Pole to Pole: A career in climate science

Photo of Heidi Roop ’07 doing fieldwork in Greenland

Doing polar fieldwork with her advisor and applied research at the Five Colleges gave Heidi Roop ’07 an invaluable glimpse into what has become her life as a climate scientist.

Photo credit: Jason Briner

Interviews with Heidi Roop '07 conducted by Mikaela Murphy-Boyle and Carey Lang

Why Mount Holyoke?

Mount Holyoke was always on my list of schools. I was lucky enough to participate in Mount Holyoke’s Take the Lead program as a junior in high school. The experience of being on campus, working directly with a Mount Holyoke student helped me build a connection with the College. I also grew up as a fan of Mount Holyoke. My aunt, Susan “Susie” Beers Betzer ’65, gave me a Mount Holyoke onesie when I was born — I think I was destined to go to here. When I was accepted, I also received a scholarship and that sealed the deal.

Why did you decide to major in geology?

In short: Alan Werner, professor of geology.

I was living in Ecuador on a student exchange when I had to enroll in my first semester of classes. Back then, registering for classes was still done by mail, so my mom sent in my choices. She took the liberty of signing me up for environmental geology with Al Werner. With the intention of double-majoring in international relations and Spanish, I was a bit baffled as to why she chose a geology class. She said, “Take it and get your science requirement out of the way.” I think she used that to disguise the truth. I think she knew I’d love the earth sciences.

She was right! I fell in love with geology and excelled in the class. I declared a geology major right after my first semester ended. Al offered me hands-on research experiences, including fieldwork in Alaska and Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago between mainland Norway and the North Pole. The field-based opportunities helped me see the world of science beyond a textbook and the lab.

Did you pursue geology internships during your time at Mount Holyoke?

A close friend at Mount Holyoke connected me to the United States Geological Survey, also known as the USGS. I was offered an internship after my first year in Yosemite National Park and then got a paid summer job working for them throughout college and my master’s degree. For my first internship, Mount Holyoke gave me a summer research stipend that helped launch me into this career path by providing me with the resources to purchase some of my first outdoor backpacking and field research gear. Eventually, this work turned into a full-time research position with the USGS. That internship was my lucky break into a career in science, and Mount Holyoke helped to make that happen.

What has your career path looked like?

After graduating, I went straight from South Hadley to Flagstaff, Arizona, to pursue a master’s degree in geology at Northern Arizona University. After getting my degree, I traveled to Antarctica as a field scientist for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet Divide ice core drilling project. After two seasons, I moved to Colorado to work for the USGS, following on those connections I made during my internship and summer work while I was a student at Mount Holyoke.

In 2012, I entered a doctoral program in geology at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand and researched past climate in the southern hemisphere, including the role of Antarctica on our global climate system. I completed my post-doctoral work at the State University of New York at Buffalo working on understanding how the Greenland Ice Sheet might respond to a warming world.

I’m currently a lead scientist for science communication at the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group. I work directly with a range of decision-makers, state and federal agencies and in the private sector to develop the fundamental scientific understanding, data, tools, guidance and capacity needed to manage the risks communities face from climate change. We work collaboratively to identify what climate change information they need in order to build robust, resilient communities in the face of a changing climate. I also work with public health professionals and with community-centered organizations to understand the disproportionate risks of climate change facing diverse communities across the Pacific Northwest.

One of the projects I’m most excited about right now is serving as a science lead for the development of hands-on climate change curriculum for classrooms across the state of Washington.

How did Mount Holyoke influence your decision to become a research scientist?

Al Werner’s research is all about global climate change, so being able to actively participate in authentic research as an undergraduate — and having a faculty mentor who trusted me to do that work — was transformative. The applied experience Mount Holyoke offered me made the idea of a career in science tangible.

I also took advantage of the Five College Consortium. I sought out as many classes as I could that provided applied research experience. I took an atmospheric chemistry course at Hampshire College where we assessed a piece of contaminated property. We presented our data to the Environmental Protection Agency and our findings were used to make real, on-the-ground decisions. During my senior year, I was able to take a graduate level geology class at the University of Massachusetts Amherst with one of the leaders in the field of climate change.

Getting a taste of what graduate school was like, with leaders in the field, while I was still an undergraduate was incredibly helpful and informed my decision to apply to graduate school. Mount Holyoke and the Five Colleges made that possible for me.

Did you participate in any extracurricular activities at Mount Holyoke?

I worked as an Eco-Rep for what is now called the Miller Worley Center for the Environment. I collaborated with other students and administrators to promote local and sustainable food purchasing. I also played bassoon for the Mount Holyoke Klezmer Band for a few semesters. That was a fun and different experience I would never have had if I hadn’t gone to Mount Holyoke.

What advice can you offer students planning to pursue a career in scientific research?

Take risks. Take a class that is unexpected. That is how I stumbled into a field that is now my passion — thanks to a not-so-gentle nudge from my mom!

Talk to graduate students. It’s easy to get bad advice from people who think a certain program might be a good fit simply because the institution is prestigious. The most important factor in graduate work is choosing a place where you can see yourself thriving — thriving in the work and also with the people you’ll be surrounded by. Being excited about the culture of the institution and work group you’d be joining is important. Putting yourself out there and emailing or having online calls with graduate students can be really illuminating. The Mount Holyoke alumnae network is great for this.

Also, your undergraduate and graduate school concentrations don’t need to define your career. It’s all about identifying opportunities that will give you new skills to apply in different contexts. My career path is a great example of that. I studied earth science for over a decade and am now working primarily in climate adaptation and climate change communication. All these experiences are leading me towards a fulfilling and diverse career. Even today, I continue to remind myself that I’m not locked into any career path. There is no Yellow Brick Road, it’s all exploration. That’s what keeps it interesting, exciting and fulfilling. Give yourself permission to explore.

Finally, creating mentor relationships beyond your peer network in college is important. Al Werner continues to be one of my greatest champions, mentors and advocates. Al, and the career he helped me to establish, is most certainly the best outcome of my time at Mount Holyoke.

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