Understanding our history

This week on #MeetAScientist, get to know paleontologist and podcast producer Michelle Barboza-Ramirez. We're big fans of her podcast, the Femmes of STEM, where she combines her expertise in science and women's studies to bring us bi-weekly episodes of the women who have propelled science, technology, engineering, and mathematics forward. In this interview, she shares how the podcast came to be, as well as how she found her own way into science. 

Photos taken by Kristen Grace of the Florida Museum of Natural History for a project called Becoming Visible.

When did you first identify as a scientist? What does your research focus on today?

If you had told me only a few years ago that I would be taking classes in isotope geochemistry, much less going to grad school to become a scientist, I would have thought you were crazy. I was not a fan of science class as a kid, and I kept as far away from it as possible — or so I thought. What I didn't realize was that I had the idea of "science" all wrong. In my mind, science was lab coats and beakers and equations on a math board; it was an esoteric world to which I did not belong. It wasn't until I took a general education geology class in my sophomore year of college (I was then in the school of business administration) that I realized that things I loved — spending hours in museums, exploring the outdoors of Southern California and learning about its natural history, taking detailed notes in my journals — made a pretty solid background for a scientist, and a really great start for a geologist. Once I learned that you could get paid to go hiking and look at rocks, I was sold!

A few classes into my geology degree, I took paleontology as an elective and, well, I learned you could get paid to go hiking to look at fossils, and I was double sold. I decided to do my undergraduate research on local fossils, using biostratigraphy to understand the age of a geologic unit in Southern Orange County. This research, done in conjunction with my professor and a few members of our lab, led to our discovery of the youngest crocodylian specimens known in the state — extending the fossil record of California crocs by a full 10 million years.


My paleontology research in grad school focuses on the same period of geologic time, but this study is concerned with understanding the ecology of a state on the other side of the country: Florida. I'm interested in understanding how plants reacted to a global climate event known as the Mid Miocene Climatic Optimum, which was characterized by intense increases in temperature, rising sea level, other events that might sound familiar. By analyzing the isotopic composition of fossil teeth from herbivores from the time periods before, during, and after these events, we have the opportunity to understand the repercussions of this event on the environment.

In addition to my master of science, I am also getting a certificate in women's studies, where I have focused my research on understanding the history of women, especially women of color, in STEM fields.

You're pursuing a Masters in paleontology and women's studies. How do those fields intersect in your eyes?

Science and the humanities are often thought of as completely different spheres — and that's a problem. I've found that many of my colleagues think of science as a pure form of knowledge, above the influence of human bias, and thus believe there is no way that sexism, racism, or prejudice has played a part in science. It only takes a short look into our history, and even our present, to see this is not the case: eugenics has been taught as science at the university level, gender has been presented as a binary despite our understanding of biology, and current studies fail to take into account the presence and knowledge of native people. Women's studies is one of many fields that encourages a critical look at scientific structures and the people who play a part in them. The discourse between humanities and STEM is often nonexistent, but as a scientist who is also in women's studies, I work to bridge the gap.

You also started a podcast called Femmes of STEM last year, which has a super strong following. What have you taken away from the experience of hosting and producing it — both in the stories you cover and the art of science communication?

Starting the podcast has allowed me to find my voice as a feminist and a scientist, in a single identity, and it has allowed me to find some amazing information about the history of women in science. I've done an insane amount of research for the podcast, and though we're not quite a year in, I've come to realize that I have way more information than can be squeezed into a bi-weekly podcast, so I'm working on developing my science communication skills in other areas that I can use to share these stories.


How did you get involved in 500 Women Scientists? What are your greatest hopes for us as a group moving forward?

I found out about 500 Women Scientists via twitter, when the petition launched after the November 2016 election. It was a difficult time, but that made it all the more inspiring to see organizations like 500 women scientists launch so quickly in response. What started as petition turned into my source of news, resources, and community, and the community's weekly wrap ups/calls to action have served as branches which allow me to find even more organizations, movements, and people to connect with. I can hardly believe it's only been about a year since the start of 500 Women Scientists! This may not come as much as a surprise, but on my secret desire is to get a 500 Women Scientists podcast! There are a a few podcasts now highlighting women in STEM (mine included), but none that I've found yet talking about the intersection of being an activist (political or otherwise) and a woman in STEM. There are some great conversations taking place in the community — let's hear them!

Outside of your studies and your podcasting, how do you unwind?

Books, booze, and being outdoors! For the past two or so years, I participated in the 52 hike challenge, where I challenged myself to go on a hike every week of the entire year. I absolutely loved it, and kept it going by increasing my minimum mileage each year. Having moved away from the mountains and hiking scene of California, to the fairly flat Florida, I was finding it hard to keep up with my challenge, so this year I switched to a reading challenge — and with a little less than a month to go, I've already surpassed my goal, and read 55 books this year! Both challenges pair well with a little booze.


Michelle Barboza-Ramirez is the host, and producer of the Femmes of STEM podcast. She is a latinx Los Angeles native currently living in North Florida. Michelle has a BS in Geological Sciences from CSU Fullerton and is currently working towards a MSc in vertebrate paleontology and women's studies at the University of Florida and the Florida Museum of Natural History. You can follow Michelle on twitter and instagram.