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Geomorphology and Landscape Evolution


I am interested in how landscapes got to where they are and where they are going. In other words, why is the surface of the earth shaped as it is, and how is it changing? Different processes control how a landscape changes through time. If we can express these processes as equations and quantify how outside forces, like rainfall or humans, drive these processes, we can start to understand why a landscape looks the way it does and how it might be changing.

It's a great time to be a geomorphologist! There are so many tools to help us understand how landscapes evolve. No one person can be an expert in all these tools, which means I get to work with lots of fun, brilliant people. I usually bring a modeling and quantitative understanding to the puzzle, and my colleagues and students bring similar tools plus a bit of everything else.

Marguerite T. Williams Award Speech

Thank you to my dear friend and colleague Jane Willenbring, who puts up with my very frequent panicking texts and still nominated me and organized my package, along with support from Ellen Wohl, Kelin Whipple, and Greg Tucker. Thank you to the volunteers on the awards committee who read through all the packages. I am grateful to my family for their continual support and patience, with a special shoutout to my mom, who didn't force me to go to the college math program that I got into in middle school, because she knew how uncomfortable I'd be. And of course I am grateful for all the trailblazing women in STEM who have come before me, like Dr. Marguerite Williams. 

I also want to thank my postdocs, and students, who do the hard work. I would love to spend the next 9 minutes telling you about the work of Dr. Jordan Adams, who was on the original Landlab development team and used Landlab to explore the impacts of floods on watershed erosion patterns. Or the work of Sam Anderson, who is using all sorts of innovative ways to decipher how rock properties impact landscape morphology. Or tell you about Olivia Boraiko who was an undergraduate in my lab, and now works to ensure that reservation land is getting the same post fire rehabilitation attention that federal lands get. My students bring me so much joy and I love to share that joy.

It would also be great to use this time to talk about the community building activities that I am involved with, like CSDMS and open source software development, or the GeoLatinas, or the EPSP URGE pod and the EPSP nominating committee.

But I can't. Or I should say I won't. Because what I want most is for our community to be inclusive and I don't think we can be inclusive until we tackle the problem of harassment. It is everywhere. In the Geomorphology community, the geosciences community, the STEM community. It is in our classrooms and field campaigns. It is in our work places and research spaces. It is even at conferences, like this one.

Many of you probably read the recent BuzzFeed article about the decades long history of harassment at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. It describes some of the worst-case scenarios for women scientists, including an alleged rape at a past AGU conference.

But most sexual harassment, and harassment in general, is much more subtle. One of the many examples from my experience goes back over 20 years. I was a graduate student and another graduate student professed his love for me and pursued me. It was a different time, so I had actual, hand-written letters on paper as proof. When I asked the graduate coordinator what I should do, they said "Nicole, this is harassment, and I will support you if you want to report it. But wouldn't it just be easier if you apologized to him and we just let this blow over?"

You may think this is small, insignificant. But imagine negotiating these situations, constantly, as a woman in STEM. Or as a person of color in STEM. It's exhausting. It takes away from what we all want to be doing - our science. 

And if you don't believe me, believe the National Academies report on the sexual harassment of STEM. The vast majority of sexual harassment is gender harassment - anything that conveys that you are second-class or singles you out because of your gender - insults to working mothers, sexist insults, gender slurs, unwanted attention, ... this list goes on and on. Harassment impacts and can be perpetrated by people of all genders. And we know that intersectionality, or those who belong to multiple minoritized communities in STEM suffer harassment even more than white, cis, not first gen, women like me. 

In STEM academic environments, more than 50% of women faculty and staff, and 20-50% of students experience sexual harassment.

Unsurprisingly, sexual harassment and harassment of any type undermines women's mental and physical health, let alone their professional and educational development. Sexual harassment not only impacts the target, it impacts everyone in the workplace. 

And, importantly, most women do not report. Why? Because Title IX has led to policies of symbolic compliance and avoiding liability, not to policies that actually protect victims and prevent harassment. It's hard to get data on this, but as best I can tell, less than 1/3 of Title IX reports lead to action, and much punishment is performative, or even more like an award. Imagine punishing a research prof by not allowing them to teach.

The system is broken. Too often harassers get promoted up or passed around. Too often we think something can't be true because we have only witnessed "good" behavior from a person. Too often we give harassers a pass because "their science is so important". What about all the science that never gets done by the people who are bullied out of science? Is their science less important? We will never know. 

What I do know is that harassment is damaging for everyone in our community. 

MeToo did not solve our harassment problems. One or two high profile Title IX cases did not magically eliminate harassment. I wish it had.

So what should we do?

I have a vision for the EPSP community and the geoscience community.

My vision is for a community in which the voices of victims are heard. 
My vision is for a community in which we spend more time protecting victims than we do protecting harassers.
My vision is for a community in which we all step up when we see harassment.
My vision is for a community that prevents harassment, rather than covering it up.
My vision if for a community in which no one has to ask if the rumors are true before applying for their next opportunity.
No one has to keep a poorly named folder like "Isotope Fun" that hides and preserves the email evidence of harassment, just in case.
No student has to take a xanax before meeting with their advisor or their committee.

My vision is for a community in which science is not separated from the scientist.
For a community in which some of us don't need to regularly spend hours of our work days trying to protect those who are harassed.
A community in which no one has to hide their awards speech from their 9 year old kid.
My vision is for a community that doesn't need a whisper network. 
My vision is for a community that values community building as much as it values high profile publications.

And I know we can get there. It will take work from all of us. But maintaining the status quo requires an inordinate amount of work from SOME of us.

And until we get there, I will continue to value supporting others over another publication. I will always value integrity in the scientific process as much as the discoveries that come from the science.  I will not stop being a confidant and a safe space, no matter how much time that takes. Because I value the people in our community more than the science.

If you are ready to start building this community with me and many others, start laying the groundwork and educating yourself. Read the National Academies report on harassment. Read the BuzzFeed article about STRI. Watch Picture a Scientist. These are hard assignments. These are emotional tasks, but we can't move forward until we all educate ourselves. 

Start gaining the trust of the most vulnerable in your community. Start listening to what some of us hear through the whisper network, on a monthly, weekly, daily basis. I know you will be compelled to act. 

And when we all start to act, to root out this weed that is choking us, there will be space for ALL OF US to do our science. There will be more time for writing, collecting data, writing code, mentoring students, nominating folks for awards. We will all be more productive when a cloud of harassment doesn't constantly rain on us. There will finally be time for us tackle the pressing problems, like environmental justice and climate change, that are urgently calling for us, that we are so well posed to start addressing. Please join me to make my vision reality.

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