Women in STEM Author Interview: Jen Christiansen
Posted on: January 30, 2023
What was your motivating factor to explore the STEM field?
My high school biology teacher noticed that I took an interest in environmental science and ecology (with fledgling activist tendencies towards habitat and species conservation), and pointed me towards a Museum Research Apprenticeship Program at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. My parents were really supportive, and made it possible for me to participate. Every Saturday, I’d join other high school students from the Los Angeles area, and scientists and educators from the museum. We conducted monarch butterfly field research, and learned from guest speakers from a wide range of science disciplines. It was a super experience—fun, educational, and empowering. I learned that I was drawn to ecology as a discipline, and took that energy with me into Smith College. I shifted over to a geology track when I realized that earth science classes started with the big picture, and that I preferred field work to laboratory work.
How many women do you currently collaborate with in the STEM field?
More than half of my colleagues in the newsroom are women. And that’s been the case for a while. But that hasn’t been the case for the scientist authors that I collaborate with on stories. We’re getting close to gender parity when it comes to the scientists that we feature as authors and as sources. But that’s been the result of a conscious effort to reach out to a wider range of people, and pushing against the status quo.
How can women support one another in the STEM field?
I think it’s critical to amplify each other’s work. Give credit where credit is due, and then build on each other’s momentum! And be conscious about the people’s work that you’re citing. I do that in presentations and writings by making sure that I’m highlighting research and illustrations by women (and folks that have been historically marginalized in STEM for additional or other reasons). Also make sure that you’re properly highlighting the people behind the work, with source credits on the slides and by saying their names.
What needs to happen in the STEM field to attract more women?
I’m not a scientist in an academic setting. But I do hear from women in STEM graduate programs who are looking for guidance with regards to finding science-adjacent careers outside of academia. It seems to me that the STEM field is attracting women. But academia isn’t retaining them. In part, based on what I’m informally hearing, because of the narrow and rigid expectation of what a scientist is, and what a scientist is expected to prioritize. Lots of emerging researchers are interested in science communication, but it seems to be viewed as an extra-curricular activity by their institutions. Not something that they can actively center in their daily practice of doing science. I’m guessing that if leaders in academia celebrated and supported different ways of being a researcher, more women—and other folks that don’t fit the existing mold—would consider sticking with it. And everyone would benefit.
What motivates you to learn?
I love circling in on the answer to a question, or reading and talking to others in the service of trying to put pieces of a story together in a way that will help other people learn. There’s something really satisfying about finally wrapping your mind around an abstract topic. And then trying to figure out how you can make it more accessible for someone else to also learn about it.
When was your “ah-ha moment” when you realized this is the pathway you wanted to take?
I never really had an “ah-ha moment.” I double majored in geology and studio art in college. I loved my science classes and I loved my art classes. I think it boiled down to the fact that I was really interested in observation and interpretation, making things, and communicating with a pictorial language. I didn’t want to choose one discipline at the expense of the other, and was keen to put off the decision as long as possible. I investigated museum education as a possibility. But ultimately, I enrolled in a science illustration graduate program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. An internship at the end of that program at Scientific American magazine set me on my current path as a science journalist and science communicator.