Oregon State University

College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences

At the Boundary

Karen Shell admits she had few barriers to becoming a physicist. Times had changed since her mother went to school and was told she couldn't major in geology, because no one would hire a woman. Yet the numbers are still troubling for Shell, an associate professor in atmospheric sciences at Oregon State University. According to a 2013 report by the National Science Foundation, only about 25 percent of Earth scientists, geologists and oceanographers are women.

Oddly, some of the same stubborn biases her mother faced may be a partial culprit, only a softer, more elusive form. Instead of rearing its ugly head, gender bias in the sciences often rests in the subtext — in offhand comments or subtleties too nuanced to note.

Shell should know. She was given ample opportunity to explore her passions, calling her family sciency. "I always wanted to be a scientist, and I definitely had the chemistry set and the microscope and the telescope," she said.

But despite overwhelming support from family, colleagues, professors and friends, Shell experienced what she calls micro-aggressions that challenged her confidence. Once, in a lab exercise when she and another female lab partner were having problems, a visiting professor brushed them off, assuming they were incapable rather than offering help. Later at a conference during graduate school, a man was skeptical that Shell had come up with the work. While the latter experience did not cause her to doubt her abilities, the former led Shell to question her lab skills and even doing physics. She remained a physics major, but switched her focus to computational physics.

Shell believes that experiencing micro-aggressions may explain why some women scientists have found acceptance in the boundaries of science, the interstitial spaces that bring together disciplines. Traditional disciplines can be hard-edged with biases and preconceived notions, but less-defined areas can offer a fluid space for women to contribute. During graduate school, for example, Shell herself couldn't decide between atmospheric science and oceanography, opting for a program that allowed her to study both — in climate science.

"These edges, the boundaries, there's space for women there. And they are really rich spaces," she said.

Fortunately, Shell overcame self-doubt and has established a successful career in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State, both as a researcher and educator. Her research focuses on how our climate will respond to external forcing, whether CO2, aerosols or soot. Using computer models of the Earth's climate, Shell can assess different climate scenarios and possible futures. "Studying climate science allows me to use my love of physics to understand something vital to society — the future of the planet," she said.

On the academic side, Shell is spearheading the university's new Climate Science Option within the Earth Sciences degree. The program features a strong experiential learning component through field trips, senior research projects, internships and hands-on science integrated into the classroom. Leading the program is her way of helping future practitioners ask the next generation of questions. Shell's hope is to instill a sense that learning by doing, making mistakes and overcoming self-doubt are essential to discovery—and that any student can occupy the boundary or the center of science.

"I've always been clumsy and never felt like I was great at lab work. It's why I picked computational physics. But in retrospect, that shouldn't be a factor," she said. "I now know that a lot of it is practice. You practice with the equipment and get better at doing it. Part of the experience is, if you break it, you figure out how to fix it. That's what scientists do."

melt pond

Melt pond, photo by Chris Polashenski

A Closer Look: Shell's Research on Melt Ponds and Climate Change

Karen Shell and colleague Eric Skyllingstad are studying the albedo effect within Arctic sea ice, and how this might contribute to climate change. You probably understand albedo intuitively. It's why you avoid black clothes in the summer to stay cool, opting instead for light colors. Like your white tank-top, snow and ice bounce back sunlight to create an overall cooling effect.

A key element in the local ice-albedo feedback is the presence of melt ponds on the ice surface. Melt ponds typically have a much lower albedo than surrounding sea ice. As they form, they absorb more solar radiation, making ice more likely to melt. Eventually, ponds can melt completely through the ice, leading to ice breakup and exposing the underlying ocean surface.

A warmer climate may intensify this process and create a runaway feedback loop, Shell said. "If you have less sea ice, you're going to have more absorbed sunlight. More warming melts the ice further, and even more sunlight is absorbed," she explained.

Yet, current climate models aren't sensitive enough to capture the effect of melt ponds. Shell and Skyllingstad have developed their own model, and in combination with field data, they can test a number of future scenarios: What would happen if the Arctic got dumped with snow? What would happen during an unusually warm spring? What if the current warming trend continues?

Shell said that understanding the melt pond-climate connection will give a clearer sense of plausible futures we may inhabit.

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