Skip to main content

Breaking Ground: Women in Earth and Environmental Sciences

By Victoria Dekle

“The moment I realized I could make a career by playing outside,” Olivia Woodruff exclaimed, “I was hooked.”

Thanks to the growth of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields over the past few years, this dream career is possible for Woodruff and millions of other women across the United States.

The Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences is one example of this positive demographic change at the University of Kentucky.

“Earth science,” said Department Chair, David Moecher, “like all other STEM disciplines, was once considered to be defined as an underrepresented field with regard to the proportion of women and minorities.”

“When I started at UK as an undergraduate our department’s faculty was very much dominated by men. I believe there was even a time when no women were on the faculty,” said EES student, Rachel Hatch.

Today the department has three female faculty members – Assistant Professor Audrey Sawyer and Lecturers Rebecca Freeman and Marta Clepper.

In addition, there are also more than a dozen active female M.S. and Ph.D. students, comprising more than a third of the EES graduate student body who are celebrated for their vital research and academic accomplishments.

M.S. student Sara Federschmidt is studying fault stability in the Denali National Park & Preserve in Alaska, for which she recently received fellowships from Denali National Park and the Geological Society of America. Federschmidt works with and is advised by Sean Bemis, Assistant Professor of Earth and Environmental Science.

Woodruff and Hatch are investigating the sea bottom effects of the 2010 B.P. oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico with Associate Professor Kevin Yeager. Their work will determine the stability of the introduced compounds and the overall effects on the delicate marsh environment.

Further abroad, M.S. student Alice Orton is conducting geophysical research in China with Associate Professor Edward Wooley. This work and her studies are supported by two competitive Graduate School fellowships.

Each of these promising young scholars works primarily with male colleagues. While the female students speak highly of their advisors and peers, there is a need for a network of female support and professional advice in this traditionally male-dominated field.

Sawyer, Freeman and Clepper have instituted an informal monthly meeting for all women in the EES department. Students and faculty come together in the conference room of Slone Hall to discuss research, coursework and overall professional development while enjoying the opportunity to discuss life outside of academia.

The impetus behind these meetings is the experience that Sawyer, Freeman and Clepper had during their undergraduate and graduate studies.

“Coming through undergraduate and graduate school, I was the only woman and most of the professors were men. I didn’t have much opportunity to find female mentors,” said Clepper.

Sawyer added, “Around my first year of graduate school I started realizing that I was going to need some informal mentors within my field.”

All three women found it necessary to look outside their own department and their home institutions to find leadership in navigating their careers.

The trend of women dropping out of their career paths in the hard sciences has been well-documented in many scientific disciplines.

Freeman spoke about her involvement on the board of a professional geology society and the trends of female memberships after the Ph.D. level.

“What we realized was in the Ph.D. and undergraduate student categories, we had a very strong representation of women. But when we got to the next step of young professionals in and outside of academia, the numbers of female members of our society just plummeted, Freeman said. “I think what we’re trying to do within our department is to teach them some of the skills that they will need to make sure that they are heard.”

“And that is really difficult in geology,” Clepper added, “because it is still a male-dominated field. We’re working on changing that.”

Fortunately, the younger generations of female scholars seem to embrace their position as women in a traditionally underrepresented field.

“I’ve seen the full spectrum of the treatment of women in science and I have found it to be very circumstantial,” Woodruff said. “Even if you’re swinging a rock hammer with freshly manicured nails, the boys know it’s still time to back off!”

Photo: EES lecturer Rebecca Freeman studies Cambrian rocks in McGill, Nev.