BY: Mikaela Dunkin
EDUCATION: B.S. in Biology & Environmental Sciences from Dowling College. Currently working towards a Ph. D. in Ecology & Evolution at Stony Brook University
RESEARCH INTERESTS: marine invertebrate zoology, adaptation and phenotypic plasticity in response to global change, population genomics
FUTURE GOALS: After I finish my dissertation I want to complete a postdoc and find a job that allows me to conduct collaborative research in evolutionary ecology, with opportunities for mentoring and outreach. My dream is to be a government scientist at a NOAA laboratory, but I am keeping an open mind. I plan to take advantage of interesting opportunities as they come up – I recognize that luck and timing will strongly influence my career path.
Why did you want to be a part of GWiSE?
At first, I just wanted to join a community where I could meet women on campus and make friends outside of my department. Now I stay involved because I see how GWiSE events bring graduate students together. I’ve had really interesting discussions with other members and I’ve learned so much from workshops and speakers that we’ve hosted. I hope that this club is a part of training a generation of scientists who will build a healthier culture of inclusion, collaboration, and diversity in STEM fields.
When did you know you were interested in pursuing a degree in science and engineering?
Growing up in the Pine Barrens of Long Island, a really unique ecosystem east of campus, (I highly recommend a visit! https://www.pinebarrens.org/). I was surrounded by beautiful woods, ponds, marshes, and beaches. I’ve always loved being outside and I was encouraged to explore the natural sciences. In high school, I joined the cross country team and logged many miles exploring trails and shorelines, which inspired me to pursue a career in Environmental Sciences at Dowling College. There I had wonderful mentors who involved me in research projects and pushed me to add Biology as a second major. I never thought of pursuing a PhD, until they suggested that I was capable. With the help of Dr. Rich Wilkens, I discovered a strong interest in Ecology and Evolution, which led to my decision to pursue a Ph. D. in that field at Stony Brook University.
What is one personal achievement of yours that you are proud of and why?
In the first year of my Ph.D. I took a Biometry course, which requires use of the R programming language. I had never coded before the start of the class and after some initial terror and despair, I got to work on the first problem set. Hundreds of Google searches later, I came up with something to submit, convinced that it was trash. When we got the assignment back, to my surprise I received full credit. I’ve done things that are probably more impressive than this, but I like to think back to this moment when I feel like I’m not smart enough to be in academia. I don’t know how to do everything, but I am stubborn and can figure out most challenges with enough time. I’m proud of that. It’s fun to look back and see how far you’ve come – I like to do things in R now.
Are there any side projects you’ve started recently that you are glad you did?
I started taking some pottery classes because I realized that the last time I had a hobby was in high school. I am slowly re-learning that doing creative things enriches my life. I don’t make pottery with a purpose, I just build weird little statues of creatures – the last one I made was a cuttlefish!
What is one of the most interesting places you have visited?
Stromboli, a volcano in Italy that I visited on a geology class trip in college. I climbed to the top at night, saw a glow of lava as it erupted, and felt the hot ground beneath my feet. The experience was terrifying, awesome, and life-changing. I want to be a geologist in my next life!
What do you think needs to happen for there to be more women in science and engineering?
I think that the culture of academia needs to be totally dismantled and rebuilt, for the benefit of all humans, not just women. Currently, I see a lot of competition, ego, and fixed mindsets getting in the way of accomplishing sound and innovative science. When we place highest importance on prestige, publications, and grant money, people who are already at an advantage in the current system are kept at the top, while scientists from different backgrounds face resistance as they try to fight their way to the upper tiers of academia. This culture allows people with power to abuse others with no consequences, and it pushes out people with experiences that are different from those of the majority (which in many STEM fields is men). For science to become truly diverse, I think there needs to be a shift towards valuing the integration of different perspectives to answer big scientific questions in novel ways. To bring different perspectives to the table (and keep them there), we need to support and meet the needs of women and currently underrepresented groups in science. More women need to be placed in positions of power, to open the doors for others. Such changes will require male allies, as well as big shifts in policies at the institutional level, such as providing paid family leave for all parents and guardians.