When did you become interested in science as a career? Did anyone encourage you?
Curiosity is a driving trait in my family, which probably explains why we have so many scientists and science lovers at holiday gatherings. My teachers were nearly universally fantastic, encouraging me to dive down rabbit holes of curiosity and giving positive feedback on my bizarre passion projects.
Late in high school, I spent a summer in the deserts of California coaxing a telescope with a broken clutch to track the asteroid 4 Flora. By day, my trio measured its location on glass plates we’d developed late the night before, frustrated by the limitations of our tools. I wrote clunky code to grind through calculations to use that data to determine the orbit for our lump of rock and ice. Like decades of students before me and all those since in the Summer Science Program, I was pushed to my limit and loved it. When I emerged from weeks of chronic sleep deprivation and submitted our results to a data repository, I felt a mess of joy and exhaustion, a feeling that would be all too familiar in the years ahead.
What difficulties or barriers did you experience while getting into STEM, and how did you overcome them?
I am incredibly lucky. My family not only embraced the fundamental curiosity that drives the scientific process, they also understand the mechanics of the education system. And yet…
Field geophysics was like time traveling to an earlier era of outdated social norms. Sometimes I’d find ways to work around it, having an assistant repeat my instructions with his masculine voice when my crew blew off my higher timbre. Other times, I’d try to prove myself by taking the heaviest pack up the roughest trail. But as the petty problems escalated, my capacity to tolerate sexism broke. The more sexism I encountered, the more glittery pink I used to deck out my equipment, a visual rebellion. (Secondary benefit: my tools no longer walked away once wrapped in bright purple electrical tape!)
Tell us about your adventurous work in the field as a geophysicist and disaster researcher.
Field geophysics is a blend of being MacGyver and a James Bond villain. A field geophysicist flies around in helicopters to remote terrain, landing on a pristine glacier, a rugged mountainside, or a quiet alpine meadow. And in Canada, fieldworkers all have their best bear story. Mine is the time I got into a territory war with a grizzly.
Geophysicists cut trails through dense forest, which bears clearly assume are highways just for them. One morning, I was trying to start work only to discover that a bear had decided that our injection point—where we were pouring 2400 volts of electricity into the Earth—was the perfect place to warm up.
Concerned for both data quality and crew safety, I tried to encourage the bear on its way by varying the current and voltage. No matter how I fiddled the knobs, the bear snuggled into the harsh metal pegs more firmly. The intimidating roar of a bear banger was absolutely useless. Desperate, we finally asked our helicopter pilot to buzz the line, which scared the bear into loping lazily away.
We finished up collecting data as quickly as possible, and packed equipment to clear out and move to the next line. But for data continuity, we needed to leave behind a single thin wire as we continued the survey. Distracted by a conductive layer of graphite masking my hunt for gold, I forgot about the bear.
But the bear didn’t forget about me. When I came back weeks later, survey completed, to clean up, I found the bear had left me a present. The remains of its dinner—blood, fur, and bones—were tangled in my wire. With two clips to isolate the mess, we gathered up the rest of the wire and left the bear alone for good.
You’re also passionate about bringing science to the masses, educating people through your writing on sites like io9 and Gizmodo. Do you think making science more accessible online encourages more marginalized people to get into STEM fields?
Our world is full of creative, curious people from all walks of life, and as a science communicator, I get to hunt for those stories and highlight people who challenge the cultural perception of who can do science. Communicating science in public can be exhilarating, but it can also be terrifying. Every mistake is out for everyone to see. But that also creates an opportunity where I can model the practice of science, making it more human and real to people who don’t have scientists in their social circles.
But what I really love is that I’m not the only one doing this. Scientists have flocked to social media, discussing the messier side of their field observations or sharing their personal passions alongside their research results. We get to see, and participate in, chatter about highly anticipated experiments, and we engage in protracted, public peer review of results.
What advice would you give young women who want to get into STEM?
Be curious. The heart of science is to investigate the world around you as methodically as possible, slowly unraveling fragments of the secrets that make up our universe. Find ways to increment our knowledge that tiny bit further.
Tell others about your work and who you are. We don’t know if you don’t say anything, and you might be holding the key we need to tell a story.
Be gentle with one another. The universe is vast, and the science is endless. We’ll learn so much more if we collaborate and work together than if we let our petty human flaws dictate our actions. Be generous with giving credit; everyone should be recognized for their work.
Own up to your mistakes. Do your best to correct them and to learn from them. Then don’t stress about it too much—it happens to everyone.
Go on adventures, whatever they look like to you. But most important, have fun.
MIKA MCKINNON is a geophysicist working with Natural Resources Canada and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to keep the planet from killing us all. She lurks on sets to gleefully interject truth, creating far stranger fiction, and pops up at conventions like Dragon Con to help you revel in the real science behind your favorite shows. Check out her writing in Physics Today, New Scientist, io9, and Gizmodo, and keep up with her latest adventures on Twitter @mikamckinnon.