#302 – College and Career Connections: Women in STEM, with Dr. Ailene Ettinger, Quantitative Ecologist

Unpacking Education July 3, 2024 40 min

We continue our series of episodes featuring women in STEM and exploring ways to engage students in making college and career connections. In this episode, Quantitative Ecologist Dr. Ailene Ettinger joins us to talk about her career. She explains what she does, how she became interested in quantitative ecology, and how we can engage our own students in potential STEM careers like this.

Paul Beckermann
PreK–12 Digital Learning Specialist
Rena Clark
STEM Facilitator and Digital Learning Specialist
Dr. Winston Benjamin
Social Studies and English Language Arts Facilitator

Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.

Marie Curie, Nobel Prize-winning physicist and chemist

The Diversity of Science

As Ailene talks about her career, she explains that it includes a lot of different tasks and might look different from other scientific occupations. She points out, “There’s so much variation in the sorts of things you can do.” It might mean being in a lab, but it can also include interacting directly with nature, interviewing members of a community, or researching on a computer. She says that it’s important for students to understand that this type of diversity of work is available in STEM careers like hers. It’s also important to expose students to various career opportunities in STEM fields and in the sciences.

Tune in to hear more about how teachers can engage their students in STEM careers. The following are a few highlights from our conversation:

  • About Our Guest: Quantitative Ecologist Dr. Ailene Ettinger works at The Nature Conservancy—a global conservation organization with a mission of “conserving the lands and water on which all life depends.”
  • Quantitative Ecologist: In her work, Ailene uses mathematical and statistical tools to quantify ecological questions. She helps develop the evidence base used to guide the work of The Nature Conservancy.
  • An Internship: Ailene’s interest in pursuing a career in ecology began in high school when she had the opportunity to participate in a paid summer internship with Main Research Internships for Teachers and Students (MERITS). She helped document the status of endangered birds in Maine. She recalls, “That was the first time where I was like, ‘Wow, this is awesome.’ That I could be outside doing something I love, learning about organisms and their environment but also getting paid. I loved that experience, and it led me to major in environmental science in college” and later working toward and achieving a PhD in ecology.
  • An Early Role Model: Role models and mentors were also important in nudging Ailene toward a career as a scientist. She recalls the impact that her aunt Ailene—who she was named after—had on her, saying, “She was probably the first woman that I knew of who got a doctorate . . . and was working in environmental science.” As she recalls the example that her aunt set for her, she adds, “That combination of her curiosity and passion, as well as her dedicated hard work, was really inspirational to me.”
  • Another Mentor: She also recalls the impact of Dr. Johanna Schmitt, her undergrad thesis advisor. Ailene shares, “Her passion for finding really interesting science in everyday foods or everyday things that you might see walking down the sidewalk . . . that everyday curiosity and passion was really inspiring for me.”
  • Engaging Students in Nature: Ailene says, “There is lots of ecology outside the doors of your classroom that students could be engaged in—collecting data and then looking at the data. That’s what science is. It’s asking questions, and then collecting data, and looking at the data to see if it helps to answer your question.” She adds that just getting kids outside in nature can sometimes be enough to engage them in a potential career in ecology.
  • Classroom Visits: Ailene engages with students in area schools by being a classroom guest. She says, “It’s so fun to be able to talk with kids about my scientific research because they always ask such fascinating questions and questions that I often wouldn’t think of, so for me, it always helps me see my science in a new way.” She also believes her visits help students see that scientists are real people, not just an abstract idea.
  • A Recurring Question: Ailene says that adults often ask her if working with climate change every day is depressing. She doesn’t feel this way and says, “I think I experience a lot less hopelessness and anxiety because I think about it all the time and because I think a lot about and study what can people do to help address that problem, and what can we do differently, and there’s so many answers to that . . . I don’t find it depressing. It just feels like we have a lot to do.”
  • Essential Skills: Ailene talks about the skills that students will need to be a successful ecologist. She says, “Math and problem-solving are really important—and logic skills.” She adds that coding can be quite helpful.
  • An Exciting Project: One of Ailene’s most exciting projects has been a mangrove forest restoration project in Papua New Guinea. She says, “It’s my favorite project because I think it’s a really great integration of science, and doing good science, but also community engagement and engaging people in the science, and I just think that’s a really powerful combination. And I think it’s leading to really important work for them that hopefully will last longer because the community is really engaged in it.”
  • A Challenging Project: Another project that she enjoys, but also admits is quite challenging, is Greening Research In Tacoma (G.R.I.T.). Her team is looking for ways to increase the tree canopy in the city while still allowing for an increase in much-needed housing. It’s a challenge to find that balance, but the work is rewarding because it’s so important and, if successful, can positively impact people in the area.

Guiding Questions

If you are listening to the podcast with your instructional team or would like to explore this topic more deeply, here are guiding questions to prompt your reflection:

  • What is a quantitative ecologist?
  • What skills does a scientist like Ailene need in her career workplace?
  • Which of these skills might a student develop in your classroom?
  • How might you expose students to STEM careers in your classroom?
  • What intrigues you the most about what Ailene has shared?

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