Shatter the glass ceiling

Today on #meetascientist, we get to know Wendy Bohon, the leader of 500WS outreach and communication. From science communication to motherhood to fighting misogyny, Wendy crushes it and demonstrates that with a strong group of women, we can take some serious shots at the glass ceiling! Thanks Wendy for sharing your story with us! 

 

When did you first realize or consider yourself a scientist? And please tell us about your work as an 'earthquake enthusiast'! 

In high school, I was very into art and was actually a Theatre major in college. It wasn’t until I took a Geology class as a general ed requirement that I fell in love with science and I ended up getting a double major in Theatre and Geology. After college I moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career and while there, I experienced the Hector Mine earthquake. That was honestly the moment that changed my life. I called the USGS Earthquake Hazards program the next day and started volunteering and soon was offered a position there doing Outreach and Education, which was the perfect job for my theatre and geology skill sets. At that point, I still self-identified as an artist but I was realizing that my passion really was science.  After a few years doing geologic hazards communication, I decided I wanted to pursue science as a career and I went to graduate school to study earthquakes. However, when you study something like earthquakes, (I feel) you have a social responsibility to be able to communicate the results of your research because that information can help to save lives and property! So after graduate school, I decided that I wanted to go into science communication and be kind of a “scientific translator” between the scientific community and the public. So that’s what I do now and I love it.

 

You are a leader in building communities for women. You have a blog "Twinning at Motherhood" that gives an inside look at your life as a parent of twins, and aims to build a community for other mothers. What prompted you to start this blog? How does this community of mothers translate to your work with 500WS and building our community of women scientists?

I had my twins right after I finished my PhD and it was an incredibly challenging transition for me. None of my graduate school friends had kids, much less twins, and I felt very isolated. Parenting is already incredibly difficult and there’s a lot of pressure on new moms to do everything perfectly, and when you have twins all of those difficulties are compounded. I really struggled with the feeling that I wasn’t doing things “right” and I had no one to talk to about it. It wasn’t until I found a group of really supportive mothers online that I was able to shake off the feelings of failure and inadequacy and recognize that I was doing just fine - great even. So with my blog (www.twinningatmotherhood.com), I wanted to create an honest space to share my experiences and show other new moms, particularly moms of twins, what was really happening behind the scenes.  So much of what we see of people’s lives, especially on social media, is a just “highlight reel”, not real life. I wanted to show the reality of twin parenting and provide a space for women to ask questions and share experiences without shame or judgment. I feel like 500WS is a similar opportunity for women scientists. In science, you see your peers excelling and achieving but you don’t always get a glimpse behind the curtain at the struggles many may be experiencing. In the same way that the community of mothers empowered and supported me, 500 Women Scientists empowers and supports women in science because most of us experience similar challenges, many of which are unique to women. 500WS creates a space for us to discuss and work through those issues and realize our full potential.

 Wendy and her daughter at the Women's March on Washington 

Wendy and her daughter at the Women's March on Washington 

 

Many of our members are graduate students, postdocs and other early career scientists (pre family). (Here are 3 questions in 1) What is your advice to women who want to be science moms like you? What is your mindset with scheduling your week of family, science, outreach, and everything else. And how do you think about being a role model for your own daughter? 

These are really difficult questions! It’s very hard to be a working mother, regardless of what field you’re in. You never feel like you’re giving anyone 100% and that’s frustrating because you’re always giving 150% of yourself. To be honest, I’m still working at finding a good balance between my personal and professional life. There are two things that I think about when I’m trying to figure out how to balance my life on a day-to-day basis.

1) I try to replace the phrase “I don’t have time” with “It’s not a priority”. For instance “I don’t have time for yoga” becomes “My health is not a priority”; “I don’t have time to help you with your homework” becomes “Your education is not a priority”. It helps me recognize where I need to focus my energy.

2) It’s easy for me to get lost in work because I’m passionate about what I do, so when I have multiple things calling for my attention, I try to decide if I’m living my resume or my eulogy . For instance, is it more important for me to connect with an old friend or be sure these PPT slides are perfect? Do I want to be remembered for being a fierce social justice advocate or do I want to be known as the mom who always brought homemade cookies? No answer is wrong; it’s about what’s right for ME at that time.

So my advice to early career scientists who may want to start families is to strive for balance but recognize that you can’t do it all. Learn to say no and be ok with that. Surround yourself with supportive people. And on a side note, we as a community need to do better when it comes to supporting new moms (and dads) in science. We need to give them the help and latitude that they need to balance a successful career and a happy family.

As far as being a role model for my daughter – she’s more of a role model for me! She’s very strong, confident, open-minded and kind. I hope that I can teach her that she can do anything, but that she doesn’t have to do everything. (Something I’m still working on!). I hope to model for her that success is whatever you define it to be. And finally, I hope that my work with 500WS and similar organizations will show her that it’s important to stand up for what you believe in. She marched with us at the Women’s March and I think it started her on the road to advocating for equality for all people! (See photo)

You are an amazing communicator and are the leader of 500WS outreach and social communication. What are some key points every scientist should keep in mind when communicating with 1. other scientists, 2. 'the public', and 3. decision makers. 

Thank you! Communication is hard and it requires thought and practice. While there are key things to remember when communicating with different audiences a lot of best practices are crosscutting. For instance, one difficulty we have as scientists is that we’re taught to communicate with others in our discipline in a very particular way. We use a lot of jargon and industry specific words; think here: manipulating data v/ manipulating a joint v/ manipulating the truth. In each case, the word “manipulating” means something different – to reorganize or make easier to read or understand, to move around, and to dishonestly change the meaning of. Clearly, this could cause significant confusion and misunderstanding! So I think regardless of who we’re talking to, we scientists need to be aware of jargon and actively work to simplify our language. Another thing we as scientists need to do better when communicating is LISTEN! Talking “at” people isn’t effective. We need to listen to questions and understand the perspective and the concerns of the people we’re talking to in order to give them the information they need and want. Finally, I think we as a community we need to put a higher value on science communication and make it more of a priority. Today more than ever it’s critical for us to be able to talk about how and why our science matters. AAAS has some good resources about how to communicate science and I can also direct scientists to more specialty specific resources.

 

Speaking of science communication, you participated in our Reddit AMA a while back. We all know the internet has no love for women, but we were all still surprised by the experience. Could you speak about how this AMA went, and how 500WS can address this 'challenge' in the future. 

The Reddit AMA was really sad and frustrating for me. I had done Science AMA’s before and always had a good experience but on the 500 Women Scientists AMA, I witnessed a level of overt and coordinated misogyny that stunned me. The AMA moderators did a great job of removing inappropriate and sometimes disturbing questions and comments but enough got through that it was clear that we as women were under attack. It was clear that the idea of increased diversity in science was under attack. But it also showed me that our work is helping to shine a light into these dark pockets of misogyny and hate. I think it was also a wake up call for many people passively watching the AMA and showed them the importance of speaking out and standing up for women and underrepresented minorities. I think the overt display of intolerance won us a lot of allies that day because it showed people the subtle and overt bias that we as women face all the time. It highlighted exactly why we need organizations like 500WS. So how do we address this challenge? Head on. We commit to speaking out against discrimination, inequality and aggression. We identify and acknowledge structural biases and inequalities in science and push to develop and strengthen access for underrepresented groups. We commit to being mentors and role models and working within our communities to show why science (and scientists) are important. Basically we sign the 500 Women Scientists pledge!

 

Wendy Bohon is the Informal Education Specialist (Science Communicator) for the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS) in Washington, DC. 

Wendy graduated from James Madison University with a BA in Theatre and Geology and she completed a MS at THE Ohio State University where she worked on blind thrust faults in Argentina. In 2014 she received her Ph.D. in Geology from Arizona State University. While at ASU Wendy worked on understanding the role of the Karakoram Fault System in the evolution of the southwestern margin of the Tibetan Plateau. She currently serves on the leadership board of 500 Women Scientists as the Social Media and Communications lead. 

Wendy lives in Maryland with her husband and kids - 2 year old twin boys and a 12 year old daughter - so she doesn't have any free time. If she did, she would do yoga, rock climb, travel and read. She is the author of the blog "Twinning at Motherhood" and has written a book about the conception, gestation and birth of her boys.