The Dangers of Doing Science in the Field

Image for post
Image for post
The bow of a ship pointed toward an ice-bound shoreline.

In a very timely and poignant conversation, Jacquelyn Gill, co-host Sarah Myhre and geologist Jane Willenbring share their personal experiences of when they found themselves in uncomfortable and unsafe situations while doing research in the field.

Follow Jane on Twitter: twitter.com/jkwillenbring

An update on her story: www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/04/bo…omen-antarctica

Don’t forget to subscribe to Warm Regards on Medium — medium.com/@ourwarmregards/
on iTunes — itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/warm-…d1127571287?mt=2
Soundcloud — @warmregardspodcast
Stitcher — www.stitcher.com/podcast/stephen-…cey/warm-regards
Twitter — twitter.com/ourwarmregards
and Facebook — www.facebook.com/WarmRegardsPodcast/ to keep up with all the news that, for now, is still changing faster than the climate.

Episode transcript by Joe Stormer

Jacquelyn Gill: In this episode, we talk with Dr. Jane Willenbring about an ongoing sexual harassment case filed in 2016 again David Marchant, a tenured Boston University professor in the Earth and Environment Department. As of the time of this recording, after eighteen months B.U. still hadn’t make a final decision about whether to terminate Marchant. The day after we recorded this episode, B.U.’s Board of Trustees decided to uphold the recommendation of B.U. President Brown to terminate Marchant’s faculty appointment. In their announcement, they stated their decision is final.

[Instrumental theme music]

Jacquelyn: Welcome to Warm Regards — conversations from the front lines of climate change. I’m Jacquelyn Gill, an ice age ecologist at the University of Maine. In today’s episode, we’re talking about the dangers of doing climate field work and how the data we need to understand our planet is warming is not only inherently risky to collect, but that being in the field can take a toll on our bodies and our minds, sometimes in unexpected ways. I should also mention that today’s episode will involve discussions of sexual harassment, assault and medical trauma. Joining me from Seattle this week is Sarah Myhre, senior fellow with Project Drawdown. Sarah, it’s really good to have you back on the show and to hear your voice.

Sarah Myrhe: It’s so good to hear your voice too. I’m really glad to be here today for this important conversation.

Jacquelyn: You and I have talked before on this show about the harassment that’s faced by women academics — particularly how interactions with trolls and climate dismissives are often especially bad for us. And when we were looking for folks to bring on to talk about the risks of fieldwork (which is sort of a different angle), you shared a really scary field experience that you had. I was wondering if you could talk about that.

Sarah: Yeah, totally. When you made that call for scary experiences in the field, I was like, “Ah-ha! Not only do I have one, I have like kind of a deep bench of these experiences.” The one that came to my mind first was being underwater in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. It’s the island arc directly to the west of the main Hawaiian Islands that stretches all the way across essentially the equatorial Pacific. So I’m underwater with my buddy and my research team at about fifty feet below the surface, and the O-ring on my tank exploded. At this point I was a very seasoned diver; I had about a thousand hours underwater at that point. But even still as a diver and as a research diver, you anticipate that your equipment is out to kill you at any moment. That day my equipment was definitely out to kill me and my O-ring on my tank exploded shot this massive column of bubbles above my head to the surface. I had to reach back and turn the tank off and then swim about thirty feet to my buddy and yank his octopus. We buddy-breathed up to the surface. I’d had enough training that I knew exactly what to do and I had no panic response in that space, but even still it showed you that my life was on the line. My colleagues lives were on the line, too, to get into these really remote and dangerous places in the middle of the global ocean and take data about what’s happening in these ecosystems. It’s like sort of a heart-mind-body experience doing field work often.

Jacquelyn: Did that change your relationship with your data? Did you look at it differently or did it change your relationship with just being in the field the next time you went underwater? Or was it just, “Yep, this is life”?

Sarah: I think in that it at that point I didn’t have a capacity to internalize what was happening to me and the discomfort that I felt with some of the like cowboy culture of the social environment on the ship itself. I’d also had a backlog of experiences in the Caribbean and in Bermuda around diving and around dangers in the field, and so everything was normalized at that point for me. For me it was like, “Oh yeah, I do put my life on the line to do field work and that’s just what I’m expected to do.” That’s what I have to do in order to get my foot in the door professionally. So it took me a while to kind of back out of that. Then a colleague of mine died underwater about four years ago and that really shifted my boundaries; it really like re-calibrated me to think, “Why had I ever assume that I had to sacrifice my personal safety in order to do really great scientific work?” Things were like tangled up in a way that were really harmful and unnecessary.

Jacquelyn: I’m so sorry that happened to you. We also lost a colleague of ours in Antarctica a few years ago and I think it shook all of us up in a similar way because very often in this geology field science or even ecology field science (as you said) there is this kind of cowboy culture of just really like having something blow up on your field gear, “Cool, that’s an awesome badass story.” Right? You hear people trading stories like that and then suddenly you have this experience where someone that you work with and see every day is suddenly not there anymore because of the dangers that we face. I think it just changes those experiences and (like you said) it makes you really think differently about what we put ourselves through and how we can mitigate that risk. Just the kind of pushing back against like this extreme sports culture of science. That’s not how it has to be.

Sarah: Totally agree. I’m really sorry for you and your community of colleagues regarding your colleague that died, too; it’s really gutting and hard. I think part of the conversation today is kind of reconciling the human risk and the risks we put ourselves into that that can be mitigated. We can be safer, and it’s worth it. How do we get there?

Jacquelyn: I agree. So I want to tell my story before we introduce our guests. Last summer I was invited to go to Siberia to film a documentary on ice age extinctions for the BBC and Discovery. I’d been awarded this NSF grant to reconstruct ice age environments in the Arctic. Part of that involves fieldwork in Russia (which is a place I had never been), so of course the chance to go to some of these places that I wanted to work in was this golden opportunity. It just made sense from a research perspective to do some reconnaissance. The trip was amazing until the last day I was there. I had noticed I had been really struggling with my breathing in the field, just getting winded really easily. I was actually beating myself up about it — this sort of push through the pain culture of fieldwork, right? “It’s supposed to be hard; it’s supposed to be tough.” I’d been going to a personal trainer all summer long. I had been feeling amazing and I was really looking forward to going into the field and this really harsh and difficult environment because I felt like I was prepared. But then when we got back to our lodging that night, I realized that I was getting winded just walking across the hall to go to the bathroom and I knew something was wrong. I had this voice in the back of my head telling me, “What if it’s clots? What if it’s clots?” Right? Especially as a woman who had been on hormonal birth control; there’s always this risk. But I told myself I would just wait and take care of it when I got home. I just needed to get back to the States. I would worry about it then with my doctors in my house, on my own terms. But then the next day I was walking across the gravel airstrip surrounded by boreal forests to get to this cargo plane that would take me back to Yakutsk for my flight home the next day. I just was breathing like I had run the hundred-meter dash. My vision was closing in and I used to remember standing on this gravel with this amazing blue sky and these golden trees all around me. I just remember thinking, “This is not going to be the last thing I see. I am not going to die here.” In that moment I made the decision to stop trying to tough it out. I called for help and the team doctor the show’s producer came. I was so grateful we actually had a doctor with us (people joked about how excessive of that was, but it turned out it was really important) and we all decided it was safest for me to fly back to Yakutsk to get proper medical care. I went immediately to the hospital where I had a CT scan and ultrasound that showed that I had extensive deep vein thrombosis in both of my legs. Basically I was full of clots and clots had broken off and were lodged throughout my lungs and basically preventing oxygen from getting to my brain. This all happened so quickly. Suddenly the diagnosis was there and the nurses are taking my clothes, my electronics, my cell phone, my wedding ring — they’re taking everything. They tell me to get naked, get under a sheet. I get wheeled into the ICU of “Hospital Number 2” (which was always the joke, “What is hospital number one like?”). It all happened so quickly; I couldn’t even tell my husband what was happening. I had been texting him to let him know I was getting checked out, but don’t worry. And then you didn’t hear from me or anybody for twenty-four hours. He didn’t know if I was alive. I had no way of contacting him because they take all your stuff away in the ICU. I was treated for a week and in the ICU (hooked up to monitors with oxygen); I couldn’t sleep at night because of all the beeping and the lights and everything. They did surgery and put a metal filter in my inferior vena cava. I was getting regular injections every few hours of blood thinners to keep me alive when my body dissolved the clots. After about a week in the ICU and then another week and a vascular recovery ward, I was discharged from the hospital, spent 10 days in a local hotel and then an air ambulance transported me home, thanks to my fantastic international medical evacuation insurance provided by Discovery. It took months to get the strength back in my legs and to stop feeling like every twinge or cramp was another clot, to stop feeling like I was going to die any minute. The international insurance doctors that had been monitoring my case told me I was lucky that I survived because my clots were so extensive and they said that all the training I’ve done over the summer had probably saved my life. I’m still on blood thinners now to prevent a recurrence of the clots, though I’m getting close to being ready to stop treatments and have my filter removed. Things will be mostly back to normal. After that I’ll have to take heparin shots whenever I fly to the field or to conferences or to see family members. I can’t take hormonal birth control (which I was using to treat my adenomyosis) ever again; so no hormones in my future. But that near death experience made me approach so many things in my life differently — everything from my leadership style and my lab; to my relationships with friends and family; to my approach to my health; and to how I advocate for myself at my job. These experiences not only change your relationship with your research but they change everything about how you see yourself as a person and the people and things around you that you care about. So with that [laughs] fun anecdote, I’d like to introduce our guest today. This is going to be a heavy show; I don’t think there’s any way around it. Our guest is Dr Jane Willenbring, associate professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Jane is not only an amazing scientist (and I encourage you to check her really fantastic research), but on her own pathway to climate research she experienced a very different kind of field danger from Sarah and myself. Her master’s thesis adviser harassed and abused her and other women during several weeks of remote field work in Antarctica. Then in 2016 after she got tenure at Scripps, she filed a Title IX complaint with Boston University where her abuser, Dave Marchant, remains on paid leave over a year after BU rejected his appeal of their decision to terminate his employment. Jane, thank you so much for being here, for speaking up about your experience and for having this conversation with us today.

Jane Willenbring: Oh, sure. I’m so happy to talk to you.

Jacquelyn: I would love to hear about your experience and what that was like for you and how that affected your pathway to science. Whatever you’re willing to share with us, we’re here to listen.

Jane: Sure. I took a graduate fellowship position with Dave Marchant at BU in 1999. That fellowship was to be a master’s student and to travel to Antarctica and to understand how the East Antarctic Ice Sheet behaved during warm times in the past, like the Pliocene and other warm times. I was understandably really jazzed because I love doing field work and I was really, really excited to get to go to Antarctica. I went to BU and I started there in the fall, and started doing things that a usual master’s student does. Sometimes little weird things would happen, but I was like, “Oh gosh, things sure are different here in the big city.” [Laughs] I was moving from North Dakota State University where I did my undergrad to Boston, so that was a big shock. You become used to having certain people around you and their leadership styles and things like that, so all of the kind of odd things that happened I always just chalked up to, “Wow, things really are different here, not like I’m used to,” but nothing was too crazy. So I did all of the things that you do in preparation to go to Antarctica. Then in sort of the winter (because it’s the summer there), I went we got on the to go to LA and then to Auckland and Christchurch and then McMurdo. Then we’re in McMurdo for a little bit and then we went out into the field with a helicopter. And that’s when it started getting really wild and bad. I liken the whole experience to that saying that if you put a frog in water and slowly turn up the temperature, it’ll boil itself. But if you pop it into a pot of boiling water, it’ll hop right out. It was definitely that way for me. There was kind of a ramping up of inappropriate comments and things like that. Pretty soon it just got really, really bad. [Nervously laughing] I’ve realized I’m talking a lot now so let me know you have like questions about anything. But in the end, some of the worst things that I remember, it’s really impossible to remember every single little thing that happened. Everyday he would call me a bitch or the C-word, and whore was like his favorite word to use for me. Some of the time (especially at the end) he would also just become enraged and scream at me, tell me that I was stupid, a worthless piece of crap. At times he would also push me down and sit on me.

Sarah: Whoa. Oh my god.

Jane: I remember one particular where he pretended that he was going to spit on me, so he dribbled a little bit of spit out of his mouth and then he was planning apparently to pull it back up and it just dropped. [Laughing] So he spit on my face. Afterward he was like, “Oh, I didn’t mean to spit on you.” It’s like, “You pushed me down and we’re sitting on me. I couldn’t move. What does it matter if you spit on me or not at that point,” you know? It was just like something out of another century. Also I was walking up this hill, I remember, and he just grabbed the back of my backpack and just threw me down the mountain and I was kind of hurt because I was carrying a shovel and a pick ax together. I was like, “Ugh, goddammit, Dave,” and I was really hungry and tired. I just wanted to go home and eat. It had been a super long day of physical activity and I was hungry. He waited for me on the slope and then threw me down again. I just can’t explain the just sort of silent rage that I felt, because I’m actually a total badass. [Laughter] I’m a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and I enjoyed growing up sparring guys and beating up guys that were twice as big as me. There was never an issue of . . . in some ways I didn’t feel fear for my safety from that because I really thought that I could handle myself. But I just thought like a chess game (like three moves ahead) after I punched him in the face, what is going to happen to me then? It would have been really bad for my career. It would have put a guy who is with me in a super awkward spot because he had a family that he was supporting on his PhD salary. So he would have had to decide between sticking up for me and potentially being kicked out of the program. It was pretty heavy.

Sarah: Oh my gosh, Jane. I have rising just so much anger at this man who behaved so monstrously in that space to you.

Jane: Every time I talk about it, I have like when you are almost in a bike accident you have adrenaline that pushes blood to your fingertips. That’s how I feel every time I talk about it. It still hasn’t gone away. It’s crazy.

Sarah: I kind of have that feeling too because I have my own experiences of harassment and sexual violence, and the body remembers when the brain revisits these ideas; the body knows and it doesn’t feel safe. I guess my one, one thing that I wanted to turn towards and ask you about is: there was this physical violation and psychological abuse and putting you in danger; there’s a lot of things that happened. There’s this other thing though that that I wonder what the internal experience was for you. You were welcomed into a space — into an opportunity that looked like a great opportunity to put you in a place professionally where you were going to do this really exciting, unique work. And yet in reality, the unique work (the amazing opportunity) was degraded by the fact that you were also predated upon by this monster in this space. How did you come out thinking about the work that you did? The scientific work?

Jane: That was kind of a sad part of it because I was just thinking, you know, I’d heard other people talk about how they went with their advisers to Antarctica and how awesome it was and how they learned so much. I just never had that with him. So it was really unfortunate and kind of a lost opportunity to put it super mildly. But I remember just craving any opportunity to learn something about where we were, what we were looking at. There was one particular time where we found some volcanic ash in a moraine. That would make it really easy to date the moraine and the ice position because volcanic is an easy way of, of getting an age on something. He was scooping out the ash with a spoon or a little thing that looked like a spoon and he said, “Come here, take a look at this.” My thought was, “Oh my gosh, this is amazing thing,” because I had not learned anything the whole time. And then when I like got really close to like see these tiny little shards of glass, essentially, which were the little ash crystals, he blew it in my face. I had already had really bad ice blindness from the UV radiation shining off the ice; my eyes were already just totally stinging the majority of my waking time. So getting glass shards in your eye, even in the best of times, [laughing] is not particularly pleasant. I just remember that kind of thing. It’s not just not getting the opportunity, but it’s like thinking that you are and then not getting it.

Jacquelyn: Like the Lucy pulling the football out, right?

Jane: Yeah, exactly. Just to be mean.

Jacquelyn: It’s striking to me how he used the landscape; he weaponized the remoteness and the harshness of that place against you. This is such a dangerous environment, anyway. Aside from how messed up it is to treat people the way he treated people, to do it in such a dangerous place is just such an extra layer of flagrant disregard for your safety and your personhood, right? I can’t even imagine how somebody could do that in general, but then to be so preoccupied with tormenting someone when you should be thinking about the safety of the team and you should be thinking about making sure everybody is well fed and hydrated and taken care of and doesn’t have snow blindness . . . I’m just like floored by that kind of treatment.

Jane: There was a lot of machismo. Sort of thinking like he would always insist that people call him “Shack” after Shackleton.

Sarah: Oh my god.

Jacquelyn: Jesus. So gross.

Jane: And it’s just so stupid because he’s not Shackleton. [Laugh]

Sarah: No.

Jane: And so he would set up his camp so that it would be really sort of unproductive in weird ways. We’d have one-pot meals and he wouldn’t take care of people’s health. He would try to take them out the first day and just totally break them — take them on the longest (he would call them) “death marches” as possible. It’s so unproductive, even without the meanness of it. It’s just an unproductive thing to do because then someone could hurt themselves if someone’s not used to hiking, and then they’d have to go back. Then you’d have one less person and you’d have to waste helicopter hours (just being pragmatic about it) to have them come out of the field.

Jacquelyn: Well, there’s two things. Well, so many things but I’ll just pick two. One, Shackleton died of a heart attack in the field, so I feel like just in terms of “Call me Shack”, you know? Okay, buddy, I guess if that’s what you want. But number two, I want to talk about that macho culture of field work and how that adds risk. So field work is going to be risky anyway. Working near a volcano or working on the ice or working on the ocean; there are inherent risks to that. But then there’s this extra really nasty element of this machismo, right? It’s all about the first descents or eating really crappy food or hacking your way through the jungle and “I don’t use bug spray” and “I don’t care about ticks” or whatever. This attitude just carries over into so many different aspects of science and it leaves so many people out. But I just love what you said, Jane, about how it’s also really unproductive. I’ve been in the field where people have insisted on getting minimal sleep and eating really bad food and just skimping on things that really just probably are making the entire expedition less functional. You end up getting less data. It just undermines everything, this sort of weird like macho attitude.

Jane: Yeah. I couldn’t agree more. I always think about that in terms of now I have a group and I think I get maybe eighty percent of the way to being a good mentor and advisor just by saying I’m not going to do the things that people did when I was a trainee. But I was just thinking about like the opposite of a macho experience. A male postdoc was in the field with me and he was digging a hole and he cut his hand on a sharp side of the shovel. It was really bleeding a lot. I happen to have a maxi pad in my backpack. So I put it around his hand and he was like, “Wow, this is really nice. I was just going to ignore it.” [Laughter] This is the perfect thing for it. I’m thinking like how not macho that was and how it was better for everyone.

Jacquelyn: Yep.

Sarah: I love that.

Jacquelyn: That also makes me think too of when you start to prepare for an expedition or someone asks you to go on an expedition and you start to just probe a little bit just to get a sense of how much they’ve thought of things like this. “Have you thought about safety? Have you thought about how will I menstruate in the field? How do we handle that basic hygiene/safety issues?” It’s really telling when people have never thought of it. I was actually invited to go on this expedition to Heard Island, which would have been incredible. Very few people who have been there. It has no known invasive species and it’s a subantarctic island. I would’ve been on this ship of this weird group of people. They were the . . . what is it? The ham radio operators? Apparently they love collecting locations so they’ll help fund expeditions to get people to certain locations so that like all the hobby ham operator people can like connect with you and then they get little certificates. It’s like Pokemon, but for the radio. So anyway, there’s this expedition and it was going to be for ham radio operators, but they wanted scientists to come and the ship they were able to get was like some South African Navy training ship. I was like, “Cool, so are there going to be any women there?” They’re like, “No.” And so it was going to be me and a grad student, the only women. I was like, “Alright, how have you thought about our safety and our health?” And they’re like, “What do you mean?” I was like, “Have you ever been with women in the field? Have you thought about this at all?” And they just hadn’t. And so I said, “No,” to this opportunity because it was just so clear that none of the people organizing it were thinking about this experience in the same way that I was and that was just not compatible. But it meant saying, “No,” to what could have been an incredible opportunity. It’s like you said earlier, Jane, about just feeling like you have these trade offs between your career and your safety. Being forced in the moment to make that decision is so fundamentally unfair because not all people have to worry about it. And so then you get these guys that don’t have to make those decisions; they don’t have to think about this stuff and it’s just one more way in which they kind of get ahead.

Jane: Yeah, that’s definitely true. That’s so good that you said that for your student, too, that you actually made a specific point of it. That’s great. I remember when I was doing my PhD in the Arctic we were in Labrador and the Torngat Mountains. I remember I did that thing where you take birth control longer than you should so that you don’t have your period, you know? Because I was really worried about polar bears because I’d heard (to this day, I don’t know if that’s a myth or not) that polar bears are attracted to the smell of blood. But anyway, I was freaked out about it and I was just like, “I’m not dealing with this.” And so I was doing that, but then I realized like that meant that I was going to run out at some point because I didn’t have enough to go the entire field season. And so I remember that this float plane that was supposed to come pick us up was just like, “Oh, the float plane decided not to come.” And I was asking them, “Well do you know when it might be?” [Laughs] We didn’t have communication with anyone outside of this area. It was just like, “Oh, there must be a weather problem.” And then just suddenly I was just like, “Oh my gosh, we might be here for who knows how long?” If they had a weather problem, that could happen for like a week. You start thinking about all these things like, “Well, how do you know they’re just delayed? We don’t actually know anything.” And so I was just imagining. It worked out (they came the next day) but I was just thinking, “I have not planned for this sudden they’re not picking us up thing when there are baited polar bears all over just waiting for me to run out of [Laughing] the hormone part of my pill cycle.”

Jacquelyn: That also makes me think of that sort of story about how NASA thought Sally Ride needed a hundred tampons for one week space, just to be on the safe side. [Laughter] We either have no concept whatsoever about a reasonable approach like field menstruation or menstruating at work; I guess being in spaces like being in the field.

Jane: I hadn’t heard that story. That’s hilarious.

Sarah: That’s funny.

Jacquelyn: On one hand you want to be like, “Thanks for thinking about me, NASA, but not a hundred tampons.” Maybe I would need a hundred tampons because of my adenomyosis.

Sarah: I wanted to get back to this like Shackleton thing because I think it is really worth mocking and revealing to be fundamentally bankrupt, and demonstrating like what a ego-driven jackass this guy was in his own theater of his mind. I think this behavior in the field around exploration and around knowledge-generation is connected then to the tropes around who brokers knowledge in the culture writ large. Right? We have these tropes around this idea in the culture that the place that knowledge comes from is the great man with all the answers — the great man who is elevated, the scientific genius, one that’s at the tip of the spear, who is the brave leader and the Shackleton in the storyline. Ultimately we all know that that’s actually not how science is done. Science has done through massive collective action and instrumentation and documentation, institutions, training, relationships, collaborations. That’s where science is actually done, but the trope is there’s one genius in his lab with all the answers. It’s so frustrating because Dave Marchant used that trope and probably behaved in line with that trope in order to gain power and influence people, and to socially signal signal to other people that he was the power broker in that environment and in that social setting. But it’s a joke; it’s not a real thing. It’s as much of a joke as any other kind of like play acting in that space. But we don’t reveal it to be a joke and theater; it’s sort of socially unpalatable to reveal these egos as being so fragile and really on a foundation of nothing. I guess I don’t have a question around this but I wonder if that’s like resonant with you, Jane, around this trope of the great man in that space.

Jane: Yeah. I mean, the crazy thing is that if you asked a whole bunch of people in his field, “Name the one Antarctic researcher who was an ego-driven maniac in the theater of his mind,” they would all (which is a great line by the way) I think say him. It was sort of a well-known thing even among like people who make decisions and things like that he was like this, so that was kind of crazy. But then I totally agree with your point. When people are thinking about, “But then we wouldn’t have had all of this knowledge if he hadn’t done all that work.” And to me the real question or the counterfactual of that is not, “What if he had never been there?” It’s like, “What if a researcher who was an effective and productive mentor and colleague has produced in that same time with those same opportunities without stepping on people’s ideas.” That’s the real question. You aren’t losing something; you’re potentially gaining something even better by replacing these people with others.

Jacquelyn: How much more would we know if those people were lifting people up and building instead of tearing everyone else down?

Jane: Yeah, exactly. All of the research says that not only is having sort of a diverse group around you the right thing to do from an ethical standpoint, but actually from a pragmatic standpoint also produces more research. And so if you have one person who doesn’t allow ideas from anyone else and who actively stifles ideas from trainees and people around him. How is that giving you the best science? It seems like it’s not.

Jacquelyn: Right.

Sarah: I completely agree. And that really brings in the chain of power around him because of all the ways that his behavior was looked away from or excused or ignored because it would have caused too much trouble. Don’t want to rock that boat. Oftentimes, the example of his behavior is not just a story about he as an individual; it’s also a story about a comprehensive system that allowed for his behavior to happen in these elite, remote and dangerous settings. It indicts so many levels of organization. From my position, it indicts many many levels of organization and it shows you like the scale of work that needs to be done inside of institutions and funding agencies to really center and listened to the violation of individuals and then the collateral damage of that violation inside of knowledge-generating communities. Again, my hair can be on fire very quickly over these issues because (just like you said) this is an issue around the efficacy of basic science.

Jacquelyn: Which is why I love that in the recent (I believe it was at the National Academy of Science’s report on harassment) they talk about this as a research ethics issue; which is like finally, yes, we’re framing this and then in a way that maybe people will understand that it’s not just about diversity for diversity’s sake. It’s literally a violation of research ethics to be abusive to trainees, to have these structures that keep certain people out of science. It goes to the very core of research and that point. I think it’s around this criticism that we don’t have to care about people’s safety or well-being as long as the data are good, and the person can be an asshole as long as they do good science. This just gives the lie to that because we know that science has compromised when you have people who are abusive or who basically abrogate their responsibility to provide a supportive and safe research atmosphere.

Jane: Yeah. It’s really kind of crazy. And I think one of the really wonderful things that has come out since . . . I mean a lot of people were working on this that I didn’t know about for a very long time, obviously. But I think it hasn’t been on people’s radar for a long time and now there’s a conversation that just wasn’t existing before. I honestly thought when I came to B.U. with this complaint that they would be happy to know about it. I was so surprised [laughing] that they weren’t. It was kind of a crazy experience. I also thought that I was in like the 0.000001% of people who had to deal with this kind of thing. So much has come about since 2017, I think, is like the big time when people started switching about how they spoke about these kinds of things. It was a big shock to me too, how often it happened, even though it had happen to me.

Sarah: Well, if this conversation had existed ten-fifteen years ago when I had my first field experiences as an undergrad and was taken into the field by a senior male scientist (my undergraduate advisor) and was propositioned by him an international flight and eight hour drive and a half an hour walk into the jungle. That’s when it came out of his mouth, once I was completely isolated. And then when I rejected his advances, he then left the research team and left a group of women in a really dangerous place. I didn’t have the language and there was no conversation in the culture writ large to really understand what was happening to me. And so even though this conversation may feel like this is a home run, like we all know that this is wrong, there is something that’s deeply revolutionary about us getting these issues on the table. Because it means like for any undergraduate student out there who’s thinking about going to the field, hopefully there will be some glimmer in their mind of, “Well, wait a second, I should be safe if I go there and is anybody looking out for my safety?” Because like for me, no one was looking out for my safety. I was collateral damage and the entire system around me was very willing to like look away from that collateral damage.

Jacquelyn: So I feel like there’s so much to deconstruct here but before we wrap up, one thing I wanted to ask each of you is that all three of us have had these close personal encounters with the risks of being in the field for various reasons. That risk can be to our physical or emotional health, even our lives. We all work in climate, we all do communication. I’m just wondering, how does it feel to each of you to have people denigrate what we do, to call it a hoax, to say that we’re making up global warming to get grant money for our own sort of self aggrandizement, etc? I know I have a really visceral reaction to this when I think about my near-death experience or my colleague who was a climate researcher who died. So do you think that the public would think differently about climate science if they had a better sense of what we put ourselves through to get these data? I’m just wondering if you have the same reaction that I have to this, because when people start telling me that we’re making this up, I’m just like, “You have no idea. I do not do this to my like myself just for fun.”

Jane: Yeah, that’s a great point. I hadn’t thought about kinda like follow a scientist around. I feel like you had probably though try to make it as safe as possible for them in the field. Right? So it might have the opposite effect where it’s like, “They get to like hike around all day outside.” I feel like maybe it would be better just to have them do geochemistry column experiments. “You pulled an all-nighter watching things drip out of column to catch the isotopes on the other side?” [Laughing] They would just think that that’s the most bizarre thing in the world and would be like, “Yeah, they really don’t pay you that much for that.” There is a big disconnect between like thinking about some sort of bizarre life that they think that I lead compared to the actual life. There’s no administrator setting up my schedule. People always think of that.

Jacquelyn: I wish there was.

Jane: I’m just like, “Are you kidding me?” I do so much for myself, it’s crazy.

Sarah: Jacqueline, I hear what you’re saying around the visceral response, the anger to being told that our life sacrifice and work is a joke or a political hoax. And then when you add in like all of the physical risks and the wounding, the culture that we are all wading in to try to make it a safer and more civil and more loving culture. Science is not just a career, it’s a calling, right? A calling to learn and care about the world and I’m going to be damned if I’m not allowed to care. I will stand by my role of caring for others and caring for the world. It’s exactly why I’m in this position and it’s exactly why I’ve been willing to take risks and to continue to put myself in positions that are professionally and personally risky. Those are risks that are not just born by myself, but born by my family and borne by my loved ones. There’s a village behind me as I do this work as well. I want to shine a light right on all of our good work in the world. There’s so much dedicated, earnest, loving, thoughtful, kind effort out there done by scientists to help steward the world. These are some of the best people that I know and they don’t deserve the kind of treatment that they are constantly being delivered from the highest level of public organization down to internet rage.

Jacquelyn: Yeah. It’s like my colleague Gordon Hamilton didn’t fall into a crevasse for a joke, right, for a hoax. I’m dealing with my own, ”Okay, fine. You can say I was on television and that was my that was my reward for almost dying.” Sure. Fine. Whatever.

Sarah: No, no, no.

Jacquelyn: But I also am thirty-eight and I will probably never get to have a baby now because of the delays from grad school and the choices that I made because I thought that that was the right thing to do for my career. And so all of these people just have no sense. Some people have no sense of the risks and the choices and the sacrifices and just the trauma that some of us carry to do the work that we do because it is (as you say) a calling. And I think that’s also how some of us can be persistent and resilient in the face of just incredibly terrible behavior and treatment and the dangers and the risks and the things that we see. Also even be beyond that, some people don’t make it. Some people are forced to quit. They decide, “Screw this trade-off and I’m not going to have to choose between my health or my family and my work.” And that’s a completely valid response to that trauma, also.

Sarah: Absolutely. But it shows us how radical is to turn towards each other and say, “Hey, I really care about what’s going on with you. I care.” Can you safely and comfortably menstruate in the field? Yes, that is on the list for caring about in terms of how we do this work together. There is some really deep radical aspects of turning towards each other’s wounding and bearing witness and standing together.

Jacquelyn: This is a good place I think to wrap up actually. Jane, Sarah, I think a lot about how I have been able to make it through with support networks. I mean even when you go through an experience like any of us have gone through, you find out who people really are. You see the people who were demanding I answer emails from a Russian ICU and then there were people who were calling the provost of my university saying, “You’d better give her an extension on her tenure package because this is completely unacceptable.” There were people advocating for me behind the scenes and I had no idea, and then there were people who were just totally showing me their true face. I felt like I got a really good sense of just how, yeah, some people were jerks, but I have a much better sense of how supported I am having gone through that experience. So Jane and Sarah, did those people come out of the woodwork? As you’ve gone through these experiences, do you have maybe a sisterhood or maybe you’ve had some amazing male allies who have come out and just shown you that they can be trusted and that they support you? I mean, I feel like the support networks are so critical for resilience.

Jane: Well, I was going to take it in a different way. I think it’s awesome that you had that experience and then instead of just like bottling it up or not learning from it or anything, you’re actually talking about it and trying to make things better for others. If people had done that for the last decades, we would be in so much better shape. But people just said, “Wow, that sucked, I’m glad it’s over. Anyway, I moved on without learning from it or teaching others how to be better.” And I think that is something that I won’t applaud cause it’ll be weird with the mic, but I was hearing you talk about how you had that experience and now you want to talk about it with others, and I think that’s awesome. I hope that lots of people think about how their past experiences shape their actions in the future.

Jacquelyn: Cuz that’s how it’s gonna get better.

Sarah: Totally, absolutely. Jane, that’s such a wise sentiment — the role that we play in lifting ourselves out of subjugation by telling our own stories to ourselves to begin with. So many of us put our stories in a box and close them and say, “I can’t revisit this because there’s nothing I can do.” But the real like power in revisiting and owning our stories and not silencing ourselves is that we pave the way for people in the future and people who are in this career right now (but maybe in less senior positions than we are). That that’s a real power that we can use on a day to day basis to change the world. And that’s kind of what we’re doing right now too.

Jane: I know, isn’t it great?

Jacquelyn: I mean, I don’t want to say thank you for being a part of that because you shouldn’t have had to be in this position in the first place. But having lived through what we’ve all lived through in our own ways. I’m just really honored to know both of you and the ways in which we take our experiences and look forward to basically make things better for the people who come after us.

Jane: Yea, thanks so much for having me on. It was so great to talk to both of you.

Jacquelyn: Yeah. And likewise, thank you. And I hope that asshole gets fired.

Sarah: Oh my God.

Jane: Someday! Last week I think was four hundred days since they announced that he didn’t get the appeal.

Sarah: Yeah, they really have to think on it, you know, really just take their time. What’s is the moral thing to do?

Jane: Oh, I know. I am an academia, right? I know how long it takes to form a committee and for that committee to get together and for that committee to pass on a report for someone to sign. All of those things can be done in 365 days. Jacquelyn: Definitely

Sarah: Indeed.

Jane: All those steps. So the longer it goes after 365 days, I’m just like, “Come on people.”

Jacquelyn: You get tenure in less time than that. The tenure process doesn’t take that long

Jane: Exactly. Think how much other stuff they did during that time.

Jacquelyn: Well, I hope that there’s a positive outcome soon and if our listeners want to write some letters about that, then that’s something to do for sure.

Jacquelyn: So I think we’ll end there. So there’s your Warm Regards homework, everyone, for the week is to send an email to BU. And instead of our usual segment on the unexpected science of climate change, it felt more appropriate to wrap up our discussion by sharing some of the research on fieldwork safety. This is an active area of research; people are actually going out there and trying to quantify the prevalence of this. In 2014, Kate Clancy, Robin Nelson, Julienne Rutherford and Katie Hinde published the Survey of Academic Field Experiences (or SAFE) trainees report on harassment and assault. They found that 71% of respondees (both men and women) reported being harassed or assaulted in the field. Women were more likely to be harassed by people on the team who were senior to them while men were more likely to be harassed by their peers. The striking thing about this is not only the prevalence (71% — that’s nearly three quarters of respondents), but also the fact that these harassers and abusers weren’t locals. This is not an inherent danger of going out into the field and running into people from different cultures or people who are taking advantage of you in the field because of a crime of opportunity. These are your colleagues, your mentors, your friends. I just want to applaud Kate, Robin, Julienne and Katie for really shedding a light on this problem. This paper has spawned a number of other similar initiatives for different people in different fields to really look at this and to tackle it head on. I think it really played a role in the recent National Academy of Science’s report on the prevalence of sexual harassment and abuse in academia and the sciences in particular.

Jacquelyn: So with that, I encourage you to check out that research, learn more about it and (if you are someone who is a decider in your workplace) to think about the ways in which you can make your workplace safer, and your experiences and the experiences of your team more just and fair. Warm Regards is a labor of love. We are always looking for sponsors to help us grow as a show and to sustain the effort of the amazing volunteers who help run this podcast. If you have something that you would like us to share with our community, please reach out to us. We’d love to hear from you. We also love to hear from our listeners. You can follow us on Twitter

@OurWarmRegards and email ideas and feedback to OurWarmRegards@gmail.com. You can listen to all of our past episodes on your favorite podcasting service, including iTunes, Stitcher, and SoundCloud. Warm Regards is produced by Eric Mack and Justin Schell. Joe Stormer writes our transcripts and Katherine Peinhardt is our social media maven. My cohost today with Sarah Myhre and I’m Jacquelyn Gill. From all of us at Warm Regards, thanks for letting us into your head.

[Instrumental theme music]

Written by

A podcast about life on the warming planet. Hosted by @JacquelynGill and @DrRamBio. Produced by @612to651

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store