Jennifer Le, Anela Choy, and Jennifer Haase

Conversations with Three Women in Science at Scripps Oceanography

International Women's Day-inspired Q&A features three stellar Scripps scientists, ranging from faculty members to PhD student

In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8, 2019, we caught up with three inspiring women in science here at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego. From established faculty members to early career scientists and PhD students, women at Scripps are leading the way in Earth, ocean, and atmospheric science research. 

Three of these scientists—Jennifer Le, Anela Choy, and Jennifer Haase—sat down with us to reflect on their path to science, their thoughts on making the STEM field more inclusive, and more.

A woman at a computer.
Jennifer Le.

PhD student, Biological Oceanography

What are you researching at Scripps?
My research is focused on ecosystem services—benefits provided by ecological processes—associated with human-impacted systems. Most of my work is done in deep-sea habitat

s that are targeted for food, energy, and mineral resources. But these habitats also provide a variety of other benefits, like biodiversity. I want to better understand the mechanisms underlying these deep-sea ecosystem services by using awesome tools such as remotely-operated vehicles and submersibles. Up on land, I also research ecosystem services associated with stormwater biofilters, specifically carbon sequestration.

What words of wisdom do you have for young girls or women who want to get into STEM?
Clearly communicating expectations is important for all relationships, professional or not. Whether they are about a respectful and equitable workplace, timely email responses, or no expectations at all, it helps get people on the same page in order to avoid grief later.

What still needs to be done to make the STEM field more inclusive?
Unconscious bias and gender inequality do exist, and it is everybody's job to promote diversity and inclusion especially for leadership positions. Plus, representation definitely matters and can influence young people to pursue careers in STEM. In academia, one big challenge is finding time to continue publishing research in the midst of starting a family (for those who want one) without having to sacrifice one for the other. Things like affordable childcare and paternity leave can help lessen the burden on parents.

What is one of the challenges you’ve faced over the course of your career and how did you overcome it?
One challenge I've faced in my career is my lack of knowledge regarding how graduate school and academia work. I was the first person in my family to go to college and pursue higher education, and it was difficult to navigate the education system, academic culture and expectations, etc. without any prior exposure. I overcame this challenge by knowing when to ask for help from peers and mentors, and being lucky enough to find a supportive network. Never be afraid to ask questions; that's what being a scientist is all about.

Who is one female role model in your life or career who helped show you the way forward?
My mom is my greatest role model in life. She independently came to the U.S. at the age of 14 as a Vietnamese refugee, and built a life for herself and her family. Her perseverance and resilience in the face of hardship is something I admire greatly, and her strong sense of compassion and generosity were borne out of those experiences. I aspire to be like my mom who always strives for excellence, and settles for nothing less, while uplifting those around her. She is the most inspiring person in my life and I can only hope to make her proud.

A smiling woman on a ship.
Anela Choy. Photo: L’Oréal Foundation/Jim Kreidler

Assistant Professor, Integrative Oceanography Division

What are you researching at Scripps? 
The focus of our lab is on understanding the collections of animals that fill Earth’s largest living space, the deep sea. Specifically, we’re interested in the food web or feeding interactions between animals and how they contribute to the movement of carbon from surface waters down into the deep sea.

What words of wisdom do you have for young girls or women who want to get into STEM?
Never stop asking questions! The really fun part of STEM is dreaming up creative and innovative ways to answer those questions, and setting out to accomplish your goals and plans.

What still needs to be done to make the STEM field more inclusive? 
Diversity can manifest in a myriad of wonderful and important ways. Gender diversity, ethnic diversity, socioeconomic diversity, cultural and indigenous diversity, LGBTQ diversity—the list goes on. We need to continue to bring excellent individuals with diverse perspectives into science at all levels, but perhaps most importantly at the tops (leadership and administration) and bottoms (young children) of our STEM pipelines.

What is one of the challenges you’ve faced over the course of your career and how did you overcome it?
In oceanography, one of the hardest and very best parts of our field is going out to sea and being away for weeks or months at a time. It is both physically demanding and intellectually invigorating, and over the years I have really found a home amongst the awesome company we have at sea—fellow scientists, engineers, technicians, and ship’s crew.

Who is one female role model in your life or career who helped show you the way forward?
My very first college professor almost twenty years ago, Dr. Karla McDermid, was a limu or seaweed scientist at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. She learned from one of the great early (legendary) pioneers in STEM, and the first Native Hawaiian woman to receive a PhD in science, Dr. Isabella Abbott. Karla was someone who is a very talented scientist and an even keener teacher; she gave me a lot of confidence in my scientific thinking and writing at a pivotal early stage in my education that has always been with me. We still keep in touch today!

Name the moment in your career when you thought, “This is it! This is exactly what I should be doing.”
I am incredibly lucky to have this recurring thought any time I am out to sea, surrounded by talented oceanographers, aboard a big bustling ship! 

You are inspired by…
People who show up every day and aspire to use science as a vessel for making our world a better place.

A woman points at a computer screen.
Jennifer Haase.

Research Geophysicist, Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics

What are you researching at Scripps? 
I work in two areas: geophysics and atmospheric science. In geophysics currently I am doing research on tsunamis in Indonesia, and earthquakes in Oklahoma related to injection of wastewater from oil production. In atmospheric science I am doing research on atmospheric waves in the stratosphere, and developing an instrument to make observations that are useful for capturing what is happening in the stratosphere in climate models. I am also using this instrument to make observations of moisture in the atmosphere during hurricanes and atmospheric river storms in the Pacific, eventually to improve forecasts of these storms.

What words of wisdom do you have for young girls or women who want to get into STEM?
Often young women are very motivated to make change in the world and make it a better place, and this sparks interest in science, especially science related to natural hazards that have a direct impact on people and the environment. They often don’t realize, especially at an early age, how much more they can accomplish in these areas if they are comfortable with math, science, and computers. A lot of times, it just takes some positive encouragement to remind them that they can be successful with developing skills in math and computers, and that a lot of that comes with practice. It is easy to see how observing the natural world, which is always fun to do, helps us describe it. I always try to help them realize that they can take those observations and use math and physics to understand how the natural process works that generate those observations, and how to predict what will happen in the future. That’s true whether you’re trying to predict climate change and its impacts or predict how large a tsunami would be that is produced by an earthquake.

What still needs to be done to make the STEM field more inclusive? 
Because we spend so much time becoming experts in a field, we have a tendency to forget what it is like to be new and inexperienced, and frankly, to not know a lot. If we remember what that feels like, we have a lot more empathy and it is easier to detect and eliminate barriers that we may unintentionally be setting for entry into the field. People can make the STEM field more inclusive by making their work environment more inclusive in all ways and creating a culture of openness, from the smallest thing like saying hello to everyone in your building and inviting people to eat lunch together, to bigger things like inviting visitors or student interns to participate in your research group activities. 

What is one of the challenges you’ve faced over the course of your career and how did you overcome it?
Part of the work I do is develop instruments for making new kinds of measurements. I was very frustrated and stressed when things weren’t going well, until one of my colleagues said, “But Jennifer, it never works the first time.” It gave me enough relief that I was able to persevere and get things working in the long run.

Sign Up For
Explorations Now

explorations now is the free award-winning digital science magazine from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Join subscribers from around the world and keep up on our cutting-edge research.