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Women in STEM: stories of Resilience, Spirit and Success

In part one of our Women in Stem series we met Christina, Lola, Erika and Eva, all doing outstanding work around the globe. In part II, we meet Laura, Nikita, Erin and a more in-depth look at Christina’s work.

Laura Guertin is a Professor of Earth Science who eschewed traditional scientific mediums to blend her scientific insights with her hobbies of quilting and knitting.  Although worried she would lose credibility by doing so, she was embraced by her colleagues.  Laura was one of 100 female scientists selected for the INSIGHT into Diversity Inspiring Women in STEM Award. She is a U.S. Congressional Citation honoree and received a U.S. Senate Certificate of Special Recognition for her participation in NOAA’s hydrographic field season. She is truly a unique and remarkable individual.

Nikita Angane is a Lead Quality Engineer. Through her academic journeys, Nikita melded her desire to contribute to the healthcare of patients with her natural engineering ability to create her dream occupation.  She had the bravery to emigrate to the USA by herself to attend graduate school.  Her story of growth and accountability is authentic and genuine. “The world needs women like us: Leaders that do not doubt themselves.”

Erin is a Board Member of Kids’ Vision, a non-profit designed to expose girls to how STEM is applied in high tech companies, a prominent voice in the #ILookLikeAnEngineer social media campaign to raise awareness of the diversity in tech, nominated as Inspirational Woman Engineer by the University of Cambridge, named to Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Next-Gen list, featured as one of the Bay Area’s Top 10 “Boss Ladies” in Haute Living magazine. She is a role model for any girl or young woman who thinks the automotive world is a men’s only club.

Now onto our feature story: Christina Goethel, a Ph.D. Candidate from the University of Maryland, Center for Environmental Science Chesapeake Biological Laboratory. This story is in her own words.

The first two ingredients to becoming the person you want to be are persistence and belief in yourself. When I was little, I used to walk up and down the beach with my aunt in New Hampshire. She taught me about the ocean and everything that lived in it. I loved those days. I had many questions about every animal, plant, and rock. I wanted to learn more about the ocean and understand how it worked. I did not realize how much until an opportunity came along when I was fourteen years old.

I was invited to take a trip to the Arctic as part of People to People Student Ambassadors. I had already participated in two other trips with them. This trip would highlight one of my greatest passions, the ocean and the critters living in it. I never thought I would go from the beaches of New Hampshire to a boat in the Arctic, but that is what happened. It was the trip of a lifetime. We would spend two weeks sailing around Iceland, Greenland, and northern Canada. We would be with experts in whales, glaciers, chemistry, and tiny plants called phytoplankton. I wanted to go and learn everything I could, but with two disabled parents and little money, I didn’t know how I could pay for another trip. Also, my mom is terrified of the ocean, and the thought of letting her only child go on this trip was a big step for her. Despite it all, my parents encouraged me to find a way.

I didn’t know how I would make it happen, but I couldn’t let money be a problem. I would never forgive myself if I missed this chance. Over the next few months, I put my energy into raising money for the trip. I ran bake sales and wrote to my local state and federal congress members, local charities, and community groups for support. I had done this before to attend the other trips, but this one was different. This time, I would sail on the ocean.

After several months of hard work and help from my friends and family, I raised the money. I was so excited! I didn’t know that it would change my life. I am happy that I did not let money stop me.

The third ingredient to becoming the person you want to be is experience. Six months later, I traveled over 4,000 miles from Galt, California, to Reykjavik, Iceland, and boarded a ship that would be my home for two and a half weeks. The ship was a classroom like no other. Lifeboats hung off the side, water surrounded us, and there were no desks. I learned about glaciers, how changes to phytoplankton, affect large animals, how climate affects this ecosystem, and the teacher showed us photos of whales and dolphins he had seen. One photo showed a blue whale, the largest animal on the planet. The blowhole of the blue whale, like our nostrils, was the size of an adult human head! We asked him what the chance of seeing a blue whale on the trip was. He said he had only seen five in his life and that there was a less than a 5 percent chance we would see one on this trip.

Later that week, I was on the deck staring at one of the most breathtaking sights I had ever seen. Although it was summer, the wind was blowing, the air was crisp, and sometimes small pieces of ice floated past the ship as we made our way through the Denmark Strait. As my teacher stared out at the horizon with his binoculars, he exclaimed, “No way! Could it really be?” The joy on his face made me feel like I was watching a kid on Christmas Day. He pointed and we could see two puffs of air and water coming up above the surface of the water. The puffs of air were from the blowhole spouts of a blue whale and her baby. We couldn’t believe it! There we were, standing on the deck of the ship, watching blue whales on our first Arctic trip.

At that moment, I realized how special the Arctic is. We spent the next two hours following the whale and its baby. It didn’t matter that we were off course and behind schedule. This was what the trip was all about.

We share space with the largest animals on the Earth in places that many people only dream of visiting. We saw a piece of the ocean’s wonder and beauty with experts to answer our questions. We learned later this was the first time anyone had seen the calf. At fourteen years old, I was on the cutting edge of scientific knowledge and it changed my life.

The fourth ingredient to becoming the person you want to be is finding the right people.  I left that trip knowing I wanted to go back and that I wanted to understand the Arctic better. I had full support and encouragement, particularly from one high school teacher, Mrs. Crawford. She was my chemistry teacher and was a great mentor to me. I stayed in touch with her after I graduated, and we became friends. I didn’t excel at chemistry and swore I was done with it. I lost belief in myself along the way, but pursuing science further meant I would have to study more chemistry. Mrs. Crawford reminded me I was a strong person who could do anything. She reminded me to believe in myself. She pushed me out of my comfort zone and forced me to learn more. I resisted and claimed high school chemistry was as far as I would go. Every time I had a good experience with chemistry in college, I would tell her about it. Her constant encouragement made me a better scientist and a better person.

I carried those reminders with me through college. Mrs. Crawford passed away in 2015. I miss her every day, but her words have stayed with me.

The final ingredient to becoming the person you want to be is trying everything! With Mrs. Crawford’s advice, I began college. I put myself back into the Arctic through a scholarship. I could not contain my excitement! I was getting paid to work and learn about the place that had left a lasting impact on me four years ago.

My project was on the Pacific walrus’ importance in Alaska. I worked with Dr. Thomas Litwin, who filmed and interviewed scientists aboard the US Coast Guard Cutter Healy, the latest and most advanced polar icebreaker in the US at the time. In these videos, I saw Dr. Jacqueline Grebmeier for the first time, but I thought nothing of it at the time. As I interviewed scientists for my project, I heard her name again and thought nothing of it. During my junior year of college, I took classes through a non-profit organization called the Sea Education Association (SEA). During one of the seminars, a teacher spoke about the Arctic and encouraged us to meet with him if we wanted to learn more. I took him up on his offer and he suggested I look up Dr. Jacqueline Grebmeier. I started researching her and her face looked familiar, but I couldn’t place her. Finally, it hit me. She was interviewed on the ship! I watched the videos again and looked back in my notes, and she popped up everywhere. I decided to reach out to her.

I sat down at a computer on the SEA campus and emailed her. I waited patiently for her to answer. Months went by and it was time for me to use the persistence I used during my earlier fundraising efforts. I wanted to meet Dr. Grebmeier, and I knew with hard work and help from a person I knew, I could make it happen. The help came from Tom, my advisor from my scholarship program. He was a terrific mentor of mine. I met with him and explained what I wanted to do. He put me in touch with Dr. Grebmeier; this time, she answered within hours! I didn’t give up, got help from someone who believed in me, and it paid off.

Over the next few months, Jackie and I sent emails back and forth. Finally, in May of 2013, I spoke with Jackie and Dr. Lee Cooper about their Arctic research lab. I was nervous as I had heard how Jackie and Lee were the top experts in the field. What if my experiences and ideas weren’t good enough or weren’t in line with theirs? I needed to believe in myself. My skills had led me this far, and I had to trust that my skills were good enough. Within minutes of answering the phone, my fears were washed away. They were easy to talk to and really cared to get to know me. During the call, they offered me the chance to go back to the Arctic.

Three months later, I flew to the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, boarded the largest ship I had ever been on, and set off on my second trip to the Arctic. I spent the next three weeks learning how to collect and study ocean water and animals. We used special tools to collect water, tiny sea animals called zooplankton, and other critters from the seafloor. I saw my first basket star, various worms, clams, and shrimp-like creatures called amphipods. During the trip, Jackie asked me to apply to be her student. I remembered the magical feeling of standing on the ship’s deck in Iceland watching the blue whales. That trip, and the people who encouraged me along the way, led me to this extraordinary opportunity.

Since starting my work with Jackie, I have taken part in eight field expeditions and eleven Arctic research cruises. My work consists of water and animal collections at all hours of the day! I have met and sailed with national and international scientists. Sometimes during the cruises, we only sleep for two hours a day. Every minute is worth it when you get to look out and see humpback whales, walruses, and all the cool critters we collect from the seafloor.

When I am not in the field, each day looks a little different. Some days, I review the data we collected or write about what we have found. Other days I look into my microscope for several hours identifying the animals we gathered on the ship.

I completed my Master’s degree in 2016 by studying how acid in the ocean affects animals that make shells. I kept Arctic clams alive in a cold room in Maryland. Since Maryland has a very different climate, we had to learn how to keep the cold room at the correct temperature so the clams would live. I also spend time organizing supplies for the research cruises and writing about our research to get donations to keep working. Just like the fundraising I did on my early trips!

I have learned many new skills and continue to build my life as an environmental scientist.

Life can be challenging. But by mixing the right ingredients, time, and effort, you can overcome any problem. I waited eight years between my first and second trips to the Arctic, but now I have been to the Arctic every summer since 2013. I am completing my graduate research, and I have gained a lifelong mentor, colleague, and friend in Jackie. 

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