December 23, 2015

What Does it Mean to Be a Geoscientist?

Posted by elandau

Today’s post is part of a series written by student bloggers from the AGU Fall Meeting.

By: Emily Parker, Ph.D. student in environmental engineering, University of California, Irvine

What does it mean to be a geoscientist? I did not know it was a question that needed answering – I thought it was a well-defined occupation. After attending an AGU Fall Meeting session focused specifically on what being a geoscientist means, however, I am starting to see that the role of a geoscientist goes far beyond the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ official definition of one who studies “the physical aspects of the earth…to learn about its past, present, and future.”

Female scientist

Photo credit: AGU

One of the first speakers, Wendy Harrison from the Colorado School of Mines, talked about the importance of communicating geosciences and getting people involved. She said that each year, she asks her class of freshman college students to draw their image of a geoscientist/geologist. Harrison showed the audience many of the students’ drawings, and unsurprisingly, almost all of the drawings were of rugged, bearded men wearing boots and looking at rocks. Although I was at first impressed by the artistic ability of many of the students (no stick figures!), my second reaction was disappointment that no female scientists were pictured. This collection of drawings had a clear message: the way that the public perceives geoscientists is quite different than how we, as a community, view ourselves. We cannot let this broad public generalization define us, or our work.

I heard from many speakers who emphasized that geoscientists have a social responsibility in their work. Geoffrey Plumlee (USGS) talked about his job as an economic geologist and how he works to predict and understand the risks from geologic materials, like asbestos. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Plumlee used his unique Earth science background to help medical experts identify hazards in the dust clouds that many first responders encountered.

Carolyn Wilson, who is a geoscience workforce data analyst for the American Geosciences Institute, said that even the National Science Foundation, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and many other groups that collect geoscience workforce data still do not have a clear consensus on the geoscientist definition either. While many geoscientists still work in the oil and gas industry, others are finding jobs in less traditional fields, such as consulting. This is an indication that what it means to be a geoscientist is flexible and changes over time.

At the end of the session, one of the conveners remarked that we still don’t have an answer to what it means to be a geoscientist, nor do we have any sort of unified definition among the geoscience community and the public. But after hearing all the speakers at the session, I have to conclude that this may actually be a good thing. Why should geoscientists be limited to a definition? Each speaker had a slightly different perception of what role they play and what hats they wear in the geoscience world, and this diversity is what makes the geoscience community so engaging and so fruitful. The fact that there are so many definitions ensures that there will always be new ways for geoscientists to connect with policymakers, the public, and each other.