Meet Dr. Lisa White: Paleontologist

Meet Dr. Lisa White: Paleontologist

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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Is there not enough discussion in the African American community about climate change and sustainability?

I was inspired by a lot of the green jobs movement in the first year of the Obama administration. There was a real attempt to make a connection between the environment, green jobs, urban youth and things like environment justice. Look at the Flint water issue…

But yes, we are competing for information and attention. Maybe the African American community may not think about those issues day-to-day. We can point out that knowledge of the environment is useful to our health and well-being.

What were some memorable experiences that you have conducting field research?

When I went to Alaska, I had only been working in at the U.S. Geological Survey for two summers. I did not have that much experience outdoors. I was excited about going to Alaska, I was trying to get in shape. I had to take gun training—-someone had been mauled by a bear. Gun training is mandatory for field explorations.

There were two of us in the field; we had been dropped off on one part of [a] ridge by helicopter. We’re working, we’re collecting specimens. My backpack is getting heavy; it’s getting dark. We’re trying to make it back to the ridge to meet the camp. My pack is getting too heavy to carry. So the geologist I was with, a female, she had to carry my backpack to keep us on time. She wasn’t very happy.

Some of my memorable trips were out in research cruises. The role of a micropaleontologist is to look at specimens. I did a series of field trips to the Far East and Russia, working with scientists from the Russian academy; [there were] fields trips to Israel, Egypt, the Middle East and the Americas. My work has taken me to exciting areas of the ocean and other far corners. I try to replicate some of these trips with students. I took a group to the dinosaur area of Montana, I took 15 high school students to Yosemite and Utah. The program is SF Rocks.

I spent two years at San Francisco State as a professor of Geology and I was associate dean. All the time I was a professor I was working with the K-12 community to elevate geoscience information to create an opportunity for youth, particularly from urban areas. So when the opportunity came to work at UC Berkely in a museum– I oversee all of our public programs and our resources for teachers and students online; we have a very rich website.

What I want to do next is digitize a lot of our collections; that is the trend in museums, to bring more info about what we have in the drawers to the public. And, also [we are] trying to capture all the real beauty and importance of the field area to virtual field experiences. That is no substitute for being out on the field, but [it’s about] modernizing the museums and continuing to promote the geosciences fields and connected environment issues.