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Marguerite T. Williams

At the 2020 AGU Earth and Planetary Surface Processes awards ceremony I had the honor of introducing the AGU EPSP new mid-career award, named for Dr. Marguerite T. Williams. I also had the honor of introducing the first awardee, Dr. Jane Willenbring. Below is what I wrote for that event.

It is my pleasure to introduce the new EPSP mid-career award for science and community building, named in honor of Dr. Marguerite T. Williams. This award became official in Spring 2020, after over a year of behind the scenes work by Robert Mahon, Claire Masteller, Andrew Wilcox, Jane Willenbring, Elowyn Yager, Brian Yanites, and me. 

In 1942, Dr. Marguerite Williams was the first Black woman to get a PhD in Geology in the United states. I think it is impossible for any of us to fathom the barriers she overcame. I think it is also safe to say that most of you had never heard of her until the announcement of this award. She is a hidden figure, despite the enormity of her accomplishments.

Dr. Williams started her higher education in a two-year teacher training program at the Normal School for Colored Girls. From there she went on to Howard University, graduating with a bachelors degree in 1923. She then returned to the Normal School as a Professor, but later took leave to get a Masters degree in Geology from Columbia and then a PhD in Geology from Catholic University. She finished her PhD at the age of 46, and she continued to teach after graduating. From her later writings it is clear that she was passionate about teaching both in the classroom and in the community. 

And if all this isn't enough to peak your interest her, Dr. Williams was a geomorphologist! 

I want to read to you a few excerpts from her dissertation:


From the preface to her dissertation: 

"Control of erosion and floods concerns both the government and private individuals, through whose joint cooperation only, can any success be attained. Geological erosion is a natural, but slow process. By removing the natural binding media, man often accelerates this normal process, making necessary, measures of control which are costly and often fruitless. To prevent waste and to insure a greater permanence of future improvements, a clearer knowledge of true conditions is desirable."

Among her conclusions are "Grading, road-building, paving, bridge construction, etc., cause increased runoff into the river. High banks, once standing, no longer exist to prevent the river from overflowing."

It's both exciting for me to read her words from 1942, and a bit sad that I hadn't seen them earlier. In recognizing Dr. Williams with this award, I hope we can all begin to grapple with the fact that privilege impacts our legacy.

So what progress have we made with inclusion since Dr. Williams earned her degree 80 years ago?

Sadly the answer is essentially none. Most of you have seen this figure from Bernard and Cooperdock, which shows our lack of progress in educating PhD students of color. 

We know our science is cool, exciting, fun, and important. Is there any reason to think that Black, Indigenous, Brown, and other minoritized scientists wouldn't also find our science fun and important? Of course not! Our science is obviously enticing! So why are White people over-represented, in terms of broader population numbers, in GeoScience?

This question is on our minds in part because this summer was an awakening for many to the problems that have been here for centuries.  Our education system is not immune to the systemic racism that plagues all aspects of life in the United States. The barriers to entry in the geosciences seem to be particularly high, leaving out many beyond just communities of color. Geoscience is not cheap. Field work is not safe, or not even physically possible for some communities. 

It is no longer time to talk about these problems. It is time to solve them. I know so many of you listening today. We are a good and strong community. We are creative. We use many tools. We work together to solve exciting earth science questions. And now we must work together to solve the problem of inequity and exclusion in our community. 

It is up to all of us, and primarily it is up to those of us with the most privilege to take the lead, listen to minority scientists, and start making change.

The Marguerite Williams award is a small step towards making change. Awardees must have made an impact both in science and community building. This is a tall task. A task that Dr. Williams was able to do 80 years ago. The definition of what is impactful science and community building is purposefully open for interpretation, because there are so many ways to be impactful. I hope that future award committees, when reviewing nominees, will consider all of the resources available to nominees, and that impactful science comes in many different forms, beyond H indices and flashy publications. Community building also happens at various levels, from Parent Teacher Associations to the National Academy of Sciences, and everywhere in between.

And with that, I think the choice of the first awardee is obvious to all of us. We all know Dr. Jane Willenbring for her impactful science and brave commitment to making our community safe. I have the privilege to know Jane as a scientific collaborator, mentor, and friend. 

It is difficult to know where to begin in introducing Dr. Willenbring. She is known for her innovative application of cosmogenic isotopes to advance foundational understanding of Earth-surface processes. She is also a mentor and community scientist who uses her expertise to solve practical problems.

One of my favorite papers of all time is her Debate Article in TerraNova entitled "The null hypothesis: globally steady rates of erosion, weathering fluxes and shelf sediment accumulation during Cenozoic mountain uplift and glaciation." In that paper, Dr. Willenbring takes disparate data sets and puts them together to make a story. She sees both the macro and the micro in data. She thinks across scales, giving her new insight and allowing her to challenge what many of us never thought to challenge. I think the Null Hypothesis paper is a perfect example of this, but you can see this is all of her papers. As cliche as it may sound, Dr. Willenbring actually does think outside the box! 

Jane is also a hard core field scientist, having spent literally years of her life doing fieldwork. I love going in the field with her because she can do anything, but she doesn't push anyone to do everything. And field conversations with her are pure joy. She simultaneously sees the tiniest soil particle and the entire watershed.

Many of you may not know that Dr. Willenbring uses her expertise for community education and engagement. Since she was an assistant professor, she has run the "Soil Kitchen" program, testing community soils for inorganic metals, and also teaching community members about soil properties. Plus Jane is a great cook and she gives participants soup! 

Beyond that, she has applied her science to understand soil contamination at Superfund sites and contaminated sites near power plants. 

And within our community ... her impact cannot be overstated. These are the words of an early career researcher when I told them I would be giving Jane's introduction: " Jane's work towards making geosciences a safer place for those coming up the ranks has been especially inspiring. It should be a charge for those of us in positions of privilege to look to Jane's example and ourselves put in the work to help bring up the next generation of scientists in a more equitable and safe community."

I couldn't agree more. Many of you know that Jane was featured in the movie "Picture a Scientist" which came out this year, and has been screened in numerous venues this summer and fall. What you may not know, and I hope I am not outing her in sharing this, is that Jane says yes to all, or nearly all, panel discussions that she is invited to about the movie. During the months of October and November this year she participated in daily panels, sometimes more than one panel per day. Imagine the toll of reliving personal trauma every day. She did this on-top-of moving to a new position at Stanford this fall, and homeshooling and relocating her daughter in the middle of a global pandemic. And yes, she still does science and advises students and all the other "regular" service that we all do.

Dr. Jane Willenbring truly is a fantastic scientist and a fantastic human being. She is seemingly superhuman and braver than any scientist should need to be. It is an honor to introduce Dr. Jane Willenbring, the inaugural winner of the Marguerite T. Williams award.

Building an anti-racist research group. (Fall 2020)

Black lives matter. And it is not enough to just say those words. The geosciences are a field that has shown no progress over the last 40 years in the inclusion of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) scientists. This was pointed out in a striking article by Dr. Rachel Bernard and Dr. Emily Cooperdock. Racism is prevalent in the geosciences, as discussed in this article by Dr. Kuheli Dutt, and surely this contributes to the lack of diversity.

So what can I do? What can my research group do?

Systemic racism is not something that I, or my research group, can fix alone. But we can contribute to progress. We can be a voice. We can learn.

Some general activities that I am working on/committed to:

  • Creating a lab code of conduct that includes anti-racism and emphasizes equity.

  • Reducing bias in graduate student recruiting.

  • Being a voice for equity and diversity and using my power and privilege to improve equity and diversity.

  • Attending trainings and regularly reading about diversity, equity, and inclusion and how to be anti-racist.

  • Attending regular meetings of white allies.

  • Discussing racism with my research group, especially as it pertains to the field of geosciences.

Are you a geoscientist who wants to contribute to anti-racism? Here are some things you can do, be aware of, contribute to:

  • Sign this petition, led by Dr. Hendratta Ali, to call for anti-racist action by geoscience organizations.

  • Recognize that field work is not always safe for everyone, including BIPOC scientists and students. The expense of fieldwork is also exclusionary for many groups. Some thoughts on the barriers presented by fieldwork can be found in this article by Dr. Sam Giles, Dr. Chris Jackson, and Dr. Natasha Stephen.  

  • Lots of great ideas on being an anti-racist geoscientist, including how to build an anti-racist lab group, are presented in this article by Dr. V. Bala Chaudhary and Dr. Asmeret Berhe.

  • Listen to and believe your BIPOC colleagues, your BIPOC students. Make space for them and ensure their voice is heard. If you are white, this isn't about making you feel better. It's about making an equitable playing field. If your actions aren't helping your BIPOC colleagues, you aren't doing this right.

  • You will make mistakes. When you make a mistake, say sorry, listen, and learn. Even full professors can say sorry. It won't ruin their careers.

  • Cite BIPOC authors.

  • Invite BIPOC scientist to give seminars.

  • Don't dump service on BIPOC scientists.

  • Recognize BIPOC scientists for their science and their service.

  • Recognize that western science isn't the only legit science.

The GIGLE group is awesome!

(Gasparini's Inclusive Geomorphology & Landscape Evolution Group)

(Fall 2020)

The covid 19 pandemic is all kinds of awful, to put it mildly. New Orleans, the city I live in, was hit very hard, very early (for the United States), and there were many deaths. This is a time of great loss.


Staying at home has been the right thing to do for a while, but as a mom with young kids, I've had a really difficult time coping. At this point I'm pretty sure everyone in my group has seen me cry.

Despite, or maybe because of, my increased level of disorganization and stress, our research group has really impressed me through it all. The team has found new ways to support each other, even when we are in different countries. And somehow they are still doing research! (I am not.) I am so grateful to my team!

Some notable stuffs from the GIGLE group over the last year:

  • In fall 2019 Dong-Eun (goes by Daniel) Kim joined our group as a post-doc. Lizmar Rodriguez-Lugo joined our group as an MS student.

  • Sabrina Martinez defended her MS Thesis in December 2019 and got a job at the USGS. Woo hoo!! We are all so proud of her!

  • Nathan Lyons was promoted to a Research Assistant Professor in December 2019.

  • Sam Anderson did an internship with the UN High Commission for Refugees in the Netherlands in spring 2020.

  • In Spring 2020 Laurent Roberge and Christian Kakonkwe joined our group as PhD students.

  • Claire Hudson got funding to work on her Honor's thesis during summer 2020.

  • Olivia Boraiko started her Honor's thesis research in summer 2020.

  • Claire Hudson was accepted to study abroad in spring 2021.

  • Kristina Leggas joined our research group in summer 2020 as an undergraduate research assistant.

  • Nathan Lyons had a paper accepted at ESURF in summer 2020.

  • We got a drone in fall 2020.

  • Daniel and his wife adopted a kitty in summer 2020.

In our group meetings we talk science and how to survive, good news, fun news, anything we want/need to share. Some examples of what happens at our meetings are below. That very colorful plot was made by Christian. I called it the "disco plot"! Daniel and Jen's kitty Hoochu lost his first tooth!

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