The Women Behind 500 Women

It has now been a month since the first texts and emails and the initiation of the 500 Women Scientists. The month has flown by, full of signatures, press coverage, discussions, new connections and many exciting directions to take the movement. Before we get too far along, we wanted to stop and introduce our lead organizers, Kelly Ramirez and Jane Zelikova. 

We had Jane and Kelly write up questions for each other and answer those questions. Here is what they came up with: 

Lead Organizers Jane Zelikova and Kelly Ramirez showing off their love of microbes this last summer in Boulder, Colorado. 

Lead Organizers Jane Zelikova and Kelly Ramirez showing off their love of microbes this last summer in Boulder, Colorado. 

Jane: We met when? 2006? 2007? Have we been friends for more than 10 years? 
Kelly: We have known each other for 9 years now! We met in 2007 when I started graduate school in Boulder, CO. Over the years we have gotten to know each other as colleagues and friends. I knew we were going to be a long time friend when we co-organized a pie competition resulting in over 25 pie entries and 50 guests in my tiny house. Even after we moved to different cities, and now countries, we maintained our friendship. It is great to have someone who I can talk to about scientific research and then in the next moment be planning a mountain adventure. 

J: Time flies when we are having fun and doing science! When did you first realize you were a "scientist"?
K: Becoming a ‘scientist’ was a slow progression throughout my PhD, because each year I was learning so much and I never was quite sure where I was in the process. But by the time I graduated I felt very much a scientist. However even now, there is still so much to learn so my position as a ‘scientist’ never really feels complete. Which is what I love about science and being a scientist. There is no finality, only possibilities, more knowledge to gain and new directions to go. 

J: Do you feel like the label “scientist” encapsulates your identify? If you were pressed, what would you call yourself?
K: At first I thought, ‘definitely not’, because I have many other passions and activities that I fill my life with. For example, this past year I opened a climbing gym in the Netherlands with my Dutch boyfriend, we got a puppy, I am learning Dutch, I have taken up vlogging (which I love), and I am an avid cook and baker. But in reality science is woven into the very person I am and it is hard to separate. My research has been really important in providing the foundation of who I am and the decisions I make. I wouldn’t be where I am today, or who I am today, without science.

K: Jane, you are a woman of many talents and involved in many activities - from science and research, to film, to frisbee and backcountry skiing. This ability to focus on science and also embrace the many adventures of life has always inspired me. What advice do you have women trying to find a science-work-life balance? 
J: I am a terrible example of a balanced life. I have severe FOMO (fear of missing out) that pushes me to say “yes” to almost everything, in science and in life. That means that most of the time, I am exhausted. My advice, therefore, is to prioritize the expenditure of energy into two buckets - activities that require energy and activities that replenish energy. The key is to have a positive balance, more replenishing activities overall. That means friends, exercise, reading a book for fun, that kind of stuff has to be prominent. Do as I say, not as I do :)

J: I’d like to ask you the same thing. How do you balance the science demands with other things that are important? How do you make room for climbing, running, friends, a partner, and a puppy? 
K: Well sometimes I don’t balance it well at all, which ends with me having a melt down and eating a pan of brownies. During these times I have to remind myself, or my partner reminds me, of what is important and that it is ok to say no to activities- no to a run, no to a new project or no to getting up early to work. I couldn’t do all the things without the support of my partner, my family, my friends and my colleagues at work. Building a healthy ecosystem of people and activities around me has been vital to my science career and my life. 

K: Jane back to you, in addition to your research and fellowship with AAAS, you make films! You have just released one titled the ‘End of Snow’ about the impacts of climate change on snowpack in the western part of the U.S. Can you tell us how you ended up working on this project and how you are using film to spread a scientific message. 
J: As with most things that have turned out to be very important to me, I got into making films through a series of random “nothings” that added to be a “something”. A few years ago, I coordinated the Organization for Tropical Studies field ecology course for graduate students, the same course I had taken as a graduate student many years before. I thought back to my course, trying to find what I would have appreciated learning and realized it was science communication! So I invited a couple of scientists-turned-filmmakers to teach my students how to make short films about their research and it didn’t take long for me to get into it, too. Add the stroke of luck in meeting a super talented filmmaker (Morgan Heim) + a small grant and “The End of Snow” was born. In the end, everything I’ve done that’s worth anything has come out of friendships and I am a strong believer that working with people you actually like produces the best results. 

J: Speaking of which, you've been incredibly good at holding on to friendships and connections, even in hectic times. One of the things that I think you're especially good at is forming collaborations. What's the secret sauce for being a good collaborator?

K: When I moved to Europe I became very aware how important it is to keep up with friends and family. Over the last two years I have found a pretty great routine of texting, emailing and facetiming with my closest friends and family on a regular basis. Even when times are hectic, I make it a priority to keep those connections up because as soon as I slow down or stop, the relationships become weaker. The same is true for collaborations with work: keep up the contact and communication. Even a quick 20 minute skype meeting can make all the difference in keeping a project going. I also have made it a priority to return often to Colorado (where many of my science colleagues live) and to use scientific conferences to meet up with my science friends and colleagues. I do this once or twice a year, and these face to face connections have been critical to maintaining long-term relationships and collaborations. 

Prior to 500 Women Scientists, Jane, Kelly and co-organizer Teresa Bilinski organized an Ignite Session at ESA 2015 which focused on women who study microbial communities. 

Prior to 500 Women Scientists, Jane, Kelly and co-organizer Teresa Bilinski organized an Ignite Session at ESA 2015 which focused on women who study microbial communities. 

K: Now onto our new project. How did you get to the point of leading and organizing 500 Women Scientists? For you, what challenges have you faced in your career. How has that influenced your decision to take action? 
J: For me (and I suspect for you, as well), leading 500 Women Scientists was not a conscious decision. Though I’ve been politically aware for years, I generally shied away from making strong political statements or doing anything that resembled activism. But for the past year, the culmination of blatant sexism, criminal disrespect of women, attacks on minorities, immigrants, and the educated “elite” has sounded an alarm in my head that I could not ignore. I am an educated woman who has experienced harassment, I am an immigrant from the Soviet Union, where the attacks on personal freedoms are unrelenting and sinister. At the same time, the people I care about most in this world are also members of marginalized groups so these attacks feel very personal. As I listened to my friends name their fears, I knew I couldn’t shy away from doing something.

K: What does this movement mean for you and where do you see it going in the future? 
J: In the first few days and weeks, 500 Women Scientists gave me sanity and a purpose, replacing despair with tangible actions - get more signatures, translate the pledge into more languages, continue to search for allies. As we move forward, we can continue to be a strong and activist voice for what we believe in but also push ourselves beyond our own fears to see how we can harness our knowledge and passion for the greater good. 

J: I feel like you and I have both been lucky in having stellar mentors, including women mentors. Do you think this is something you sought on purpose or do you think it was a stroke of luck? 
K: I am inclined to say both. It is incredible lucky that I was in the path of some awesome women scientists, and I am grateful that I ended up there. At the same time, I was probably also seeking them out (both consciously and subconsciously). I grew up with a strong mother and I think this has influenced my interactions with strong women in my career. I have never shied away from strong women scientists, rather I look to them as an example for myself and try to learn from them. 

J: How can we start providing the kind of mentorship we received to others, including other women?

K: This is a great question to end on because it is one of our priorities for 500 Women Scientists. We can address this at many levels. Locally, at our own institutions and universities we can increase the connections and dialogue between women scientists. Don’t be shy, use 500 Women Scientists as a platform to reach out to other women and form new connections. On a broader scale I think it is important to keep building steps to help women succeed in science. Mentorship and professional training is one major step 500 Women Scientists can focus our future efforts on and I am excited to start building!



Kelly Ramirez is an American living abroad in the Netherlands, where she is a postdoctoral scholar at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology. Kelly is a soil ecologist interested in characterizing the diversity and biogeographical patterns of soil microbes across the globe. She has studied microbial communities across the globe- even from the soils in Central Park, NYC. Kelly grew up in Washington State, and moved to the University of Colorado, Boulder for graduate school where she earned her PhD in Ecology. In 2012 Kelly took a position working as the Executive Director of the Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative. Then, in 2014, she moved to Europe for her current research position.  

Jane Zelikova is an ecologist interested in the impacts of environmental change on natural and managed ecosystems. Currently, she is a AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow at the U.S. Department of Energy, on leave from her position as a research scientist in the University of Wyoming. Her interests are broad and include tropical biogeochemistry as well as the effects of climate change on organisms big and small. She combines a strong emphasis on research with an interest in science communication and outreach, thinking about ways to expand the role of science in tackling global issues.