Teen Skepchick Interviews: Erin Mueller

This post is part of the Teen Skepchick Interviews series, where TS writers talk with amazing women scientists and skeptics about life, the universe, and everything.

Erin upon first arriving at the research site on Stepping Stones Island, Antarctica

When I first found out that Erin had spent a few months doing research in Antarctica (Antarctica!), I knew I had to find out more, and this interview was the perfect excuse to do so and to ask Erin all about her path into science and skepticism.

Read on to find out what it was like to study at the end of the Earth, including a typical day of research, wildlife encounters (Is Erin the whale whisperer?), and, of course, dance parties.

What were your areas of study/majors?

In college, I majored in ecology and evolutionary biology, with a minor in chemistry. I studied plant ecophysiology in graduate school.

How and when did you decide what you wanted to study?

The summer after my sophomore year in high school, I was chosen to participate in a 6-week science program (North Dakota Governor’s School in Math and Science) at a state university. We took some college-level lab courses and seminars and were assigned to work on an individual research project in a lab on campus. For the first time I realized that people actually made a living doing science! I was hooked and couldn’t wait to start college in two more years.

What led you to Antarctica?

After I finished college, I applied to several graduate schools. Of the programs that sent letters of acceptance and offered a stipend, I chose Arizona State University—partly because of the amazing reputation of their graduate ecology program, and partly because I couldn’t stand another North Dakota winter.

I was offered a position in a lab where the professor had an ongoing research project in Antarctica. He was studying the effects of increased ultraviolet radiation (because of the ozone hole over Antarctica) and localized warming on plants down there over the course of several years. I jumped in on the 3rd year of that ongoing project and spent November–January “on the ice” at Palmer Station, Antarctica.

Palmer Station’s live web cam.

What did you do while you were there? What was a typical day like?

Working at a remote research station was an amazing experience. We were completely isolated from the rest of the world . . . no TV; no radio; no telephones. Just 35 people (scientists and support staff) living on an outcropping of rock at the edge of a glacier on a small island off the Antarctic Peninsula.

On a typical day, my field team members and I would eat breakfast, pack our lunches, load up our gear, and then drive a Zodiac (a small inflatable boat) to our research site on a tiny island about 2 miles (by boat) from the main station. We’d spend our day making measurements on the plants at our site, with breaks to eat lunch and watch the local wildlife.

We were often visited by elephant seals, giant petrels, skuas, and Adelie penguins. On a lot of days, we’d see minke or humpback whales pass by the island and see huge chunks of the glacier on the main island calving off into the ocean. It sounded like thunder, and would result in mini-“tidal waves” rolling up onto the shoreline of our little island. It was an amazing day at work, every day!

Erin making measurements during a snowstorm on Christmas Eve

At the end of our work day, we’d head back to the station, unload, and join other staff in the galley for supper. Evenings were often spent in the lab, downloading data we’d collected in the field, and then we’d head over to the lounge for some down time. There was a big screen TV with an extensive collection of videos, comfy couches, and a huge wall of books that constituted the station “library.” We also had a pool table and a great sound system for the dance parties personnel would hold on Saturday nights.

Since I was there in austral summer, the sun never really seemed to set all the way. When bedtime came, I drew the blackout curtains over the window, climbed into my bunk, and got ready for the next day.

Did you learn to speak penguin?

I suppose I did, a little. I learned that penguins are very curious and have very little fear of humans in the wild. If you lie on your stomach to make yourself appear smaller than they are, they’ll walk right up to check you out! They loved gliding through the water alongside our boat, and as comical as they looked waddling and scooting on land, they were so graceful and agile underwater.

Any aspects of the experience that stand out in your mind?

A couple things really stand out for me: One was the experience of total silence. No distant sounds of cars or airplanes. Very few human voices. Just the sounds of nature. There aren’t many places in the world where you can really experience that.

I remember sitting at the edge of our little island research site, watching the ocean and feeling the warm sun and cold wind on what little skin I had exposed, and just listening . . . to nothing. It was amazing.

The other experience that stands out was a close encounter we had with humpback whales. It was one of my last days in Antarctica, and we spotted two large (around 40 feet long) humpbacks not far from our Zodiac. We turned off our motor and slapped the sides of our boat (humpbacks like to investigate curious sounds), and they both headed our way. One of them surfaced; its back rising out of the water no more than 15 feet from our boat. Then the other one popped its head up between us and the other whale. It was close enough I probably could have reached out and touched it, if I hadn’t been frozen in sheer awe. I looked down in the water and saw the whale’s eye . . . and it dawned on me that this amazing animal was looking at me, studying me, trying to figure me out, just as I was doing the same. It was an awesome and humbling moment.

Erin and her colleagues’ research led to publication of their paper (and a cover illustration of their research site) in the American Journal of Botany.

Have you always been interested in science? If not, when did it first spark for you?

I think I was asking questions about how the world works from a very young age, but I didn’t really think of it as “science” until I took my first science class in 7th grade. I had the most amazing teacher, Ed Tomlinson, who encouraged us to think outside the book and to pursue our own interests. Since I grew up in a very small town, I was lucky enough to have him as my 10th grade biology teacher and my senior-year physics teacher. He was my first science mentor, and also the first religious skeptic I ever met!

Do you have any advice for young women who are interested in pursuing science?

Talk to people working in the careers you are interested in. Learn what kinds of things they do in their job, and what kind of training they needed to get there. That’s one thing I wish I’d done. I wound up studying the things that excited me, without any real direction as to where the training was taking me! I took a lot of interesting coursework and had some amazing experiences, but once I earned my degrees, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do with them.

Are you treated differently as a woman in science compared with how men are treated (within your field or by people in general)?

There are about equal numbers of women and men in the biological sciences, so I never really noticed a difference in treatment. In other scientific fields, however (like chemistry and physics), women are underrepresented and often treated differently until they “prove” themselves. I occasionally ran into professors (usually older men) who still seemed to think science was an “Old Boys’ Club” and that women couldn’t do as much as men, but those were few and far between. I think times are changing for the better. As more women become involved in all areas of science, we continue to prove just how much we can do!

When did you first start noticing your own skepticism? Was it a conscious choice?

I always had questions but felt a lot of outside pressure to keep certain questions to myself. Questions that “nice girls” weren’t supposed to ask. I spent a lot of years trying to conform, trying to convince myself to believe as everyone else did. I think that part of it was a belief that there was something “wrong” with me for feeling as I did, and part of it was a desire to just fit in.

I always felt like a square peg trying to jam myself into a round hole, though, so I really don’t think that being a skeptic was a conscious choice for me. I think my brain is just hard-wired not to take anything solely on faith. Now that I’ve found a community of fellow skeptics, I’m very comfortable in my own skin. No more trying to jam a square peg in a round hole!

What do you think about science education in the United States today?

I think the level of science literacy among Americans is horrible, but I’m not sure how much science education is to blame for that. I think it’s more a product of our society in general. When I was a science teacher, I worked hard to get my students excited about science and to develop a basic level of science literacy. While I had a few students who were really interested in science, most of them were pretty apathetic. Science teachers have some limitations and challenges that are outside their control.

First of all, I feel like teachers are working within a society that doesn’t place much value on education in general. People would rather fund their local school’s sports team than spend money to buy a new science curriculum. Second, skepticism and critical thinking, which are at the heart of good science, are not viewed as positive attributes by many people in this country (especially in conservative communities). Schools are underfunded, and teachers feel pressure in many communities to avoid teaching certain “controversial” topics (like evolution).

I really don’t know what the solution is. I think all we can do is try to inspire more young people to learn and love science, and try to make science feel more accessible to the average person, showing them how it applies to our everyday lives. Make it really feel relevant to them; make it personal so they will take an active interest in it.

Any advice for teens who are encountering a lack of skepticism or unscientific thinking in school, specifically in science classes?

This is a tough one. I grew up in a really conservative community, in which “faith” was considered a very admirable trait and “skepticism” a very undesirable one. It’s not easy if you’re a minority in that respect, and it’s hard (read: impossible) to change the minds of an entire community.

The most important thing, in my opinion, is to keep asking questions and never conform to the status quo. Sometimes teachers avoid certain topics because they feel pressure from parents or administrators, but if a student brings up a subject in class, they may feel more open to discussing it. With the right teacher, you might be able to gently steer a class in a more skeptical, critical-thinking direction.

If you can’t get what you want from science classes, keep exploring outside of school. Look for summer science programs at local universities, science camps, and other resources outside the school system. Try to find clubs, or even just one or two other people who are also skeptical thinkers. Develop a community (in person or online) of like-minded friends.

Above all else, if you’re feeling alone in your skeptical beliefs, remember that school doesn’t last forever. In just a few short years, you’ll find yourself with more opportunities and a larger community of people who think and believe as you do.

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Erin Mueller is a former research biologist and science teacher who is currently staying home to raise her three young children. She lives in Oregon and writes a personal blog on religious skepticism: Six Blind Men Discover the Universe.

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Melanie Mallon

Melanie Mallon

Melanie is a freelance editor and writer living in a small town outside Minneapolis with her husband, two kids, dog, and two cats. When not making fun of bad charts or running the Uncensorship Project, she spends her time wrangling commas, making colon jokes, and putting out random dumpster fires. You can find her on Twitter as @MelMall, on Facebook, and on Instagram.

1 Comment

  1. March 27, 2011 at 1:02 am —

    Excellent questions! I loved the answers. What a rare experience Erin Mueller has had! And how eloquently she expressed the frustrations of being a scientist/teacher/skeptic, while still offering hope and concrete suggestions. Wonderful interview.

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