Laura Guertin

Sector: Academia

Field: Science

Occupation: Professor


Describe your earliest memory of wanting to be a scientist?

My earliest memory of wanting to be a scientist is from a much older age than the story you will hear from many scientists. Growing up, I didn’t know any scientists. No one in my immediate or extended family was a scientist, and I had never met one in person. Although I was never discouraged from becoming a scientist, I was never encouraged, either. I remember my first science experiment in the fifth grade, when my teacher had us growing radish seeds on wet vs. dry paper towels, and in natural light versus in the dark. The memory still sticks with me today. And I remember doing an experiment in the eighth grade with plants and different types of fertilizers. That was another positive science experience, but not enough to make me consider science as a career. That didn’t come until the eleventh grade. I had an outstanding chemistry teacher in high school, and she strongly encouraged me to follow my talents and goals in science, and to never let anyone tell me I couldn’t be a scientist. She was the first person that opened my eyes to seeing myself as a scientist – I owe Mrs. DeThomas all of the credit for putting me on the path to a science career!

What steps did you take in your career path? 

I started my undergraduate degree pursuing a different science major but fell in love with geology in the first course I took. I knew I had a strong interest in studying the ocean, and my undergraduate institution didn’t have any oceanography courses. So, I spent one summer at the Chincoteague Bay Field Station in Virginia (formerly the Wallops Island Marine Science Station) enrolled in coursework and performing research in oceanographic field methods. I then spent a semester in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, taking coursework at the Marine Biological Laboratory through Boston University’s Marine Program (BUMP) that was offered on site. I then did two summer internships with NOAA’s National Ocean Service/Field Photogrammetry Unit in Norfolk, Virginia. With all of that experience through courses and in the field, I was convinced I wanted to study oceanography further. After graduating with my bachelor’s degree in geology, I applied and was accepted to the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science to complete a PhD in marine geology and geophysics. While in graduate school, I took advantage of attending seminars on campus, attending workshops at conferences, and learning a variety of field and laboratory techniques. Upon completion of my PhD, I had a decision – work for industry, or work in higher education? It was a hard choice, and I decided to take a temporary teaching position at a school to see if I would really enjoy working with undergraduate students and be able to balance teaching-research. It turns out I chose wisely, as I absolutely loved being an instructor, a researcher, a mentor, and more. I worked for one year at another institution before I landed my current position at Penn State Brandywine, where I have taught Earth Science since 2001.

What were some challenges or obstacles you had to overcome to pursue your career choices?

My first challenge was when I decided to become a geology major. No one, family or friends, knew what that was. Nowadays, I find myself explaining more of “why geology matters,” but back then, I struggled to get everyone past “geology is just rocks – what can you do with a degree in rocks?” I also had a couple of undergraduate science professors that were harder on female students pursuing STEM degrees, thinking that their discouraging attitudes would serve to “toughen us up” for what we would face after graduation. When I go back and look at the number of males versus female STEM faculty I had in my undergraduate degree, across my geology/biology/chemistry/physics/math courses, only one faculty member was female. Although I persisted through and succeed in STEM, I have to wonder how discouraging this was for other students.

My challenges in graduate school were very different, seeing as Hurricane Andrew hit Miami on the first day of my graduate student orientation! I was living out of my car and sleeping on someone’s water-damaged couch until I could find a place to live, while classes were going on… and then we had to evacuate for Hurricane Erin, and Tropical Storm Gordon hit twice… Having grown up in New England, I was used to nor’easters, but not all these storms and the physical/emotional impacts I was seeing around me. My department was very supportive, and I worked with faculty and staff that absolutely shaped me in to the researcher and instructor I am today.

What skills and knowledge, technical or non-technical, do you use in your work? What type of background do you need to be successful in your job?

In my roles as an educator and researcher, the most important skills, hands-down, are writing, speaking, and listening. Writing grant proposals to smaller organizations or even internally at my institution means that I need to know how to communicate the relevance of my work and why it matters, as the proposal is likely to be read by a non-technical audience. Speaking to current donors, potential donors, K-12 audiences for outreach programs, and even to my undergraduate students means being aware of who is listening to what I have to say, and making sure I’m not overwhelming them with jargon and data when it is not appropriate. And I need to listen clearly to what students are asking, what administrators are requesting, what instructions are being given by field leaders, etc. – all are important for effective instruction, teamwork to advance the mission of the project/organization, and even for the safety of myself and others in the field and in the lab.

What’s the most exciting aspect of being a scientist?

I can’t identify just one part of being a scientist that stands above the rest. All of it is exciting to me! I enjoy formulating the research questions to investigate. I enjoy the planning of the fieldwork/lab work and data collection (OK, I really enjoy being out at sea!). Collecting data, analyzing data, and reporting on the data…. All of these stages of the research process are opportunities for curiosity, discovery, exploration, and dissemination. Knowing that my work has advanced our body of knowledge in everything from ocean science to ocean teaching is what I’m most proud of in being a scientist.

What is the most discouraging part of your job and how do you overcome this limitation?

Although some scientists might find this an exciting part of a career trajectory, I find the administrative tasks (reports, emails, etc.) a detour away from what brought me to science in the first place. I’m a tenured, full professor at my institution. With that rank comes more leadership roles and responsibilities on committees that are more time intensive and not directly related to my science training and background. I still embrace the time I am in the classroom with students, but getting out for field experiences and research becomes more and more challenging when you are at a smaller campus with much committee work! I balance this by making sure I attend field seminars, even if I am not actively doing research, but at least learning in the field with other professionals. I attend conferences to hear the “latest and greatest” in science. I serve on committees at the national level with other Earth and space scientists to keep connected and to serve my discipline. I take advantage of opportunities to mentor rising scientists and participate in outreach programs that promote the process of science and why science matters. It is a balancing act to achieve and maintain as one advances through their career (again, the teaching-research-service), but the key is to find ways to participate in activities that bring personal reward while satisfying the evolving job requirements.

What is something you wish you had known earlier in your career? What advice do you have for students considering a career in the Earth and space sciences?

As an undergraduate student, one of the best experiences I had was participating in the Boston University Marine Program (BUMP), spending a semester in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. I strongly encourage undergraduate students to seek out unique academic opportunities that are during the summer or semester. Unfortunately, these opportunities can be challenging to find, as universities strongly encourage students to travel abroad and study overseas. But see if there are programs at field stations, museums or through universities where you can “study away” and receive excellent exposure to a field you are interested in pursuing.

At one of my first geology conferences, I attended a workshop on writing your resume and applying for jobs. I’ll never forget the “career triangle” that was explained at the workshop. We were told to think of one corner of the triangle as job location, one corner as job description, and one corner as salary. This visual was striking to me, as it showed me that I should never expect to hit 100% of my goal in any of these three – if I wanted to live in a very specific location, I may not be able to get what I consider the perfect job. And if I come across a job with an excellent salary, it may not be in the area I want to work or the location I want to live. I share this example with all students and early career scientists, reminding everyone not to wait for the perfect formula and balance to come along.

Another piece of advice – take advantage of any courses or workshops that help you develop your communication skills. My graduate school worked with the local Toastmasters group to develop a Speechcrafters course in marine science. The course was filled with graduate students and faculty, all of us looking to polish our professional speaking skills. Hands-down, this is the one course in graduate school I learned the most from, continue to put what I learned in practice, and teach what I learned to others.

Finally, I’d encourage all future and current scientists to be kind to the staff that you meet along the way that are supporting your journey in science. Whether it be the cook in a ship’s galley, the janitor that cleans the floors, to the lab manager that runs your samples, to the administrative assistant that processes your travel paperwork – all are deserving of an acknowledgement and respect for what they do, so we as scientists can do our job. A smile and thank you to the maintenance worker that replaces the ceiling lights in your laboratory goes a long way.