This week on #MeetAScientist, get to know Alex Phillips, a graduate student in organic geochemistry at Caltech and the founder of the Instagram account @women.doing.science. The account features women in STEM fields sharing their research stories, as they change the idea of what a scientist looks like. In addition to following their stories on Instagram, you can find them on Facebook and Twitter.
When did you first identify as a scientist? What does your research center on today?
This is a hard question! My mom is a scientist and she used to bring me to her lab on the weekends to help her pipette, feed her cells, and generally have fun. I grew up giving birthday good bags full of parafilm and brightly color eppendorf tubes, having the best role model of a successful female scientist a young girl could ask for. And while I always knew I wanted to study science, I don't think I identified as a scientist until I took my organic chemistry class in college. It was a big "aha" moment for me, finding this subject that I inherently understood and had this aggressive curiosity towards. Now, I am an organic geochemist, a sort of hybrid scientific field that encompasses organic chemistry and geology. I study organic molecules (specifically amino acids) from the environment, and use their chemical characteristics to learn something about the biology that created them.
What inspired you to start @women.doing.science? How do you address representation and inclusion in the project?
I have a geologist friend, at the time a post-doc in my department, and she was always posting the coolest pictures and videos of her in the field with these amazing women. They would be knee deep in mud, smiling ferociously, and holding up rocks to the camera. I remember wishing that I could see more photos like this, but of astronauts and cancer researchers, and oceanographers. And then I thought, well I could make that happen.
Geology is historically one of the whitest disciplines in science and there has been little improvement in recent decades. These issue of inclusion and diversity have been on my mind since day one of women doing science. There is only one black graduate student in my entire department! I wanted to highlight diverse women in diverse disciplines, but I knew that it would be difficult if I only knew so many women of color. My strategies thus far have been to ask every URM/WOC I know to be featured, request nominations from our followers of women of color and minorities, and follow accounts and hashtags that promote diversity in science. When I do get submissions from non-white scientists, I push their posts to the top of the publishing list. I also try to be inclusive to the international community by having posts in multiple languages. So far we have bilingual featured posts in Hebrew, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, Chinese, French, and others. I am also open to other strategies. If anyone has suggestions for improving this aspect of Women Doing Science I am happy to hear them!
This is a wonderful example of science communication. When did you start and how many women have you featured? How do you see this having an impact on the broader science community?
Thank you! I haven't thought about Women Doing Science's impact much - I just started the page in June and the exponential growth of the page has really surprised me! We have approximately 15,000 followers and we have featured over 100 scientists from around the world so far. Hopefully, I can continue at this pace of one woman featured a day for at least a year! I also hope that this account will reach more young females, in high school and college, that are considering a career in science but are not quite sure if it the best fit. I hope that seeing so many young scientists in various fields will provide inspiration for these young women, and help educate them on potential pathways.
Along those lines, what are you goals for the future? Both for the account and for yourself as a scientist telling the stories of other scientists.
Some current goals are to expand women doing science to platforms that better facilitate discussion. Instagram is great for achieving our goal of increasing the visibility of women in science — but now I want to move past seeing them — I want to hear them. I have a teammate that just signed on to be the second person in the WDS team — she is running a new twitter account and asking questions and moderating discussions. For example on World Mental Health Day, she asked: "Increasing levels of stress, anxiety and mental health issues are reported in academia. Why is this the case and what can be done about it? Share your thoughts" I hope people in our WDS community will now share their experiences and opinions!
Goals for myself are to someday graduate! I would love to land a AAAS fellowship and spend a year in DC, engaged in science policy and communication. But that is a ways away and I'm still not sure what my future scientific career looks like.
Perhaps the most important question we ask of all, when you're not science-ing, doing outreach, or designing, what do you do to unwind?
I am an avid exerciser! I love swimming, climbing, volleyball, tennis, trail running, scuba diving, cycling... I love being outside, especially climbing. It is a really great escape from grad school. I actually try to take every lunch break I can at the pool - this midday mental health break is so essential for my work-life balance.
I am also a photographer! I even have a photography website — this is my favorite creative outlet. I recently started a series of photographs of scientists, but I mostly focus on couples (engagements, weddings). I collect film cameras and love taking portraits with the oldest cameras I can find.
Alex Phillips is the founder of @women.doing.science and a graduate student at Caltech. She started WDS to increase the visibility of women in science, highlighting action shots of women actively doing research, in the lab, field, or even computer. She hopes this site will also foster a community of young scientists and provide role models for future STEM students. At Caltech, Alex studies organic geochemistry. Specifically, she investigates the chemical composition of organic sulfur, molecules like cysteine and methionine (the sulfur containing amino acids). She also studies sulfur cycling in environments like the open ocean and mono lake, which allows her to do field work. In her free time she is an avid photographer and rock climber!