We Can Contribute
Dr. Kate Zeigler, PhD
When I was really, really little, I wanted to be a triceratops. After my parents had finally gotten it through to me that that wasn't really an option, the next best thing to me was to go into paleontology, which is the study of fossils. I had always really liked rocks and being outside, and my parents used to take me camping a lot. I was raised in Houston, but we would go back to Montana frequently, and I was in Girl Scouts, and some of the schools I was in in elementary and middle school had school camping trips and other outdoor type activities. So, despite living in a giant city, fortunately I had the opportunity to get outside and interact with non-city environments. The summer before I went to college, my parents set me up to go on an Earth Watch expedition in Montana, and it was with a paleontologist where we went for a two- or three-week trip and we did excavations and screen washing for microfossils and Doc Rigby tried to teach you everything that was paleontology. My parents figured that if they paid for this trip when I was still in high school and I realized maybe that wasn't what I wanted to do, then we weren’t going to get all the way through four years of college and have me hit the far end and say, "You know what, I really actually hate this. Why did I spend four years taking all these classes?" and realize at the end that it's not what I want to do. But I really enjoyed it; it was a ton of fun.
When I went on to college, I ended up doing a double major in Geology and Anthropology because I thought archaeology was pretty cool too but I wasn’t as much into that as the geology. But I wanted to explore it and see if it was something I wanted to do. I continued my education in the master's program at University of New Mexico here in Albuquerque, and my master's thesis project was excavating a big bone bed up in northern New Mexico. And that was super cool, too, but in the process of going to conferences and presenting my work to other paleontologists, I started to feel like paleontology is a very small field, but a lot of people want to be in it because dinosaurs are cool and fossils are cool. And so there's a lot of competition for very limited positions and very limited funding, and I think that leads to a lot of egos getting involved and a lot of pushing and shoving and people being, well, not very respectful to each other. At the same time as this was all happening, I would go to more general geology conferences, and you wouldn't see that same behavior. I mean, I never saw someone stand up and shout at another scientist midway through their talk.
So, when I went into the PhD program at UNM, I went into Paleomagnetism, which is the study of earth's magnetic field as it's recorded in rocks. It's a way to tie different rock units together; it's a correlation tool. I felt like that particular world within the geosciences was a little less bombastic, a little less rude. I found this to be going from a more qualitative branch of geosciences, describing bones and animals, thinking about the world they live in to a much more quantitative branch, with three-dimensional vectors and magnetism and everything that goes into that. I'm not going to lie, it was kind of hard. I was one of those people who fell prey to the "girls don't do math" trope. So, I found it hard.
As far as issues with being a woman in science, luckily by the time I got into grad school, the geology department was probably 50/50 men and woman. In academia, it is more balanced generally compared to industry. And I'm grateful for that. There are still the cranky old dude types, but that's in every field. I did get the whole, "I'll use the drill to drill your samples for you," the first year I was in the PhD program. That was a little frustrating to be treated like I was made out of glass, that I couldn't handle a chainsaw motor. I don't necessarily think that was a conscious thing: I was small and they were big. I’m not sure it was my gender specifically.
I know there were people who came before me that faced very serious barriers to pursuing this field academically, to earn their PhD or earn their tenure, and they did not have a good time of it. There is still a lot of bitterness for some those people, because there were solid barriers, like, "You CAN'T do this BECAUSE you're a woman," and I feel exceptionally grateful that I never had to deal with that really in-your-face kind of resistance. And I have a huge amount of respect for the women who blazed the trail before me.
By the time I was finishing my PhD, I thought my life's goal would be to sort out the magnetic history of the late Triassic everywhere in the world — but when I finished there was a huge plagiarism scandal that resulted in one of my advisors trying to get me thrown out of the program because I took a stand against the theft of my friend's thesis work. I was already sick of the politics of academia, but this pushed me over the edge. After I was finished I still wanted to do Paleomagnetism, but it is hard when you are not in a university. I decided to do a little consulting to make some money and found myself still going back and forth about doing a post-doc or going for an academic position somewhere where I could work in a lab.
I ended up starting a post-doc that failed because of personality conflicts, and I decided to walk away from it. About that same time, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and that changed everything. Even though I had a treatable form, when you're going through the diagnosis, you don't know that. All you know is "I have breast cancer," and that's terrifying. That reorganized everything about how I was thinking about the world and what I wanted to do. My whole world suddenly shifted. Around that time, I had just started working on a groundwater resource project with these farmers and ranchers who barely knew me but became some of my biggest supporters during my treatment. And in the course of coping with this sudden terrifying thing, it occurred to me that the Triassic magnetic field is cool, but I questioned what I'm contributing to the world by studying this? In looking at what we were starting to do with groundwater work, I realized that with the unique skill set and information that I have now as a geologist and starting to take over this bigger hydrogeology project, we can do something now. We can contribute. We can help inform our communities and our farmers and ranchers about what their groundwater resources are and help them in figuring it all out. This all happened during the bad drought in 2012. I felt there were forces that drove me into this, and I figured out ways to use my skill set in a more helpful and meaningful way. On a side note, this October will be my five-year mark as cancer free.
Currently, I am a geologist and a consulting geologist, which means I work for myself and I do a wide range of geoscience-related work all over New Mexico. Now, as a consultant, I work with everyone from construction crews on pipelines to ranchers and farmers to other environmental scientists and hydrologists. For example, I work on pipelines, surveying where they are going to put the pipeline, walking around looking for fossils that would be impacted by the construction. On the one that we were on last year, we recovered 26 turtle fossils, fragments of alligators, alligator eggs, and teeth from a pig-like mammal. Our job is get whatever we find out of the way. We can either have them keep working and move past us, or we have had to stop construction to remove things and then continue construction. Interestingly, I have never felt uneasy or uncomfortable working with construction crews, even though I'm frequently one of maybe a handful of women on a project, if not the only woman!
Advice I would give to those seeking out a similar role is very simple: Self check every now and then. I have found that with folks that decide to go all the way on to their PhD, one of the pitfalls of becoming a subject matter expert in your field is your ego can get big. For a little while you're the biggest expert in the world on what you just did — the queen of the castle. You present your work and it's cutting edge and new and fancy and shiny. It becomes easy to get on that ego train. The problem becomes a Catch-22 because as a woman you need to be aggressive, to stand up for yourself and be willing to say this is what I want or don't want but not become so dominant that no one wants to deal with you anymore. That's where we must find the fine line between the two. Am I walking that line, or am I being the bully in the room? Whatever step you get to in your education, remember you know what you know, no one can ever take that away from you, so be confident in what you know. But also be willing to say "I don't know."
Dr. Kate Zeigler, is owner and senior geologist at Zeigler Geologic Consulting, LLC, a small woman-owned business located in Albuquerque. She earned her B.A. from Rice University in Geology and Anthropology and completed dual senior theses, both focused on paleoclimate. She obtained her MS and PhD from the University of New Mexico in 2002 and 2008 respectively. Her master’s thesis focused on a large bone bed in Upper Triassic strata near Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, and her doctoral research included developing one of the first complete magnetic polarity chronologies for the Triassic Chinle Formation in New Mexico. In addition, she serves on the executive boards of the New Mexico Water Dialogue, El Llano Estacado RC&D Council, and the New Mexico Chapter of the American Institute of Professional Geologists.
Words: Dr. Kate Zeigler