Celebrating Women in Science: Sari Blakeley

Adapted from a story written by Olga Rukovets for the State of the Planet news site.

Sari Blakeley did not always dream of a career in science. In fact, when she was younger, her understanding of “science” always involved “people in lab coats pipetting liquids over a Bunsen burner.” Over time, her perspective on science shifted to one that embraced analytical thinking and a highly interdisciplinary approach. “I did not stay within one domain, which has helped me find questions that I wanted to dig into and spend time on,” she says.

Now, as an associate research scientist at Columbia Climate School’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), Blakeley credits the many women in her life that paved a path for her own career. And she strives to return the favor for the upcoming generation of girls and women entering the field. Blakeley shares her journey in the Q&A below.

Photo: Francesco Fiondella

How did you get into science ?

I’ve always been a curious person, and I tended to do better in science and math in grade school. I moved into a more interdisciplinary space throughout my undergraduate and master’s degrees, focusing on economics and climate science. I worked for several years as a research staff associate at Columbia, and found that I wanted to be able to conduct my own research, which led me to pursue a Ph.D. in geography. I was given the freedom in this degree to be very interdisciplinary and work on implications of climate shocks on vulnerable populations.

Is there a woman in science who inspired you?

There are many! Their support and examples have been buoying forces. These women have all grounded me in different ways.

Helen Greatrex, now at Pennsylvania State University, was a postdoc at Columbia who helped me identify the fact that I wanted to do a Ph.D. She has been a continuing source of support throughout my studies and beyond. Just yesterday, I had a call with her to discuss methods for a research study I’m doing.

I can’t overstate how fantastic it was to have Kathy Baylis, at UC Santa Barbara, be a mentor to me during my postdoc. It is motivating to see how much she had done and how well she supports her students.

Currently, I am truly inspired by Jess Fanzo, director of IRI and professor in the Climate School. If you only look at her CV, you can tell that she is a superstar, but beyond that she is approachable, honest and supportive. I don’t know how she does all that she does, and I hope that someday I can emulate her in becoming an excellent researcher and mentor.

I have also benefitted from my many peer mentors; women who are on a similar academic trajectory who inspire me. I know I have become a better researcher, and hopefully a better person, through knowing them.

“For me, it’s always been fantastic mentors who have kept me in the game.”

Statistically, women represent only 33% of researchers, and they tend to receive smaller research grants than their male colleagues. Have you faced such challenges as a woman scientist? Do you see things improving?

There are plenty of reasons to think that things are not changing much. When I was first starting my postdoc, I was frustrated by a discouraging—and now retracted—Nature Communications study, which essentially stated that women are less effective mentors than men. The New York Times has an article discussing whether gender was an elephant in the room for the recent ousting of several university presidents. In a culture where it seems like women are promoted to positions of power only in the most difficult situations, it can feel like we are setting women up to fail. And maybe to an extent that’s true. However, I’ve known people throughout my career who are working to change this.

There is a general push to break this glass ceiling that upholds men in academia over women, but I know this will take a commitment from everyone in science. I think there needs to be an active acknowledgement that existing structures are disadvantageous not only to women, but to all underrepresented groups: people of color, people with disabilities, gender non-conforming, trans, and the LGBTQIA+ community and others. It’s been shown over and over that differences are a strength to be embraced, and academia would be better—for people, research and impactful work—if it strived to be more inclusive overall.

How can we continue to support and mentor women scientists?

At an individual level, I think it’s important to reach out and encourage women to stay in the sciences. There are plenty of reasons to quit, but for me it’s always been fantastic mentors who have kept me in the game. Changes need to happen at the global, structural level. For example, it may be time to start fully instituting double-blind review processes for publishing and funding opportunities. Honestly, it is shocking to me that some review processes show the names of the authors to the reviewers, as biases have already been demonstrated.

Additionally, it may be hard to suppress biases in promotion and evaluation, but there is evidence that informing evaluators, such as students or peers, of potential biases could help reduce them.

There should be more institutional support of families in academia. It is unquestionable that there is a motherhood penalty for having children and a job. Coupled with the unreasonably high costs of childcare that pushes people, more often women, out of the workforce, and the limited parental leave, women can feel stranded and left behind. A starting point would be to increase parental leave for both parents, cover more of the costs of childcare and provide ongoing support through flexible work, after-school and vacation childcare coverage, coverage for work-related travel and childcare needs and benefits that aid in sending children to college. Developing these policies further would create an environment where pursuing a career does not have to compete with decisions to have children.

Do you have any advice for younger women or girls who are interested in entering in the field?

I think finding a solid support network is key. This is the main reason I pursued my Ph.D., and why I continue to stay in academia. I’ve listed the women who I admire and consider my mentors, but it’s just as important to find male mentors who are supportive and working to erase the gender gap, and other gaps as well.

I’m hoping the future will be even more supportive and inclusive, and I’d like to think that I’m helping to shape that.

Meet some of the women scientists at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in the video below; read about others from DEES, IRI and CIESIN; and learn how Columbia University is promoting women in science.