Science, an Evolving Passion

(pictured above Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica)

Today on #meetascientist, we are so happy to introduce Samantha Weintraub. Sam is one of those enviable scientists who has been able to conduct some of her research in the tropics and later in the mountains of Utah (on skis!). Today, Sam talks about how to embrace evolving research interests, how to draw on your surroundings for inspiration, and the importance of strong women for science.

  Measuring soil infiltration rates in Costa Rica

Measuring soil infiltration rates in Costa Rica

In pursuing your education and research goals, you moved from New York to California, Colorado, Utah and now back to Colorado. Moreover, you’ve done field world in Costa Rica and other south and Central American countries. How has your science evolved over this time and what have you learned from these places?

The theme that has unified my academic and research pursuits (and underpins all this moving!) is a desire to understand core ecosystems functions, such as carbon and nutrient cycling, and what we can do to protect them. I was drawn to UC Berkeley for my undergraduate because of the strong social and physical science opportunities, as well as a history of student body activism. I didn’t just want to study natural resources, but figure out how to keep them safe for the benefit of humanity and nature. Over time, an interest in sustainable agriculture morphed into a passion for soil and ecosystem ecology, with a desire to shed light on some of earth’s most fascinating ecosystems - tropical forests. Two incredible female mentors (more on that below) inspired me to follow my passions and turn them into a research career.

I moved to Boulder, Colorado to pursue a PhD with an imminent tropical biogeochemist, who encouraged me not only to pursue interdisciplinary, transformative science, but also to find ways to communicate my findings with non-scientists in order to help to save the biome I loved. I spent several months at remote field stations in Costa Rica - with howler monkeys and scarlet macaws as my alarm clocks, and saw up-close the struggle of people needing to make a good living while still preserving their natural resource base. During this time, I evolved a passion for mountain ecosystem research (Costa Rica and Colorado are both extremely topographically dissected!) and moved to SLC, Utah to conduct postdoctoral research on this theme.

Now back in Boulder, I am heading up the Terrestrial Biogeochemistry program for the National Ecological Observatory Network, and am thrilled to be able to draw on all my previous experiences to help develop a national infrastructure for tracking how biota affect the chemistry of ecosystems and the implications of climate and land use change for these processes.

  Winter field work in Utah’s Wasatch Range

Winter field work in Utah’s Wasatch Range

You make travel and outdoor adventures a priority, can you talk about what it means for you?

I am drawn to make my home in locations that are academically vibrant and ecologically beautiful. Pursuing my studies at UC Berkeley allowed me ample opportunity for intellectual growth while spending my free time exploring the beaches and forests of northern California. After that, it was hard to imagine moving somewhere that did not have both of these aspects to offer - hence my choice to live in Boulder, Colorado and SLC, Utah.

I derive a great deal of strength and satisfaction from outdoor pursuits, and this also helps me in my career. Science is hard and success requires determination, grit, and self-motivation. I find that challenging myself in other ways - by skiing down a steep couloir, or traversing a remote landscape with only what I can carry on my back, both rejuvenates me after too much time at the computer and also gives me the confidence that I can meet and overcome obstacles in my work. Even short, local adventures can really pay off - I often gain insights and figure out how to move past a research problem while listening to the birds as I run along a favorite trail.

  Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah

Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah

Throughout your education and career, who have been your role models and what inspires you?

As an undergraduate, two pioneering female scientists inspired and encouraged me to pursue research. Dr. Mary Firestone introduced me to the intricacies of the nitrogen cycle and the diversity of microbial life that catalyzes N-transformations. She sparked a passion that continues to this day - and when she saw this, encouraged me to get involved with research in her lab. Soon after, Dr. Whendee Silver pushed me to think about element cycling in the context of tropical forests - the lungs of the earth - and I was hooked. The intellect and drive of these trailblazing women inspired me to believe that I too could make contributions to our understanding of biogeochemical cycles. Their belief in my yet-to-be-proven abilities made all the difference, and I hope I can one day be a mentor to young women in this way.

Today, I find support and inspiration from my peers and woman scientist friends, including many of the other leaders and participants of 500 Women Scientists. I am constantly impressed by the creativity, intelligence, and passion of the women involved in this movement.

 

What does this movement mean to you, and as a leader of 500WS what keeps you focused and motivated everyday?

Before the election, I was unaware of how tenuous our gains were - for the environment, for tolerance of diversity, and for the rights and equal treatment of women. I had become complacent, as had many. The post-election landscape was a real awakening - these gains cannot be taken for granted, but must be defended and fortified. But how? When I found out that some friends and colleagues were issuing a rallying cry to women in science, I could not resist their call to arms. The mission and values of 500 Women Scientists resonates with me, as is the goal to empower women scientists to lead the movement to protect the values we hold so dear.

 

You were at the women’s march, will you be marching for science & why?

Yes, I will be attending the Denver March for Science. I feel the scientific framework, e.g., approaching the world by asking questions and seeking answers based on experiments and evidence, is needed now more than ever as humanity butts up against major challenges. Chief among these is how to grow enough food and provide enough energy to sustain society without causing havoc to our planet and its biodiversity. These are huge issues and not at all partisan - in fact, we need to harness our collective powers of scientific thinking and problem-solving from all parties, nations, cultures, genders, etc in order to succeed. I hope we can use the day to celebrate the scientific process, remember our favorite scientific heros (and learn about some new ones!), and discuss how we can make the scientific enterprise strong, inclusive, and relevant in order to effectively tackle our biggest challenges.

 

Samantha Weintraub is an ecosystem ecologist who chases carbon and nitrogen through plant-soil ecosystems (and sometimes into streams). She studies biogeochemical dynamics in tropical, mountain, and urban landscapes and draws heavily on stable isotopes to uncover patterns and processes in environmental systems. She is currently a Staff Scientist at the National Ecological Observatory Network and a collaborator of the American Climber Science Program. Before that, Samantha was a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Utah.