Breaking down stereotypes about the scientist in the white lab coat

Emma Gray admits she does not picture herself when she thinks of a “scientist”. But this South African native is a bona fide researcher, currently tackling questions related to plant growth and how climate change will affect global processes. She talks to us about her field of research, why she chose to pursue a career in science, and what being in science has made her realize.

DiscovHER: When you hear (or read) the word “scientist”, what comes to mind?

Emma Gray: Well, I definitely don’t think of someone like myself! I still find myself giggling when people refer to me as a scientist. I think nowadays when I hear the term, I ask ‘what kind of scientist?’ before I bring any particular picture to mind. Ecologists are difficult to pin down, as we work on such a diverse range of topics. Some of us are barefoot with dreadlocks, whereas others of us look more like the white lab coat- wearing folk that most people think of as typical scientists. Being in science has made me realize that you can’t generalize about scientists, and more than anything we just look a lot like everyone else!

DiscovHER: Did you always think you would become a scientist? If not, what did you want to be when you “grew up” and how did that evolve over time?

Emma Gray: No, I have never really had a set idea of what I wanted to do. When I was younger I wanted to be president, but I also wanted to be an artist, a teacher, an architect, an actuary, and a million other things. I think I’d still like to be all of those things, but I pursued science as a way to satisfy my curiosity about the world, while at the same time (hopefully) doing something which would improve the state of our planet.

DiscovHER: What is most exciting about your field of study?

Emma Gray: Although we study interactions that have been evolving for millions (billions) of years, the field of ecology is relatively new and as a result new theories are popping up every day. It’s exciting to be involved in something that is so constantly evolving and developing, and contributing to solutions to global challenges.

DiscovHER: Describe some of the differences between studying science in the classroom and working in the field.

Emma Gray: It’s not so much that they are different, more that, particularly in ecology, you can’t do one without the other. Without observing the natural world and immersing yourself in the field, you cannot develop theories to explain natural phenomena. Similarly, without understanding past theory and learning about the scientific process, you are ill equipped to understand phenomena you observe in the field. Some of my most clear understanding of ecological theory as an undergraduate came from times when my lecturers took us outside and showed us real-life examples of the theory we were discussing in class.

DiscovHER: How can your research be applied to the current global situation?

Emma Gray: My research aims to understand what drives plant growth in different ecological systems, for example savannas and tropical forests. I hope to develop a clear understanding of which intrinsic (such as species traits) and extrinsic (such as climatic conditions) factors influence species growth rates. Growth rates influence emergent ecosystem properties such as vegetation cover, vegetation height, and biogeochemical cycling. My study can ultimately be used to better inform vegetation models, and help us to understand how climate change will affect global processes.

Emma Gray (South African Environmental Observation Network and Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, Australia) received a UNESCO-L’Oréal International Fellowship in 2014. 

For Women in Science

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