From the Hood to the High Desert: Geology for a New Generation
Nearing the completion of her master’s in geological sciences, there are still two things that Rosie Santilena finds particularly troubling: one, the fact that geology remains a primarily male-dominated field, with significant underrepresentation of minorities; and two, that people seem to be in denial about what’s really going on with climate change, despite events such as land disappearing in Florida, Boston experiencing a record-breaking snowfall, and natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy.
“I don’t know how people aren’t getting the wake-up call. I find this information shocking,” says Santilena.
Such events, in part, are what motivated her to continue on at California State University, Los Angeles, after receiving her bachelor’s degree in geological sciences. This summer she’ll finish her master’s in the same field, with a focus on environmental hydrogeology.
“I’m trying to find a job where I’m helping the environment—that’s the ultimate goal: to stop the planet from falling apart.”
In addition to being the rare multiracial woman in her field, Santilena is aware of other obstacles involved in tackling environmental activism work. Challenges abound when issues step out of the realm of science into the corporate world and its intersection with government and politics. For example, Santilena related a story about environmental protesters getting thrown in jail.
The other major impediment Santilena has found is the job market itself. “I feel like America in general is not investing in environmental fields,” she says. While her field-based experiences in school have been productive—each involving a service component—the professional realm appears to be much more limited.
“When I’ve been applying for jobs—at least over the last two years—you find there are plenty of jobs in oil for a geologist, but if you want to do something more environmentally based, there’s just not a lot out there.” You can find work in nonprofit organizations, which might offer great experience, but you usually can’t survive on the salary, says Santilena. And if you choose to pursue a doctorate, it often makes you overqualified for a lot of positions, she says.
So how does Santilena stay optimistic about her chosen career path? One inspiration for her was working with Blueprint Earth.
“I came into a class and [Blueprint Earth founder] Jess Peláez was there talking about the program because she wanted to get volunteers interested in it. And I got interested! I contacted her after that, and I was able to work with them during the first major sampling season last year.”
During Santilena’s week in the field, she studied a stream that runs through the middle of Blueprint Earth’s sampling area. She plans to return for another expedition in 2016.
“That was my first time in the Mojave in a river. It was my first time out there mapping biology. Blueprint Earth has you do everything. You’re evaluating the stream, but you’re also trying to figure out every piece of plant and animal life.”
Santilena liked the interdisciplinary approach. “When we were in the Mojave in April, the stream was only a small trickle, with algae covering it entirely. So knowing something about biology could help us figure out what was happening.”
“What really drew me to Blueprint Earth was the idea of restoring an environment after people have come in and wrecked it.”
Blueprint’s mission is to advocate that if you’ve done something to a public land, you have to come in and rebuild it to the best blueprint possible, Santilena says.
“I think that’s an incredible goal. It’s a huge, lofty goal. But I think that’s how you have to do things. Why aim low?”
Santilena isn’t aiming low professionally, either. She’s been mining her network for her job search, and last year Peláez told her about The Geological Society of America’s On To the Future (OTF) scholarship program, to which Santilena applied and was accepted. OTF works toward building a diverse geoscience community by engaging groups traditionally underrepresented in the geosciences, like people with disabilities, women, and minorities.
Traveling to the organization’s annual conference was a great experience. Being away from her native Los Angeles and going to Vancouver, Canada, learning that the region is actually considered a Northern Pacific rainforest, was eye-opening. It was also enlightening to see the juxtaposition of conference veterans—primarily older white males—with a much more diverse new generation of geologists. Santilena sees this as a step in the right direction to bring more diverse viewpoints, backgrounds, and unique experiences into the field.
Blueprint Earth also reflects this diversity, both in its work and its pool of volunteers. And being out in the field, despite its difficulties, beats working in a cubicle any day, says Santilena. She appreciates the support of Peláez, whose “fiery,” “go-getter” attitude Santilena finds inspiring.
Besides that, geology is an incredible field. “It’s fun, it’s action-packed. It involves earthquakes, mid-oceanic rifts, volcanoes … I mean, it doesn’t get more exciting than that.”
“It’s a fascinating world, and people aren’t seeing how gorgeous it is. We are going to help try to change that.”
—As told to Jane Falla, Blueprint Earth contributor