By Courtney Doucet
At the first “HerStory” panel discussion of the year on Feb. 13, three female doctoral geoscience students at Baylor answered questions on the theme, “What is it like to be a minority in the geosciences?” The panel was hosted by the Baylor University Department of Geosciences and the Baylor chapter of the Association for Women Geoscientists.Master’s degree student Toluwani Soares from The Woodlands (concentrating her studies in energy geosciences), PhD student Zequn Wu from Beijing, China (paleoclimatology) and PhD student Sanjukta Dhar from Durgapur, India (geochemistry) answered questions posed to them by the audience.
The three women’s research interests are diverse. Soares models the growth of algae in the hopes that it will someday be harvested for biofuel. Wu studies the paleoclimatology of the central Great Plains of America, while Dhar studies the importance of microorganisms in the ocean and how they relate to the environment and climate.
The first question for the panelists asked how they decided to study geoscience. Wu and Dhar shared that they have familial connections with the field.
“This is like a family tradition in my family. My parents are geologists, so I grew up in that environment,” Wu said.“My story is similar to Wu’s because my sister is also [a] geoscience [major]. I actually had two options –– I either wanted to pursue physics or geoscience,” Dhar said. “My sister was already doing her major in geoscience while I was in school — she would go to field trips, get samples and she would teach me. She’d give me little bits of information of how these rocks were formed, so I started having an interest in the subject.”
Soares said her family has been a source of motivation for her along her journey to pursue geoscience. When asked about the relationships she has built with those she deems as mentors, she credited her parents, professors and an unlikely source of mentorship –– Reddit, an internet site that collects news and social media content.
“I feel pretty blessed in the realm of mentors. For sure my parents [were mentors]. I had a lot of encouragement from my parents,” Soares said. “I had professors in undergrad that I could just talk to –– they gave advice about where to apply. Also, in applying to grad school I feel like Reddit was a mentor. I used a lot of Reddit. Reddit was super helpful.”
The panelists also talked about the struggles of being apart from family and friends who live long distances away.
“I’m from China, my family is in Beijing. I have a husband here, and he’s doing his PhD in Kansas, but we don’t have much time to stay together,” Wu said. “But you know what? Crying for your mommy is normal in grad school. Yeah, I miss them.”
“It’s more difficult for my parents [in India] because both their daughters are on a different continent,” Dhar said. “It has been a challenge, but when I came here, I started learning a lot of stuff because the culture is so different in a good way. It makes it worth it.”
Wu and Dhar also detailed the difficulties they said they have had with overcoming language barriers in America and in the geoscience field.
“The most difficult thing is the language problem that I have,” Wu said. “I learned all of my geoscience knowledge in Chinese, so it’s really hard sometimes.”
Dhar said she was unfamiliar with certain terms that are common in America.
“Indian English is very different from American English. I had to learn some phrases,” Dhar said. “I didn’t know want ‘turning in’ meant, so when someone said you had to turn in the assignment, I hadn’t come across that. I learned that submitting an assignment is what turning in means.”
When the women were asked why they chose Baylor as the place to further their academic careers, Soares said she was drawn to the university for three reasons — research, family and community.
“I loved the diversity of research options. Even if I wasn’t going to pursue the project that I’m pursuing right now, there were others that were really interesting to me,” Soares said. “I visited a lot, and I liked the people. Also, I’m based in Texas, so Texas was a good choice for me. And my brother goes here so I wanted to be here.”
Wu said she was enticed to Baylor by the university’s history, as well as by a paleoclimatology project headed by Dr. Steven Forman, professor of geosciences.
“I wanted to go to a school that had a long history. I like the campus here. Also, I figured out the project that Dr. Forman has, and I’m really interested in that project,” Wu said.
The HerStory panel was the first of more to come throughout the Spring 2019 semester. More information on future panels can be found on the Baylor Geosciences Twitter page.