As a biogeochemist, Professor Rebecca Barnes works hard to research the environment and help students, especially women, do the same. This week, The Catalyst sat down with Barnes to gain some insight on climate science and being a woman in STEM, as well as to get to know her, her accomplishments and motivations, and her views on Colorado College.
The Catalyst: What do you hope to accomplish in your time at CC?
Becca Barnes: That’s a hard question! I’ll say that my favorite part of my job is working with students on research and helping my students be the best version of themselves. I think that one of the great things about CC is that we get to know our students. And I think that’s something that the block really enables us to do at CC. And then my sort of my biggest passion project is really getting women involved in science and having them do research with me or with anyone but really making it clear that all of us are capable of doing research. And you don’t have to be the “A” student; you don’t have to be the person who loves differential equations or chemical bonding properties in order to be a successful researcher, even in things that require you to understand chemical bonding and differential equations because I think that I have found that with students who do research with me, often some of those basic skills actually then make sense after they have a way to apply them that matters as opposed to, I don’t know; I just remember Calc 2 and like learning the integral of, you know, the co-sign over the square root of the tangent and I’m like, “I don’t know if I care about the integral of the co-sign over the square root of the tangent.” So I feel like that is sort of what I want to accomplish: trying to be able to give that to as many students as I possibly can. And I know I can’t reach everyone, and I also recognize I am not everyone’s cup of tea, right? But, you know, that’s fine — or most of the time I think it’s fine.
TC: What is your motivation for the work that you do?
BB: I think, in many ways, it’s like I see myself in you all. You know, students say to me, “well, but yes, you’re accomplished and you’ve done X, Y, and Z in your life.” But you know I was a student who didn’t want to talk in class. I was a student whose first two grades in college were a D and a C-. And I think that it’s important to be real and honest about the fact that most of us struggle, you know? And I think that the reasons that drive what I do — whether it’s my women in STEM initiatives or my research — it’s because these are things I’m passionate about. And I recognize that I am not the best mathematician; I am not the best biogeochemist; I’m not the best hydrologist, or any of these things, but I do think that I am my best when I’m working on things that I’m passionate about. So I just try to have that lead me. And I think that as I’ve been here longer, it’s been easier to be comfortable letting my own strengths lead me, whether it’s teaching or research. So like, this year, all of my students in every class are doing a Wikipedia bio on a woman in STEM. And this, you know, has nothing to do with anything other than the fact like I do all of these broadening participation activities outside of CC. And I really sort of selfishly wanted to bring some of that part of myself into my classes. And it’s been, I think, fairly successful. But I think it’s because I think students respond to that personal aspect of it and the fact that they clearly care about it because I care about it, which still baffles me but it does seem to work.
TC: If you could live anywhere in the universe, where would you choose?
BB: Oh my gosh, that’s a hard question. Can I have two places? I think that if I could have two places, one of them would be in a coastal area probably in Spain or Italy — just to have access to deliciousness. And I really love sort of the small community feel that I’ve had when I traveled in Spain and Italy in these coastal communities. So like if I had all the money in the world, I would like to have, you know, a little villa on the coast. And then probably, you know, I think we live in a pretty ideal place; Colorado’s pretty awesome. I think maybe the Pacific Northwest — where you can have mountains and ocean so you don’t have to ever make a choice — is nice but it’s hard to beat all the sunshine. I don’t know. That’s a really hard question. It’s a very good question. Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, often New York City is my answer. I love New York City. I feel like it’s weird that I’m an environmental scientist but I like really crave that sort of an urban feel. My friends tease me that I chose to live in the most compressed, East-Coast-type community in Colorado Springs because I like that coziness. But, I don’t know. Probably someplace in the mountains and someplace on the coast.
TC: What do you believe is your greatest achievement thus far?
BB: I think the thing I’m proudest of — which is maybe not really the answer you’re looking for I don’t think — is my resilience and sort of the fact that, you know, I’m not someone who lets other people beat them down. And even when I’m feeling like sort of a pulpy mess on the floor, I pick myself up and I’m like, “No, you can do this.” And that sort of inner strength has been something that has been fairly challenging for me to develop over time. And I think the fact that I am capable of doing that now is a huge personal achievement for me. And I mean it’s not really like getting my Ph.D. or winning some award or whatever. But I think that being able to tell myself that I’m worth something is probably one of my bigger achievements in my, you know, 42 years on this planet.
TC: What challenges do you face as a female in STEM?
BB: Other than my boobs and blonde hair? I think that one thing that is, it’s just, you know, I still am surprised. Like, even though I study this, even though I have this big grant to like do workplace climate stuff, and I’ve seen all the data, I still think I am surprised when I am just blatantly disrespected. And it’s so clear that it’s just because I’m a woman and because I sort of have this, like, Ms. Frizzle personality, right? I think if I was a more serious scientist — or I’ve been told by others that if I was a little bit more serious — maybe people will take me seriously. But, as you know, that would be very challenging for me. So I think that there’s some power in surprising people. Like in the sense that, you know, I think I told you the story; the first time I presented at a conference — so it was my second year of my Ph.D. — we’re in these like giant poster halls, and this person, I have no idea who it was, came up. And, you know, you’re like, “Oh, do you want to hear my spiel?” And I gave him my like 2–3 minute thing about my research; and his comment to me was, “You’re way smarter than you look. You should dye your hair.” And he walked away. That was the only thing he said. And I’ve had that said to me, in some form or fashion, at least on an annual basis if not like on a weekly basis in some instances. And I think that those comments, because they’re so ridiculous, are empowering to me because I’m like, “F*ck you.” Excuse me. But I think what’s harder for me is that I am still really thrown by students not respecting me. I am still really thrown by just the sort of blatant disrespect that happens whether I’m in a meeting room where I’m the only woman — which happens often. People think I’m much younger than I am, which I think exacerbates my femaleness. Even here sometimes I have to be like, “I am not a student.” I know I don’t look my age but I also do not look 20. It’s just challenging, right? And it’s challenging to know that it’s something you can’t control. And — especially with anxiety and everything — I think that often we want agency in our lives. And it’s really hard to know that there are people who are just never going to respect me because of how I look and how I talk and the fact that I use “we” pronouns and not “I” pronouns, and, you know, all of these things. And that is just a reality. One thing that’s really nice about CC, I think, is that we do have a lot of female faculty in the natural sciences. There’s enough of us that we sort of fulfill all sorts of personalities and hopefully can provide a lot of different role models for the women students here. And that’s my hope because, I mean, I’ve never been on a campus that has a chemistry department that has as many women for example. It’s sort of remarkable. But I don’t think that just because we have something that looks like gender parity here means that the women are necessarily respected or treated the same as the men. And without a doubt faculty of color, whether they’re women or not, are often treated even worse. So, I don’t know. I think it challenges me because it removes agency, but I also think it sort of empowers me because I want to make it different.
TC: What has been your most embarrassing experience in academia?
BB: Oh, I mean, I have lots of embarrassing stories though, as you know. Like the number of times I’ve made mistakes in front of other people is sort of horrifying. Like I remember, oh gosh, it was my first field campaign all on my own with my Ph.D. research. I convinced friends to help me by paying them in food. (That’s how I paid all of my research assistance in grad school.) So I had my whole team together, we’re driving down, I had tested everything. And, as it turns out, I grabbed the wrong tubing. So we couldn’t do anything; no pumping, no anything was happening, and we just drove home. And I remember being like, “I’m really glad that my closest field site is two hours away and not 20 hours away.” The number of times those sorts of things happen … even though I’m like an overly organized person and I’m really prepared. I think that the thing you just have to learn about field research is that something will go wrong, you will fix something with duct tape, and you just have to sort of learn how to be a MacGyver in the field. I don’t know; I don’t have a really great story. I have fallen in rivers within minutes of getting there — like filled my waders, been soaking wet the rest of the day. You know, rivers often are muddy. As you can imagine — since you’ve been in class with me — I am not the most graceful human, so there’s a lot of falling in the field. In the summer, my students actually tease me cause I’m the klutziest of all of us. So they’re like, “Let’s have Becca go first and see how dangerous it is.” They know if I can do it everyone can do it because I’m just too much of a spaz; my body wants to move faster than my brain is allowing it to discern the landscape around it. I think being in the field with me, my students just generally are laughing.
TC: What do you think of the recent changes and this is the environmental studies department?
BB: Well, I’m really excited about our new majors. I think the new curriculum will really benefit our students. And it will benefit more students because the environmental studies major is really adaptable to whether you want to have a focus that’s more economics, or have a focus that’s more political science, or have a focus more like humanities or history, or even education. So the new environmental studies major, I think, allows students to really craft something that is better-suited to their interests. And that, I think, is a better reflection of what environmental studies is. You know, if I had my way, everyone would take climate change because I think it’s a critical issue that we all need to be educated on. But obviously that can’t happen so I think the new environmental studies major is really great from that perspective. And then the new environmental science major, I think, is much better at preparing our students for jobs right out of undergrad —whether that’s like a consulting or tech sort of position, or to go to grad school.And it also allows our students who often are debating between OBE, geology, and EV, to have a little bit more time because it’s structured more similarly. And so you don’t have to know your first year that you want to be an EV major so that you can start trying to get into all the classes. So I think there’s a lot of benefits. It also allows us to, hopefully, be able to offer more upper-level classes that are focused in our various specialties — which hasn’t been something that we’ve been able to do in the past. So I think that there’s a lot of improvements. Like, we’ve had a lot of hiring, right? So myself, professor Lee, professor Gratz, all of us are new in the last five years, and that’s a fairly big change in our program. So I’m really happy with the new majors and hopefully the students feel the same.
TC: Do you think CC students care enough about the environment?
BB: I think CC students, for the most part, are very engaged and want to care about the environment. I think that, like most humans, we are not very cognitive of the impact that we have on the earth. And I think that — whether that’s our so-called carbon footprint or our ecological footprint — CC students are very good at caring about something and walking the walk, but not always walking the walk if you don’t have all that information, right? So, for example, what’s the number-one-funded organization on campus? Carnivore Club. And what is the easiest way for most of us, on an individual basis, to reduce our carbon emissions? By reducing the amount of red meat we eat. So I think that those two things are in direct contrast. But my guess is that a lot of the students who really enjoy Carnivore Club don’t realize the impact that those personal choices are making on the environment. So I think that CC students, like most of us, actually are very well-intentioned … And I do think CC students care about the environment, but I think that even people who care about the environment, if you don’t know how your actions are affecting it, it’s pretty hard to change your behavior in order to improve that. In my climate change class, occasionally students have done projects like talking to other students on campus; there’s all these interviews where students are like, “What?” you know? They have no idea that their environmental footprint is so based on what they eat. And especially as college students living on campus, it is one of the biggest things you have control over. So I think our students, in general, really like being outside and really like the services that the ecosystem is providing us — whether that’s skiing or hiking, or just sunshine or clean air, you know, most of us like breathing.But I don’t think that everyone knows some of the simplest steps that we can take to improve things.
TC: What do you think is the best way to communicate climate science?
BB: I think the best way to communicate climate science is by finding people on common ground. So if a student’s in my class and they are saying that they aren’t really sure if climate change is happening or they don’t “believe the science,” you know, science is not a belief system. What we know is happening on our planet right now is based on over 150 years of scientific research. So, one, we have a lot of evidence. Two, I think that the best way to do it is to meet people where they’re at. So if this is someone who is from the Southwest, ask them like have they talked to their grandparents about how things have changed over their lifetime. That’s a place where people actually can say it is getting warmer, like in Arizona. If you’re from, like, North Carolina, it’s important to think about the intensification of hurricanes and the fact that these are things that are happening now and affecting people now. And I think one of the challenges with climate change is we often think about it as this abstract thing in time and space. So we talk about polar bears and melting ice caps, but most of us don’t have personal accounts with polar bears or melting ice caps. And even if we care about the environment, those things seem pretty abstract and seem far away. And so I think it’s better if we can think about what we can see — whether it’s the devastating fires in California, things like Hurricane Maria, Hurricane Harvey. Like, research has shown that it’s believed that climate change resulted in Hurricane Harvey’s strength being increased by 30 percent or something. And these are things that are happening now and affecting people. And I also think that, especially at CC, students are very driven by justice issues. And I think the fact that the majority of the impacts are being felt the most severely by the people who have had the least effect on our climate is a really important thing to hit home. There are literally billions of people who will be displaced with sea level rise; that’s not in this country. Yes, Florida, yes, 60 percent of people in United States live in a coastal county. We are definitely going to be impacted by sea level rise, but sea level does not rise consistently everywhere, and our country is not predominantly at sea level. Well, there are entire countries that are and I just think that the human toll is so clear that it’s irresponsible of us not to act. So I think that like focusing on the human part of it the fact that it’s happening now and in our backyard not, you know, somewhere super far away that we want to visit one day. You know, people aren’t transformed by facts; their opinions often are not changed by more science. They’re changed by relating to them and thinking about something that could affect them.
TC: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
BB: I should’ve read this column before you came in to know that these questions would be so hard. Best piece of advice? I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s advice or just the realization that, you know, everything is hard until you’ve done it once. And recognizing that those times when we’re super uncomfortable and frustrated are often the times were growing the most as people and the times we’re learning the most. And I think that acknowledging that being wrong is not failure in my own life — and this was definitely told to me by other people, it’s just at some point my brain started computing that — has been really freeing from like the perfectionist tendency that I sort of was operating under. And it enabled me to do something — like get a Ph.D. — that I never thought I would ever have been able to do. I mean, I left college being like, “I’m never going back to school.” And I never did research in college cause I didn’t think I was smart enough or good enough in school because I wasn’t an “A” student. And I think it was the on-the-ground, practical experience of being a community organizer — which I had no idea how to do that before I did that. And then just like realizing, “Well, if you put your mind to something you can really accomplish a lot.” And then having someone point that out — that being wrong is not failure and being uncomfortable means that you’re pushing yourself and that’s actually a good thing. So I now like look for things that push me outside my comfort zone and I think that that is a huge benefit. And I think that a lot of the opportunities I’ve been able to bring to students at CC and the opportunities that I have received myself are because I now feel much more comfortable being uncomfortable.