Passion with a Purpose: Gabi Serrato Marks F’13

Gabi is a science writer and communicator, along with doing advocacy work to increase accessibility in the sciences.

Written by Hayden Gillooly S’19

Hayden is a senior Geoscience major at Williams College, with concentrations in Spanish and Maritime Studies. She is a Spring 2019 alumni of the Williams-Mystic Program.

Through the phone, I could almost tell she was smiling and that her eyes were lighting up, and she described the experience of exploring stalagmites in Mexico. Gabi Serrato Marks F’13 speaks with contagious enthusiasm and a warm openness. 

Gabi recently earned her Ph.D. in marine geology from the MIT-WHOI joint program, where she studied Mexican stalagmites to understand past climate change. She is currently working as a science writer and communicator, along with doing advocacy work to increase accessibility in the sciences. 

Gabi is deeply passionate about research, “What’s really cool is being the first person in the whole world to know how old that stalagmite is. And maybe not everyone cares how old it is, but it’s cool to be the first person to know that.” She said that “Williams-Mystic was what drove me to research. I was an undergraduate at Bowdoin and interested in the liberal arts aspect of Williams-Mystic and its interdisciplinary nature. It worked really well because I am now mostly working as a science writer, so I’m applying those same interdisciplinary lenses to writing.” 

F’13 was a part of the only semester that traveled to Hawaii on a field seminar, and it ended up being more of an adventure than the program bargained for because they went during a government shutdown. The Williams-Mystic faculty and staff were actively reorganizing and replanning while already in Hawaii. Still, Gabi said the trip was exceptional, “Especially coming from a geoscience background, Hawaii is the dream.” Though F’13 did not go to Louisiana, Gabi was still able to experience the culture of southern Louisiana on a trip to LUMCON during graduate school. 

Fall 2013 in Hawaii

Gabi, like I, noted that visiting Louisiana reshaped how she thought about climate change. Before going, she wondered “why people would stay in southern Louisiana if they keep getting hit by hurricanes,” but after a few days at LUMCON, realized that these issues are much more complicated and nuanced than they may first appear. 

Gabi discussed the importance of increasing diversity in the field of Geosciences, noting that she perhaps does not fit the traditional stereotype of a geoscientist, “I was definitely not always interested in earth sciences. I’m not super outdoorsy. I’m outdoorsy in the ‘nature is pretty’ way, not the dig in the dirt kind of way. So I think that breaking the idea that a geoscientist has to be a certain way or do a certain thing would be helpful.” People from cities or people from flat areas without much topography cannot explore geology and the outdoors in the same way as people who live in the countryside. Gabi explained that making “geoscience curriculum relevant to students wherever they are” could be a crucial way to increase the field’s diversity.  

In her second year of graduate school, Gabi was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which has significantly impacted her life through chronic pain and fatigue which “makes it difficult to pursue a typical academic path” She is no longer doing fieldwork because it is too physically intensive and draining. Gabi does advocacy “to show how it’s possible to be a scientist with a disability,” but also grapples with the fact that due to her disability, she was unable to make a research-driven science career work for her. 

While the coronavirus pandemic has increased the accessibility for some people, it has added burdens to others. “It depends on the type of disability. It’s all about access needs. For my friend who is deaf, she cannot lip read when people wear masks. So working in-person for her is impossible. But for me and people who have migraines, staring at a screen all day is really hard. However, not commuting is better.” It’s all about “balancing access needs and prioritizing accessibility and having open communication.” 

Gabi reflected on her Williams-Mystic experience, “Being on the SSV [Robert C.] Seamans [for the offshore field seminar] was amazing and I learned so much, and I don’t think I’d be able to participate now. I don’t think my doctors and my captain would say that it’s safe for me to be on a ship. Ships are a place where it’s accepted that you have to be physically fit. And I don’t know how I feel about that. I can see how me being on board would be hard for me, but not having those experiences is also detrimental.” 

Gabi and I agreed that we love science, but recognize that the field can be improved. Gabi explained the value of integrating various forms of knowledge into science. She says that we should shift away from what her friend calls “parachute science” in which scientists go to a location to conduct research “for a week or a month and you leave and you are the author of the paper and maybe put local guides in the acknowledgments.” She said, “I think that is frustrating and wrong. I think it’s important to put everyone who contributed to the knowledge as authors: cave guides, locals who helped collect water as researchers, as authors on that specific publication. This helps add their expertise to the scientific records in a way that gives respect.” Gabi said that the best advice she’s received was that regardless of what we do in life, people will always have things to say, whether it be positive or negative, but that “We should try to still make the changes that we think are important.” 

Gabi researching at MIT

I asked Gabi how we can improve science, and who needs to be the driver of change. She said that “Undergrads are an important place [for sparking change] because it’s where people begin to build their careers.” Gabi loves “helping people connect the dots” such as “working with people who realize they really love research and didn’t think they could do it.” She fuels this passion by mentoring undergraduate students and high school students. 

Gabi believes that resource sharing partnerships between big universities and small universities “could help the excellent students have more opportunities and see themselves as researchers.” “Some people say that science doesn’t care where you’re from or what you look like, but that’s a naive look at the world.” The reality is that there is often an underlying privilege to being a part of the scientific community because of the cost of equipment, fieldwork, and tools. We must all recognize and acknowledge that truth, so that we can all be more intentional about creating accessible, welcoming, diverse and encouraging work and school spaces. 

My conversation with Gabi made me think about all of the ways in which we can all work harder to be more understanding of people with disabilities and to work towards increasing accessibility in our respective disciplines. We should weave options into academic curriculums, trip-planning, and social events, accounting for diverse student experiences.

“People don’t understand how I went ‘abroad’ to Connecticut, but it was a great choice and shaped how I think now.” 

An Education With a Purpose: Two Students Reflect on the Impact of Williams-Mystic

What’s so unique about this program specifically is that it tells you why the academics apply to real life, why the academics ought to be brought into life — because they’re necessarily connected. 

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At the end of their Williams-Mystic semester, Spring 2019 students Hayden Gillooly and Alex Quizon sat down to reflect on how their Williams-Mystic semester fit into their time at Williams College. Hayden had just declared a new major based on her Williams-Mystic experience; Alex simply felt more certain of his path forward. But both students agreed that Williams-Mystic has equipped them to approach the rest of their education with purpose. 

You’re both sophomores. Did you all declare your majors this semester? 

Hayden: I’m studying Spanish at Williams. Last spring and this fall, I took two Geosciences classes at Williams. Both of them opened my eyes to the subject of climate change and how it’s more than just a scientific issue; it affects everybody. I hadn’t really thought about majoring in science or anything (I was also a political science major). 

[On our Louisiana Field Seminar, I had] a conversation with my friend Angus. He said, ‘Is what I am studying good for others?’ And that really stuck with me: How can I make a difference? I’m learning about people’s stories, and how their lives are affected so deeply by a changing world. And at the end of the day, if I’m helping people in some way, I would consider it a life well-lived. So I decided to add the Geoscience majors in addition to Spanish. And I think those coupled together, particularly because a lot of Spanish-speaking countries are on coasts, will be really interesting. I’m so excited to go back to Williams now and study those two subjects and be a part of the Geosciences department. 

Alex: I came into Mystic planning to declare eventually in the Chemistry major and the environmental studies concentration. Holy cow, Mystic was a roller coaster! There was an entire month where the experiences I had at Mystic were shaping so many of my interests and flopping them around. The field seminars definitely shaped that; the classes, in the way they make you think, definitely shaped that. But eventually I realized, especially through my science research project, that chemistry is what I want to do: Working on ocean acidification, that’s what I want to do. So I submitted my form electronically last week to declare the chemistry major and environmental studies concentration. But now I’m more resolved knowing that. 

What will you bring back to Williams from your experiences at Mystic? 

Alex: I think what’s really important to underscore is that this program really is for everyone. Hayden’s a Spanish major, and there are history majors, biology majors, classics majors. It’s for everyone, because the ocean necessarily creates the connection between all these fields that society tells us are different. This is a liberal arts program; it’s about finding out how to put those things together and put those ideas together. If you don’t have a major in mind coming into Williams-Mystic, you’re certainly going to have a better and more clear understanding of what that major or concentration or minor is by the end of it. 

Hayden: I’ve realized that there is as much value in non-academics during a school semester as there can be in academics. I’ve learned so much this semester in the cracks of classes, in those van conversations, and philosophizing about life over coffee with friends. Those moments, too, are times that change us and that allow us to view the world differently. 

Alex: I agree with you completely. Work and life — we shouldn’t make them separate, even though it seems like we have to allocate [them that way]. That frame of mind is also what I want to bring back. What’s so unique about this program specifically is that it tells you why the academics apply to real life, why the academics ought to be brought into life — because they’re necessarily connected. 

Hayden: This semester, more than ever, the schoolwork has become something I really want to do. It makes me think about life, and how I want to live a life. I’ve engaged a lot this semester with the topic of passion. I want a life in which what I am doing is something I’m excited to do.

Want to experience Williams-Mystic’s close-knit community for yourself? We are still welcoming applications for our Spring 2020 semester. Please reach out to wmadmissions@williams.edu to express your interest, and visit https://mystic.williams.edu/admissions to start your application.

 

Williams-Mystic Associate Professor of Geosciences Lisa Gilbert to Lead Community Workshop for Earth Educators

“The act of coming together could result in a lot of smaller projects that add up to something big. Sometimes when we talk about something being at a national scale, what we’re talking about is a bunch of little things that share a vision.”

At Williams-Mystic, students from a wide range of majors come together to discuss some of today’s most pressing environmental challenges — and to explore, as they go through the semester together, how we can address these challenges. Underlying this approach is the belief that, simply by bringing these students together as part of a close-knit community centered on a single topic, new ideas and approaches can emerge that might never occur otherwise. 

A similar philosophy undergirds The Earth Education for Sustainable Societies Community Workshop, a project led by Lisa Gilbert, Associate Professor of Geosciences and Marine Science at Williams-Mystic, in collaboration with Cathy Manduca (Carleton College), Rachel Teasedale (California State University, Chico), Felicia Davis (Clark Atlanta University), Margie Turin (Columbia University) and others. 

“I see it as a way to, on a national scale, get a lot of different people with different perspectives sharing together about the future of the planet, and the role education has” in that future, Gilbert said of the workshop. 

Held at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota on October 14 to 16, the workshop will welcome educators from a wide variety of institutions: museums, school districts, outreach organizations, colleges, and more. It will be funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation totaling nearly $100,000. Gilbert is the Principal Investigator (PI) on the grant, with Manduca as her co-PI. The workshop will be free to participants, and lodging, meals, and select travel costs will be covered as well. 

With funding secured, Gilbert and her collaborators are now exploring how to reach a wide variety of educators in advance of the August 5 deadline for applying for the workshop. As part of this effort, Gilbert and her collaborators on the project will hold a town hall during the 2019 Earth Educators Rendezvous, a gathering co-hosted by Tennessee State University and Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee on July 15–19, 2019. The town hall will take place on Wednesday, July 17 at 5:30–6:30 pm. 

The goals of the workshop itself, Gilbert said, are intentionally open-ended. Bring educators together who might not otherwise have met, she believes, and ideas will result that might have been impossible to predict in advance. 

“People live in silos and don’t have many opportunities to come together around the shared goal of equipping students to build a more sustainable future”, Gilbert said. Small-scale partnerships around sustainability education are already happening, but “what would that network look like if we could set it up?”

It’s an approach that comes from Gilbert’s own experiences, both as a geosciences educator and at Williams-Mystic. 

As Gilbert worked on projects seeking to encourage students from underrepresented backgrounds to pursue geosciences, for instance, it became clear to her that such efforts also had to begin earlier than college; these projects had to involve educators working with students throughout their lives, and had to think broadly about how to make students aware of the many forms that careers in sustainability can take.

At the same time, Gilbert herself experienced the power of coming together with a variety of sustainability educators by attending the Earth Educators Rendezvous, a gathering open to a wide range of educators. The Rendezvous began in 2015 as an outgrowth of InTeGrate, another NSF-funded project led by Manduca, along with a large leadership team including Gilbert, that provides tools to sustainability educators. The idea for the community workshop, in turn, arose at the Earth Educators Rendezvous, as attendees discussed how to build on the success of InTeGrate. 

“Through my involvement in that project, I started working with more K-12 teachers,” Gilbert said. “InTeGrate has been very successful and that model could be reimagined at a bigger scale.”

Indeed, Gilbert sees Williams-Mystic as a good example of a model that could be applied elsewhere — particularly the model of situating an experiential higher education program at a sprawling, world-class museum. 

“In the past week, I’ve had meetings in Education, in Exhibits, and at the Sailing Center about different ways in which science is important to a museum. That sort of connection between higher education and the public interface with how we think about the ocean is a really cool model for things that need to be happening at a bigger scale.”

For Gilbert, scaling isn’t necessarily about taking a program that works well at a local, community level and expanding it to a single program with a national reach. Rather, scaling means providing the opportunity for educators to come together, coordinate with one another, and share successful approaches. 

“The act of coming together,” as she put it, “could result in a lot of smaller projects that add up to something big. Sometimes when we talk about something being at a national scale, what we’re talking about is a bunch of little things that share a vision.”

At the end of the day, for Gilbert, the most exciting aspects of the workshop are also those that are the hardest to predict in advance.

“I’m trying to not have a specific idea for how this will go,” she reflected. “It’s a very process-centered outcome of new relationships developing between people and new and unexpected ideas that we can then turn into something coming out of it. I don’t know what those ideas are, I don’t know what those little or large communities are going to look like. What I’m hoping for is inspiration and connectedness, and that those two things together are going to bring out a bunch of new, actionable ideas.”


The Earth Education for Sustainable Societies Community Workshop will be held at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota on October 14–16, 2019. It is open to anyone with interests in sustainability education. There is no registration fee and lodging, meals, and some travel costs are covered. Applications for the workshop are accepted July 1 through August 5, 2019. For more information and to apply, visit https://serc.carleton.edu/integrate/workshops/sust_societies/overview.html

The Town Hall related to the community workshop will take place at 5:30–6:30 pm on Wednesday, July 17 in Nashville, Tennessee. The Town Hall is part of the 2019 Earth Educators Rendezvous; more information can be found at https://serc.carleton.edu/earth_rendezvous/2019/program/itg_townhall.html

Collaboration Is Key: Julie Shapiro’s (S’02) Williams-Mystic Story

Williams-Mystic helped Julie Shapiro (S’02) see that learning and working in an interdisciplinary way was what was best for her — and helped set her on a career path at the intersection of science and policy.

This post was written by S’18 alumna Audra DeLaney. Audra enjoys visiting the ocean, going on adventures, and telling the unique stories of the people and places around her. 

Julie Shapiro’s (S’02) Williams-Mystic adventure began in the Williams College cafeteria.

It was December 2001. The whole country was reeling from the lasting effects of September 11. Julie made it through the semester and felt like she needed a change in her college experience.

In the cafeteria, she was talking to another student when he said Williams-Mystic had a few spots left for the Spring 2002 semester. An ambitious English major, Julie was enrolled a few weeks later.

For Julie, her semester at Williams-Mystic helped her go from feeling disconnected from her studies to feeling invigorated and engaged by academics.

“My geosciences degree came after my semester at Williams-Mystic,” Julie said. “I came back to Williams for my senior year and was in almost all geosciences classes with a little bit of English.”

Williams-Mystic helped Julie see that learning and working in an interdisciplinary way was what was best for her.

During her semester, Julie enjoyed sailing from Key West, Florida to Havana, Cuba.

“I probably won the award for being the sickest on the trip, but the whole journey was great,” Julie said.

From the markets to the waterfalls, the Pacific Northwest was another memorable time for Julie. In Mystic, she learned how to sail and remembers going on numerous runs through the town and on the museum grounds.

In her classes, Julie enjoyed diving into policy and science.

“The science piece of everything [at Williams-Mystic] helped me decide to add geosciences and, in turn, helped me explore a post-graduate fellowship,” Julie said. “The fellowship helped me see that I didn’t want to be a scientist but that I wanted to teach science and work in science policy.”

As her career progressed, Julie worked in science education and then chose to pursue a master’s degree in environmental studies. Now, as  Senior Policy Director at Keystone Policy Center in Keystone, Colorado, Julie works at the intersection of science and policy.

“Keystone Center is a nonprofit, non-advocacy organization that tries to help diverse stakeholders reach common ground on big issues like the environment, health, education, etc.,” Julie said.

Julie works on natural resources, agriculture, and emerging technologies, like gene editing, at the local, state, and federal levels. She has worked with governor’s advisory boards and has facilitated regional and national conversations related to landscape conservation. Internationally, she is working to bring people together to talk about what the future looks like for gene editing technologies like CRISPR.

At its core, the purpose of Keystone Center is to bring together diverse opinions and help people find common ground and shared solutions.

“Even if you don’t agree on everything, you can respectfully understand people and there may be things you can agree on,” Julie said. “We try to meet people where they are. Sometimes just listening, sharing and understanding is an important step towards having better solutions in the long run.”

From her love of interdisciplinary learning to her career path, Williams-Mystic has left its mark on Julie.

“To this day, I always look for chances to do field trips with the groups I work with and that principle is something Williams-Mystic instilled in me,” Julie said.

Summer Research in Mystic: European Shore Crabs, Comb Jellyfish and Geochemistry, Oh My.

This post was written by S’18 alumna Audra DeLaney. Audra enjoys visiting the ocean, going on adventures, and telling the unique stories of the people and places around her. 

Each summer, a few students from previous Williams-Mystic classes, or from Williams College, live in Mystic while conducting scientific research. This summer, those individuals were Shelby Hoogland (Bryn Mawr College ‘19), Cristina Mancilla (Williams College ‘20), and Caroline Hung (Williams College ‘19). Here is what they have to say about their research: 

Shelby (S’18) 

Shelby wrote this for a Bryn Mawr College publication.

When I first moved back to Mystic, Connecticut, I had a preconceived notion of what my summer was going to look like after having spent the past semester with the Williams-Mystic Maritime Studies Program. My best friend from the program was going to be my roommate, I would be living in a student house, and would be working with the same professors from the semester.

I’ve traveled with these professors across the country — from sailing offshore in the Caribbean Sea aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer to hearing how climate change is affecting the lives and the history of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians in Southern Louisiana. crab.pngIf you know nothing about Williams-Mystic, know that the 30 other people you get thrown together with, students and faculty alike, become your family for a semester. I already had a few important connections: with Dr. Tim Pusack, my former marine ecology professor and current research mentor; with Dr. Rachel Scudder, my former oceanography professor; and with another current research mentor. These connections helped make me more confident that this would be the summer where I grow into my new position in life as a field ecologist and as a research scientist.

Invasive species pose one of the largest threats to biodiversity worldwide. Additionally, a group of invasive organisms can alter an ecosystem’s characteristics and local populations of native species. These alterations can directly impact local economies, negatively affecting industries such as tourism or commercial fishing. 

C. maenas is an introduced crab species originally from coastal Europe that was potentially brought over in the fouling or bored into a wooden ship in the 1800s. The area that I have been studying is Avery Point, Connecticut on the University of Connecticut – Avery Point’s campus. Although there are many different crabs found in this rocky intertidal ecosystem, the shoreline is dominated by C. maenas. It can be assumed that it is outcompeting native populations of crabs and other invasive species of crabs. In the lab, I am subjecting the crabs to temperatures between 12˚C and 31˚C to mimic the rising temperatures that will be present during the coming years due to climate change. I am measuring their daily feeding rates as a direct measure of their response to the temperature stress.

fieldMy research has brought me to some really cool places. How often can someone say that they get to go to the beach for their job? More importantly, it has taught me the importance of studying climate change. And it has given me insight into how little we currently know about how climate change might affect vital ecosystems. Looking forward to the future, the uncertainty is high as to what our climate will be like. Additionally, we don’t exactly know how it is going to influence local economies. Funding climate change research is important so that we can better prepare our communities in the face of future disasters.

Cristina (S’18) 

I researched trends in population growth and movement of Mnemiopsis leidyi, a comb jellyfish, throughout the Mystic River Estuary and the Long Island Sound. Another component of my research was to figure out a way to keep comb jellyfish alive in the laboratory in order to study them in a controlled setting. This was the most difficult part of the research. M. leidyi are notoriously difficult to maintain in a lab, but I needed to come up with a method to keep them alive long enough to complete an experiment. After much trial and error and with the help of other researchers, I was glad to finally have kept the comb jellyfish alive for a sustained period of time. The work that I did over the summer will hopefully make studying M. leidyi in the laboratory an option for future Williams-Mystic students. I wish to continue this project by studying the effect of increasing temperature on the reinfection rate of M. leidyi by a sea anemone larvae.

Caroline (Williams College Student) 

The summer of 2018 was Caroline’s third summer researching with Associate Professor of Geosciences and Marine Science Lisa Gilbert (S’96).

What I researched:

There are two projects I’ve been working on in my 10-week time with Lisa this summer. I spend most of my time working on my thesis, which is using geochemistry and petrology to find out the origins of the volcanic and alteration setting of the Chrystalls Beach Metabasalt Formation. We spent three weeks at the beginning of summer at our field site on Taieri Beach in South Island, New Zealand. Right now, we are focusing on analyzing the samples and starting to discuss the results. This effort will continue into my senior year. The other project is trying to finish my manuscript on marsh erosion — a project Lisa and I have worked on the past two summers at a local marsh in Barn Island. We hope to submit the manuscript by the end of August.

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What I learned:

I learn so much working with Lisa. It’s finally a chance to apply what I learn in geosciences classes in the field and research. Fieldwork and learning the scientific research process are like courses of them own. I have just started to become a so-called “hard-rock” geoscientist, meaning I now focus on subjects such as tectonics, volcanoes, geophysics, and structural geology, as opposed to “soft-rock” geology, which primarily focuses on fossils, oceanography, geomorphology.

Being out in the field in New Zealand was a challenge every day. I had to learn a lot of field mapping and measuring techniques right on the spot. Lisa was super supportive even when it took me an entire field day to learn how to measure strike and dip (the technical and accepted way to measure the orientation of rocks). But research allows me to build firm foundations on my science knowledge and to really tie what I learn in the classroom and from scientific research together.

I also learned that I want to keep doing what I do in the summers after graduation. Thus, I’m applying to graduate schools in earth sciences!

Challenges:

It takes a lot to focus on the same project knowing that you will continue to work on it the following year. Sometimes, people work in the same area for the rest of their lives! I try to mix up my days and weeks focusing on individual aspects of the project one at a time; I’ll read papers in the morning and play with data in the afternoon, or go to the field in the morning and do lab work and prep in the afternoon. Often, I still find myself staring at the computer because I couldn’t understand the numbers or try to troubleshoot with software or math. I just try to stay positive and know that at some point I will work through my problems. That is when research becomes very satisfying — when you figure out the answer to a problem that you’ve spent days working on.  

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Favorite part:

Fish and chips after field work at a roadside shack in New Zealand. Also, Lisa gives me a lot of autonomy in my work. From how I want to schedule my work day and the research questions I ask, to how I want to answer them. But she is very good at guiding me and giving me hints and critiques that I always look back on and am so thankful for! One of the greatest inspiration and fulfillment for why I want to keep working in Geosciences is the layout of this work that Lisa has got me started on. She always leads me in a good direction — I honestly don’t know where my life will be right now without stumbling into her lab the first summer after freshman year!