape of what defines a family, women are still expected to be around more than men. If my friend’s husband had taken off to Kashmir for two weeks, nobody would have batted an eye. After all, she would have been the one home with the children, and isn’t that how it is supposed to be?

It turns out I have many more female friends who have never left their children for more than one or two overnights than female friends who have gone on an extended adventure sans offspring. For some of them it is simply lack of opportunity. For others, overwhelming guilt about the idea of leaving the kids for a few days, or a week, or more. And for others it is simply that with the limited amount of time off that they get, they don’t want to go somewhere without their families. There are all sorts of reasons it is hard to disconnect from our kids for more than a day or two, not the least of which is our desire to be the best moms we can be. Something definitely feels wrong about packing up and taking off for a week or two, and leaving our children in the hands of someone else. But when that someone else is their father (or other parent), it seems to me it should be perfectly okay to disconnect for a period of time to foster our own personal growth. That might be in the form of two nights away with our girlfriends. It could be two weeks in a country we have always wanted to see. In the world of geology, it could even be a month away doing fieldwork for our research. In my wildest fantasies it could be a week on a beach with a cocktail and a good book! None of these situations should cause anyone to brand a woman a bad mother. But the reality is, people are quick to judge, especially when you are a mom. I read an article recently about how modern American parenting is ruining modern American marriages. The idea is that we are so committed to our children’s every need and desire that we often forget ourselves. We give up opportunities to be alone, or be with our spouses, because we think we are bad parents if we don’t put our children above all else.


I would go a step further and say as women, we are more prone to sacrificing our own needs and desires to keep the kids, the spouse, the employer, and the family happy. If putting our kids on a pedestal is ruining modern marriages, couldn’t us putting everyone else but ourselves on a pedestal ruin the modern woman?

I have personal experience with this. My husband and I are both geologists. When we were graduate students we both did fieldwork in Tibet for months at a time. We disappeared, went off the grid for 100 days at a time, blissfully unplugging from our regular lives. At the time, we were not married, we did not have children, and the disappearing was part of our work, so it was never really questioned or judged. Actually, my mom questioned and judged it, mainly because she was terrified I was going to die out there and she would never see me again. She also questioned my choice to live in a tent with no running water for months at a time, as that seemed extremely unappealing to her. Whose kid was I who wanted to go for months without a shower? Surely not hers. Anyway, taking off was accepted as part of our lifestyle back then, and we were lucky to have the opportunities that we had to do this before the responsibilities of real life crept in. Now, the responsibilities of real life have crept in, set down roots and taken over like Kudzu. You might be thinking that we stopped going to places like Tibet for extended periods of time because we have kids and jobs, and that makes sense. In fact, I have stopped going anywhere for field research, mainly because my position doesn’t require me to do field research, but also because with two young children it has never seemed opportune for me to disappear for extended periods of time, and I know I would miss the little monsters terribly. However, my husband never stopped doing fieldwork. It was never even discussed as a possibility. He misses them when he travels, but doesn’t seem to worry that his absence will fuck them up monumentally. Shortly after our first son was born he was diagnosed with a type of pulmonary stenosis. It manifested as a murmur that the pediatrician picked up on during a routine check. His aorta was too narrow and his heart couldn’t pump the blood out efficiently. This caused a build up of pressure inside of his heart. They were hopeful that he would outgrow this issue, but we had to take him in for monitoring every couple of months. He had a limited amount of time in which this needed to resolve or they would perform open-heart surgery to expand the aorta. This was terrifying to me, a first time mother, with this tiny little baby who seemed to be in perfect health. All of this was happening right before the start of one of my husband’s field seasons. Our son was diagnosed with this problem in late February and Paul (hubby) was supposed to leave for Tibet in May. We talked about him canceling his field trip but in the end decided he should go. It was only six weeks of fieldwork (yes, that is considered short for us), and even if our son needed the surgery it would be at least six weeks on a wait list before the surgery could take place. So off Paul went, with my blessing, and home I stayed with my little baby boy, a brand new mom, facing the possibility that I would be told this precious little guy would need open-heart surgery. I never faulted Paul for going in the field – we made the decision together and if I had wanted him to stay home he would have stayed home. But what would have happened if I were the one who had to go into the field for research? What kind of mother would people have judged me to be if I took off while we were waiting to hear if our six month old needed open-heart surgery? I suspect I would have been labeled a horrible, heartless mother and shamed for the rest of my days. And I probably would have believed it.

To be fair, Paul is primarily a field geologist, and fieldwork is a necessary part of his work. It is also his passion, the main reason he got into geology in the first place. I never even considered that he would stop doing fieldwork, so it is not like I wanted him to stop and he refused. His fieldwork excursions are just part of our yearly experience. The reality of fieldwork lives inside our relationship like a permanent pillar. It isn’t going anywhere. On some level I am completely fine with this – I mean, I married a field geologist after all, and wouldn’t it be crazy to expect a field geologist to give up fieldwork? Yes, it would, at least for my husband who would probably lose him marbles if he couldn’t get into the field at least once a year and flex his mental (and physical) muscles. On another level, though, I wonder why it has never really come up that I don’t get to unplug every year, for several weeks at a time, from the daily realities of being a parent. Yes, when my husband does it, it is for work, so it is not like he is taking off on vacation. But if you were to ask him about fieldwork he would not describe it as strictly work. It is not as if he grudgingly goes because he has to. He chooses to keep fieldwork as a vital component of his research because he absolutely loves it. He tells me that he is calm, happy, and revitalized after a trip to Tibet, or South America, or Egypt, or Tajikistan, or any of the places he has visited for fieldwork. That sounds a lot like a vacation to me! I believe this revitalization he feels is only partly because of the rush of the work and of being in the field, but also in large part because he can spend several weeks not being a dad, and just being a geologist, a scientist, a man. Doesn’t that sound excellent?

I have been able to escape for ten days at a stretch, which is absolutely amazing and don’t knock it till you try it. Seriously. I highly recommend it. I am lucky that I have a mother who is happy to take our boys for ten days at a time so Paul and I can adventure together. On one of these trips we kayaked the NaPali coast of Kauai, one of the top 10 adventures in the world according to National Geographic magazine. On another trip, we spent ten days exploring Uganda and tracked mountain gorillas in the impenetrable forest, a mind-blowing, once in a lifetime adventure. I am thankful for these opportunities and don’t want to downplay their importance in my life. But not once have I ever considered leaving for two or three weeks without my husband, just me, to pursue a passion, do research, or just plain unplug from life. It just doesn’t seem like an option. In fact, the first time Paul and I were leaving our son to go on a trip together, I was talking with a great aunt of mine on the phone, and I told her about how excited I was for our first vacation away from the baby. Her response was, “Oh, how nice. My granddaughter would never dream of vacationing without the kids. The kids are part of the family, why would they go anywhere without them? Oh well, whatever works for you, I guess.” Her voice dripped with judgment and sarcasm. Why would they go anywhere without the kids? Because they are human, and need time alone together to foster their marital relationship, and kids are exhausting and we all need a break from them, and there is nothing wrong with wanting to be something besides mommy sometimes…etc. I was dumbstruck and didn’t reply. I also have heard, many times, from friends and family, “How can you let Paul take off for weeks at a time and leave you alone with the kids? I couldn’t do it.” Well, some of it is that I am the type of person who likes a challenge, likes to be independent, and honestly CAN do it without him. Also, everyone needs time apart, and it really does make the heart grow fonder, which is great for our relationship. And finally, I married a field geologist and never considered that long stretches away would stop being a part of our lives. But I also never really considered that I, too, would need time away. I just assumed I would be at home and that would be just fine. Mostly it is. What isn’t fine is the assumption that I will be home, and that if I am not home I am neglectful. That sucks.

Now on to a different example, fellow geologists Paul and I went to graduate school with who are married with two kids, and both incorporate fieldwork into their lives. It didn’t start out that way. It began with the husband being the primary fieldworker, and the wife being the primary care giver, and resentment started to build. She had just as much need to be in the field as he did, but as is common, it was assumed she would be home with the kids. It just made more sense. Or did it? It wasn’t making sense for her, and she told her husband that she needed more time to do her work. They ended up keeping track of every day, every hour that each of them gets away from the kids, and making sure the other gets the exact same amount of time kid free. He tells us it is hard, and that he often gets much more time away from the kids, and finds himself facing quite a debt of time that he owes his wife. But ultimately, it works for them. It keeps any resentment from flourishing. Just last night Paul and I were out to dinner with friends and someone asked me if he was planning on going to Tibet next summer. I replied that he was done with Tibet fieldwork for a while, but he would be going to northern China, or Tajikistan, or somewhere else because a year cannot go by without some sort of fieldwork. My friend commented, “He owes you quite a bit of time away, doesn’t he?” This friend is a man, and I was a bit stunned, and grateful, to hear him say that. Hell yeah, he does owe me quite a bit of time away. I don’t think I can ever cash in, though, as I would end up missing a year or two of my kids’ lives. Even if I spread them out, I don’t have enough time off of work to make good on the cashing in of all my accrued away days. But we don’t keep track, and I don’t make plans to disappear, and that is my choice, but it is also my curse. It just doesn’t feel possible. It just doesn’t feel right. Because I’m the mommy. Oh. My. God. I’M THE MOMMY!

My friend who went to Kashmir told me it was one of the most wonderful experiences of her life. She went back not long after her first trip, for a couple of weeks, and again was given hell by many people for abandoning her kids. Both times her kids were home with their father, by the way, and were perfectly well cared for. She came home a happier, healthier human being, which I would argue benefits her kids. They may not know it now, but seeing their mom be independent and adventurous will influence how they expect their lives, and wives, to be. It is especially great for her daughter to have that kind of female role model in her life. If I could take off somewhere and spend two weeks doing nothing but writing I know I would come back a happier, healthier human being, which would also benefit my kids. I don’t think I know of one woman who would not benefit from being a gone girl at some point in their adult lives, making a conscious decision to disconnect from kids, spouses, and daily life to do something purely for themselves. Whether it be work related (doing research, writing, meeting new colleagues, marketing, networking), pursuing a passion, adventuring, or just plain taking a break, there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting, needing, and expecting time to yourself beyond the occasional hour or two when dad takes the kids to the movies so you can stay home alone and paint your toenails. Don’t get me wrong, those little snippets of time are a delightful treat and we should expect them (not beg for them). But we should expect more, too. And if our spouses don’t have to go do fieldwork, or travel for work, they should also expect more. Men and women, moms and dads, we all need time away from reality to recharge our souls in one way or another. Lucky for men, it seems to be acceptable when they do it. But it should be acceptable for women too. It doesn’t have to be weeks, maybe just a few days will suffice. There are no rules. The point is, we all need to take a trip, take a break, and be able to do it guilt free. We shouldn’t shame a woman for going on an adventure without her kids, or her spouse. We should applaud her for knowing what she needs and going after it. We should support her for accepting that she will miss her children, but doing something outside her comfort zone anyway because she knows it will better her life in some way. Especially us ladies…we should support the other ladies in our lives who take these chances, not make them feel worse for doing so. I guarantee any woman who leaves her kids for more than a day or two feels guilt, misses them, and worries they will feel abandoned. Women worry about that stuff. We don’t need others telling us we should be guilty and that our kids are going to be fucked up for life because we chose to take a couple of weeks for ourselves. It doesn’t seem to fuck them up royally when daddy takes off for a few weeks to bang on rocks. I think they will survive if mommy does the same. Our kids may not know it, but their lives will probably benefit too, because mommy will come home with a big, happy smile plastered on her face, and maybe a healthy glow from some sun exposure that didn’t involve chasing her kids around the zoo all afternoon.

So get out there, girl. Get going, girl. If you need to do it, do it. If you want to see it, see it. Be gone, girl. Everyone will survive and be better for it. Including you.

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President Grandma and the Shrill Working Mothers

Women are just more emotional than men. Have you heard this statement before? I sure have. Much like, “Like a girl,” it seems to have a negative energy surrounding it. It is never said like, “Wow, women are so much more emotional than men,” but more like, “ugh, women are just so emotional.” It belongs in the same pile of crap as statements such as, “Women aren’t as tough as men,” or, “Women don’t have a thick enough skin,” or, “How will she make good decisions when she is on her period?” Or maybe even the dreaded, “She is a mother. How will she do her job and be a mother?” Yes, we have probably all heard something along these lines in our lives, if not directed at us, then in mainstream media stories, or from friends or family members who have experienced it. Example: Charlie Rose asks Bill Clinton on “CBS This Morning” whether Hillary would rather be a grandmother or president of the United States. Excuse me, what? Would Hillary rather be a grandmother or the president? How about both? How about all of us smart, capable, working women would rather you not ask fluffy, idiotic, useless questions about how our dedication to our families might impact our work. Sorry, I had to rant for a second, but seriously…come on with this shit. In my experience, women who are dedicated to their careers are perfectly capable of doing amazing things in their jobs AND being good mothers. Or grandmothers, sisters, daughters, friends, aunties, cousins, wives, and the multitude of other roles they play. Women who want to make it work, make it work. Women are great multi-taskers, way better than men (I have lots of anecdotal evidence to support this).   The way Mr. Rose asks the question about Hillary, with a gentle, sweet intonation and tilt of the head, is so saccharine sweet it makes me want to barf. (If you want to see for yourself check it out here – I am particularly loving how Bill almost chokes on his drink)


The way Chuck dances into the question is almost an admission that the question is completely insulting. It makes it seem as though he is conveying, “I am not really saying she cannot do both, but we want to know how a woman is going to do the extremely difficult task of being president while her daughter is raising a child, because that means she will be a grandmother and she couldn’t possibly be a grandmother and run the country.” Has anyone EVER IN THE HISTORY OF BROADCAST MEDIA asked a man who was running for office (or thinking about running for office), “How will you manage to be a dad and a public official!” No. Because it doesn’t even cross our minds that a man’s familial connections might interfere with his ability to be a strong leader. Now a woman, that is another story. Is it possible that a woman, with estrogen coursing through her body and her brain clouded by emotions, could be a strong leader when the going gets tough? (In case you haven’t noticed, this is dripping with sarcasm). This notion that women are too soft, too meek, too tied up in familial roles to thrive in high powered careers, is completely outdated and not supported by any concrete evidence. And, it makes me want to barf (wait…I said that already. It is worth repeating. Barf.)

In my own life, having children has made me way more efficient in my job. That is really just a more formal way of saying I have limited time to fuck off. Basically, I have no time to fuck off, and have to get the most out of every minute of my workday. Additionally, when I do have time with my boys, I have to be present, engaged, and fully embrace the limited time I have with them. In that way I cut down on the time I waste worrying about work when I am with my kids, and the time I waste worrying about my kids when I am at work. When I spent a summer working part time at a large petroleum company (I won’t say which one, but it is LARGE), I witnessed men standing around drinking coffee shooting the shit every single day, for hours at a time. I never once saw a woman engaged in this nonsense. Why?   I suspect it is because by and large working women are at work to get shit done. They often have kids to get home to at the end of the day so they buckle down and get shit done. I am sure there are exceptions, but in general I see men wasting time at work more often than women. It might have something to do with the fact that they don’t necessarily have to be home at a certain time to be with the kids, or maybe it’s just that they feel it is accepted to need to work late, but to working mothers working late can feel unacceptable. Even with all that coffee drinking and shit shooting men get paid more than women do, on average. They must need the extra cash for all that coffee.

I believe whole heartedly that children, boys and girls, benefit immensely from seeing their mother as an independent, self sufficient woman who has a fulfilling career or other passion that sometimes takes her away from the home and the family. Kids, Mama has a life outside of this house and it is important to me. Get used to it. But it also might be important for kids to see Dad spend more time at home, or at least for them to get the sense that being home is a priority. Just like it is accepted for Moms to be the ones to rush home for kid duty, it is generally accepted that Dads will be at work late more often than Moms. I know there are cases in which this is reversed, but even when Mom is the breadwinner, kids want Mom home. If Mom has to go out for some reason, after work hours, kids balk. When it’s Dad, kids seem fine with it. Kids are pretty honest, saying it like it is, and the truth is, Moms are just expected to be less engaged with work and more engaged with kids.  But spend too little time at work and a woman risks the criticism that she cannot be both a good mom and a good career woman.

A couple of days ago a friend of mine posted an article on Facebook, an opinion piece from the NY Times. It was written by Tara Mohr (see link to her website in my links at right), and is entitled Learning to Love Criticism (see article below).


Tara writes about a study that looked at workplace performance reviews given to both men and women, that found that managers (both male and female) generally had more negative feedback for female employees, and that much of the negative feedback given to women had to do with their personalities. 76% of negative feedback to women included personality criticism, while only 2% of men’s negative reviews included anything related to their personalities. This is not surprising to me at all. I have written before about the double standard women face at work, and how as a teacher I have felt this double standard personally. If I am tough in the classroom I am a bitch, but when my male colleagues are tough they are considered, well, tough. The study explored some interesting ideas, such as the impossibility of doing substantive work without being criticized in some way, because to make progress sometimes you have to make tough decisions that not everyone is pleased with. I think it is much like parenting in that way – sometimes the troops don’t like the tough love, but it might just be the best thing for ‘em. But perhaps the most frustrating interpretation of the study is that women have to strive to be liked, by everyone, all the time. And when we are not liked, we are supposed to have a thick skin and take it like a man. Wait. What?  Let me get this straight. I am supposed to be tough, but not so tough that people don’t like me, but if someone doesn’t like something I do or say I should expect to be told, and to deal with it without any emotional reaction, but if I don’t have emotions people won’t like me…AAAAAHHHHHHHHH!!! Should I be bitchy sweet or sweetie pie bitch? How about I should be myself and see how that goes? It seems as a woman, being myself is not always good enough when it comes to being liked in the workplace. Being trapped in an impossible situation seems to be a common theme for women across many careers. It is also that way in motherhood, as we strive to make our children happy while simultaneously proving our worth in the workplace.

What is really interesting in Tara’s piece is how she draws a parallel between how women used to need to be friendly to survive (literally), and how being friendly in our work life allows us to survive in our careers. When women couldn’t own property or have money of their own they relied on others in power to take care of them. It helped to be liked. Now, women can take care of themselves, but we are still held to the impossible standard of being liked by all, while still being tough, smart, strong, and able to make hard decisions. Does a male leader have to be liked? No way. In fact, in movies, television, and books, the male leaders are often surly and gruff, with a strong exterior that is hard to penetrate. We never quite know what their emotions are, and it makes them seem formidable and deserving of respect. The women usually wear their hearts on their sleeves and are often portrayed as weepy messes, just trying to survive among all the tough men.

The last part of the NY Times piece suggests that women should learn to accept criticism, not let it bother them, and take from it clues about what our clients or employers need from us. In other words, it is all just feedback and we can use that feedback to our advantage. I agree that feedback, both positive and negative, is extremely valuable in propelling us forward to increased success. Hell, most of the feedback I ever got as a PhD student was negative, but somehow I graduated, published some stuff, and got a pretty darn good job. Trying to break into the world of writing is full of negative feedback (as evidenced by the many rejections I received when trying to land an agent). Look ladies, rejection sucks, criticism sucks, and it is never going to feel good. What we do with it is what really matters, and I agree with Tara on this point. We can rage, get pissed off, let it hurt our feelings, throw up our hands, yell at the people who are criticizing us, run and hide. Or, we can try and find something valuable in the criticism that we can use in our mission to climb the ladder, find an agent, achieve that goal, publish that book, and move forward.

I would add, though, the observation that the statistics from the study are quite striking and should have us all concerned. WHY are women criticized about personality traits so much more than men in the workplace? It can’t be because all women have crappy personalities and all men are just delightful. In my experience women work harder to be liked, and yet, women are being criticized for personality traits more often than men. There is something going on here that is deeply disturbing, and women finding a way to learn from it is only one part of the solution. We should be asking why so many women are criticized about their personality traits. Is this even appropriate for a performance review? Unless your personality traits are interfering with your job performance I would argue, no. Does it truly serve a purpose to tell a woman she is abrasive or judgmental?   How about strident, which means having a shrill, irritating quality. This was one of the words frequently used in the evaluations of female employees. Strident. Shrill and irritating. I cannot think of two more insulting words someone could use to describe a woman.  Shrill and irritating.  I wonder how many men were called strident? How is telling me I am strident, or abrasive, going to help me improve as an employee? It isn’t. These descriptive words are used simply to highlight something negative about a person. “Hey, you are shrill and irritating but you can learn from that and grow in your career.” Really? I don’t think so. You are calling me shrill, and that is a flat out insult. Why do you even want me on your team if you think I am shrill and irritating? Why should I have to find the lesson in that and learn from it?  I just learned that you think I am shrill and irritating, but I cannot change who I am.  Even more shocking is that women managers criticize their female employees’ personalities too! A woman telling another woman she is shrill and irritating, that is irritating. Ladies…where’s the love, the support, the constructive criticism?

And why is it a bad thing to have an emotional reaction to something? Call me crazy (or maybe, shrill), but to me having an emotional reaction means you are human. You have feelings. You have empathy, and sympathy, and you care deeply about other human beings. Aren’t these qualities you would want in a leader? If someone is going to be making decisions about the well being of an entire nation, and possibly intervening on behalf of those who are oppressed or abused, don’t you want them to have empathy, sympathy, and a deep caring for others? Being a tough as nails automaton with limited emotional investment doesn’t make you better, stronger, or more capable. It kind of makes you a jerk. (Oops, sorry, maybe that was too direct.  Just take it and learn from it).

So yes, ladies, feedback in all its forms can be useful. We can learn from the suggestions, observations, and constructive criticisms of our peers, bosses, and mentors. But being called shrill, or abrasive, or judgmental…this is not constructive criticism. This is woman bashing, and serves no professional purpose. If men are going to be evaluated on their personalities in the workplace then fine, bring it on. If personality traits become part of the mainstream career evaluation criteria of both genders well, okay then. But until that day, we as women should expect no less than to be evaluated on our skills, abilities, and performance in our careers.

Is that too straightforward (i.e., barefaced, direct, veracious, outspoken, frank, or guileless) of me? Should I be nicer about it? Maybe say, “pretty please could you find it in your heart to judge me on my merits?” Would it be too straightforward for a man to expect to be judged solely on his skills, abilities, and performance?  Would he beg sweetly for that appropriate type of evaluation?

Well, I’m not gonna beg.  Give me something valuable and constructive that I can use or get the fuck out of my pretty little face. How’s that for shrill?




Like A Girl

Yesterday I tweeted the YouTube video below. A young woman who is a student in our geosciences department brought it to my attention. I had never seen it before, but now that I have I cannot stop thinking about it. Take a look:


It was directed by Lauren Greenfield, an amazing woman, who you can check out here:

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1132362/ or


It is somewhat ironic that this particular young woman brought this stunning video to my attention, as she has discussed with me one of the sentiments of the video, which is that girls are often viewed as weaker when it comes to running, fighting, throwing, being leaders, etc. This young woman was in the military and led her platoon, and they did not like it. They gave her hell. She kept doing it, because she knew she was good at it. And now, she is making her way in science because she loves science and wants to be a scientist. Her parents weren’t scientists. Nobody told her to be a scientist. She wants to be, so she will be. Being a leader in the military is #LikeAGirl. Doing science is #LikeAGirl. So there.

I love how the #LikeAGirl video brings to the fore the fact that everything a girl does is “like a girl.” Duh. Saying I run like a girl is like saying you respirate like a human being.  Duh.  The video also makes the viewer ponder why that is a bad thing. The young girls in the video recognize that “like a girl” is not a compliment. I was shocked to see the grown women imitating the asinine stereotypes of running like a girl, and fighting like a girl, and throwing like a girl. Even the young boy knows he is insulting girls (but not his sister). Ah. So it is ok to insult girls in general, but it doesn’t apply if the girl is your family member. This seems to be a pervasive attitude. I love how as this young boy is saying, “No, well, yes…” he is realizing, at that moment, on camera, that what he is doing is insulting to girls, and oh shit, I have a sister…I better address that! The poor kid. I don’t think he meant to insult his sister. But it is extremely clear that #LikeAGirl means something to him, and apparently everyone else, that is inherently insulting.  Whether it is intentional or not, saying #LikeAGirl evokes a very unfavorable vibe.

In other words, if you are a girl, your very existence is a joke. The way you do things is fodder for negative stereotypes. All because you are a girl.  Have we as a species gone absolutely insane?  This is bananas.

From “feminism,” to “like a girl,” and “don’t be such a girl,” there is a scary trend of negativity surrounding anything that seems to be girl related. I love that this video, in its own small way, is trying to change the tone of “like a girl” to mean something positive, strong, and kick ass. Girls’ confidence plummeting during puberty is something I can attest to first hand. I have felt it. I have seen it in other young girls. My friends have shared with me their experiences of losing their confidence around middle school. I distinctly remember thinking I was really smart prior to about sixth grade, and then doubting that I was anywhere near as smart as my male counterparts from middle school on. For me it persisted through college, and graduate school, and even into my adult life, until I got to the point where I just didn’t give a shit anymore. (I am forty years old and this only just happened very recently) I have no doubt that this drop in confidence is real for girls, it is disheartening for girls, it is devastating for some girls, and it is something we need to work on not just as moms or aunts or sisters or friends, but as a society. As humans. Male or female, young or old, we need to rewrite the meaning of “Like A Girl.”

And so, here are some pretty damn awesome things I have seen recently that I think of when we say, “Like A Girl.” These are just a few to whet your whistle. There are so many ways that #LikeAGirl means something absolutely freaking incredible.  If you know of more, share them with me in the comments below!

This is what it means to do science #LikeAGirl


This is what it looks like to do field work #LikeAGirl

Doing field work in cold, blowing wind at 16,000 feet elevation in Tibet.

Doing field work in cold, blowing wind at 16,000 feet elevation in Tibet.

This is what it means to dance #LikeAGirl (don’t mess with Misty)


This is what it means to surf #LikeAGirl


This is what it means to throw #LikeAGirl


This is what it looks like to adventure #LikeAGirl

Hiking into the impenetrable forest in Uganda, to track mountain gorillas.

Hiking into the impenetrable forest in Uganda, to track mountain gorillas.

This is what it means to address the United Nations #LIkeAGirl




In my opinion, #LikeAGirl is a high honor, and is becoming even more so as women find more ways to be seen, heard, and recognized. If I am doing something any other way than like a girl, I am not doing it right. I am a girl. I love being a girl. I live #LikeAGirl and I am rocking it #LikeAGirl. And so is every other girl on the planet.

Because being a girl means you live #LikeAGirl, and that is a beautiful, strong, tough, intelligent, creative, emotional, insightful, intense, caring, truthful, brave, gracious, unbreakable, and amazing way to live.