Showcasing female STEM superheroes: In Alexa Loste’s words
The 17-year-old student who calls both Germany and the Philippines home was selected as a finalist in this year’s “Champions of Science®—Superheroes of STEM” essay writing contest. In her profile of Dr. Hope Jahren, Alexa Loste explores not only the advancements the American scientist has made in geochemistry and geobiology, but also the strides she’s made in stripping away unjust stereotypes surrounding women and girls in science.
After reading Jahren’s 2016 deeply personal memoir, “Lab Girl,” Loste felt she had a much deeper, non-sugarcoated glimpse into what a career in STEM might encompass—blood, sweat, tears and all. In addition to her award-winning research on fossil forests, Jahren has been lauded for her efforts to encourage girls to pursue scientific endeavors. In her essay, Loste doesn’t shy away from exploring the darker, deeply personal struggles Jahren faced; instead, she recognizes that the scientist’s mental illness is merely one component of “the brilliance of her mind”—and one that perhaps makes her even more of a hero.
In the essay that follows, Alexa Loste beautifully captures the essence of what makes Dr. Hope Jahren a superhero of STEM.
Variation is a prerequisite for evolution. If every nitrogenous base were perfectly paired with the existing DNA template, every version of a gene would be exactly the same. There would be no distinction between alleles from Mom versus alleles from Dad. A child would simply be a clone. In a static environment with infinite resources, this would pose no problem at all. In the ever-changing, dynamic biosphere we call home, no variation means no adaptation, and the introduction of a new external factor could mean the end of a species.
Fortunately, flaws exist within the system, and mistakes allow for variation. Say a plant finds itself faced with a disruption to its environment, such as increasing temperatures. An imperfection in its coding—that is, a mutation—that enables it to uptake available heavier isotopes of oxygen would allow it to outcompete plants with the “original” gene. This is how the Metasequoia in the Arctic middle Eocene flourished, despite the deciduousness working to its disadvantage.
Just to be able to study the universe around us at a macro and micro level ... I find super amazing.
Hope Jahren was born with the same inquisitive, scientifically-inclined mind as her father, a professor of physics and earth sciences in a small rural town in Minnesota--but a double X-chromosome housed this brain in the body of a young girl. She longed to grow into a replicate of her father’s identity as “the scientist”. Lacking the external male phenotype of her father may have worked to her disadvantage, but as a recombinant she also possessed the perseverance and will of her mother. Growing up, she was not nurtured the way her brothers were to play scientist, to work with tools or cars or rockets. Yet, she had her roots in the right places, tendrils dug into a deep-seated passion for science. She spent evenings toying around with beakers and slide rules, huddled beneath benches in her father’s laboratory. Armed with the curiosity to inquire, the strength to persevere, and the will to grow, she flourished.
Environmental pressures separate the wheat from the chaff. A Metasequoia carrying a beneficial mutation would not appear to fair much better off than its counterparts until temperatures begin to rise. It is by these disruptions that certain traits (and the corresponding genes) are selected for, while others are selected against. When competition for nutrients becomes more selective, only survivors go on to reproduce their genes, causing the shares of the gene pool to shift towards traits that result in higher reproductive success.
Jahren followed where her mother would have taken root before her as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota; but where the latter had failed to secure enough money to afford her tuition, she was adamant to keep herself afloat. Her mother’s scientific pursuit had ended early on, having been choked in the educational environment that only catered to men. She moved home, got married, and bore children, bidding goodbye to what may have been. A generation later, Jahren continued to grow towards her light. She traversed a repertoire of odd jobs, including an emotionally draining stint as an assistant at a hospital pharmacy. Then, she secured a position working in a professor’s research laboratory, where her engagement in the sciences led her to pursue a PhD in soil science at the University of California, Berkeley.
The journey towards the completion of her PhD was littered with obstacles, fears, and uncertainties. When Jahren had been researching on reconstructing temperatures during the Holocene, she had been confident in her methodology, based on a crystallization process in hackberry pits. However, much to her surprise, her chosen tree samples did not bloom during the summer she went to collect data. Her frustration at not being able to carry out the experiment as planned was short-lived; instead, she began to approach the problem from another perspective. By studying the correlation between the isotopic composition of hackberry and its environmental water, she developed a novel technique to retroactively predict paleoclimate. Instead of surrendering to obstacles before her, Jahren treated every setback as an opportunity to think innovatively.
When Jahren had completed her PhD, the next phase of her life as a scientist began, throughout which she would once again be met with a unique set of challenges. She established her first lab as an assistant professor in Georgia Institute of Technology. The research she had begun during her dissertation into carbon isotopic analysis techniques was the first of its kind. As a young scientist with little established credentials, skepticism and reluctance came from her peers. Though the scientific method may be perfectly objective, scientific culture is not always so. Jahren’s experience of the politics, discrimination, and biases within the scientific field exacerbated her financial struggles as her grant proposals were subjected to peer review. However, with every challenge Jahren faced, with every pressure that could have selected against her, she managed to find a way to adapt and grow towards new ideas and new opportunities.
Jahren moved to Johns Hopkins University after her professorship at Georgia Tech. With her background in isotopic techniques, she analyzed fossilized Metasequoia from 45 million years ago in Canada’s Axel Heiberg Island. In doing so, she was able to estimate the precipitation, temperature, and humidity of the Arctic during the Eocene era. With her team, she discovered the second major methane hydrate release event.
At a time when science is increasingly dominated by futurists and forward-thinkers, research on things other than genetic engineering or artificial intelligence often lies in the shadows. Yet, how else are we to understand our time and place in this universe if not through discovering what came before us? Natural science is the lens by which we peer at the physical universes at every scale of magnitude, externally and internally, at every point in the past, present, and future. By studying the past, we come to investigate what and how things are the way they are. We come to understand the mutations that allow one species to diverge from another. We come to appreciate how a tree can make its own space in this universe, adapt to environmental pressures, branch out, survive, stabilize, and grow.
Jahren’s work then caught the attention of the media which soon after led to her reception of the Donath Medal from the Geological Society of America as well as the Macelwane Medal from the American Geophysical Union, making her one of only four scientists to win both honors and the first female to have ever done so. In 2006, Popular Science named her one of the top ten “Brilliant Scientists”. She was also named one of Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” in 2016. She was now one of the most renowned scientists in her field; the work she completed widely accepted and praised for its innovativeness.
The tallest Metasequoia towers majestically at forty-one meters high. At seventy-one years old, it will appear as though it is infinite--that it always has been and always will be, and we might struggle to imagine that it could ever be any less so. What we do not see when we stand before a mature Metasequoia are the terrible winters it had to endure. What we do not see are the poisons, bacteria, fungi that have threatened to consume it inside and out. We do not see that just like any other tree, this paragon of plant specimen was once a little sapling that did not know if it would make it to spring once more to bear fruit.
[Hope Jahren] openly and transparently talks about the issues people find difficult to talk about—the taboos such as sexual harassment, inequal pay and all the other injustices that serve as barriers that weed out people who would otherwise have such great potential in these fields.
Just as plants compete for limited minerals in an environment full of other hungry organisms, the life of a scientist is ridden with the pressure of securing grants to support their research. In Jahren’s line of study of paleobiology, the difficulty of this task is heightened due to the extremely limited funding available for “curiosity-driven research”, in which no “practical” output is produced. Considering the expenses of purchasing materials and maintaining equipment, the amount of money received by a paleobiologist (if they even manage to successfully secure a grant) is hardly enough to pay a living wage to any staff working in the laboratory. Throughout Jahren’s career, she had developed a close relationship with her lab technician, both as scientists working in the lab and friends as close as siblings outside. There were moments when her financial struggles due to the measly amount of grant money had not even afforded enough to provide for their basic necessities. At these most vulnerable moments, she questioned whether she should give up her scientific pursuits entirely.
In addition to the typical hardships faced by scientists, as a female, Jahren struggled through the oppressive environments that could arise from patriarchal attitudes. One night when working in the xray diffraction laboratory, anticipating encounters with the unnerving gaze of a senior male researcher, she kept a ratcheting wrench in her back pocket. Her commitment to her research outweighed the discomfort; but for many young females in science, or in any workplace for that matter, being targeted by men who feel entitled to sexual relations can mean the end of a woman’s career. On top of that, women like Jahren can feel societal pressures to mold their lives into some arbitrary “normal": to get married by a certain age, to be domestically adept, to care for children. Often in science, work and life becomes a balancing act when scientific work becomes one’s life--and on the evening of her first major discovery, Jahren felt this loneliness more vividly than ever before.
The conflicts Jahren confronted existed not only externally, but more so within herself. Her personal battle with mental health punctuated her career with episodes of mania and psychological breakdowns. For days, she would be rendered defunct by the hysterical feelings overwhelming her mind and body. Paranoia and hallucinations would leave her incapable of rational thought. Food, water, and sleep appeared unnecessary. Tortured by her thoughts, she existed in a cycle of unreality, euphoria, and pain. What time and again saved her from herself were people who cared for her, who ensured that she got the help that she needed when the brilliance of her mind did not warrant immunity from its weakness and tendency to fail her.
Jahren is accomplished, but imperfect. Even the tallest Metasequoia had to brave tougher climates at some point in its life. Yet the flaws that paved her way to success in no way detract from her achievements. Vulnerability to harsh environment speaks not of weakness, but of strength. Trees were not made to stand static and indestructible. It is in their ability to sway to the wind that they showcase a natural adaptability. Indeed, when the wind carries their fruit-bearing seeds away, life can spread beyond them.
In her autobiographical memoir Lab Girl, Jahren traces her journey towards becoming a scientist, without sugarcoating. She describes in vivid detail the arduousness of the path she had chosen for herself, as she was tested by the environmental pressures of a male-dominated field, as well as the financial and personal fights she fought to win. She details the various means by which she was able to overcome these challenges, with the support of those dear to her, and her own personal will. Perhaps most importantly, Jahren does not hide her vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and flaws which play an integral part in building who she is today. Jahren shares her story, in all its rawness and authenticity. With every paperbound copy that falls into an aspiring scientist’s hand, the wind takes a tiny seed of potential and cradles it to where it may grow.
Jahren’s ability to connect with a wide audience is not limited to heavily-polished writing bound into three hundred pages. In fact, one of the more spontaneous movements she initiated that went on to touch more lives than she would have ever expected began on her Twitter account. With a quick photo of her plain, bare fingernails wrapped around a test tube, she unintentionally began a science-centric parallel to Seventeen Magazine’s #ManicureMonday. She spurred on her followers to post pictures of what their hands looked like when working on science, to show that though not all hands may be as picture-perfect as others, all hands are capable of discovery. The movement went viral, and Jahren was met with glimpses of the hands of several other men and women in science, whose photos would in turn serve as a reminder of what our hands are capable of, with or without a manicure.
The ultimate, biological goal of a living organism is to perpetuate the information within it that makes it what it is. Jahren’s body of achievements in the lab in itself is enough to turn heads; however, it is her capacity to clearly communicate the experiences behind these achievements that make her truly remarkable. By allowing the winds to take her seeds where they will, she surrenders her stories to the world and allows it to make of them what it will. She takes the risk of exposing herself and making herself vulnerable to attack. She takes the chance that perhaps some of these seeds may take root and perpetuate the message her life communicates.
In sharing her story, Jahren catalyzes the beginnings of so many others. Prior to reading the book, my perception of the scientific community was narrowed. Journal articles were merely overly-detailed works that would hardly mean anything to most, scientific research was a career for only the most prodigious of geniuses, and trees were just trees. Lab Girl transformed my perspectives. Through it, I began to glimpse the amount of blood, sweat, and tears behind every fancy-looking paper. I acquainted myself with scientists who are human--flawed and finite. I peered at the world through a new lens and developed a deeper appreciation for the majestic beings that are ineffably essential to life. More than anything, Jahren’s life enkindled a raging fire within me, and awakened an inescapable desire for learning and discovery. Now, I like to believe I will not be wandering completely blind into my own journey in science.
Scientists like Jahren nudge forward the boundaries of humanity’s pool of knowledge. Scientists take the lens of science and point it at new things, or clear the lens, or amplify it, or question someone else’s interpretation of it. We celebrate scientists because they are at the forefront of what can be known. They challenge what we do know to arrive at better knowledge. As humans, we are born into a universe governed by laws, a universe that existed before us and will continue to exist beyond us, and to grapple with our understanding of this universe is to appreciate it, to make what we can of it, to better it for those to come. Scientists help us do that.
In sharing Jahren’s story, or the story of any other scientist for that matter, we strengthen the winds that spread seeds of science. Perhaps these seeds may be loaded with the odds and ends of imperfect base sequences. Perhaps they may not be exactly what they were meant to be, and yet turn out to be exactly how they should. Regardless, each and every one of them carry the potential for an incredible bundle of life. Like the tree they originated from, they withstand environmental pressures, adapt, branch, grow, in spite of their faults and limitations. They bear fruit once more. They swing their branches in the wind and allow themselves to bend sometimes. Exponentially, they tell a story that keeps retelling itself, accumulating nuances as it goes. In this story, the genetic material composing the first scientists are contained and passed down as an inheritance for generations to come. To play a role in passing on this story is perhaps one of the highest honors and privileges that come with being alive. In making it our own, we give it the potential to be imperfect, to be flawed, to be varied, and to evolve.
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About Superheroes of STEM Essay Contest
As a leading healthcare company and proud champions of science, Johnson & Johnson is honored to support the next generation of innovators via a commitment to increasing the number and diversity of students in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) pipeline. At the Global STEM Alliance Summit this past July, we announced the winner of the second annual “Champions of Science—Superheroes of STEM” essay writing contest. The contest focused on telling stories of inspirational modern-day female superstars in STEM whose work has helped change the trajectory of health for humanity. By telling more stories about women in STEM, we hope to not only raise awareness about women’s contributions to science, but also provide more relatable role models for young women hoping to succeed in STEM careers.