Meet Dr. Lisa White: Paleontologist

Dr. Lisa White is a micropalentologist who has conducted research in the farthest reaches of the globe

(Image courtesy of UC Berkeley, photographer Josephine Wu)

Dr. Lisa White is a micropaleontologist (a scientist who studies fossils at a microscopic level).

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Dr. White is also the director of education and outreach at the University of California Museum of Paleontology and adjunct professor of Geology at San Francisco State University.

She is active in efforts to increase diversity in the geosciences through programs such as SF-ROCKS (Reaching Out to Communities and Kids with Science in San Francisco) and was the inaugural recipient of the Geological Society of America Bromery Award, an honor bestowed upon a geoscientist who has been instrumental in opening the geoscience field to other minorities. interviewed Dr. White about her remarkable, unique career as a scientist and professor, and her ongoing efforts to diversify the field. How did you end up in this field and why do you specialize in “fossil diatoms?” What are those?

White: Quite by accident! I didn’t want to study dinosaurs at age 6. I certainly had a love of museums but I wasn’t drawn to science, I was more drawn to the arts. My first major was photography. I took a geology class and the topic really interested me. I had a really terrific instructor. I began interning at the U.S Geological Survey. They took a group of us to Alaska on a research project. I really got first-hand knowledge; [it] appealed to my sense of adventure.

After I received my bachelor’s degree from San Francisco State, I went to graduate school at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Diatoms are single-cell plants that are preserved in rocks, especially sedimentary rocks that form in marine environments. They are very useful for determining the geological age of rocks or the past climate; the condition of the ocean and the temperature.

Is there enough push in STEM for young people of color in other areas besides engineering and coding?

I work nationally on a number of boards and with working groups and communities that are constantly examining the diversity in geosciences. We know our numbers don’t compare to engineering and the biological sciences. African American students are more likely to know about those fields and see the direct link to jobs. So we do have a bit of an image problem.

[It can be] difficult for students to have access to information about geosciences careers. There aren’t often a lot of standalone courses in high school. But there are a lot of interdisciplinary connections between all the fields, especially geoscience engineering, chemistry, water science, even agriculture…soil science.

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