I was looped into today’s #womeninscience tweetfest today by Anne over at Highly Allochthonous. Instead of going for “A day in the life of” post (though, maybe I’ll get around to that later), I’m going to highlight a female geoscientist who influenced the course of my academic career.
Back in college, my father handed me a book to write a review of for Appalachia (the AMC‘s literary journal, which has absolutely wonderful analysis of hiking / cross-country skiing / mountaineering accidents in the White Mountains). The book, Stepping-Stones: The Reminiscences of a Woman Geologist in the Twentieth Century, chronicles the life of Katharine (Kay) Fowler Billings (1902-1997). At this point, I was a geology major at Middlebury, but I had this delusion of going into planetary geology. Kim Hannula had been gently trying to wean me away from this career path and I was starting to actually listen. Kay’s life was one of the dominos that finally had me turning towards bedrock geology.
My grandmother Libby was born at about the same time as Kay. My grandmother had what was a very typical life for a woman of her time: school, college at a girl’s school, marriage, kids, volunteer work, golf and church. She hiked & cross-country skied, but I couldn’t image her sleeping in a tent. My own mother went a different path and followed college with a master’s in mechanical engineering, work studying material properties, and marriage & kids only later in life. So, for me, the concept of women working in science was there, but not for my grandmother’s generation.
Kay grew up in the Boston area and went to Bryn Mawr for college because it was as far away from her mother as possible. Though not common for a woman in her day, she attended two different field programs in the Rockies before graduating with a degree in geology and heading off to graduate school in Wisconsin. After a master’s on glacial drainage patterns (which only took a year!), she returned out west for a summer course before starting her PhD at Columbia (on hard rock geology). Kay did several seasons of field research during her doctorate out west in a time when canvas tents, plane tables, and a lack of USGS topo sheets was the norm. To someone who’s grown up with synthetic sleeping bags, Gortex, GPS, and sat phones, it boggles the mind. But that’s what pulled me in. Here was a woman who went and did FIELD work, despite the fact that she was one of the few females in geology and women in general were not being encouraged to go mountaineering. And somewhere in my brain I realized that if I choose planetary science, field geology would not be a major part of my future. I spent a childhood hiking, camping, canoeing, and in general being outside and I had the chance to choose a career where someone would actually support me continuing my love of the outdoors. So, planetary fell by the wayside (with occasional dabbles for fun) and I decided to become a metamorphic petrologist. (Why met pet is an entirely other issue.)
There is a postscript to the story: throughout the course of her career, Kay did field work in a variety of locations including Wyoming, Sierra Leone, New England, and the Soviet Union. Several years after I read her biography, I started working on my own master’s in the Bronson Hill belt of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. As part of my research, I ended up with a box of geologic reports from various quadrangles that had been made over the course of the 30’s-80’s. Imagine my surprise when several of those geologic quads had Kay’s name on them as the first author!