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First Two Tenured Female Soil Scientists At UW Discuss Diversity, Equity

Pedology field work atop Medicine Bow Peak in the Snowy Range Mountains. Karen Vaughan - Assistant Professor of Soil Pedology (visor, purple shirt); Zoe Ash-Kropf - graduate assistant (light purple, long-sleeve shirt, grey pants)
Kyle Spradley
Kyle Spradley
Pedology field work atop Medicine Bow Peak in the Snowy Range Mountains. The students and faculty were digging through the soil to find permafrost. L-R: Karen Vaughan - Assistant Professor of Soil Pedology and Zoe Ash-Kropf - graduate assistant.

Over the summer, the first two women were granted tenure in soil sciences at the University of Wyoming. Dr. Karen Vaughan and Dr. Linda van Diepen have dedicated time to looking at what diversity looks like in their field. Wyoming Public Radio's Ivy Engel sat down with both of them to discuss why the soil sciences field has historically had diversity difficulties. Dr. Karen Vaughan started on women's participation in the field.

Pedology field work atop Medicine Bow Peak in the Snowy Range Mountains. Zoe Ash-Kropf - graduate assistant (light purple, long-sleeve shirt, grey pants); John Westenhoff - geology undergrad (long-sleeve brown shirt); Angelina Marie Lasko - undergraduate research assistant (black shirt, black pants) - ; Karen Vaughan - Assistant Professor of Soil Pedology (visor, purple shirt); Linda T.A. van Diepen - Assistant Professor of Soil Microbial Ecology (blue long-sleeve shirt).
Kyle Spradley
Kyle Spradley
Pedology field work atop Medicine Bow Peak in the Snowy Range Mountains. The students and faculty were digging through the soil to find permafrost. L-R: Zoe Ash-Kropf - graduate assistant, John Westenhoff - geology undergrad, Angelina Marie Lasko - undergraduate research assistant, Karen Vaughan - Assistant Professor of Soil Pedology, and Linda T.A. van Diepen - Assistant Professor of Soil Microbial Ecology.

Dr. Karen Vaughan: So we're seeing a lot of women in soil science at this point. If we look at graduate students and soil science, it's up above half of typical male-female gender demographics. So the women are here, they're in graduate school, we're not seeing them matriculate into careers quickly. And that's absolutely understandable. Because there are people in those positions, people are retiring and moving through. So there will be a lag in seeing women in those positions. And so we're starting to see those numbers change, but they're not mirroring the numbers of women in those disciplines. And so there's something happening out there. Why? I don't think it's that simple. You know, I mean, there's so many different confounding issues. Is it a hostile work environment? Is it not supportive for parents? All of those things come into play. When we think about women in the workforce, having that role model, that mentor. I have never taken a soil science course from a woman when I think about it. I had to think about it! What about you, Linda?

Dr. Linda van Diepen: Within my education pathway, career pathway, it wasn't until my postdoc that there were really women in the soil sciences field. And so my last postdoc mentor was a female, and she was teaching soil science. I think there has definitely been an increase, but as Karen already mentioned, there might be a lag period, and hopefully we'll start to see a lot more of those come into either academia or other positions.

Dr. Vaughan and her daughter, riding a bike with her daughter behind her.
Dr. Karen Vaughan
Dr. Vaughan and her daughter.

KV: So we're graduating a lot of women in the soil sciences with master's degrees, with PhDs, and with bachelor's degrees. We didn't think there were a lot of women soil scientists in academia, in the higher levels of the federal government. And so we performed the study across the country looking at gender demographics. And gender is one part of diversity, I want to make that clear that there's a lot of other things going on. But in terms of traditional gender norms of male, female, 36 percent of assistant professors in the United States within soil science are women, as we move up into associate professors, that's 24 percent, and then full professors is 18 percent, followed by department heads and chairs is 13 percent. It's not surprising, none of this was surprising. It's just we didn't actually know what the numbers were. We needed a baseline and so that in 10 years, we can look back and say, 'Okay, how have these efforts impacted these numbers?'

IE: So, in general, how diverse is the field of soil sciences? Taking into account gender identity, race, everything, does it have a lot of work to do?

KV: I think we asked those same questions. And we had a hunch that it wasn't that great, but we didn't have those data. So that's why we also did some research and wrote another paper about diversity in general. And it turns out, our hunch was correct and there's very low diversity in terms of gender diversity, ethnic diversity, cultural, sexual orientation, sexual identity, socioeconomic status, we really tried to get to many of those different diversity categories. And yeah, it's not looking great. But that means there's room for improvement. And that means now that we know, we can do targeted work to focus on those populations and increase the diversity.

LVD: My former postdoc advisor, she organized a workshop as well on diversity from all aspects, basically. And, again, I think it is interesting that it is the female soil scientists that are approaching those important aspects to increase the diversity within the field of soil science. So we care about that.

KV: Right? Very often it's us, but to all the male soil scientists out there listening, we need you too and I know you know that. And it may feel uncomfortable and it may feel weird, and you're like, 'I am a cisgender white man, I can't, how am I going to increase diversity?' Well, you can be an advocate and you can be a mentor. So there's a place for everybody.

IE: What can be done about increasing diversity?

Ecosystem Science and Mangaement Assistant Professor, Linda van Diepen, collects soil samples as one of the 50 sagebrush sites across Wyoming.
Ted Brummond, UW Photo Service
University of Wyoming Photo Service
Assistant professor Linda van Diepen collecting soil at one of the 50 sagebrush sites across a climate gradient in Wyoming. Collected soil samples will be analyzed for various microbial, chemical and physical parameters to better understand the driving factors influencing the microbial communities associated with sagebrush ecosystems. This project is part of the Wyoming EPSCoR Microbial Ecology Collaborative.

KV: One big thing that can be done is putting value on the act of focusing on diversity and the importance because a diverse set of scientists is a better functioning, more effective, more creative, more thoughtful, and really just a better, well-oiled machine to have those diverse ideas and people thinking differently and coming from different places. And so if the powers that be can put some value towards those of us that work in those realms. I think it's a lot about mentors and seeing someone that looks like you or seeing someone that cares about you, or advocates for you in ways that maybe as scientists we weren't taught to do.

LVD: Yeah, very true. And I know from a lot of the job ads that are currently out there, or I've been involved in hiring, they asked specifically for a diversity statement. So I think to make people think about it, at least, instead of just focusing on what the research is, what they've done, and even just broader impacts. I think to include that at least makes them think about that. And from that, there can be more ideas rolling out of that, to improve that, especially in that particular field where diversity is low.

KV: But I will say, as an assistant professor, when you've got everything up in the air, and you are trying to put out fires and do all the different research projects and teach really, really well, connect with your students, it's hard. It's hard unless there's value put on that type of work. And so it's extra, it's always extra.

LVD: Yeah. So not putting it all on the professor, but going beyond that as well. Yes, I completely agree. Time is precious and to add more to the plates of the younger, but perhaps also trying to include that more into the upper levels of the academia to improve that.

KV: Yeah, there's stuff we can do within what we're already doing. Linda and I are both teaching soil science courses this semester. And we integrate more diverse perspectives in the research papers that we have our students read. And we have both developed pretty good lists of papers from a wide variety of authors, researchers.

Ivy started as a science news intern in the summer of 2019 and has been hooked on broadcast since. She was supported by the Wyoming EPSCoR Summer Science Journalism Internship program. In the spring of 2020, she virtually graduated from the University of Wyoming with a B.S. in biology with minors of journalism and business. She continues to spread her love of science, wildlife, and the outdoors with her stories. When she’s not writing for WPR, she enjoys baking, reading, playing with her dog, and caring for her many plants.
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