Monday, February 4, 2013

Faces of Science: Overcoming the difficultly of a path made in leaps and bounds

This is the sixth of a series of blogs about women in science at the University of Wyoming, as we initiate our new NSF-funded program.Throughout the year we will be blogging about women in engineering, earth sciences, biological sciences and beyond. 

Every scientist’s experience and career path is different. For Dr. Indy Burke, director of the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Wyoming, the path was made in leaps and bounds rather than with careful, cautious steps. As Dr. Burke began her career as an ecosystem ecologist she was offered rare opportunities because she was a woman.
Dr. Indy Burke.
“At the time, there were very few women ecosystem ecologists,” says Dr. Burke. “Less than a handful.”
Dr. Burke started her PhD at Dartmouth, but when her adviser there, Dr. William Reiners, moved to Laramie to fill the Department Head position in Botany at tUW, she decided to change her graduate institution to UW as well. From UW, Dr. Burke went to Colorado State University for her post-doc and that’s when her career began to fast forward.
A year into her post-doc, she was offered a faculty position at another university. CSU countered their offer.
“CSU said, ‘Don’t go. We don’t have any women in our College of Natural Resources,’” Dr. Burke explains. “So, I got a job because I was a woman entirely. I didn’t have to compete for the job and that really interfered with the college relationship for a long time. I felt that I really had to over-earn respect.”
In addition to the challenge of strained collegiate relationships, Dr. Burke’s area of expertise did not quite match with her new position.
“I was a rangeland ecologist hired into a forestry department,” Dr. Burke says. Her area of interest is soil nutrient dynamics.
To overcome the difficulties of this opportunity, Dr. Burke worked to be the absolute best she could be.
“I was just really, really focused on trying to bring in more money than anyone else did, write more grant proposals, publish more papers, be a better teacher, and do more outreach,” Dr.  Burke explains. “It was clear to me that I needed to demonstrate that I was excellent.”
In addition to her academic accomplishments, Dr. Burke earned respect in many other ways. In the course of furthering her science career, she married another faculty member in the college, began to raise a family and served on several national and international science boards, including the National Academy of Sciences Committees and Board.
“Being one of the only women ecosystem ecologists for at least the first 15 years of my career gave me the opportunity to get invited to do things before I was really ready in my career, in a way that can actually depress productivity,” Dr. Burke says.
This level of service detracted somewhat from the time she could spend her own research, writing and publishing as well as her personal life.Nonetheless, while the first few years of her professional career were difficult, she has overcome every obstacle. She has published over 150 peer reviewed articles, book chapters and reports, earned numerous large research grants and received prestigious teaching awards.
“I felt that I had to balance all that pressure of representing all women,” Dr. Burke says. “It seemed as though I represented the gender for the whole college (and science field). Fortunately, I have an extremely supportive husband, who is highly productive as a scientist and could do even more than his share at home.”
Today, Dr. Burke balances research, service and family in a different way. As the director of the Haub School and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, she has the opportunity to focus her energy on areas of interest outside research.
 “We have one land grant university in the state of Wyoming. We have one four year institution in the state of Wyoming,” Dr. Burke explains. “When there is a natural resources issue, stakeholders and the decision makers look to this university. So, we have a real opportunity to do the relevant science and synthesize the science to inform decision makers in the debate.”
In addition to her work with science and outreach, Dr, Burke is focused on the future of science through working with students.
“Around 2000, I started to get very, very interested in teaching,” Dr. Burke says. “I felt as though my work was more likely to change the world if I affected people, rather than if I published another paper.”
Part of her teaching passion is encouraging young people from diverse perspectives and backgrounds to pursue science degrees and careers. Part of encouraging students is making them aware and helping connect them to the opportunities available.
Dr. Burke with her horse this summer in front of the Fontanelle Fire. 
“The Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources provides some great opportunities for students of all kinds,” Dr. Burke says. “I think that getting students into the field and overseas is one of the most important things you can do for anyone interested in the environment.”
The Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources provides students with field research opportunities as well as helps connect students to faculty and internships for research experiences. Encouraging students to participate in research, to develop their curiosity and institution, and to empower them to succeed in the science fields is important.
“I feel as though young women get told about challenges and young men get told about opportunities,” Dr. Burke says. “Every career is challenging. Every life situation is challenging. I don’t think emphasizing the challenges is the way to do it. I feel like showing your enthusiasm is the most important thing you can do.”
To all students, especially young women, Dr. Indy advises, “I would say that the best scientists are not those who are good at memorizing formulas or facts or definitions. The best scientists are the people with creative skills and talents. If what you’re interested in is questions and being creative, then science really is the place for you.”

By Kali S. McCrackin
Photos courtesy of Dr. Indy Burke

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