Jinny Sisson

Sector: Academia

Field: Science

Occupation: Professor

My earliest memories include my piano teacher bringing me fossils and classes taught by the Massachusetts Audubon Society.  I preferred these to art classes.  These made me start to collect and observe the outdoors including when I found beach cobble with fossils.  My mother arranged for me to take these to a paleontologist at Harvard University who identified them for me.  I think I was in 4th or 5th grade.  Later in middle school, I had an interest in saving the planet and my 7th grade science teacher let me do experiments with laundry soap and aquatic plant growth instead of the worksheets that the rest of the class had to do.  I remember using my allowance to buy a microscope to look at who lives in these waters.  Interesting fact, I was also the only girl on the middle school math team.

In high school, I thought I was interested in teaching and did volunteer work at a local school for dyslexic elementary students.  When I attended Bryn Mawr for college, I thought I wanted to teach science in high schools but after completing graduate school at Princeton University, I realized that academia would allow me to combine my love of research, field work, and teaching into one career.  I earned an AB cum laude with honors in geology at Bryn Mawr and both MS and PhD at Princeton.

I didn’t realize that there were any obstacles for women in STEM until I went to geology field camp and heard my fellow students talk about this issue.  I just went through schools doing what I liked.  For example, I really enjoyed studying rocks but since the geology departmetn at Bryn Mawr was small, I couldn’t enroll in their petrology class as it was only taught every other year.  Instead, with the help of a professor, I read a textbook and articles she suggested over the summer and taught myself enough of the subject to do a research project and then go on for graduate school.  Thus, I never took this course until I had to teach it.  I think the first year I taught this, I probably overemphasized some of the material that I never had as an undergraduate thinking it was important.  But, this also made me realize that with sufficient motivation that formal courses are not necessary for learning.

At one point in graduate school, there was a big concern that females weren’t finishing their PhD research and quitting.  Those of us that were there were convinced it was not due to systematic bias but an issue with admission of some that were not really prepared to commit themselves to the high level of research at Princeton.  There were just as many males that quit for the same reason.  So, this lead to better mentoring for all students.

My advisor asked me to identify a potential project.  I first developed one based on only one rock and that was deemed insufficient for a PhD  but I didn’t know that.  Then I proposed going to the Himalayas back before it was a popular place.  He said fine but get some contacts and arrangements.  However, that was before the internet and I didn’t think I could reach out internationally.  So, I took his advice and decided to work in the same general field area.  He allowed one summer for me to figure out a project within this area.  Even though he kept rejecting my ideas, I was able to find a positive outcome.

One of the skills that I used is fortitude and a positive attitude to keep on going.  I may not be the biggest and strongest but I am persistent.  This I learned from my dad taking hikes through the backwoods of Maine.  He’d look at a map and find a destination and we’d have to find a dirt road or how to bush wack through the brush to get there.  So, when I set out to do several months of field work in a remote area, I was well prepared to use those skills.  Now I find that not many students have this type of background to be able to cope with the outdoors.

Right now, the most exciting part of my teaching is the responses to my final essay in my Physical Geology class.  For the last couple of years, I’ve been asking students (I have a class of ~170 with ~95% taking the course to fulfill a core requirement and not interested in science) write a letter to either the President, President-elect, US senator or other politician about a geologic issue, propose a solution, or convince them the issue is important to create some legislation.  Most students respond with very interesting essays that show they are concerned about their future as well as can debate science thoughtfully. Sometimes, it is hard to read all of these essays but then the passion and inspiration from the students is enlightening.

I also enjoy teaching field camp as this is when I see the proverbial light bulb go off with almost every student.  Many finally realize the importance of what was said in the classroom.  For others that don’t have  a lot of courses, the skills learned making observations are critical to their success.  For many reasons, I find this the most rewarding teaching.

I just started to go back to my scientific roots by getting a student and a post-doc to look at fluid inclusions.  This is a technique I learned doing my senior honor’s thesis.  Even though many years and many innovations have been made, the simple observations are still incredibly powerful at answering scientific questions such as when did fluid flow happen during evolution of the Grand Canyon or exhumation of Alpine eclogite.

The discouraging aspect of academia is getting funded to do your research.  There is no easy way to overcome this difficulty as there are just not enough funds to go around.  Also, taking time to have children can be a problem as many don’t realize why there is a gap in your productivity.  Instead of continuing in some lines of research, I’ve retooled by doing other things even for a while concentrating on non-geological endeavors.

Advice for those just starting – do what you are passionate about as you’ll be better off than working on something that some one tells you is important.  Learn how to make observations and collect data as interpretations may change but I still see many referring to old data and observations.  Be sure to have fun.  Finally, I realized that I often don’t say no when asked to do something.  This leads to over-commitment and mistakes.  I am slowly learning to say no and to have more time to do a good job.