Laura Guertin is a Professor of Earth Science at Penn State Brandywine in Media, Pennsylvania, USA. Her bachelors degree is in geology from Bucknell University (PA) and PhD is in marine geology & geophysics from the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science (FL). She teaches introductory-level courses for non-science majors in Earth science, geoscience, and geography. She researches and publishes how new and emerging technologies can be applied to pedagogical approaches to improve the scientific, information/digital, and geospatial literacies of non-STEM students. Dr. Guertin also has a passion for Earth science outreach and finding creative ways to communicate science to all audiences.
Briefly describe your current work and your research.
My graduate school training involved generating a lithostratigraphy and integrated chronostratigraphy on continuous cores drilled in the Florida Keys and Everglades National Park to define the record of Late Cenozoic sea-level fluctuations on the south Florida Platform. As I have changed institutions and moved along in my career since I finished my PhD in 1998, my research focus has changed (which is very common for researchers to continue to pursue new directions and topics over time).
In my current position, I am a full-time faculty member at a university, and my job requires me to teach, to do research, and to do service on campus and in the community. The classes I teach are in the Earth sciences (including oceanography and coastal geology) at the introductory-level for non-science majors. When I started teaching, I quickly learned that students were viewing my classes as just an elective, a course they had to complete as a graduation requirement. But I was very committed to getting students engaged in the material and having them see why learning about the ocean and Planet Earth was so important to their lives. So my research started shifting to have more of a pedagogical focus, looking at developing and researching best practices for student learning and improving their science literacy, information/digital literacy, and geospatial literacy.
This focus on best practices for teaching/learning Earth science led me to spend a full-year sabbatical from my teaching position to study and learn more about science communication. I have thoroughly enjoyed applying different strategies in communicating marine science to my courses and to my outreach activities for the public. Currently, I’m a co-founder and organizer of the Stitching Hope for the Coast project, a project that is encouraging scientists and non-scientists to use their crocheting, knitting, quilting, embroidery, felting skills (anything that involves “stitching”) to create products that tell the story of coastal optimism for the state of Louisiana. It’s a fun collaboration and opportunity to combine science and art to make stories about marine science more accessible to all audiences. (see this website: https://blogs.agu.org/geoedtrek/2018/07/17/stitching-hope-for-the-coast/ )
What do you love the most about your job?
Hands-down, being in the classroom with students is the best part of my job. When I can get the non-STEM majors in my classes working with authentic data and reaching an “ah-ha” moment in their learning, nothing could be more rewarding. Hearing students ask questions and actively engage in their own learning makes me feel like I’m being successful in accomplishing my overarching course goal and secondary course objectives. I also enjoy mentoring undergraduate research students, and I’m so proud when they share their research at conferences and continue to get excited about science.
How difficult was it to get where you are today?
It was a lot of hard work to get to where I am today – but please realize that the work does not stop once you have a university position! I still work very hard to be the best instructor and researcher. The biggest challenge going through schooling and my career was realizing that I will always have so much more to learn. There is always new knowledge we gain about our ocean that I need to stay on top of. And there are also new skills that I need to develop with new career transitions, collaborations, projects, etc. In my early years, I was naive to believe that I would one day be able to “kick back and relax” and slow down and ride the success of my accomplishments. I wish I had the clarity back then to realize that there is no stopping and resting, that there is always something to learn and something to investigate. The good news is that I really enjoy the work and challenging myself, and being a forever student is fun!
What was the biggest obstacle in your way before your career reached where it is today? How did you overcome it?
The biggest obstacle was myself. Although I had confidence in my research skills, I was frequently worried if I was doing enough volume of work (even though my committee said I was doing more than enough), not putting enough hours into my work (even though I was in the lab on weekends), not building my professional portfolio properly, etc. Besides my fellow graduate students, I didn’t really have anyone to speak to about my fear of not doing enough to prove myself as a successful marine scientist. The best action I took was starting to go to professional meetings early in my graduate studies and attend workshops. I learned so much through those conferences and workshops and made some professional connections that have continued on even to the present day. Getting out of my graduate department and pursuing professional development at conferences, even if I wasn’t presenting at the conference, was what I needed to learn more about the broader community and to connect with professionals – including meeting and maintaining connections to some inspirational women in Earth/marine science.
What are you looking forward to the most in the future of marine science?
Technology is going to take our discipline so much further in our ability to understand everything from the coastal zone to the ocean floor. And as we continue to improve our knowledge of the science of our ocean, we are at the same time finding improved ways to communicate that science outside of our STEM networks. For example, I am very excited to see how we are expanding the use of live video streams from oceanographic research vessels to share real-time explorations of hydrothermal vents with classrooms and the general public. The sharing of marine science and having everyone feel that they are a part of these discoveries is key for helping the world understand why the ocean is important and why it matters to our everyday lives.
How do you think we can get more women involved within marine science?
I feel that we can’t have enough of the very open and honest conversations about the journeys of women in marine science. We need to keep discussing the realities of what some women face, from inappropriate comments and conversations to personal safety and security when in the field. An important contributor I see in the success of women in marine science is having our male colleagues speak out in support of us. And I do see more and more men pushing back on negative and harmful words and behaviours towards women. Having men in our field stand up to call out bad behaviour and work to change the culture towards women is going to make a difference for everyone – and importantly, for the advancements in marine science research.
What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring female marine scientists?
Take advantage of opportunities that come your way for fieldwork, research, workshop attendance, and more. It can be overwhelming when you are in school (and even after you complete your degree) to balance course work and research, along with everything in your personal life. But you will find there are doors that open to opportunities for professional development, whether it be through your advisor, mentor, or professional networks. Try to take advantage of as many of these opportunities as you can. You never know what connections and collaborations may result. And if you are looking for a specific experience, don’t hesitate to do your own investigating and reach out!
In one sentence, why do you think a career within marine science is a great career option?
The ocean really is the greatest unexplored frontier, with so many opportunities for someone to discover something new and advance our global knowledge – how can one not get excited to contribute and to be a part of the marine science community???
Social Media Links
Personal Blog – Journeys of Dr. G https://journeysofdrg.org/
Professional Blog – GeoEd Trek on the AGU Blogosphere https://blogs.agu.org/geoedtrek/
I would like to give a massive thank you to Dr. Laura Guertin for participating in this interview. I cannot wait to share more of your stories and I hope that you find inspiration in learning of other journeys within marine science.
Are you a woman working within marine science? Would you like to share your story and inspire the next generation? Please get in contact with me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to be involved with the Leading Women in Marine Science Interview Series.
Disclaimer: All responses to the interview questions belong to Dr. Laura Guertin. The biography also belongs to Dr. Laura Guertin. The cover photo belongs to ScienceOnline Oceans. The first image belongs to the crew of the NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson. The second image belongs to Dan King. The third image belongs to Dr. Laura Guertin.