Women of Discovery: Q&A With Darlene Lim

On April 23, WINGS WorldQuest will induct four new Fellows during our 2019 Women of Discovery Awards in New York City. We are sharing insight from each of our awardees in a special Q&A series. Our second Q&A is with Darlene Lim, PhD, a geobiologist based at the NASA Ames Research Center. She will receive the 2019 Women of Discovery Air & Space Award.

Photo courtesy Darlene Lim

Photo courtesy Darlene Lim

WINGS WORLDQUEST: Tell us your story. How did you get involved in science and in your field specifically?

DARLENE LIM: When I look back and connect the dots, I can see that there were many influencing moments that sheparded me towards a career in STEM. Specific to my field of study, there was a class that I took while at Queen’s University in Canada that was focused on Limnology (the study of freshwater systems) and Paleolimnology (the study of the history of freshwater systems). The professor who taught the class, Dr. John Smol, was an extremely gifted teacher, and the subject area in turn completely engrossed me. I had grown up around lakes and rivers in the prairies of Alberta, and I was amazed to find out how much broad ecological knowledge we could glean from within and around these and other aquatic systems around the world. I went on to do my graduate degrees in Limnology and Paleolimnology working on climate change effects on freshwater systems in the Canadian High Arctic.

During my graduate years I was also fortunate to meet a few folks who were conducting Mars exploration and astrobiology research. Exploration of our planet and our solar system was always a passion of mine, and so I came to find that I could bring Earth and Space science research together through a slight pivot of my research focus. I took part in the Haughton Mars Project, one of NASA’s first major analog field campaigns, where I conducted paleolimnological research on a Mars-like impact structure in the High Arctic that had subsequently filled to become a lake. I also was part of the inaugural and second crew of the Mars Society’s Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station that stands at the edge of Haughton Crater. Through these programs, I found my way to NASA as a post-doctoral fellow where I was able to stretch from earth and planetary science into operations and technology research domains as well. I have had the joy of meeting and working with so many talented people both from the NASA family as well as at institutions and organizations around the world; through these teams I’m enabled to evolve my research and push beyond my area of expertise.

WWQ: What is something you would like people to understand about your field and your work?

DL: First thing to know is that ‘It takes a village.’ Fundamentally, complex problems require creative thinking and considered ideas. We’re working to infuse science into the design of future human exploration systems for the Moon, Mars and beyond. To do so, we work on research programs that can range from 10-150+ contributors; we work in labs, meeting rooms, test beds of all variety, and in the field at analog sites that range from underwater environments to the poles to active volcanoes and beyond.

Second thing to know is that these research programs function well and drive out crafted products when each contributor is operating at their best, and together, without pretense or obfuscation, with their fellow team members. This type of well-oiled research program requires constant fine-tuning and management, which is where I come in. At times, I do a ‘deep dive’ with the team to make sense of data, drive out engineering requirements, or plan logistical elements to keep our teams safe in harsh field environments. Other times, I’m looking up and out to ensure that all of our work areas are aligned and working in unison, as well as meeting long-range exploration objectives for NASA. This type of juggle between the details and the bigger picture is part of my daily routine.  

Lastly, my work is a joy and a privilege that I’m grateful for in many ways.

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

DL: I think that the barriers that women face in entering and even staying in science run the gamut, and vary case by case. However, two broad topics that come to mind and that I feel require our attention are:

  1. We need modern work plans for modern families. The current work infrastructure for academics and non-commercial scientists is still rooted in requirements that are decades old and are not necessarily supportive of today’s working moms and dads. (I bring in dads, because under this topic, they are, for me, an intrinsic part of the discussion.) When we consider the improvements and innovations in telework technologies, coupled with longer commute times, and add in potentially broader opportunities to network and expand research productivity beyond classic publication metrics, there must be a variety of options to enable motivated working parents to stay in scientific research fields and have thriving families. I think that a lot of people use very creative tools to stay afloat professionally and personally in this day and age, but they are perhaps lacking motivation to openly share these activities with their peers and superiors. It would be great to see this change so that we can start focusing on inclusively bringing down barriers to staying in science.

  2. We need to promote scientific career diversity. A pitfall that I’ve seen many women fall into is a feeling that after completing their graduate work, the only pathway for a research career is at an academic institution. This can result in a deceleration of career advancement given how few academic positions are available as compared to the number of doctoral students worldwide that are graduated each year. This can in turn lead women into a decision point of moving on to another career outside of the sciences, putting their careers on hiatus, and so on. The flip side is that the scientific community as a whole needs to better promote career pathways outside of academics to graduate students. This should be done early on in their graduate careers so that it is part of their thought process from the get-go.

WWQ: What gets you up in the morning?

DL: The dog

My kids


In varying order

No, it’s usually the dog.

WWQ: What’s your next challenge?

DL: Same thing I’ve been working on for some time…Designing and developing mission elements in support of human scientific exploration of Mars.

WWQ: Describe yourself in three words.

DL: Constantly. Sleep. Deprived.

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