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The female mentors who made me

A thank you note to eight of the women who’ve shaped my #SciPol career

By: Taylor Goelz, Knauss Fellow, NOAA Research – UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development


Late last year, Nature Communications published a methodologically flawed study that claimed early-career scientists’ careers are negatively impacted if they have a female mentor. Rightfully so, STEM Twitter blew up. Several open letters were written to the editors and there was an outpouring of stories highlighting the many ways in which female mentors have made a huge difference in individuals’  lives and careers. In honor of National Mentoring Month, I wanted to add my two cents to this #WomenInSTEM mentorship conversation and use my Knauss Blog to highlight the female mentors that have made a difference in my life and journey.  


I first met a female Ph.D. in high school, Dr. Janet Munro, and her enthusiasm and fire continue to inspire me to this day. A most unique chemistry teacher, Dr. Munro helped me feel excited about science for the first time. Her lectures were clear, skillfully prepared and flawlessly executed. She imparted expertise without making anyone feel unintelligent or left out. Yes, she was brilliant, but it was her devotion to her subject and students that truly made an impact on me. I remain in awe of her amazingly organized lab notebooks and try (and fail) to emulate them with my own notes. 


During graduate school, I was adamant that I wanted a woman on my master’s thesis committee. Not only did I find “a” woman, but I was lucky enough to work with the formidable Dr. Inga Carboni. Inga helped me navigate the wild world of social network analysis theory and was my constant advocate throughout my dual master’s degree program. In addition to Inga, I know that I wouldn’t have made it through my degree program without Sabine Rogers, Virginia Sea Grant’s External Relations Coordinator. Sabine was my grounding force and taught me how to be a good colleague in addition to a competent scientist. She patiently guided me through the university’s reimbursement process, even if it was for the hundredth time, and was a perfect example of how kindness gets you far. 


As I faced the ominous Knauss Placement Week in Fall 2019, I was blown away by my current mentor, Liz Tirpak. During a recent work-from-home cleaning spree, I found my notes from the famous “death by Powerpoint” day, the day during Placement Week when Knauss finalists hear about all the Host Office opportunities, and next to Liz’s name I wrote “kind of intense, but I’m intrigued.” That sentiment has pervaded my Knauss year. I still cannot drink enough caffeine to match her level of intensity and passion for international science diplomacy and particularly the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. Liz’s confidence in me and my abilities this year has been infectious – I’ve become more confident in myself and what I can bring to a position because of her support and encouragement. 


And while all the women mentors I’ve described thus far have been “above” me in some way, I don’t want to leave out some amazing peer mentors I’ve encountered along the way. Dr. Ellie Phillips Lopez has been my constant friend and encourager since undergrad at the University of San Diego. She’s the most well rounded human being I know, complementing her love for bugs and plants (which I don’t understand at all) with her passion for social and racial justice. She’s taught me that you don’t have to choose between being an advocate and an activist and I’m thankful for her counsel every day. My Knauss year would not have been as productive or filled with laughter if not for the constant companionship of Tiffany Atkinson, Dr. Kaitlyn Lowder and Dr. Katie Dziedzic. Our regular lunches, virtual workouts and endless Google Chat sessions helped me navigate this unprecedented virtual fellowship year with some of my grace and sanity intact. I’m still not mentally prepared for the fact that soon we all won’t be working for the same organization.


These women, among many others that I’ve interacted with over the years, exemplify the type of mentor that I will strive to be going forward in my career – a constant advocate for those around me, exceedingly kind, the most prepared person in the room with eyes wide open to the inequities and injustices that are still ingrained in many STEM fields, and exuding boundless excitement for the field I still feel lucky to be a part of. There’s no “perfect” mentor, no single example that will help those around them achieve success. The idea of a single mentor itself is also unrealistic. I’m a perfect example of how many women throughout my life have shaped me and helped me succeed. Right before the new year, Nature Communications rightly retracted its controversial article. From my personal experience, and the experience of many other early-career individuals in the STEM world, women mentors have defined me and I am much more successful for having all of them in my life.


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