Women in science study earth and sky

Meet our geologists, paleontologists and more
Oct 6, 2016 — 9:28 am EST
Twila Moon

Twila Moon rocks out on a recent hiking trip in the Dolomites in Italy.

Chris Moon

Many kids go through a “dinosaur phase.” They read books on dinosaurs and dig up their yards hunting for these ancient giants. Most of us grow out of it. But some people keep their love for fossils as they grow up. And if they do, they might become scientists.

L. Babilonia
Lisa Babilonia’s favorite pastime is hanging out with fossils.
L. Babilonia

Science News for Students put a call out asking for women in science, technology, engineering and math (or STEM) to send us their photos, videos and sound clips. We wanted to show our readers what scientists really looked like when we published a feature on women in STEM. The response blew us away. We had more than 150 submissions from all different fields of STEM and from all over the world!

Today, we celebrate women in STEM who never lost their love for fossils. We also highlight women who study the ground beneath our feet and the skies above our heads.

Lisa Babilonia

Like many kids, Babilonia became fascinated with dinosaurs at a young age. For her, it happened on a trip to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles in California when she was just four. Since then, she says, “being a paleontologist is all I have ever wanted to do.” Now she is a paleontologist — someone who studies the remains of ancient organisms. She runs an interpretive center filled with local fossils at Ralph B. Clark Regional Park in Buena Park, Calif.

Jessica Ball
Jessica Ball does her best Han Solo impression.
Laura Walkup

Babilonia believes in getting the most out of life. “I have a passion for art, music and movies,” she says. “I paint and draw and belly dance. I go to Burning Man [a yearly festival in the Nevada desert]... I love to cook. I play tennis and am a big sports fan.” The people around her are important, too.  “My fiancé, family and friends are integral to my life.”

Jessica Ball

Volcanoes do more than ooze lava. They also can cause huge landslides and mudslides. Ball’s job is to figure out why. She’s a volcanologist — someone who studies volcanoes — at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif. “I use numerical models to figure out how water can make volcanoes unstable even if they're not erupting,” she explains. She also works on figuring out where large volcanic landslides might occur.

In her off hours, Ball spends time communicating her science. She writes a science blog and even spent a year in Washington, D.C., promoting science to politicians.

Her job might be hot, but Ball’s hobbies are cool. Not only does she love Star Wars, she says, “I was in a rock band while I was in grad school — playing the violin!”

Wendy Bohon

Bohon uses science to shake things up. She’s a geologist at the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology in Washington, D.C. Today she studies earthquakes. But before she got into science, Bohon took to the stage, earning a degree in theatre.

(Post continues below video)

Wendy Bohon talks about her earthquake research.
Sara Ganetis stands in front of a mobile radar truck called a Doppler on Wheels.
Sara Ganetis stands in front of a mobile radar truck called a Doppler on Wheels.
Sara Ganetis

Sara Ganetis

“My research is literally cool because I study snowstorms,” says Ganetis. She’s a graduate student in atmospheric science at Stony Brook University in New York. She uses observations of snow, weather-modeling data and theory to better understand and predict the behavior of heavy bands of extreme snowfall within storms.

Ganetis also loves animals, particularly squirrels. She loves them so much she carries nuts with her to feed them. But this habit has backfired in the past. “While in college, I fed nuts to the squirrels outside of my dorm room window,” she says. “While away at class one afternoon, some squirrels broke in and stole all of my nuts!” Since then, she carries the nuts with her to foil squirrel burglars.

Lindsay Hunter

Lindsay Hunter
Lindsay Hunter supervised scanning of the Dinaledi Chamber during the 2013 Rising Star Expedition in South Africa.
Elen Feuerriegel

About a year ago, scientists revealed fossils from an underground cave in South Africa. The fossils might belong to a new human relative called Homo naledi. But when the scientists went to work in the cave, they found its entrance was too narrow for most adult men. They recruited female scientists to take over. One was Hunter. This paleoanthropologist works at the African Digital Education Trust in Westbury, South Africa. Along with five other women, she squeezed into the cave to help recover the precious fossils.

Now, she says, “I use my training to teach and inspire South Africans to explore their fossil heritage.”

Hunter has always enjoyed being active. “When I was in college, I used to compete in Olympic modern pentathlon and even completed the team's Olympic Development Training Camp,” she says. “I was never very good (and never an Olympian), but I enjoyed the challenge of keeping on top of shooting, fencing, running, swimming and horseback jumping. I do my best thinking when I'm active!”

Amelie Kirchgaessner
Amelie Kirchgaessner works on a machine called a Cloud and Aerosol Particle Spectrometer in a hangar in Antarctica.
T. Lachlan-Cope

Amelie Kirchgaessner

Kirchgaessner sent us a photo from all the way down south — Antarctica! She’s a scientist who studies the atmosphere for the British Antarctic Survey. It's headquartered in Cambridge, England.

“Flying with our research aircraft below, in and above clouds, my colleagues and I study the properties of clouds in polar regions, and the processes leading to their formation,” she says. “These clouds play an important role in the Earth's climate system that isn't fully understood yet.”

Not all of her interests are science related. Kirchgaessner says if she hadn’t become a scientist, “my alternative dream job would be as a translator for the United Nations.”

Twila Moon

You may have heard in the news that glaciers are melting. But how do we know? Because of scientists like Moon. At the University of Bristol in England, she focuses on glaciers. “The Greenland ice sheet is one of my favorite places to study,” she says. “I use a lot of data from satellites, but also sometimes I get to go do work directly on the ice sheet.” 

Kimber Moreland gets dirty — studying soil.
Kimber Moreland does the dirty work! She studies soil.
Kimber Moreland

Kimber Moreland

Moreland digs dirt. And that makes sense. She’s a soil scientist at the University of California, Merced, with training in the fields of biology, ecology and evolution.

Her work involves studying how climate and the area where a patch of dirt is located affect the soil’s properties.

“One interesting fact about myself,” she says, “is that I have two learning disabilities that I have had to navigate through to be successful in this field.”

Daniela Reis

Reis is off to a rocky science start. She’s majoring in geology at the University of Coimbra in Portugal. “I am currently involved in a research project focusing on the mineralogy of kimberlites — igneous rocks that often bear diamonds,” she says.

Daniela Reis
Daniela Reis in the botanic garden at the University of Coimbra in Portugal.
Ana Rita Reis

At first, Reis thought she might study genetics. “I was born with blue eyes and they suddenly changed to brown,” she notes. But rocks ultimately won her over.

“I aspire to become a geoscientist in the hope of contributing to increase the knowledge of the geologic processes and structures that mold the Earth over time and — most of all — because I like to study the fascinating and ever evolving field of geology!”

Anna Scott

Summer is hot, but in cities it’s often hotter. This is called the urban heat island effect. Scott wants to figure out how and why cities are hotter than the area around them. She’s a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md.

Anna Scott
Anna Scott installs a thermometer in Nairobi, Kenya, with University of Nairobi meteorology student Jerry Okoth.
Herbert Misiani

In her free time, Scott likes to get cheesy. Her hobby is making cheese!

Darcy Shapiro and Kelsey Pugh

Science is better when you do it together. Shapiro and Pugh are both graduate students. Shapiro is at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., and Pugh is at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York in New York City. Both are paleoanthropologists, scientists that study the origins of humans.

Focusing on fossils, Shapiro and Pugh study the evolution of apes, ape locomotion and human bipedalism (walking on two legs). “The photo,” Shapiro notes, “was taken at a Miocene-aged site in Hungary where we were doing fieldwork in the summer of 2015.” (The Miocene is an epoch of time between 5.3 million and 23 million years ago.)

When they aren’t doing science, Shapiro likes indoor rock climbing, and Pugh is into knitting.

Darcy Shapiro and Kelsey Pugh at a research site in Hungary.
Darcy Shapiro and Kelsey Pugh at a research site in Hungary.
Darcy Shapiro


Lori Epstein/National Geographic Kids
Leanne Wiberg shows off a snake at Potomac Overlook Regional Park in Arlington, Va.
Lori Epstein/National Geographic Kids

Leanne Wiberg

Wiberg uses her science skills as an educator at Potomac Overlook Regional Park in Arlington, Va. “I'm a writer and educator who enjoys putting science into plain English,” she says. As a naturalist at the park, “I lead hikes and help kids and adults understand exactly why our local rocks, plants and animals are so unique,” she says. “Lately, I've been studying Virginia's state rock, which is called nelsonite.”

Laura Wilson

Laura Wilson
Laura Wilson is expecting to add another scientist to the world soon.
Jarrod Brantley

Wilson is a paleontologist at Fort Hays State University in Hays, Kansas. She’s also the curator of paleontology at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History there. “I have spent most of the last 10 years studying the animals and ecosystems of the Western Interior Seaway,” she observes. That’s the ocean that stretched across central North America from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean between 100 million and 66 million years ago.

“I am particularly interested in the birds that lived in these ecosystems.” Those birds may be long gone, but they left behind fossils for Wilson and others to study.

When she’s not doing science, Wilson loves sports. “I played lacrosse in college and will watch or play just about any sport,” she says.

If you enjoyed this post, make sure to check out the others in our series on women in STEM. We’ve got women in astronomy, biology, chemistry, medicine and ecology. And keep an eye out for new additions as we cover math, neuroscience and more.

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Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

Antarctica     A continent mostly covered in ice, which sits in the southernmost part of the world.

ape     A group of rather large “Old World” primates that lack a tail. They include the gorilla, chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans and gibbons.

Arctic     A region that falls within the Arctic Circle. The edge of that circle is defined as the northernmost point at which the sun is visible on the northern winter solstice and the southernmost point at which the midnight sun can be seen on the northern summer solstice.

astronomy     The area of science that deals with celestial objects, space and the physical universe. People who work in this field are called astronomers.

atmosphere     The envelope of gases surrounding Earth or another planet.

behavior     The way a person or other organism acts towards others, or conducts itself.

biology     The study of living things. The scientists who study them are known as biologists.

birds     Warm-blooded animals with wings that first showed up during the time of the dinosaurs. Birds are jacketed in feathers and produce young from the eggs they deposit in some sort of nest. Most birds fly, but throughout history there have been the occasional species that don’t.

blog     Short for web log, these Internet posts can take the form of news reports, topical discussions, opinionated rants, diaries or photo galleries.

chemistry     The field of science that deals with the composition, structure and properties of substances and how they interact with one another. Chemists use this knowledge to study unfamiliar substances, to reproduce large quantities of useful substances or to design and create new and useful substances. (about compounds) The term is used to refer to the recipe of a compound, the way it’s produced or some of its properties.

climate     The weather conditions prevailing in an area in general or over a long period.

cloud     A mass of airborne water droplets and ice crystals that travel as a plume, usually high in Earth’s atmosphere. Their movement is driven by winds.

colleague     Someone who works with another; a co-worker or team member.

curator     Someone who manages a collection of items, for instance in a museum, library or art gallery. This person’s primary job is to design exhibits, organize and acquire collections and do research on the artifacts included in the collection.

data     Facts and/or statistics collected together for analysis but not necessarily organized in a way that give them meaning. For digital information (the type stored by computers), those data typically are numbers stored in a binary code, portrayed as strings of zeros and ones.

diamond     One of the hardest known substances and rarest gems on Earth. Diamonds form deep within the planet when carbon is compressed under incredibly strong pressure.

dinosaur     A term that means terrible lizard. These ancient reptiles lived from about 250 million years ago to roughly 65 million years ago. All descended from egg-laying reptiles known as archosaurs. Their descendants eventually split into two lines. They are distinguished by their hips. The lizard-hipped line became saurichians, such as two-footed theropods like T. rex and the lumbering four-footed Apatosaurus (once known as brontosaurus). A second line of so-called bird-hipped, or ornithischian dinosaurs, led to a widely differing group of animals that included the stegosaurs and duckbilled dinosaurs.

earthquake     magnitude A measurement of the intensity of the ground-shaking associated with an earthquake. The scale is logarithmic. So for every 1 point increase in magnitude (such as from 3 to 4), there is a 10 fold increase in ground motion (how far the land shakes back and forth) and a roughly 33-fold increase in the amount of energy released.

ecology     A branch of biology that deals with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings. A scientist who works in this field is called an ecologist.

ecosystem     A group of interacting living organisms — including microorganisms, plants and animals — and their physical environment within a particular climate. Examples include tropical reefs, rainforests, alpine meadows and polar tundra.

engineering     The field of research that uses math and science to solve practical problems.

evolution     (v. to evolve) A process by which species undergo changes over time, usually through genetic variation and natural selection. These changes usually result in a new type of organism better suited for its environment than the earlier type. The newer type is not necessarily more “advanced,” just better adapted to the conditions in which it developed.

field     An area of study, as in: Her field of research was biology. Also a term to describe a real-world environment in which some research is conducted, such as at sea, in a forest, on a mountaintop or on a city street. It is the opposite of an artificial setting, such as a research laboratory. 

fossil     Any preserved remains or traces of ancient life. There are many different types of fossils: The bones and other body parts of dinosaurs are called “body fossils.” Things like footprints are called “trace fossils.” Even specimens of dinosaur poop are fossils. The process of forming fossils is called fossilization.

genetic     Having to do with chromosomes, DNA and the genes contained within DNA. The field of science dealing with these biological instructions is known as genetics. People who work in this field are geneticists.

geology     The study of Earth’s physical structure and substance, its history and the processes that act on it. People who work in this field are known as geologists. Planetary geology is the science of studying the same things about other planets.

glacier     A slow-moving river of ice hundreds or thousands of meters deep. Glaciers are found in mountain valleys and also form parts of ice sheets.

graduate student     Someone working toward an advanced degree by taking classes and performing research. This work is done after the student has already graduated from college (usually with a four-year degree).

Greenland     The world’s largest island, Greenland sits between the Arctic Ocean and North Atlantic. Although it is technically apart of North America, just east of Northern Canada, Greenland has been politically more linked to Europe. Indeed, Vikings arrived in Greenland around the 10 th century, and for a time the island was a colony of Denmark. In June 2009, Greenland became an independent nation. Ice covers roughly 80 percent of Greenland. Indeed, the Greenland ice sheet is the world’s largest. If its frozen water were to melt, it could raise sea levels around the world by 6 meters (about 20 feet). Although this is the 12 th biggest nation (based on surface area), it averages the fewest people per square kilometer of its surface area.

Homo naledi     An extinct human relative of unknown age. The bones of this species were found in a cave in South Africa in 2013 and 2014.

ice sheet     A broad blanket of ice, often kilometers deep. Ice sheets currently cover most of Antarctica. An ice sheet also blankets most of Greenland. During the last glaciation, ice sheets also covered much of North America and Europe.

lacrosse     A game that uses a stick and ball that was originally developed by Native Americans. Players cradle the ball in the net at the end of their stick, using the stick to move the ball down the field and eventually into the opponent’s netted goal area.

lava     Molten rock that comes up from the mantle, through Earth’s crust, and out of a volcano.

lead     A toxic heavy metal (abbreviated as Pb) that in the body moves to where calcium wants to go. The metal is particularly toxic to the brain, where in a child’s developing brain it can permanently impair IQ, even at relatively low levels.

locomotion     The ability to move from place to place.

native     Associated with a particular location; native plants and animals have been found in a particular location since recorded history began. These species also tend to have developed within a region, occurring there naturally (not because they were planted or moved there by people). Most are particularly well adapted to their environment.

naturalist     A biologist who works in the field (such as in forests, swamps or tundra) and studies the interconnections between wildlife that make up local ecosystems.

navigate     To find one’s way through a landscape using visual cues, sensory information (like scents), magnetic information (like an internal compass) or other techniques.

neuroscience     The field of science that deals with the structure or function of the brain and other parts of the nervous system. Researchers in this field are known as neuroscientists.

organism     Any living thing, from elephants and plants to bacteria and other types of single-celled life.

paleoanthropologist     A scientist who studies ancient humans and hominid biology and the behavior and how hominids evolved. This field is based on the analysis of fossils, remnants, artifacts or markings created or used by these individuals.

paleontologist     A scientist who specializes in studying fossils, the remains of ancient organisms.

satellite     A moon orbiting a planet or a vehicle or other manufactured object that orbits some celestial body in space.

seismology     The science concerned with earthquakes and related phenomena. People who work in this field are known as seismologists.

STEM     An acronym (abbreviation made using the first letters of a term) for science, technology, engineering and math.

survey     (v.) To ask questions that glean data on the opinions, practices (such as dining or sleeping habits), knowledge or skills of a broad range of people. Researchers select the number and types of people questioned in hopes that the answers these individuals give will be representative of others who are their age, belong to the same ethnic group or live in the same region. (n.) The list of questions that will be offered to glean those data.

technology     The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry — or the devices, processes and systems that result from those efforts.

theory     (in science) A description of some aspect of the natural world based on extensive observations, tests and reason. A theory can also be a way of organizing a broad body of knowledge that applies in a broad range of circumstances to explain what will happen. Unlike the common definition of theory, a theory in science is not just a hunch. Ideas or conclusions that are based on a theory — and not yet on firm data or observations — are referred to as theoretical. Scientists who use mathematics and/or existing data to project what might happen in new situations are known as theorists.

urban     Of or related to cities, especially densely populated ones or regions where lots of traffic and industrial activity occurs. The development or buildup of urban areas is a phenomenon known as urbanization.

urban heat island     A city or metropolitan area that’s much warmer than surrounding rural areas. The increased temperature results from several phenomena. Many hard surfaces, such as buildings and pavements, absorb sunlight and then release that energy — as heat — into the air. Also, human activities such as running air conditioners and driving cars will release large amounts of heat directly into the environment.

weather     Conditions in the atmosphere at a localized place and a particular time. It is usually described in terms of particular features, such as air pressure, humidity, moisture, any precipitation (rain, snow or ice), temperature and wind speed. Weather constitutes the actual conditions that occur at any time and place. It’s different from climate, which is a description of the conditions that tend to occur in some general region during a particular month or season.

Western Interior Seaway     This shallow marine sea, sometimes called the Cretaceous Seaway, split North America into two landmasses: Laramidia to the West and Appalachia to the East.