Women of Discovery: Q&A With Hope Jahren

WINGS WorldQuest will induct six new inspiring women as Fellows during our 2016 Women of Discovery Awards Gala on October 25. In advance of our gala, we are highlighting the work of each new Awardee. Our third featured honoree in the series is Hope Jahren, a geochemist and geobiologist and the author of the New York Times Best Seller Lab Girl, a memoir about being a woman in science and her lifelong love and study of plants. Dr. Jahren will receive our Leadership Award. Read the rest of the series here.

WWQ: Tell us your story. How did you get involved in science and exploration?

HJ: My father taught all of the sciences at a rural community college in Minnesota — he worked there for 42 years.  While growing up, my brothers and I used to help him maintain his teaching lab, help him get the exercises ready for the next day’s use, etc., so I grew up around science and the idea that it was this very familiar homey thing that we could do, even as children.  Later, when I went to college, I found that this gave me a tremendous advantage in that I had already developed the intuition required to make a complicated scientific instrument work and keep it working — which is really what I love to do most. I also always felt like science was where I was naturally supposed to be — that I belonged there — because it was part of my early upbringing and family — this served me very well when I got into courses and environments where I was the only woman in the room. I never wavered in my firm knowledge that I belonged there — that science was where I was supposed to be.

WWQ: What is it like to work as a woman in your field?

HJ: Overall, I’d say that it is extremely isolating. When I was first a professor, women in academia were still relatively rare, and I was often the only woman on the faculty or on the committee, etc.  Growing up in a small town, the girls who had been my best friends in Kindergarten were also my best friends in High School. I had a decent number of girlfriends in college and even in graduate school where we knew other groups of students, across disciplines. When I became a professor, however, I was almost exclusively in very male environments and all my time was taken up with my work — and I remember feeling extremely lonely because of it and just pining for the comfort of having women friends around.  

WWQ: What are the greatest barriers to having more women work in science?

HJ: I’d say the obvious structural barriers are the greatest — because they are also the most infuriatingly artificial. The fact that there’s no uniform maternity leave policy within academia; the fact that we are not safe on our campuses or at our field sites from sexual harassment and sexual violence; the fact that we’re underpaid compared to our male counterparts. I’ve seen clear solutions offered toward of each of these barriers, and I’ve seen institutions flat out decline the solutions. It can be very discouraging, but we have a duty to keep asking, keep demanding, and keep asserting our right to work. We are part of a several-hundred-year movement in which women are joining the public workforce and using their talents for professional good — we are obligated to keep moving forward.

WWQ: What is the most serious threat the world faces?

HJ: In a world of seven billion people, one billion live without adequate food and housing. I am an Environmental Scientist, but I believe our first responsibility is to feed, shelter and nurture each other as people.

WWQ: Describe yourself in three words.

HJ: I’m hardworking, and I’m funny — in both senses of the word.

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