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Women in Science Project
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Kira Lawrence '96

An interview by Bridget Alex ’08, July 30, 2007

Quick Facts

Position: Assistant Professor of Geology
Graduate degrees: Ph.D. in Geological Sciences from Brown University and M.S. in Earth Sciences from UC Santa Cruz
Dartmouth undergrad major: Earth Science
Dartmouth activities: Varsity Basketball
Research interests: Paleoclimatology and Paleoceanography; Earth Systems History; Influence of Milankovich Cycles on Late Cenozoic Climate; Glaciation of the Northern Hemisphere; Alkenone Paleothermometry; Paleoproductivity
Current research: Reconstructing high-resolution records of ocean surface temperatures and productivity to assess climate change

Receiving a dismal grade on that first college science exam is not the end of the world. It is however, often the end of a potentially promising career in science—as Chem 05 is promptly dropped for Something Easier 101. Except for survivors like Kira Lawrence ’96, whose disappointing Physics 12 test spurred her to exhaust office hours and recover academically in the class. Perhaps it was that early kick-in-the-pants that provided Lawrence enough momentum to carry her science education all the way: Lawrence has just finished her first year as an Assistant Professor in the Geology Department at Lafayette College. At this small, liberal arts college in eastern, Pennsylvania. she serves as the, “Global Change Geologist,” and has recently received a three-year, $96,660 National Science Foundation grant which she will use to study ocean surface temperatures and productivity as a proxy for climate change.

Discovering Science

When Did Science First Spark Your Interest?

I started my career at Dartmouth as an engineer. I had been pretty good at math and science in high school and my dad, who is a scientist, encouraged me to start in engineering because it is much easier to start in a math and science intensive field and move to other disciplines if that isn’t what interests you than it is to move from a humanities or social sciences major to a more technical major. My freshman year I took a lot of math and intro hard science classes, which were ok, but not really inspiring to me. My sophomore fall I took my first engineering class as well as my first earth sciences class. I realized that I was a lot more interested in what I was learning about in my earth science class than any of my other classes. My sophomore winter I took another earth science class and by spring I was declaring myself an Earth Science major.

Educational Background — The College Years

What Science-related Activities Did You Participate In?

I am not particularly good at physics and I don’t particularly like the discipline. I think the two are likely related. My freshman fall I was in physics 12 with Prof. Delo Mook. I crashed and burned on my first exam. When I showed up at his office shell-shocked he welcomed me in, told me not to worry, and encouraged me to come see him whenever I had questions. I became nearly a permanent fixture in his office. He was never disappointed to see me at his door, or at least if he ever was he never let on… If he hadn’t been so supportive, encouraging and willing to help, I may have walked away from science all together.

Notably, I did not participate in the Earth Sciences Department “Stretch” program. I may be the first person to graduate with a degree in Earth Sciences who didn’t do the “Stretch.” In college I played Varsity basketball. Having my junior fall occur away from campus was not an option if I wanted to keep playing basketball, which I absolutely did. I have no regrets about making that decision. I was heartened by the Department’s efforts to accommodate my unique situation. Professor Chuck Drake advised me in the early year of my being a major and Gracie Morse, the former administrative assistant for the department, worked tirelessly with me, the professors in the department, and the registrar to ensure that I had the appropriate courses and credits to graduate with an Earth Sciences Degree. Importantly, I felt very welcome in the Earth Sciences Department. We had a small cohort of majors ~10-15 my year and we all got along pretty well. The grad students in that era were interesting and fun to interact with and many of them as well as many of the professors took and interest in me not only as a student but also as an athlete. Many of them were regulars at Dartmouth women’s basketball games. On the whole, it was just such a supportive environment to be in. I did a senior thesis with Dick Birnie. I don’t think I could find words to express how much I respect and admire Dick. He was a big part of my development as a scientist and made me believe that scientists could be well-rounded people.

Working with him on my thesis was a great experience. We worked on a remote sensing project in the college land grant. It was neat to work on a project that had some connection to the college. I also enjoyed the chance to go up there to do field work with Dick during the height of fall foliage.

What Made You Decide to Pursue Science As Your Career?

I was/am interested in trying to understand how we got to this moment in time. In my view religion wasn’t the way to explore that question, examining earth history was. In addition, after working at the Woods Hole Research Center, I became convinced that the only way to motivate the government to really address the issue of anthropogenic climate change was by convincing the people who vote for government officials that it should be a priority. Lafayette students in Lawrence’s Oceanography course examine marine life during a field trip to Mystic, Connecticut.

The Next Steps — Out Into the Real World

During College, Did You Have an Idea of What You Wanted to Do After Graduation?

No, I knew I was interested in teaching, coaching, being outside, and earth history.

How Did You Decide What to Do After College?

I think that the end of college is a really challenging time because up until that time success is clearly defined for you – do well in high school; go to a good college; do well in college; graduate. Once you graduate what success means is entirely up to you. When I graduated, I wasn’t sure what my goals were. I wanted my life to have worth, but I wasn’t entirely sure what I meant by that. So I did what seemed most logical to me. I applied for a bunch of jobs that were related to some or all of my interests. I got a number of interviews and I chose what seemed like the best option from among them. If I had that to do over again, I would not have been so linear about it. One of my best friends from college didn’t have a job when we graduated. She just had a summer internship in Hawaii studying birds. From there she went to Alaska, Colorado, and a whole host of other interesting places doing internships in each place. What a great chance to see the world! Reflecting on [her] path, I realized… that you have your whole life to figure out what your going to do when you grow up so you don’t have to have it sorted out the moment you graduate from college.

What Were Your Jobs After Graduation?

My first year out of college I taught 8th and 9th grade science and coached basketball and softball at a private school in Worcester, MA. I liked the kids, I liked my colleagues, but I was restless to find my path and I had decided that being a private school teacher wasn’t it. I left Worcester Academy for The Woods Hole Research Center, a non-governmental organization that does research on terrestrial ecological issues as well as works to influence public policy. WHRC was actually founded by a Dartmouth grad, George Woodwell. He was/is an inspiration. He believed in good science as well as scientists sharing what they know with policymakers. It was an inspiring place to work. However, my job there was a desk job, and the extrovert in me needed an outlet. Not to mention that, as I said above, working there convinced me that the only real way to combat anthropogenic climate change was to teach the science of climate change to people who… were eventually going to be the voting public. So, I went to graduate school to get my Ph.D. so I could teach at the college level and learn about Earth History.

Today — Developing Careers

How Does Your College Career Impact What You Currently Do?

Being at Dartmouth was a wonderful experience for me. I think the most important thing about my college career was that it trained me to think. I learned a set of skills that have been invaluable to me in my life.

What's the Most Rewarding Component of Your Current Work?

Helping someone understand something they didn’t understand before. My freshman fall I was in physics 12 with Prof. Delo Mook. I crashed and burned on my first exam. When I showed up at his office shell-shocked he welcomed me in, told me not to worry, and encouraged me to come see him whenever I had questions. I became nearly a permanent fixture in his office.

What Do You Find Less Fulfilling?

I really don’t enjoy grading papers because it make me realize that my students didn’t understand everything I thought I had taught them. So it usually amounts to disappointment for both me and for my students who are often upset about not getting a good grade.

Finding a Balance

What Are Your Top Priorities Today?

My top priority is still that I want me life to have worth.

What Else Do You Do Outside of Your Work?

I played Ultimate Frisbee when I was in graduate school. It was an amazing outlet for me. Now, I do yoga and quite a bit of trail running, but I miss being on a team. So, I am working on finding a team related activity.

What Were the Resources You Found Most Valuable in Deciding Your Path and in Finding Jobs?

I used Carney Sandoe, a Boston based recruiting service for independent schools to find my teaching job. I used the Dartmouth Alumni network to find my job at the Woods Hole Research Center. Tom Stone who did a master’s in the Earth Sciences Department at Dartmouth told me about the job opening at WHRC. My current job I found advertised in the newsletters of professional earth sciences societies.

Tending to Your Emotional and Spiritual Well-being

Did You Ever Doubt Your Capabilities and/or Knowledge in Your Major/Career?

Absolutely.

How Do You/Did You Overcome Those Self-doubts?

Proof that I could do what I set out to do. I am scientist, which means I think you don’t know how something is going to turn out until you try the experiment. I have managed to successfully accomplish most of the things I have set out to do. Having that history of accomplishing things, helps me believe I can confront the next challenge… Perhaps most importantly, as a scientist and as an athlete I have a philosophy that has helped me through a lot of high-pressure situations. It goes something like this: “No one can expect any more from you than the very best you have to give. So if you always give your best, no one, not even you, can be disappointed in you.”

Advice to Share

What Advice Do You Have for Current Students Who May be Interested in the Sciences?

Know that doing research science is about expanding the boundaries of what we know. There absolutely is excitement in discovering something that no one else on Earth knows, but you also need to be prepared to deal with the uncertainties that are inherent working in uncharted territory.

Last Updated: 8/1/14