Mary Anne Holmes

Sector: Academia

Field: Science

Occupation: Geologist

Tell us a little about your career and what the steps in that path looked like.

My name is Mary Anne Holmes, and I recently retired from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Department, and so what I’m doing these days is pretty much anything I want to do, it’s really quite wonderful…

As far as my career goes, I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s when women were just beginning to enter the workforce after a big dip in their participation after World War II, so pretty much everyone around me assumed that women were going to get married and have kids and settle down in the suburbs, but I was very fortunate in having a father who for reasons of his own, really encouraged me to become a scientist.  He was an engineer, he would come home from travel and tell me about women engineers and scientists that he’d met, and he encouraged me to keep up with my math and so on. So without that tremendous encouragement as a kid, I would never have made it as a scientist.

It was not easy. It was not easy because everyone just assumed that you weren’t going to be one, and that doesn’t sound like it’s actively discouraging, but it adds up when every step you just have someone saying, “Oh?! You’re gonna do this? What?!”

So I entered college, and I loved the outdoors so I tried a number of different majors—I switched majors four or five times trying to find the right one.  I had a great introductory geology teacher, George Burbanck. He took us on field trips and that was an enormous amount of fun, so even though I didn’t major in geology right away, I learned a lot from that teacher.

I got my undergraduate and master’s degrees in soil science in agronomy departments, but they were pretty hostile to women, I was not enjoying myself in the climates there, and I was noticing that there were more women professors—I had no women professors until my master’s degree, and I had one for one-third of one quarter, she team-taught a class—and I noticed that there were a lot more women in geology. My husband was in geology, and I took a hiatus from my studies to be his field assistant, and I really enjoyed it and so I switched, I jumped between the master’s and Ph.D, Soil science wasn’t too far from what I ended up concentrating in, sedimentology with an emphasis on clay minerals, so I understood a lot about how clays formed in soils and then my task was to learn how they become sedimentary particles and get distributed in the world’s oceans, and then also I could contribute a little to paleosol studies.

So, it wasn’t a waste what I learned as an undergraduate or in my master’s but it was a long tortuous path. You don’t really have to know what you want to do the rest of your life when you’re a freshman and you don’t really have to know even when you’re working on your master’s. You can still switch and be successful I think.

That’s great advice and something that a lot of people struggle with—when you’re in a position where suddenly the gears aren’t turning the way that you feel like they should. It’s nice to know that there are other people who have been in that exact same situation, that you can take what you learned in an earlier field and apply it to a new one. It’s not like the skills disappear: they are going to carry over.

Yes, the skills you’ve learned—like how to be successful in class, how to write papers and things like that—all of that is eminently transferable to another field…so yeah I want to encourage people  to not be afraid to think about changing to a different field.

In contrast, my husband knew what he wanted to be when he set foot in college as a freshman and became that.  I wondered sometimes if that was a gender thing or just different personalities. Some people know what they want to do for the rest of their lives and some of us are still wandering…

What got you interested and involved with the ADVANCE Program?

I became President of the Association for Women Geoscientists (AWG) in 2001, and that was the year that ADVANCE started. I heard a lot of stories of women struggling to stay in the geosciences and I really wanted to do something to change things. As an aside, networks are so important, as A I learned the ADVANCE program was beginning at NSF from a colleague I sailed with on Ocean Drilling Program’s Leg 159. She went to work at NSF after our cruise. She heard about ADVANCE and knew that I had become president of AWG, so she  alled me and said, “Here’s this new program and we want to see proposals coming from the geoscience community.” I submitted a proposal with Suzanne O’Connell of Wesleyan University and we got funded in the first year, and a couple of times after that. For that first proposal, we partnered with a sociologist, Connie Frey of University of Illinois-Edwardsville. I learned an enormous amount: that one doesn’t tackle such an issue at random, but that there is a systematic way to approach culture change.

Going back to clay sedimentology, what skills and knowledge, technical or non-technical, did you use in that work?  What sort of background do you need to be successful in that field?

Well, my second love after the outdoors is chemistry, so geochemistry or chemistry, especially inorganic, was really important.  The technical skills include learning how to use an X-ray diffractometer, and learning all the safety necessary—I had some interesting experiences with professors and bosses who were pretty cavalier about X-rays. I’m thinking of one particular guy, the first class I took, he told me, “to align the beam, you put your eye in the beam”, and when it started flashing in the back of your eye, you know that it is aligned right. Tthat just didn’t sound right to me!

…so you can learn about safety and appropriate use of equipment, and trust your gut, and not believe your advisor when they tell you to put your eye in an X-ray beam!

So when I sailed on the ocean drilling program, I learned how describe core systematically, to identify sedimentary structures.  A lot of geology doesn’t look scientific to a physicist or a chemist because it’s learning to identify patterns in rock and sediment. Observation and interpretation are skills I needed to learn. There’s a truism in geology, and I don’t know how true it is, but it’s “you see in the rock and the sediment what you’ve been trained to see” so the more experience you get with observation and a mentor or teacher who knows how to interpret what you’re looking at and tells you, the more of that kind of experience you can get, the better you will be in the long run.

Your work with the ADVANCE program, you touched upon briefly how much networking was important to your initial involvement in the program.  What are some of the skills and techniques that you use in geology that you’ve applied towards those other projects?

Statistical analysis and knowing what statistics are applicable with what kind of dataset has been helpful.

The main thing that’s helped me be successful with the ADVANCE program is partnering with social scientists because changing the culture of how science is done is a sociological problem; it’s not a geology and a physics and a chemistry and a math problem, how do people interact with one another and how do people treat one another—there’s some psychology involved as well.

But what’s really helped me in that community as a geologist, I say this jokingly to my sociological colleagues all the time I look at things in a very concrete way, you know, I study rocks—sometimes my sociological colleagues lose me in sociological jargon. I’ve learned to get clarity and translate these concepts into something concrete that scientists like geologists will be able to understand, something rock solid.

How would you suggest that students and early career scientists can get involved with addressing issues of sexual harassment and implicit bias both at the local level and within AGU?

Men and women can join AWG, as a start.

Also, I would learn more about implicit bias. There are a lot of resources on the web and now on the AGU website. Ask at your workplace if this is something you can have: a conversation, a speaker or a meeting about implicit bias in your workplace.

People don’t know how to start the conversation. I get a lot of positive feedback when I speak about implicit bias at different institutions. I often hear “Boy, we needed to start this conversation.” You don’t resolve it one meeting, but you can start.

The ADVANCE program identified some best practices for institutions on how to handle dual career appointments.  What advice do you have for individuals who are trying to figure out how to solve this problem?

There are two schools of thought if you are part of a dual career couple that is on the job market: the first school of thought is: don’t bring it up until you get the job offer. At that point, they really want you and you are in your strongest negotiating position. The second school of thought is: bring it up right away because you don’t want to work some place where they’re not going to try to make some facilitation of your partner’s hire, somewhere, somehow in some capacity.

The reason for the first strategy, to not talk about it, is because there’s so much bias around marriage, especially for women. Research shows that people perceive mothers are less competent and less committed to their jobs than fathers are, in fact, fathers get kind of an implicit bias boost.

On the other hand, I can perfectly see the point a lot of young women are making, “I don’t want to work someplace where they’re not going to address this issue.” So it’s just up to you which strategy you use.

What is something you wish you had known earlier in your career?

My general advice for people, especially those interested in an academic career, is to learn to write—to learn to write consistently on a daily basis.  Writing is thinking; it helps to clarify your thinking. Writing daily really helps you complete projects, it helps you keep moving, it prevents a giant pile of to-be-written material from piling up that becomes more and more ominous and scary.

A writing schedule, maybe just 15 minutes a day or an hour a day, where you just sit in front of the computer and write is challenging but rewarding.  You might be working on two or three different projects and so you might have two or three different word processing documents that you’re working on at a time.  You can set up a template with the usual headings of introduction, methods, results and discussion, and just add a little bit to the papers every day or to one paper…that’s what I wish I had known and done my whole career.