Thoughts on well-being, sustainability and those things that constitute a good life beyond consumption.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Off to COP16

On Tuesday, my son Corey and I will be heading to Cancun for the U.N. Climate Change convention - COP16.  We will be joined by others from Moravian College (a faculty colleague, students and 2 alumni) who will be reporting on what we learn at

There are so many issues impacting the future of this planet and the well-being of not only us humans, but of most species.  Those of us in the industrial world are not treading along a sustainable path, but climate change and its impact may be the most serious challenge of all that we will have to confront.  I am not at all sure that the negotiations in Mexico will bring us to where we need to be, but we have to hope that the voices of civil society will be heard by the official parties, that the cries of those who are already suffering from environmental changes will be heeded.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Life's simple gifts

After working at home this morning I headed to my office much later than usual.  (One of the luxuries of being on sabbatical.)  As I headed over the crest of the Kittatinny Ridge, I passed a bare tree-any lingering leaves were blown off by the strong wind gusts we had over the past several hours.  In the tree sat 5 turkey vultures and, in an adjacent tree, a Red-tailed hawk was perched.  I wondered if they were resting because it was too difficult to fly in today’s November gales or if they were full from feasting on some carrion that I didn’t notice.  I watched for a few moments in my idling car; the vultures nervously shifted their weight from one foot to another.  The hawk decided to fly off.  I went on down the mountain as I wondered how what kind of day the counters were having at the hawk watches at Bake Oven Knob and Hawk Mountain just a bit to the west.
On the south side of the mountain, there were still shades of rust and gold on some trees –ornamentals mostly— that were refusing to yield completely to the changing seasons.  At a rare stop sign in this rural area, a school bus was dropping off kindergarteners where parents were waiting in their cars.  What a shame that they remained hidden from the elements as it was truly an invigorating fall day.  As I waited for the disembarkment to finish, I noticed a domestic cat coming out of the brush in the state game lands that are on one corner of the intersection.  In a few weeks, it will be deer hunters and then I would understand why the parents would stay in their cars (not that a car window will stop a stray bullet from a rifle).  Anyway, as some children met the one parent who had actually walked to the corner, the cat darted across the road and pounced on a little girl.  A rather amusing short scene; a story ripe for embellishing.  Did the other families see this?  Probably not since most of the parents were on their cell phones not even noticing their children who had climbed into the car.
I hadn’t driven more than 100 yards further and a gloriously colored male pheasant darted around in the brush and several robins fly over the road—probably wondering why they hadn’t flown south yet.
All of these wonders of nature – all within about one mile of my drive.  Was I the only one who had noticed these sights?  Such little things have always made me smile; they make me pause for a moment while I imagine silly scenarios.  I suppose that many would find it odd that I am so easily amused (or distracted) and that I actually treasure such simple things as these chance encounters with elements of the natural world. 
Just yesterday, my twelve-year old and I were walking down a sidewalk near his school in Bethlehem and marveling at the patterns that Japanese Maple leaves had made on the sidewalk after being knocked down by a heavy rain.  We tried to decide which shade of red we liked the best, each having our own favorite, but we did agree that the range of colors from a single tree was pretty cool.  I guess that my son also likes the quirks of nature.  I am happy that we still walk together and share these moments.
The Kittatinny Ridge a bit earlier in the fall in its full glory.  Photo by H. David Husic

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Women, Science and Social Responsibilities

This week, I faced a professional dilemma.  I was supposed to attend a conference in Arlington on increasing the representation and advancement of women in academic science and engineering careers.  Despite the fact that this was sandwiched in between two other conferences I needed to attend in an eight day period, I was looking forward to the dialog and being able to share some perspectives from my own career path.  However, while out of town for meeting #1, my son ended up in the hospital with a severe case pneumonia that wouldn’t respond to the normal antibiotic treatment.  Given how frightening this was (to him and us as parents) and the fact that I have a younger son at home who couldn’t be left alone overnight, I had to make the decision to cancel attending the meeting in Arlington.  There was no question as to where my priorities had to be, but I felt horrible backing out of a professional commitment.

Balancing (whatever that means) family and a career is faced by many families and isn’t a women-only issue.  Key to making the dual-career family situation work is a healthy relationship with a partner who understands and is willing to be supportive and share in the responsibilities.  I am extremely fortunate in having a husband (also a scientist/academician) who is incredibly supportive of my work and travel and an excellent father.  My decision to remain at my son’s side in the hospital was by no means based on feelings that my husband couldn’t handle things.  But there are societal pressures that do make women feel guilty.

When I arrived at the hospital, more than one nurse commented on my not having been in town when my son was admitted.  And yes, perhaps I shouldn’t have gone to meeting #1 but I had taken my son to the doctors, he was on antibiotics, I had stayed at home with him for 3 days, and the day I left, his fever was down and he urged me to go.  When I got the call the next day that he was in the hospital, I felt horrible about my decision.  I had ridden with others so pondered renting a car to get back sooner instead of waiting until the next day.  Both my husband and son said to stay.

I emailed and called the folks from the Arlington meeting to explain the situation and let them know that I had to unfortunately renege on my plans to attend.  Upon return, I went immediately to the hospital and spent the next 24 hours there until I could take my son home.  It wasn’t a life or death matter, but he loved the company and I had the comfort of seeing him and seeing that he was starting to get better.


My students know that I have a very high bar – both for myself and for them.  I push them to work harder and do more than they think they can.  But it is equally important for them to see that I am also compassionate and that my family will always come first when there are problems.  A supportive workplace is critical in encouraging women to come to work and to stay—be it in the sciences or other fields.  Many female students come to talk to me about balancing family and job and they are fearful that they won’t be able to do so.  I talk about the challenges and the rewards and strategies that I have used.  I bring my boys around the department a lot and, in the summer, they are out in the field with me sometimes when I am doing research with my students.  They hear about the successes of my children.  I think that this is all important to do and I am not at all afraid to mix work and family in my conversations with students.

My son (when healthier; photo by R. Wiltraut at the 2009 World Series of Birding)
As a department chair, it is important that I help to create a supportive, family-friendly environment.  At the moment, we only have one other tenure-track faculty member with young children, but last spring, her 3-year old started experiencing serious seizures.  Immediately, the department stepped up and took over her responsibilities so she could focus completely on her son and the rest of her family—without my asking.  I was so proud to be a part of this community.  The students noticed this as well.  But I know from personal experience that other places (departments, research labs, etc.) are not so cooperative and compassionate.  I left a tenure-track position because the environment towards women students and faculty had grown unbearable and no one would take the leadership to make improvements.


One of the sessions I was to attend at the conference was “Selling social science to scientists and engineers”.  As someone long interested in the social impact of science and technology, I was very curious as to what would be covered.  I won’t know but I pondered a number of things while spending the night in the hospital with my son.

I thought of some incredibly influential female scientists that I had met over the past year:  Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai from Kenya and Vandana Shiva from India – a particle physicist turned activist.  Both have fought for the rights of the poor and women of developing countries, for democracy, and for improving and protecting the environment and food security.  I recently heard Nobel Laureate Peter Agre speak not so much about his award winning research but of the responsibilities of scientists in promoting world peace and engaging in dialogue with the public.  As former President of AAAS, he had helped to initiate the Science Diplomacy projects of the organization.  And I had the opportunity at the end of the summer to attend a conservation leadership training workshop where I was thrilled to see so many women, many of them scientists, in the group.  Having studied and written on the history of environmental leadership, I knew first-hand that this high percentage of women in the conservation movement was a relatively new phenomenon. 

Wangari Maathai - COP15 (2009)

Moravian College students with Vandana Shiva (COP15)

I am immensely interested in following climate science and climate change debates and have noticed that most of the prominent (and controversial) voices from the scientific community seem to be male.  Why is this? These individuals are atmospheric physicists, geologists, climate modelers, etc.  But when one thinks about the potential impacts on people, the planet, on life as we know it – this is an area where we really need compassionate people who also understand science at the table where policy decisions are being negotiated and I would think that the topic and the research would attract females.

Why do the life sciences (especially areas linked to health science) and environmental sciences tend to attract more women than some of the physical sciences and engineering?  I am not saying that women can’t and don’t enter other areas of science.  There are some programs and departments that have high numbers of female geoscientists, physics majors, engineers.  But overall, they are still in the minority as compared to the life science programs which often have more females enrolled than males.

How do all these seemingly random thoughts connect?  It dawned on me that perhaps the concepts of compassion, social responsibilities, and attracting women to science might be related in ways that I had never considered before.  I have heard many female students indicate that they need to understand the relevance of what they were learning to some greater picture.  They say that some types of math or physical principles were too abstract for them to wrap their heads around.  Do we, as females in STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), need to do a better job of making connections and illustrating the social links of what we are teaching and researching?  Do we need to better emphasize how science can help to solve critical world problems such as poverty, food shortages, the status of women and children in developing countries—i.e. to help achieve the U.N. Millennium Development Goals for 2015 or some of the Grand Challenges that have been identified?  Do we need to show how science and compassion for the larger human family are closely connected?

Given the growing public distrust of science and its applications (think climate deniers and the anti-vaccine movement) along with our concerns about advancing opportunities for women in science, I am thinking that shifting the conversation towards the role of science in world peace, sustainability and prosperity might be pretty important for our future.

Some future scientists and environmental leaders from Moravian College (class of 2010)

Monday, November 1, 2010

A photo essay on "Home" and the big 2010 fall storm

In my last posting, I commented about the power (both in a physical and spiritual sense) of Lake Superior and the importance of this place in my life and to my wellbeing.  Hopefully, we each have a special place that we hold a close connection to, that has had a strong impact on who we are, and will remain our "home" regardless of where we may move to. 

What follows is a photo essay from my recent trip back home to the Upper Peninsula.  I hope that you can see why it is so rejuvenating for me and why I feel especially blessed to have had the opportunity to grow up there.  As I was headed back to my other home in Pennsylvania yesterday, I was struck by a banner in the Indianapolis airport that read:

"Back home
    On the ground
We discover
    that the gift
    the great wings gave us
    is new eyes to see that
    this place where we live
    we love more than we knew."

This so captures how I feel each time I return to Michigan.  Enjoy the photos. 

Looking towards the bay of Lake Superior in Marquette, MI

Looking back south with the old Coast Guard station in view

Sailboats ready for winter - something I dream of owning!

A remaining ore dock for loading iron ore pellets onto ships

A series of images of the shoreline at Presque Isle Park

Leaving the park

Near Silver Lake along Highway 95

Abandoned trains.  It is sad to see how many tracks have been removed.
I used to go to sleep listening to the trains carrying ore on the way to the Soo Locks.

The Michigamme River

Rock outcroppings near Republic.
These are found throughout the U.P.
They often contain glacial marks, large quartz veins, deposits of hematite, granite and sometimes copper.

Back to Marquette on the first day of the big storm

Barriers were in place to warn people from walking out on the breakwall. 
In the past, people have been knocked over by the waves to their chilly death.

This serene setting in the park doesn't reflect how blustery it was

I have walked on these rocks since I was quite young.

Where I came in college to get away from the books

The power of the wind and waves

These pools form from the waves that blow over the rocks


Life is good