As women continue to make their mark on scientific institutions, sharing how they got there has continued to be of paramount importance. The inspirations and career paths of women in science is critical to how the public interacts with it.
On July 8, 2021, Sinai and Synapses Fellow Briana Pobiner and her colleague Amanda Lawrence were interviewed by Laura Haynes for “Challenging the Face of Science: Women Scientists Share Their Stories,” a series of online interactive webinars exploring themes of women in STEM careers, mentorship, and community as part of the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative – Because of Her Story.
The core of the program, which is transcribed below, starts at about 3:54. Stick around for the Q&A session afterwards to learn about Briana and Amanda’s work in greater detail.Read Transcript
Briana Pobiner: Hi, Laura. Thanks for having us.
Amanda Lawrence: Hi. Thanks for having me.
Laura Haynes: So I bet a lot of our viewers are interested in learning more about what it means to work at the Smithsonian. Amanda, you’re a museum technician in the Department of Anthropology. Can you start off start us off by telling us a little bit about your job, and what a museum technician is?
Amanda Lawrence: Sure. So yes, my title is Museum Technician. What that really means is that I work behind the scenes taking care of the collections – the objects that are housed at our institution. So this slide right here will show you kind of one of our big – I like to call it almost like a warehouse – that we have. That’s not in our downtown location, it’s actually off site, where we house a lot of our objects. So most of the time I am working in this building, helping people, helping visitors during tours or kind of maintaining the objects.
Laura Haynes: And Briana, can you tell us what a paleoanthropologist is and what you do?
Briana Pobiner: Sure. So paleoanthropologists basically study some aspect of human evolution. And my particular interest in human evolution is Stone Age diets, and when meat-eating, and sort of generally eating, animal resources became more important in our evolutionary history. I do that by studying mostly fossils, but also sometimes modern animal bones. You can see the picture on the right here is a fossil bone. And if you look on that part that has a red circle, you see these lines on there. So those are actually marks made by ancient stone knives that early humans used to butcher that animal.
And that fossil is from part of a million-and-a-half-year-old leg bone from an antelope that was found at a site in northern Kenya called Koobi Fora. So I use magnifying glasses and other kinds of technology, usually low technology, to look at the surfaces of fossils, figure out who ate them, chewed on them, butchered them. And that gives me a little bit of a sense of who ate what in the past.
Laura Haynes: Okay, so you both do some really cool things. This program, it’s all about women in science and your experiences – the people you’ve met, who have had a significant impact on your journey, the skills that you’ve used to be successful, and the challenges that you’ve overcome. Which brings me to ask the big question of today’s program: What is it like to be a woman in science?
Briana Pobiner: All right, so I’ll start off answering that. So you know, one thing I’m still keenly aware of is that women in science are generally still in the minority. I think a lot from my own perspective about kind of being, hopefully at some point, a leader for women in science – having interns and other people that I’m mentoring, but also continuing to look to those above me, for mentorship. Another thing that I think you know, about sort of building communities of women in science is something that I think about. And another thing for my own personal experience that I often think about is work-life balance, and having a family. And there are, I think, many different ways that I tried to do that. And my colleagues tried to do that. But I think inherent in being a woman in science, for many people, is about that kind of work-life balance, and family, and having kids.
Amanda Lawrence: And I will say that for my field, Collections Management, it’s actually a pretty woman-dominated field. So I have a lot of women colleagues, and a lot of mentors that are women. So I feel a lot of the time, at least in my day-to-day, I don’t really think about being a woman in science, I probably think more about being a Black woman in science, and how, you know, adding to representation within the field, and different ways of working within that space, is probably something that I think about more than being more specific within the women in science.
Laura Haynes: Okay, thank you both so much for sharing your personal perspectives on what it is to be a woman in science. And I’m wondering, given everything that you’ve already said, what does an average day look like for each of you?
Briana Pobiner: Well, I’m happy to start. And I always like to say, “What is an average day? I never have one.” So I do a variety of different things just in the research part of my job. And I have an unusual role at the museum, where I also do a lot of education and outreach.
But from a research perspective, I could be doing what you see on the left photo, where I’m taking photographs and studying fossils in museum collection. And those are also fossils at the National Museum of Kenya in Nairobi. I might be doing fieldwork. So the middle photo is of me at my long-term field site, which is a wildlife conservancy in Kenya called the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, where I’m doing a study of the modern bones on the landscape to get a sense of: does the bone community match the living community? What does the predator chewing look like in a modern bone community? And can I use that as a model for what predator chewing damage might look like in the past?
The picture of me on the right is actually in my office, where I am not consistently these days because of COVID. But oftentimes also, being a scientist involves things like writing scientific papers, analyzing data, attending meetings. And I also teach at George Washington University in the Anthropology Department. So, one of the things I like best about my job is that there really is no such thing as a typical day. And I find that a lot of fun.
Laura Haynes: And Amanda, what does an average day look like for you?
Amanda Lawrence: I completely agree with Briana, there is no average day or a typical day. Especially in the collections management realm, it just kind of depends. I could be in the collections doing organization and cataloging. I could be leading tours, or I could be helping researchers find things within the collection. That picture on the far right was my first day that I got to go back into the museum after a whole year of not being in. And so I was there just, you know, kind of cleaning and getting more organized – of like, where did I leave off a year ago?
So I agree, this is why I love collections management, is that I just have so many different tasks, and so many different things that I can do, that there’s no one typical day.
Laura Haynes: Wow, okay, I really had no idea what being a museum technician was until you sort of explained a little bit more, and I saw those photos. So it’s really amazing. You both do so many varied things. I want to dig a little deeper into the experiences and skills that have helped you find this success. And I know the audience must be wondering as well. What are some of your inspirations? How did you get into science?
Amanda Lawrence: Well, I always loved Earth sciences – I always loved digging around in the dirt. I had a rock collection growing up. So I knew that I wanted to do something that was related to Earth sciences.
Actually, my undergraduate degree is in geobiology – I was going to be a paleontologist. And for one of my classes, we ended up going to a museum. And when I was there, I realized I had never been behind the scenes at a museum before. I didn’t know it existed, didn’t know there were all these professionals back there doing things, taking care of objects. I didn’t know it was something that I could do. So I kind of switched course, and decided to go to Texas Tech University to get my Master’s in Museum Science, where I learned about techniques of taking care of objects. And from there, I’ve been very fortunate to kind of combine my love for museums with my love for natural history and work at a natural history museum.
Laura Haynes: I’m wondering, since you have this photo up here, what’s happening in this image?
Amanda Lawrence: So this is me pointing at this ash layer, the K-T boundary, which is the boundary that marks the extinction of the dinosaurs. So it was just kind of like a fun, like, “This is me back in undergrad” [picture]. And I was like very excited to be able to see this in person, which is actually occurs all over the world. This just happens to be in Denver.
Laura Haynes: Okay, that was really awesome to hear about. Thank you for sharing that. I’m also wondering, Briana, how did you get into science too?
Briana Pobiner: Sure. So I had a little bit of a different path. And Amanda, I would not say that I was very into science as a kid. I loved the natural world. But I always thought that I would maybe end up being a writer. I loved reading and poetry. And when I got to college, I went to undergrad at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. And when I got to college, my advisor, who was the dean, but had been an anthropology professor, when I was trying to find a fourth class for my first semester, she said, “Well, why don’t you try out anthropology?” And I said, “What’s that? I’ve never heard of it.” So I took a chance, and I took an introduction to physical anthropology and archaeology class, and I loved it.
For me, although I had really good science teachers all through middle school and in high school, it was the first time that I had learned about science in a way that was much more about – “science is about unanswered questions.” It’s about solving mysteries. It’s about the things we still don’t know. A lot of my high school science was very much about, like, “You do an experiment, you get an answer. If you don’t get the right answer, you did something wrong.” But so, my first anthropology class was very much about a different way of thinking about and asking questions about science, and I loved it.
And then the summer after my junior year, I went on a paleoanthropology field school in South Africa. It was the first time I had gotten a chance to. I actually did field work after my freshman year of college. It was paleontology fieldwork, actually. Much like Amanda, that was sort of my first experience. By getting to do paleoanthropological fieldwork and excavating, I was completely hooked. And so that was really the final push over the edge of the – I don’t know – paleoanthropology cliff.
And so the photos that you see here on the left-hand side, that’s actually – it is a picture of me from in between undergrad and grad school. I took a little bit of time off. I knew I wanted to go to graduate school, and I have a PhD in anthropology. But I wanted to get more practical experience. And so I spent every summer from, actually, before graduate school, all the way through teaching, on a summer study abroad undergraduate field school in Kenya.
And so that’s me wielding one kind of archaeological field tool – a pickaxe. And then on the right also is actually a photo from graduate school. That’s me and a few excavators from a site that I worked at out in Indonesia (with a very sweaty back). It was very hot and humid, but that was a fun experience. And I just really love being outside, and I love discovering things. To me, the moment when I pull a fossil out of the ground, and I think, “Nobody has seen this since it was buried a million and a half years ago,” it’s just very exciting.
Laura Haynes: Yes, it sounds like it. I have yet to go on a field school adventure. I’m really looking forward to it. But I just want to say ,I had a really similar experience. My freshman year, I took Biological Anthropology and did not expect it to go somewhere. But here I am.
So I also wanted to comment on something that you mentioned, which is that advisors, mentors, they’re really important in becoming successful. So I’m wondering if both of you can share with us a little bit about your experiences with mentors, how they’ve affected where you are now. And any any other comments on that?
Briana Pobiner: Yeah, I’m happy to start with mentors. So I think, you know, I’ve had formal mentors in my career, like my undergraduate advisor, my PhD advisor, but I’ve also really sought out a lot of informal mentors. The photo that I showed of the excavation that I was on in Indonesia – I went on that excavation. And one of the people running it was an informal mentor of mine, who was a graduate school professor of mine. And I particularly reached out, I would say, to informal mentors. I seek out women mentors, not exclusively, but I have found that for particularly when I was thinking about starting a family, I was really interested in finding out other women who do fieldwork, how do they possibly do that, while they’re also thinking about starting a family. Or when I was even applying to graduate school, reaching out to other graduate student mentors or faculty mentors to just ask questions that are specific to the situation that I’m thinking about at that time. And I feel very much, about mentors – sometimes mentors can be students, even if you’re a professor, or they can be somebody sort of in a different field than you. And I have found most people that I have approached about mentoring me in some way to be really receptive. So it’s been great.
I guess the only other thing I would add is that I’ve had the opportunity there are, you know, some formal mentoring that works in my field. So for me, the Biological Anthropology Women’s Mentoring Network has been a really great source of support. And […] I just stepped off as one of the co-chairs as the steering committee of that. And so again, sort of finding, particularly other women, mentors and support networks has been very important.
Amanda Lawrence: And I will agree that I have a lot of informal mentors, mainly because I gravitate towards people who have similar interests that I have. But also, I have this great network of museum people, because I work at a museum where I can kind of talk to a lot of different types of people and groups of people about either something professional or something personal. It’s just kind of a great network. And as I said before, that my field is very woman-dominated, and so I feel like that also helps me kind of talk to people, because they’re similar to me and have similar thought processes to me when it comes to more formalized mentorships.
I like to go to professional conferences, and I often find people there who can help me professionally. And in a couple of committees and societies that I’m a part of, they actually have a formulized mentorship program, which I always found was a great resource, of finding people and being able to talk to different people that can help me with career or personal things that I’m looking at. And I definitely had a lot of advice when it came to career, because I didn’t know that museum studies was a career path until undergrad. And so trying to figure out how to navigate that field, I had a lot of advisors that kind of helped me figure that out, and what schools to go to.
Laura Haynes: Awesome. Thank you both for sharing. I’m wondering if you have some advice, or where you can share some skills about how you find a mentor? Because personally, I think it’s really intimidating to go up to a complete stranger, like, “Hey, I would love to hear your thoughts on this and whatnot.”
Briana Pobiner: So yeah, I’m happy to start with that. So I have gotten over that fear of approaching people, mostly because especially when you do it in a setting like a professional conference, or I’m a member of just the Association for Women in Science – which is the National Association. There’s a DC chapter; I’ve gone to a couple of the social events. And so I have found people, particularly in those settings, to be really receptive to any questions you might have, starting spontaneous conversations, and just generally being welcoming. So my advice is to ask, because really, you’re just approaching another person or another human being.
Laura Haynes: Awesome, thank you for sharing.
Amanda Lawrence: And I’ll add to that, that I think a lot of mentorship kind of happens by accident sometimes, where not everybody that I see as a mentor I approached and said, “Will you be my mentor?” It was more of, like, you know, “We’re having a conversation about something, I’m asking for their advice on something work related.” And it just kind of builds that relationship going. So my advice is, it happens, and you probably already have mentors that you don’t really realize or never had that formalized conversation with.
Laura Haynes: Okay, thank you. I’ve also heard of a lot of the organizations you both are talking about, we have those resources to share with the audience, too, if anyone’s interested. And I see a viewer suggestion about the American Geophysical Union, and its partner organizations, including the Association for Women Geoscientists, that actually has one of those formal mentoring programs. So those are some really great recommendations from everyone who’s shouting out, and from you both. Thank you.