Soil science chose me

“What is the difference between information and wisdom?” a filmmaker turned professor asked the class of twenty undergraduates, grad students, and academics participating in the "Storytelling Science through Film" Workshop (hosted by Wyoming EPSCoR). Students in this boot-camp style “filmmaking for scientists” workshop sat silently trying to formulate a coherent answer.

Today on #meetascientist, we are excited to introduce you to Karen Vaughan, who was a student in this class, and is a professor at the University of Wyoming, an incredible mentor, and now a newly minted science filmmaker. Karen Vaughan's group was assigned the topic of Women in STEM.

After three intensely long days and lots of coffee, the final product is the film below "Science for All". The short film explores the life of a woman scientist, Soil Science professor Karen Vaughan, and her dreams for her daughter’s future. The film shows that Karen, is so much more than an educator. “I’m not just a mom, I’m not just a professor, I am me, “ she explains. 

Watch the short film and then read the interview below. Karen has great insight on family/work balance, the importance of women in STEM, and mentoring a diverse group of students. 

In your film "Science for All", you mention that when there are lots of people in the room, you can go further and that women should be in the room. From your perspective, what are some benefits of having a diverse group of scientists tackling research questions?

All individuals have different life experiences and inherent abilities that shape the way we approach situations. By limiting the types of people working towards a common goal (to say, dominantly male), we are excluding unique ideas and approaches from being flushed out and I see no benefit to limiting the potential of a situation, especially in tackling research questions.


How do you approach mentoring your students? Do you approach it differently when you are mentoring males versus females?

I do my best to approach each student I mentor with an open mind. I’ve learned that first impressions are often misleading and can at times be a façade created by the person as a form of defense. I take the time to get to know and learn about the person, how they perform under pressure, how they react to criticism, how they accept praise, or how they approach challenges. I certainly mentor each student differently, male or female, and how we interact has a lot to do with her or his personality. What I try to do is to create a professional and personal relationship with each student that is unique and most effective for that person, regardless of gender.


How do you envision using film and other science communication tools in the future, in your lab, in your research, in your life?

I am thankful to have had the opportunity to work with a group of diverse scientists to create the short-film "Science for Everyone" as part of the Storytelling Science through Film Workshop (hosted by Wyoming EPSCoR). It was a powerful few days spent developing a new tool for my science communication toolbox. I plan to use film as a means to tell the story of soil science to a broader audience. So often the really important, exciting science gets tucked away in scientific journals. I’d like to develop short science films to compliment these advances and also encourage my lab group members to create their own films.

I’ve been working hard to improve the delivery of scientific information through my presentations. I have been trying to tell a story rather then simply deliver information to the audience. This form of active presentation engages the audience and also makes the message easier for me to translate. I find that delivering a data-packed, jargon-riddled presentation will elicit some feedback, but those presentations where I’ve left the audience with a message and the ability to learn more have been far more effective. Another form of scientific communication I am excited to explore is data visualization where a single figure can tell a story. Integrating a variety of science communication tools will help me become a more thoughtful, articulate scientist who is better equip to share meaningful science across many levels.


Why did you decide to become a soil scientist? What about soil and dirt appeals to you as a scientific line of inquiry?

I didn’t choose soil science; soil science chose me. I couldn’t help but develop a passion and fascination for this truly interdisciplinary field that integrates the core science disciples (biology, chemistry, physics, etc.). While enrolled in a wetland soils course during my undergraduate studies, I was exposed to soil science and began to appreciate this field as it applies core science disciplines to study all aspects of the belowground ecosystem. It allowed me to be outdoors, get my hands dirty, and still study science and answer complex environmental questions.
The soil environment is variable across spatial and temporal scales and provides innumerable questions to be answered and problems to be solved. What appeals to me most about soil science is the complexity and interconnectedness of all belowground processes, both abiotic and biotic. A question that seems simple, such as how soil organic carbon content changes over time, is confounded by additions of carbon from vegetation, losses to lower horizons, transfers to biomass, and transformations by microorganisms. There’s never a dull moment when studying soil, seriously!


What advice do you have for other parents who are scientists or those who are thinking about family/work life balance?

The best advice I have for women already in parenting roles is to set priorities and be as organized and efficient as humanly possible. When I am at work, I do my best to focus entirely on work so that when I am at home, I can focus entirely on my family and myself. Also, surround yourself with people who are supportive of your role as a scientist and a parent. The saying that it takes a village to raise a child is true and in this time when many of us live far from family, reach out to other parents, neighbors, colleagues and create a support system. If at all possible, share the child-rearing duties in your home. My husband and I work together to co-parent and manage daycare drop-off and pick-up responsibilities, housekeeping, night-time routines, etc. For those of you thinking about starting a family and trying to identify the right time, first I’ll say the timing will never be perfect. Motherhood for me coincided with a job change, from a federal position with a great deal of travel to one in academia. The academic career has brought with it what I call inflexible flexibility, or a great deal of flexibility except when there’s none, like when you have to teach or have meeting scheduled. This is why I recommend finding the highest quality and most reliable childcare option available to you. If you feel comfortable and happy knowing your child is being well cared for and loved while away from you, you will work more clearly and more effectively throughout the day. The juggling of work, family, and life can at times can seem overwhelming but remember that you are doing a good job – raising a family, advancing science, and serving as a role model for all the boys and girls who will grow up thinking of women scientists as just scientists.

Karen Vaughan is an Assistant Professor of Soil Pedology at the University of Wyoming. She earned her B.S. at the University of Delaware, her M.S. from University of Maryland, and her Ph.D. from the University of Idaho. Karen is passionate about soils and the influence of climate on how soils form and change over time. She is dedicated to teaching and mentorship and using tools like filmmaking to improve science communication.