Dr. John O. Dabiri: A John of All Trades

To call Dr. Dabiri an accomplished man is an understatement. After graduating summa cum laude in mechanical and aerospace engineering from Princeton, he received his Master's and PhD at Caltech. At the age of 29, he became a tenured professor at Caltech and just five years later became the Undergraduate Dean. He is best known for his research in jellyfish propulsion and the design of a wind farm based on schooling fish. 

On the side, he was also a Rhodes and Marshall finalist and has earned the MacArthur Genius Grant and the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. He currently works at Stanford as the director of the Biological Propulsion Laboratory and a professor of aeronautics and bioengineering. This is not at all an extensive list.

I first met Dr. Dabiri at the University of Oregon winter of 2017 when he gave a talk in Willamette Hall. His research fascinated me, but what intrigued me even more was his ability to work in and integrate multiple fields. It's rare in STEM to see that. And it made me feel hopeful.

Despite his busy schedule, he was gracious enough to grant me an interview. I started off with a question that I hoped would dilute some of my feelings of hopeless despair.

At a time when it feels like facts are lost, how would you define a fact or a truth?

Hmm, I took a philosophy of science class in college where I’m sure we learned a more rigorous answer than this, but I think a reasonable definition of a fact is something that can be tested and falsified if it’s not true. The idea of truth feels a bit less concrete; I’m a person of faith, and so there are things I believe to be true but that I can’t prove (e.g. the existence of God). To me, they’re truths, but I wouldn’t call them facts. If truth and fact are supposed to be synonymous, then I guess I’ll have to call my truths something else!

Why is science important?

I think we as humans have innate curiosity about the nature of the world around us, and science is one of the most valuable tools we have to understand how that world works. Science is also the basis for engineering and technology that can make the world a better place, and so it is essential for that reason as well.

I've been told on more than one occasion that I must specialize in one field. Looking at your work, I get excited at the prospect that it's possible to solve problems through an inter- and multidisciplinary lens. What was your experience like to end up teaching and conducting research in multiple fields? What advice would you have for someone wanting to follow your path?

I think it is important to have a deep understanding of at least one area of study, since ‘changing the world’ often requires understanding the assumptions of some field well enough to challenge them. That’s not a trivial task, since many fields have become entrenched in ideas that are centuries old. As the same time, most of the important issues today involve more than one field, so exposure to multiple disciplines will make you more effective as a scientist. I was fortunate to have mentors who encouraged interdisciplinary study, while always keeping true to the fundamentals (of fluid mechanics, in my case). My advice would be to find a similar mentor, someone who is familiar with the range of fields in which you’re interested and with a broad enough perspective to appreciate that no single field has a monopoly on interesting problems.

Thank you! Now so much of science deals with failure, but we, as students, are rarely told or reminded of that. How can we help normalize failure as long as the person tries again?

Part of the challenge is that failure isn’t celebrated in itself, even though failure is inevitable on the path to success. I’d like to see us take the time at each point of triumph (e.g. publishing a paper, winning awards, etc) to deliberately highlight the failures that paved the way for the success. If students saw that success and failure go hand in hand, I think failure would soon be seen as a normal part of life in science.

In your NPR interview, you talk about the importance of encouraging kids at a young age to engage with science. Kids are inherently curious, but as their education progresses, many find science and math more and more dull. How do we not only get them excited about science, but help them retain their innate curiosity to learn?

We’re starting to see some successful examples of efforts like the Maker Movement, which helps connect STEM ideas with relatable topics that a student can directly engage with. When students can design, build, and test something using ideas from math and science, it can be much more impactful than just learning multiplication tables. Making STEM relevant, especially for disadvantaged kids who might not imagine a career in science, is one of the most important things we can do to make sure that curiosity you mentioned isn’t lost.

How can we create an overall more science-literate population?

Related to the prior answer, it’s important to connect the science to things people care about. I’m a strong proponent of ‘science for science’s sake’, but I think that isn’t enough to capture the majority of the population. They want to understand how science can make life better for them, and so we need to make sure those examples show up frequently.

Switching gears to a tangential topic: Many scientists argue that science and religion cannot coexist. What would you say in response?

Well, I can point to many counterexamples of science and religion coexisting in the same scientist (myself included). I think the statement is usually referring to the extremes of scientific and religious dogma, which often do conflict. But scientific dogma is rarely rooted in science, and religious dogma is rarely rooted in authentic religion.

What is the greatest threat facing this country/world?

Apathy. To make progress on our difficult challenges like climate change, social inequality, etc, people need to care enough to do simple things like voting. Unfortunately, most people aren’t inspired to act, and that threatens our ability to work together to effect change even when our way of life could be fundamentally threatened.

Lastly, what advice would you give to your 20-year-old self?

Make the most of your free time; life only gets busier :)

 

Want to learn more about Dr. Dabiri's research?

Visit his lab website here and read an article about his work with jellyfish here

Think YOU WANT TO PURSUE MORE THAN ONE FIELD?

Read this article about embracing multiple paths.

Graduating soon and looking at scholarships?

Check out Rhodes and Marshall!

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy: The Bee's Knees

Not many people can say they head a federal agency, but this man is one of them.

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy is the current Administrator for the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), a massive section of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The NIFA was created in 2008 to nurture research developments in agriculture and foster more environmentally and economically sustainable practices.

After attending university in Bangalore, India, Dr. Ramaswamy moved to the US to pursue his Masters and Ph.D. in entomology, the study of insects. Since then, he has headed Kansas State University's Department of Entomology, served as Associate Dean of Purdue's College of Agriculture, and been the Dean of Oregon State University's College of Agricultural Sciences.

Not only has Dr. Ramaswamy published close to 150 journal articles and a book, but he's also earned grants from the National Institute of Health, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Science Foundation.  (The success rate of the latter was less than 20% in 2005.)

All in all, a pretty average life.

I sat down with him to learn how someone could do all of that, but still make time to consistently play with his dog, Misu, and ride his motorcycle around DC every weekend.

First and foremost, how old is your dog? And also, I love him.

Misu will be six on November 9th.

The 200 pound love of my life.

The 200 pound love of my life.

Sorry, we can focus now. How did you get involved in agriculture? Why science at all?

It was serendipitous. I started out wanting to be a writer and so started in English literature, with political science and economics as minors. But then my brother applied for me to get into the Ag school in India, and of course for Indians, it's all about being a doctor or engineer. I wasn't good at math and didn't want to become a doctor--my brother was already in med school. So I get admission and lo and behold, I enroll in agriculture at the University of Agricultural Sciences, where, incidentally, your dad went to school a few years before I did. I majored in entomology and plant breeding; also figured out I was actually not too bad in math. I ended up wanting to get a master's in entomology, for which I did a research thesis. Really enjoyed it. Met a visiting professor from Rutgers in entomology--he enticed me to go to Rutgers for my PhD, which was on the sexual behavior and physiology of cockroaches. Incidentally, your dad studied at Rutgers, as well! Then like they say, the rest is history--I travelled farther and farther as a scientist and educator and ultimately an administrator.

I have always wanted to make a difference. My research has resulted in publications and tangible ways to help people and farmers. Then, I was appointed by President Obama to oversee the US government's investments in the food and agricultural sciences. Now, the work my agency does has a global impact and is making a huge difference in people's lives in America and in the world. Pretty amazing. 

I think it's pretty hard to argue that you're not the exact definition of the American Dream. What factors have helped you get to where you are today?

Being hungry. Being inquisitive. Being optimistic. Dwelling on the possibilities. Being positive--even on my worst days, I never show it. I am always smiling and whistling. Bringing levity to everything I do. Like they say, attitude rubs off. Never waiting for someone to tell me what to do. Maintaining integrity and holding myself and others accountable. Always setting an example and never expecting others to do something that I myself wouldn't do. Wanting to make a difference. Being a visionary and helping others buy into a shared vision to make a difference in others' lives. Always framing the conversation and pushing the proverbial envelope; I eliminated the words "no" and "failed" from my personal dictionary and I just worked harder to make things happen. Being very outcome-driven; I don't get hung up on the path and process, but the outcome, which can be achieved from multiple paths and processes. Being available to help and lend a hand. Living vicariously through others' efforts and supporting them to achieve their dreams.

Like they say, what goes around comes around.

Credit to Bill Whitehead and Cartoon Stock.

Credit to Bill Whitehead and Cartoon Stock.

How can we create a more science-literate population?

Getting back to the basics in K-12 education and making it fun. I am concerned this bandwagon that people are getting on about STEM education is going to do more harm. Also, not to focus only on cognitive or technical knowledge, but to also help inculcate experiential learning and non-cognitive and leadership soft skills.

What's your biggest concern for my generation? 

Actually, I am not concerned about your generation. You and the hundreds of others kids I engage with and millions in 4-H and FFA (Future Farmers of America), I am heartened that we'll be okay! Sure, in every generation, there will be slackers or drug (ab)users. But you know, that ends up being proportionately about the same generation after generation. I think making school more interesting, meaningful, and fun will help us get even the slackers engaged.

What advice would you give to 19 year old you?

I am a calculated risk taker and very competitive. Being the youngest child likely influenced me to be competitive.  I always tell my mentees to be willing to take risks. 

But, above all, what I have to say is this:

Love life. Hold yourself accountable. Make a difference. Maintain your integrity. Have fun. 

These are things I learned from my single parent mom, who had an eighth grade education and worked three jobs to raise four boys (after my dad's death when he was 42) under fairly difficult circumstances. She never showed us she was worried. There was always a way to get things done. She always dwelled on the possibilities.

 

Think you're interested in agriculture?

Indulge your interests below:

The Pathways Program offers NIFA internships for students and recent graduates to gain experience in fields involving agriculture, environmental science, and the social sciences. If you have questions, send them to askusdapathways@dm.usda.gov.

Want something on a smaller scale?

Agriculture internships

Environmental science internships

FFA grants and scholarships

Want another picture of Misu, but this time out of focus?

Senik: A Sharp and Untrebled Mind

Senik, also known as Pavan Vasdev, is an Indian-American producer and musician based in Portland, OR. He began playing music on the piano and cello, but quickly learned a wide range of instruments. His passion for music has allowed to him to create with artists worldwide, as well as perform with the award-winning Shankar Mahadevan

I caught up with the 17-instrument-playing musician to learn more about him and his industry.

Firstly, you have to list all of the instruments you play. For the readers.

Oh, man. Okay: piano, drums, all the guitars (acoustic, electric, and bass), trumpet, violin, viola, cello, harmonium, sitar, veena, dholak, clarinet, saxophone, and that’s about it!

Do you think you were able to teach yourself most of those instruments because you had piano as a background?

Yeah, that’s where it starts. If you start at an early age, you can figure out what sounds good together.

When did you realize you liked music? For me, I was forced to play piano and I hated it, but a little after I quit, I realized I liked it a lot.

Same exact thing for me. I hated piano and cello. In sixth grade is where it changed. With piano and cello, my parents would force me to play it, but with trumpet, I wanted to. In the early days of the internet, I would google, “band camps,” and then go ask my mom, “Can I go to this band camp?” So I guess that’s where it started.

Was there someone or something that motivated you to like trumpet or did you just like the sound? Because the trumpet doesn’t always produce the most beautiful of sounds.

Yeah, it’s not beautiful at all. There’s actually a reason I like trumpet. In fifth grade, I got a Dizzy Gillespie CD for Christmas—I have no idea why my parents got me that—but I listened to it non-stop. He’s very complex jazz, and I was just some fifth grader bumping those tunes. 

What’s been your biggest challenge involving music so far?

I think the biggest challenge is the industry itself, because it’s not like any other industry. I’ve only been doing this professionally for a year and already, I’ve learned so much. There’s so much corruption in the music industry. It’s not like anything else. At least with a field like medicine, you work your ass off for ten hours a day for ten years and you know you’ll come out as a doctor. In the music industry, everyone’s doing that and 90% of them fail. That causes people to act in different ways. In just the one year I’ve been doing this, I have been lied to and used by a label. I’ve been cheated out of two songs, both of which have over a million views and have been signed to a major distributor. I created a six song EP for a girl and when I charged her for the work, she sued me. It’s really exceptional. It teaches you that there are people in this industry who, because of the historical precedent, are incredibly cutthroat and somehow it’s acceptable. So the hardest thing for me is dealing with the egos and the uncertainty of it all. 

From your perspective, what percentage of the industry is actually in it to make good music?

I think 100%. I think everyone starts with the idea that they want to create. A lot of people want to make it big and be the next Tupac or Biggie, but that just doesn’t exist any more. 

What’s been the best thing to happen so far for you in the industry?

In April, I got two songs signed to Universal through a good friend of mine, Dasu, who’s signed to them. He’s a fantastic musician. That was a huge thing for me. The other highlights happened in India, like performing with Shankar Mahadevan was always sweet and scary.

Has it been hard being an Indian pursuing an art, especially with all of the societal expectations in place? 

My parents have been really supportive, thank God. But it’s been hard. There’s a lot of judgment from members in the community. It’s such a paradox. When I was leaving for India to work with Shankar Mahadevan, all of these aunties were saying, “Don’t forget me. You’re a big deal!” Then, I came back and they’re asking, “Grad school? Med school?” I’m thinking, “No, I started my career. I’m not planning on switching paths halfway through.”

It’s frustrating to have to constantly defend your career choice. I want to pursue acting but I always present it as a hobby to people. It’s become a defense mechanism.

Adding in your backup plan is totally a defense mechanism, and I still do it. When I’m talking to uncles or aunties, in the context of the conversation, I’m able to explain that art is a sustainable field, that you’re able to do good for the world and earn money. But when it’s close family, I go straight into, “Yeah, yeah, med school in four years.”

Have you noticed race playing a factor in the industry? I think with a considerable amount of art, people of color tend to create something but it only becomes popularized after a white artist performs it.

Thankfully, things are shifting. Historically, I think you’re absolutely right. There’s still an equality issue. As a brown artist, though, I don’t think there’s a better time for me. Even just twenty years ago, to be Russell Peters or Aziz Ansari, it must have been hard. That has to do with our communities looking down on the arts, but it’s changing. 

The other side to that is I’ve actually been helped because I’m brown. It’s the hot thing right now. A lot of major labels are rushing to sign Indian-American artists specifically. That’s not fair either, but such is the world.

Has it been hard to find a balance between being Indian and being American? I know I’ve always struggled with retaining enough of my cultural identity while still fitting in.

Yeah, definitely, and it’s something I’m trying to bridge with my music. My friend, Kartik, and I are trying to create music that caters to Indian-Americans here and Indians back home. It’s not easy. There’s sort of an elitist thing that people develop when they move here, and it doesn’t help that the people in India put America on a pedestal.

I noticed that when I was visiting Bangalore, too. A McDonalds had just popped up and the line to get food stretched three or four blocks.

That’s exactly it. People there have associated all things American with good. If you want to take someone on a date, McDonalds is where you go.

If a boy took me on a date to McDonalds, I would probably tell him that we needed to see different people.

Good ten minutes with him max.

What’s your greatest concern for our generation?

Trump. I don’t think he’s as bad as people have made him out to be, but he has given a voice to the xenophobic population. America has worked really hard to suppress that voice, for better or for worse. Obviously, you can’t kill an idea. There will always be racists or people who think I’m a terrorist because I’m Sikh and Indian. They’ve always been there, in the underbelly, but it just sucks that fifty years of hard work to stop aggressions towards people of color is coming undone for a lot of America. I hoped that that would die out with my parents, but it’s scary to realize that a lot of people our age think that way, too.

Back to music, how do you stay motivated enough to continually create art?

You asked me what the hardest part of this industry is and behind the answer I gave you, it’d be this. You have to develop a healthy relationship with flow and with the childish, moodiest emotions that live inside of you. I could be way better, but I’ve gotten better at coping with it. I’ve created a flexible enough schedule so that if inspiration hits at 2 am, I can be just as productive as if I had a disciplined schedule and tried to write at given times. With writer’s block, I’ve been learning when to fight it and when to nurse it and let it have its own space.

If you could give your 18 year old self advice, what would you tell him?

Workout. My 18 year old self was not in shape. 

But more seriously—and this is going to be pretty specific to myself—but drop out. Drop out of college immediately. Your degree isn’t going to help if you’re sticking to music. If you’re trying to go into medicine or engineering, where a degree is necessary, then do it. Otherwise, you’re just four years behind.

If someone has a dream that they think is unrealistic or hard to achieve, what advice would you give them?

I’m so young. Right now, the advice I would give is just the stuff I’m trying to follow and struggling with. One thing that’s working for me is to keep going no matter what. I tell you that but I’m saying that more to myself than anyone. With every one step up, you’re going to get beat down four or five times. I’ve told you about all of the stuff that’s happened just in the past year. Every one of those things is like a knife in me. Especially with music, it’s so passion-based. The two songs I wrote that got signed to Universal, I wrote them in two hours because the inspiration just came to me. When you’re constantly getting beat down, the inspiration is the first thing to go. So my advice is to just keep going. I wish I was older and had more wisdom, but that’s my biggest piece of advice.

I think it’s nice to hear from the perspective of someone who’s struggling right now, though. 

Yeah, someone who’s failing right now. 

Well, I wouldn’t say you’re failing.

Everyone sees failure and success as a linear timeline. That’s something I’ve recently unlearned. Right now, I am failing at some things and succeeding at others. Your mind can go to either one at any given moment. That’s the hard part, and that’s why not giving up is so important.

 

If you're interested in hearing Senik's music, click here or here.

If you want to learn more about the art of producing music, learn more here.

If you enjoy creating an art and don't feel supported, click here.

 

 

 

 

 

Dr. Jo Handelsman: The Woman with Tiny Interests

Dr. Jo Handelsman is the Associate Director of Science for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Her job is to work with and advise the President on matters of science policy and research.

Photo courtesy of Small World Initiative

Photo courtesy of Small World Initiative

When she’s not running the nation’s science policy program, she heads a microbiology lab and teaches at Yale University as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology. 

She is a pioneer in the study of metagenomics, which is closing the gap between medicine and agriculture. She received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science Mentoring in 2011, particularly for her work in helping women and minorities in STEM succeed.

Somehow, one of the most inspirational and powerful people in the world graciously agreed to an interview with me when I was in DC this past April.

What made you get interested in your career?

A microscope. I was in seventh grade and my science teacher showed us how to use microscopes. I never wanted to stop looking through a microscope. I didn’t want to go to my next class. I didn’t want to do anything else. I saved up money babysitting for about six months and bought myself this really old microscope. A 1939 German hospital microscope from pre-WWII. I still have it. I spent most of my teenage years looking at pond water and crystals and all sorts of things. Eventually, I became a microbiologist.

A lot of scientists say they have a mentor they found and that’s what kept them on their path. Did you have a mentor like that?

Not one, but I think I had some critical people that kept me going. One was a tenth grade biology teacher who just called me out into the hallway one day and told me I was really good at biology and that I should stick with it. No teacher had ever said anything like that to me before! 

Later on, where I was an assistant professor, it was such a cold, unfriendly environment. It was still a time when people denied there was any sexism or prejudice in the department that I was in. Every time any of these events would happen that just made me think, “Do I really belong here?,” there was one person in the department who would assure me that I did. To this day, I’ve always been grateful for that kind of support.

What makes a good science mentor? Or just a mentor, in general?

I think it depends on the situation and the relationship. Some of the general principles are that you’re mentoring the person to do what they want to do, not what you want them to do. It sounds really obvious, but a lot of people have set notions of what a scientist is or what a scientist should do. 

Also, you have to be open-minded to people’s abilities to grow beyond what you think. That’s something I had to learn. I thought I was a really good judge of students and how far they’d go, and I was wrong so many times. It’s a delight when you’re wrong. I’ve learned to give people the benefit of the doubt in mentoring. If they said they want to do it, that’s all it takes in this world. Just wanting to do it.

Courtesy of Cartoon Stock

Courtesy of Cartoon Stock

You’re a huge advocate for women in STEM. Why do you think a lot of women feel discouraged from STEM careers, particularly academic positions? I know it’s started to change.

It’s changing, but not fast enough. I think there are a lot of messages that women get that discourage them from STEM careers. Some that we know about are the media messages. They don’t see people who look like them—just normal women that they might want to be being STEM professionals—in television or movies. 

Another reason is we all carry subtle biases that shape our opinions of people and how we treat them and how we evaluate what they do. All of that comes from stereotypes embedded in our brains from over a very, very long time. Men and women do the same thing. Research shows that it’s not a conscious thing men are trying to do—it’s not anything like that. It really is subconscious, which means that it’s pretty equally distributed among people. The result, I think, is that girls and women get some very subtle, but powerful, messages that tell them that they’re not as good as boys. 

One study showed, for example, if you ask parents of teenagers how good their kids are in math, the parents will essentially overrate the boys and underrate the girls of exactly the same capacity. If you ask teachers about computer science abilities, they’ll say it’s inborn, that they know it when they see it, and of course, they only see it in boys. 

So, you can just imagine the cumulative messages over decades as you’re growing up and then trying to become a professional; it’s no wonder why they dropped out. In fact, I find it remarkable that any women stay in, given how much tougher they have to be. You look at the messages that boys and men get and it’s just constant reinforcement: “Of course you can be a STEM professional. Of course you can be a scientist. Scientists have looked like you since the beginning of time.” It almost makes it look easy. I know it’s not easy for anyone, but it almost makes it look easy to get that kind of vigorous support, which girls just don’t get.

My mom always tells me that I have to be twice as good to get just as far.

Unfortunately, that’s good advice. It’s sad, but true.

After hearing about Rosie, Dr. Handelsman gifted me one of the cutest pins I have ever seen.

After hearing about Rosie, Dr. Handelsman gifted me one of the cutest pins I have ever seen.

One thing I really care about is science literacy. I don’t really care if my friends can spout out astronomy facts, but I do care if people are sharing articles they’ve only read the headline of. As someone gaining a science background, it really bothers me. How do you think we can create a more science-literate population?

We can change the way we teach science in schools and in college. We can make sure people aren’t just asked to memorize or use information in a rogue sort of way, but rather evaluate information and do what a scientist does, which is discover new things. If people have ever been through the scientific process—developed an idea, tested it, experimentally, and analyzed the data—I think they’ll be more critical every time they read the newspapers. I believe very strongly in getting people to behave like scientists.

This is going to sound pretty blunt, but how do you deal with science illiterate people? People who are anti-vaccine or deny climate change? You have a right to your own opinion, but when that opinion now hurts others, it’s different. Especially in your position, I imagine it’s hard to work with science illiterate people.

It is, and I have to be very careful because there’s a fine line between politics and policy in science. Our general policy is to stick with the science and explain it as clearly and simply as you can. There are some people who just won’t be swayed. You have to accept that ahead of time, but you hope that by presenting the arguments well, you help make people science literate. 

It’s frustrating because even amongst debates with friends, I’m thinking, “I have evidence on my side. What more can I give you?”

Exactly! To scientists, that’s the ultimate. “Oh, you’ve got the data? Well, I was wrong.” It’s that simple. That’s how it is in this White House, because the President is so data-driven and so evidence-based that if you can make the evidence-based argument, they’ll come to your side of the argument. It’s just not like that in the rest of the world. A lot of people are persuaded by evidence, and a lot of people think scientists are respectable people, but there are people in Congress and the rest of society who just have absolute contempt for people who “believe” in climate change. I hate that phrase. “Believing” in evolution or climate change—No. I’m persuaded by data. I don’t believe in anything. 

What’s your greatest concern for my generation?

I’ll give you two, but I will say that I think your generation is in great shape. There have been generations, periodically, that haven’t been so encouraging, but your generation is so idealistic and eager to make the world a better place. I think that’s all it takes. 

The two big ones that come to mind are climate change and soil loss. Climate change, as I’m sure you know, is pretty bleak. We’re not changing fast enough, but with activism across the world from young people, we might be able to change things faster. 

Soil loss is actually easier to fix, because we know exactly what to do stop soil from eroding. We are eroding soil currently at such a high pace that, by the end of the century, we won’t have any soil left to grow crops on. That’s true here, it’s true in India and China, and it’s eroding much more quickly in some other countries. As climate change gets worse, the weather will get more and more intense. Storms, in particular, are terrible for soil loss. The momentum with which the raindrops hit the soil affects the structure of the soil. In turn, the soil erodes quicker. We just have to get on this right away, but most people don’t know about it. It’s as serious as anything we’re facing, because it’s so immediate. If we don’t have soil, we don’t have food. People don’t know about this, but if they did, they would purchase food based on whether it was grown in a soil-sustainable way. They would compost. They would make sure they were buying food from farmers who took protective measures. We know how to take soil erosion down to 5% of what it is now if we wanted to, whereas climate change is so overwhelming. It’s so big, and, in some ways, it seems so insoluble. Soil loss is a lot easier. 

I guess, lastly, I want to ask you how I can become a better scientist. Do you have any general advice for undergraduates?

Do research. What ignites the spark in most scientists is being engaged and generating new knowledge. A lot of us live for those moments where we are the only person in the world that knows this little nugget of nature. It may be the tiniest thing, but, for that instant, before you tell someone else, you know something that’s never been known before. That’s just incredible and it carries you through the hard times. 

Science is hard. We’re not told that it involves a lot of failure. I wish I had been told that, and I wish I had told more students that. Women, especially, tend to blame themselves and think that they’re not good enough. 

When I was in college, my grades in science weren’t as good as my other grades. I thought, “I’m not as good at this.” I decided to go through with it, because I loved it, but it took me years to figure out that it wasn’t because I wasn’t good at science. It was that some subjects are easier than science. It’s not a popular thing to say, but there are simply some disciplines that are harder than others. 

Science is about failure. If you’re not failing at some of your experiments, then you’re not reaching far enough. You should be failing. Hypotheses should be wrong. Why do the experiment if it’s always right?

Although intended for teachers, if you’d like to read Dr. Handelsman’s book, “Biology Brought to Life,” click here.

If you want to get involved with science policy or learn more about the OSTP,  you can email scheduling@ostp.eop.gov or visit the website.

If you want to learn more about soil erosion, you can watch this episode of YNT. If you care about wanting your grandchildren to have food, contact your elected officials and ask them what's being done. If you're in Oregon specifically, send me an email and let's see what we can do together!