Sharing Our Discoveries

This week on #MeetAScientist, get to know Dr. Susan Cheng, an ecosystem ecologist and member of the 500 Women Scientists Leadership Team. She has spearheaded our newly launched Fellowship of the Future, which will recognize the contributions of women of color leading in STEM. 500 Women Scientists is currently fundraising to support the first cohort of fellows in Fall 2020. To learn more and support the future of STEM, you can donate today. In this interview, Susan talks about the fellowship and the importance of sharing our contributions to science with the public. You can follow her on Twitter @susanjcheng.

When did you first identify as a scientist?

I first thought of myself as a scientist during the summer after my first year in college. I was part of a summer undergraduate research program at Columbia University’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory. It was the first time I had the experience of not only learning something new that others didn’t already know the answers to, but having a community of peers and mentors to discuss challenges and discoveries with! It really hit home not only that I could be a scientist, but that I was a scientist during our program’s end-of-summer poster session. Explaining new data and conclusions about our climate to my classmates and to professors helped me realize that being a scientist means not only discovering new information about our world, but also sharing these discoveries with others.  

What does your research today center on?

My research brings to focus the invisible connections that cut across the physical and living parts of our Earth and how they interact to influence how our planet functions. More specifically, I study how plants—and their interactions with atmospheric nitrogen pollution or changes in cloud cover—affect the productivity of our local forests and our global climate. I do this by measuring plant behavior and growth in different forests and running models that test how changes in the environment might alter the capacity for plants to help us slow climate change. Because my research relates to climate change, I also study how classroom climate influences student learning to help instructors identify ways they can help increase public understanding of science.

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You've been a driving force on the 500 Women Scientists leadership team to launch our Fellowship for the Future. How do you envision this initiative fitting into the future of science?

Science is a global endeavor—which means that the future of science depends on how strong our connections are across different communities both locally and around the world. An important part of ensuring that science stays connected is to ensure that our scientific community is inclusive and equitable both for those involved in the work and those affected by scientific discoveries. Mentors and leaders of training programs are an important part of helping my colleagues and I navigate how to be ethical and creative scientists. The Fellowship for the Future is one way that 500 Women Scientists wants to recognize the important work that women of color do to support current and future generations of STEM leaders—by providing leadership training and resources to help them expand and amplify the reach that their ideas and programs have in our global community.

You've done a lot of work in the mentorship space, so I'm curious, as a mentee, what is the best advice you've received over the course of your career?

An important part of building your presence in the scientific community—or any professional community—is to tell others about the work you’re doing. Self-promotion has always been really hard for me, but is increasingly relevant as interest grows in bringing attention to work done by early career scientists and scientists from non-traditionally represented backgrounds. When I’m unsure of whether to promote my own work, I think back to one of my most trusted mentors, Dr. Jasmine Crumsey, who reminded me how important it is for us to say, “Hi, we are out here and our work is good.” She’s right—it’s important for us to believe in the strength of our work and not be afraid to publicize our contributions.


You have this really awesome Science Cakes project. Can you tell us a bit about what it is and about the inspiration behind it?

When I was in graduate school, I was lucky to have a strong support system of peers who helped me through research challenges, reminded me to spend time on activities that were important to me, and taught me so much about the world around me by sharing their own research. As they started defending their dissertations, I wanted to do something to thank them while also sharing their work with others—including their friends and family. Baking these cakes and writing up short summaries of their research was my way of celebrating the work they accomplished, to think of new ways we as scientists can develop conceptual (and edible) models of our work, and to demonstrate how science allows you to be creative is so many different ways.

Susan Cheng is an ecosystem ecologist and science educator who studies the hidden connections that occur in our environment. She's a Generation 1.5 immigrant who was raised almost her entire life as a New Yorker (hi, Queens!). The hustle and bustle of the city inspired her to question how humans interact with their physical spaces, and she officially studied environmental science as an undergraduate at Columbia University. After working in environmental consulting and urban ecology education, she moved to the Midwest where she learned to drive (a car and a boom lift) and manage her fear of heights so she could complete her PhD research at the University of Michigan. In her free time, Susan loves baking and eating baked goods.