This Woman ROCKS!
[Reprinted from NEWSWAVE, Summer 2014]
Many people spend years trying to find their “dream job,” but USGS marine geologist Laura Brothers is one of the lucky few who has already found hers.
Brothers has always been interested in science, but it wasn’t until she had a college-level introductory geology class that she realized her calling. “I always took a lot of science classes in high school,” she said. “I was originally studying sociology, but I took a geology class and it was so much more fun. So then I changed my major to geology and rounded it out with physics courses.”
After receiving her undergraduate degree in geology from West Virginia University, Brothers went on to the University of Maine to earn dual masters degrees in oceanography and marine policy, as well as a Ph.D. in geology. “I’m a marine geologist with interests in seafloor mapping, coastal and shelf dynamics/evolution, seabed fluid escape, sediment transport, and marine spatial mapping,” she said.
While it may seem that geologists are out in the field exploring new areas and collecting data all the time, Brothers says that’s not the always the case. “My typical day involves reviewing articles, interpreting data, and writing. There’s also a fair amount of administration associated with research—budgets, progress reports, and so on,” she said. “When I’m lucky, I get to go into the field and collect data.”
Luckily for Brothers, her most recent research mission included many of her marine interests. This past summer, she co-led a group of USGS scientists and engineers on a 40-day seafloor-mapping mission along the Delmarva (Delaware, Maryland, Virginia) coast to better understand coastal change, especially after Hurricane Sandy. (See “USGS Scientists Conduct Comprehensive Seafloor Mapping off the Delmarva Peninsula,” this issue.)
“Hurricane Sandy’s impact on the Delmarva Peninsula made this the perfect time to propose a geophysical study that could address scientific questions and improve coastal-zone management,” Brothers said.
Planning this important mission was quite extensive. Brothers and her team conducted background research to identify knowledge gaps and determine how they could maximize their research efforts. To ensure that they were making the most of their time at sea, the scientists met with regional experts and stakeholders, such as the Delaware Geological Survey, the Wallops Flight Facility, the National Park Service, the University of Delaware, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
As a co-lead (with marine geologist Rob Thieler) for the research cruise, Brothers’ main objectives were to have an exceptional team of scientists and engineers (they had over a century’s worth of combined sea-going experience!), a capable research vessel, updated equipment for gathering the best data possible, and a survey plan that would help them acquire the data required to define the regional geologic framework of the Delmarva inner continental shelf. The mapping mission was part of a USGS project to link the geologic framework of the Delmarva Peninsula to coastal vulnerability (http://woodshole.er.usgs.gov/project-pages/delmarva/).
Even though the data have yet to be interpreted, Brothers is confident that the work they completed this summer was a huge success. “We’re seeing things that no one has seen before. We’re collecting information. We’re assessing what’s out there, so people can live better and make better management decisions,” she said. “It’s a real privilege to be able to pursue your curiosity, particularly in the service of the American people. What we did this summer is going to be used for decades.”
Being the only woman aboard a research vessel for 40 days seems like it might be rough, but Brothers felt otherwise. “I had my own cabin, so that was awesome! I’m also looking forward to wearing summer dresses and peep-toe, instead of steel-toe, shoes. But other than that, there was no difference among my crew mates, and that’s perfect.”
What’s the most important advice Brothers has for young women thinking about pursuing a career in science, technology, engineering, and/or math fields, known as STEM? “Find a mentor,” Brothers says. “It goes for anybody going into any field. Finding somebody who can lead you along and show you the ropes makes a big difference. It can be tough to envision yourself in a field if you don’t look like most of the practicing professionals, particularly when you’re starting out.”When asked about her ideal job, Brothers had a very quick answer. “Being a government research scientist is the best because you get to do the research. I work with such great people and all of what we do becomes public,” she said. “This is my dream job, hands down. I look forward to working here another 30 years.”
in this issue:
This Woman ROCKS!