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The Women Scientists Who Inspire NHMU Researchers

[image] The Women Scientists Who Inspire NHMU Researchers

NHMU Paleontology Collections Manager Carrie Levitt-Bussian is our museum's "fossil librarian."  ©NHMU

By Riley Black

It all started with a punk zine.

"When I left home," says NHMU Herbarium Collections Manager Allison Izaksonas, "I was simultaneously without health insurance and fell into the DIY punk community." Scene zines like Doris and Hotpants, she recalls, often had tips about herbal medicine for those who couldn't go to a doctor, and learning more about all the amazing things that plants can do sparked what would become a lifelong interest. After enrolling in the Southwest School of Botanical Medicine, Izaksonas says, "I started lugging around field guides everywhere I went in an effort to learn as much about the plants around me as I could."

A lifelong love of science doesn't always begin in an elementary school classroom or from a museum visit. There are so many different paths to becoming a scientist. The help celebrate Women's History Month and the work of NHMU researchers, we asked our science staff to share some of their formative inspirations.

Sometimes those inspirations start early. "I always knew I wanted to be a scientist," says NHMU Paleontology Collections Manager Carrie Levitt-Bussian. "As a small child, I had ambitions to become an astronaut, I went to Space Camp and Space Academy, and my idol was Sally Ride, the first American woman in space." But during a trip to the Mammoth Site in South Dakota, Levitt-Bussian picked up an interest in paleontology and decided to "reach for the stars" in a different way - by looking back into Deep Time rather than outer space.

Anne Lawlor, Assistant Collections Manager of Anthropology at NHMU, took a different path. "When I started volunteering at the museum I saw the prehistoric textile collections and saw how eager researchers were to view them," she recalls. In particular, former NHMU Assistant Director Ann Hannibal helped stoke Lawlor's growing interest in the anthropology collection and what might be learned from the ancient textiles. "I found her notes and slide collection in our Collections Library," Lawlor recalls. "I read everything she wrote and looked at all her slides. I still have them and use them," she notes, even after completing a PhD in the study of ancient textiles and working in NHMU's anthropology staff.

Sometimes it's not a particular person that proves inspiring, but an idea. Alexandra Greenwald, NHMU Curator of Ethnography, spent a great deal of time outdoors learning about ecology from her father and was already keenly interested in science by time she began studying archaeology in college. But, Greenwald notes, "I think what has inspired me is the opportunity to tell the life stories of past women and children who for so long have been ignored by scientists." The fields of anthropology and archaeology have historically neglected the experiences and contributions of women across different cultures, places, and times. "I think it's important for women today to hear about the experiences of past women," Greenwald says, that "it's validating to learn that your struggles are not novel, and it's inspiring to hear about how women in different cultures, past or present, address these universal issues."

Those experiences - whether universally shared or individual - help motivate NHMU scientists to keep changing their fields. Katrina Derieg, NHMU Vertebrate Collections Manager, was inspired by many teachers and students through her career, including University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute curator of mammals Jocelyn Colella. "She helped me navigate the daunting world of academia, especially as a woman," Derieg says. More than that, she notes, Colella "is an exemplar of a museum-based researcher who is working across borders and scientific fields." While the road through academia and science hasn't always been easy, Derieg notes, "I have also grown committed to changing the culture in academia to make people feel like they belong and that their hard work is appreciated."

Science is a process and a conversation that spans generations. Today's experts are speaking to and inspiring people who will become students and colleagues. "The sense of discovery is such an amazing feeling and you can find it in just about every aspect of science," Levitt-Bussian says. And it's especially important that women are part of these conversations, investigations, and changes to science.

"The data are undeniable. Greater diversity of scientists, including the participation of women, leads to a greater diversity of important questions being tested in more creative ways," Greenwald says. And women don't need to feel like they're going it alone. "Ask questions from the women around you. They know more than they will admit," Lawlor says. Sometimes the best advisors or sources are not professors or curators, but women whose curiosity has led them to learn a great deal and are always happy to collaborate. "These kinds of women, the ones who know a ton but don't call themselves scientists, have always been the best advisors to me," she says. 

Though sexism in science is still a problem, part of changing that is knowing that science can change. And that change comes from within. "My advice to women in science," Derieg says, "is to constantly remind ourselves that we belong here. We belong in the field covered in mud. We belong in the lab generating data. We belong in front of an audience sharing our research. We belong in conversations and deserve to disagree with our colleagues without being dismissed. We belong in leadership positions. Our names belong in the author lines of scientific publications. Our names belong in the history books. We belong regardless of what we look like - young, old, feminine, androgynous, dressed up, dressed down. We belong because we worked just as hard to be here as everyone else."

Riley Black is the author of The Last Days of the Dinosaurs, Skeleton Keys, My Beloved Brontosaurus, and is a science writer for the Natural History Museum of Utah, a part of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Our mission is to illiminate the natural world and the place of humans within it. In addition to housing outstanding exhibits for the public, NHMU is a research museum. Learn more.

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Category: People