Veronica Vriesman: Research at the intersection of climate science, paleontology, and archaeology

Veronica Vriesman

Veronica Vriesman is a doctoral student at UC Davis with bachelor's degrees in geology and Spanish from Colgate University in New York. She divides her time between the Davis campus and Bodega Marine Laboratory. In this interview, Vriesman shares her experiences in science and her goals for the future.

I consider myself a paleontologist who uses geochemistry and archaeology to answer questions about climate change. As a Latina woman scientist, increasing the diversity and equity of marine science — and academia in general — is extremely important to me. I make sure that I carry out my research with these principles in mind.

Briefly describe your current work and your research.

I am currently a graduate student pursuing my Ph.D. in geology at UC Davis. I didn’t come to Davis with a specific research project already in mind, so my first task upon arriving to grad school consisted of drafting and re-drafting a cohesive dissertation project. I had to learn as much as I possibly could about my field so that I could design and carry out a research project that addressed an unanswered — yet answerable — question.

My research is at the intersection of climate science, paleontology, and archaeology. I am trying to reconstruct the environmental history of coastal sites along the North American Pacific Coast by using geochemical methods on shells from archaeological sites. Indigenous communities collected these shells during the past several millennia, so we can use archaeological records to constrain oceanic conditions over this timescale.

What do you love the most about your job?

I feel very fortunate to learn for a living. Marine invertebrate organisms have always fascinated me, so I love that I am able to contribute to our growing knowledge of climate science by studying them. I also love that I have the opportunity to teach and interact with undergraduate students on a regular basis. To me, communicating our science is one of the most important parts of a scientist’s job.

How difficult was it to get where you are today?

I have just finished the first year of my Ph.D. program, so I know that there is much left to be done before I have accomplished any of my long-term goals. I don’t think it is easy for anyone to enter and successfully navigate their way through higher education, but it is more difficult for some than others. I am fortunate to have a strong support system at home and a good undergraduate education, but it has taken — and will continue to take — the utmost dedication and persistence.

My high school, and our science department in particular, was underfunded and understaffed. When I got to college I was afraid of science because I knew very little about it, even though it interested me. Overcoming a fear of the unknown had to happen before I could pursue my interests. I am still working on “catching up” on my science background and constantly reminding myself that the fear only stems from unfamiliarity, so to get rid of the fear, I just have to become more familiar with the subject matter. This applies to anything in life, I think.

What was the biggest obstacle in your way before your career reached where it is today? How did you overcome it?

This question is a difficult one for me because I am still pursuing my career. I have a feeling the greatest obstacle is yet to come… (Ph.D. qualifying exam, Ph.D. defense, tenureship, etc.)

What are you looking forward to the most in the future of marine science?

I am really looking forward to a community of marine scientists that is increasingly more diverse. To answer a wider variety of questions, we need people with a wide variety of backgrounds, mindsets, educational experiences, etc. There are also just so many unanswered questions in marine science, and I look forward to new questions emerging that we have never even considered or addressed before.

How do you think we can get more women involved within marine science?

The problem is not that women are not interested in marine science (or science in general for that matter). The problem is that science, industry, and academia have shown themselves to be inhospitable to women time and time again. I think changing the culture of the scientific community is required. We must make sure that once women enter marine science educational programs/careers/etc., they are not chased away, abused, or pitted against one another, etc., but rather welcomed to the community. Hire women; listen to women; believe women.

What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring female marine scientists?

Learn to distinguish advice from disparagement. Advice can come in many forms, but it should never make you feel as though you are being humiliated, berated, or repressed. It can be harsh and demanding, but it should always add to you and not take away from you. No one should consistently make you feel negatively about yourself in a way that is damaging to you and/or your work.

Also, never lose sight of what you are trying to achieve. As scientists, it is easy to get bogged down in the details of our technical studies. But why is it that we study whatever it is that we are studying? In the field of marine science, this may be to benefit coastal communities, to contribute to climate change mitigation, or to learn more about marine organisms. Ultimately, all marine scientists have one ambition in common: to establish a stronger connection between humanity and the oceans.

In one sentence, why do you think a career within marine science is a great career option?

The ocean covers the vast majority of Earth’s surface, controls our climate, feeds a large portion of the world, contributes dramatically to biodiversity, and is extremely beautiful—and yet there is still so much more to be investigated.

— Vriesman was interviewed by Hannah Rudd for the Leading Women in Marine Science series

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