Girl Power — The Young Women Scientists of WISSARD

Girl Power — The Young Women Scientists of WISSARD

Smart, motivated, focused, confident individuals; the young women graduate students who are part of the WISSARD science team are a diverse group that represents the future of science.  Each one brings different interests, talents, and skills to our overall team.  They represent different science disciplines.  How each came to love science is different from the next.  Let me introduce you to our dynamic team of “girls in science.”

First, here is Marci Beitch, from School of Earth Sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz.  She’s a master’s degree student working with one of our PI’s, Slawek Tulaczyk.  Marci’s focus is glaciology, and she is particularly interested in the Greenland Ice Sheet.  She is working on measuring the retreat (moving back) of the margins (perimeter or outside part of) that ice sheet, as well as the ice sheet in general.


Marci looks at loss of ice that is discharged from the continent through glaciers, as well as loss through evaporation.  Unlike Antarctica, the Greenland Ice Sheet faces warmer summer temperatures which cause more surface melting.  Some of this water evaporates, but much of it flows on the surface.  This creates waterfalls called moulins, that penetrate to the base of the ice sheet through holes in the top.  Glaciers in Greenland and the Arctic move faster because of all of the liquid water. 

Marci told me that “The Arctic is where we need to focus our attention in terms of sea level rise.”  Her studies will help gather data associated with changes occurring in the Arctic.

While in Antarctica, Marci will be looking at water under the ice sheet and how that helps the ice flow and move.  This is her first time in Antarctica and the photo below was taken just after she got off the plane.  She was really excited to finally be here…I think you can tell.


Marci enjoys being on Slawek’s team at U.C. Santa Cruz.  Many doors for learning and exploration have opened because of Slawek.  Marci has traveled to Alaska, Iceland, and now Antarctica for research.  Even though the main focus of her research is Greenland, she hasn’t been there yet.  Marci spends a lot of time examining satellite images to look at where the ice sheet margins are and how they change over time.  This doesn’t require her to do field work in Greenland.  At least, not yet! 

Marci spent time in Alaska working on the Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, Alaska’s state capital.  She helped set up and retrieve seismic stations set up on land near the glacier or on the ice itself.  These seismic stations measure the ice movement during the summer months.  Scientists like Marci use seismology (usually used in the study of earthquake movement) to analyze ice flow.


Seismic stations such as the one below can be powered by solar panels, left place for months, and retrieved at the end of the summer.


Marci’s interest in science began at an early age.  She told me “It all started as being a kid and being a naturalist.  I was attracted to animals, plants, bugs, rocks, and I loved to do outdoor activities.” She had a lot of science related passions, but didn’t know what to study in college.  She says she was “all over the place” when she got to college and had not considered geology as a major. 

Her roommate took a basic geology course and didn’t like it, but Marci was intrigued and signed up for a course called “California Geology” in her second year of college.  She was hooked!  Marci had been intimidated by courses such as calculus, physics, and chemistry.  BUT…she was SO inspired by her new major that she gained new confidence and felt these courses were doable.  She got over her fear of those classes. 

Marci’s advice:  “Don’t let a fear dictate what you do and keep you from what you want to do.”  Those are important words to remember. 

Marci really enjoys teaching undergraduate courses and working with undergraduates as an adviser.  She says that’s come full circle…people were mentors to her, now she can give back and mentor the undergrads.  


Meet Amanda Achberger from Louisiana State University.  Amanda works with PI Brent Christner.  She received her undergraduate degree in microbiology and skipped right to the doctoral program at LSU.  Amanda looks at what organisms are present and active in subglacial environments in both polar regions.  These subglacial environments can be lakes, basal ice (the bottom layer of ice that interacts with sediments) and water-saturated sediments.  Basically, these are environments that are cold and dark. 


Amanda’s father is a microbiologist and a teacher/researcher at LSU. She says she always wanted to be a scientist, but her first thoughts were of working with large animals or being a veterinarian.  Initially she was not attracted to biology.  Amanda has been involved in education outreach since high school. She says, “I realized the value of outreach at a very young age.”  Amanda also teaches teachers how to bring new techniques for sharing science back to their classrooms. 

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Amanda’s been a part of “Environmentors” which is a program that works with minority and underprivileged students once a week.  Students are paired with scientists like Amanda, and they prepare/conduct a research project.  There is a huge STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) focus and at the conclusion of the project there is a presentation and/or poster presentation. 

Amanda shared  a really important observation with me, “I need to get out and see the excitement of students.  It helps me remember that I am lucky to be doing this.”  I think the MOST important comment Amanda made to me was, “It’s important to have exposure to science outside of the classroom; outside of the standard curriculum.”  That is how I have always taught my own elementary students…outside of the basic curriculum and with passion and enthusiasm for the natural world.  Thanks for saying that so well, Amanda!


Tristy Vick-Majors joins our team from the Department of Ecology and Environmental Studies at Montana State University and works with PI John Priscu.  She studies the cycle of microbes; many different types of microscopic organisms that eat, breathe, and make waste as other organisms do.  Microbes “fix carbon” which means they take in carbon dioxide in the air and water and convert it into biomass (which builds them up).  Sometimes other members of this microbial community use the waste that’s created and sometimes they eat dead microbes. 


Tristy has always liked science, but didn’t start college with a goal of being a scientist.  She had  to take science courses to major in psychology, and she enjoyed the ecology courses.  In those courses she studied how different organisms and non-living parts of the environment are connected.  She says  “I always wanted to know how the world worked — how all of the things that are big and complicated fit together.” Tristy learned that microbes are responsible for driving a lot of the ecosystems, and that’s one of the reasons that she switched majors in college. 


Tristy has a master’s degree from Montana State University and is currently in their doctoral program in microbiology. This is her fourth research experience in Antarctica.

Tristy believes it is important “to understand how ecosystems on our planet work and how they work together so we know how to take care of the planet. That helps everyone.” I think one of the most important comments she made (and one that I would pass along to my students) is:  “You can’t take care of something you don’t  understand. You have no idea why it matters.”  It is so important to learn about our environment; all things big and those as tiny as microbes, and their place in each ecosystem.


Emily McBryan is an undergraduate student at Arizona State University, studying with Alberto Behar.  She is the youngest of our WISSARD women scientists.  Emily first got involved in science because she liked robotics.  Her experiences with robots came in high school as part of the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition.  Actually, her older sister was involved in FIRST in high school while Emily was still in middle school.  Emily wasn’t crazy about her sister being in this club, because she said her whole family was involved and it took a lot of time away from other family pursuits. 

When she walked into her sister’s FIRST regional competition and saw the action — the robots, the bustling around, heard the music…she was hooked!

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The FIRST Robotics Competition challenges students to solve real-world problems and the competition inspires future scientists and engineers.  Students are given two boxes of parts and six weeks to build a robot of no more than 150 pounds.  This robot will compete in a “game” or mission. Students are randomly paired with other students at the competition. FIRST is built around the principles of problem solving, cooperation, and competition.

Emily comes from a family of scientists and engineers.  Her father is an engineer and works for Boeing, her mother is a mathematician, and her siblings are also science-minded.  Emily’s dad and brother mentor high school students and provide support for them.  Emily knew she wanted to study engineering in college, and her major at Arizona State is aerospace engineering. She has been part of the NASA Space Grant (during her sophomore and junior year in college) which provides undergrads with internships for science, engineering, and outreach. She is going to spend this spring and summer working at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

About a year ago, Emily joined the MSLED (Micro Subglacial Lake Exploration Device) team at Arizona State.  MSLED is one of the instruments being deployed as part of the WISSARD Project. Take a look at MSLED below.


This ROV (remotely operated vehicle) has one camera, lights, and an on board IMU (inertial measurement unit).  This IMU has gyroscopes that tell the tilt and roll of the vehicle and it has an on board compass.  The instrument also has a CTD which measures conductivity (salinity of the water), temperature, and depth.  Emily designs the fins, motor, and thrusters of the MSLED.  These are all parts that make it move.


Emily “talks” to this instrument through the use of fiber optic cables.  She uses Xbox 360 controllers to “drive” the ROV.  When designing the MSLED, they decided to use the Xbox 360 controller because that was the one that the college students had had the most practice with.  This is an example how playing video games might come in handy.


When MSLED is deployed through the borehole, it is tethered to the “mother ship.”  The mother ship’s job is to safely deliver MSLED to the subglacial lake and bring it back.  The mother ship stops at the bottom of the hole, and MSLED is released into the water of the subglacial lake (or whatever body of water it is exploring).  Emily has approximately 2 km of cables between the top of the borehole to the mother ship and the mother ship to the MSLED.

MSLED and other scientific instruments are tested and modified as part of the process of science. 


Emily used her “B” MSLED (not the main one) during the testing phase at the WISSARD drill/test site.  She was disappointed when the MSLED detatched from the mother ship and drifted down the borehole to the ocean floor.  Since MSLED has a live video feed, she watched in dismay as MSLED disappeared down the hole. 

Of course she was very disappointed, but I think she has a very positive attitude overall.  She told me, “When something bad happens we have to be prepared to meet failure. That’s why we test…to analyze and fix it.”  She says there are big lessons gained by failure.  What great spirit she has!

Emily’s plan: to deploy MSLED at the Lake Whillans site.  She’ll use the main vehicle, and the mother ship/MSLED will be the first instrument down the borehole once the drillers reach the lake.  It will be the first instrument to capture a live video feed from Lake Whillans.  It can also take pictures.  When successful, you can bet that Emily will be sky high, just like in the photo below.  (Photos of Emily by Alisdaire Turner)

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Our last, but certainly not least, young woman scientist of WISSARD is Grace Barcheck.  Grace also studies with Slawek Tulaczyk, as well as another scientist Susan Schwartz, both at U.C. Santa Cruz.  Grace earned her undergraduate degree from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.  She came to U.C. Santa Cruz to begin her doctoral studies in the Earth and Planetary Studies Department because she valued the expertise of both Slawek and Susan, and she felt that the environment at U.C. Santa Cruz was positive.


Grace uses seismology to study glaciers. Glaciers move a lot and when they do, they make noise. They slip, crack, and break.  Using seismology is like listening to the glaciers move as they break into pieces and scrape against the ground.  It’s like using a stethoscope to hear what’s going on. 

“I was always interested in science.  I had a few middle school teachers who encouraged exploratory learning.” says Grace. But, in high school she thought science was hard and boring.  Grace commented, “It’s in the way it was taught to me.”  As she entered college, Grace was focused on architecture.  After two years she switched to geology. 

It all happened because she took her first geology course.  There were field trips and through her learning she started to answer questions she had about the world and things she had been curious about.  She loved the field trips and being outside. 


In Grace’s first Antarctic experience she was a member of a project called POLENET:  The Polar Earth Observing Network.  Through this program “scientists and engineers are working together in polar regions to understand how the earth’s surface responds to the changing size of polar ice sheets.” 

(information from

As part of POLENET, Grace worked in the field setting up seismic stations.  She will be doing something similar with Slawek and his team on this trip to Antarctica.  Their field work has several objectives:

1)  Retrieve the data from GPS stations already out in the field near the area of the Lake Whillans site.  They will travel from GPS station to station by snowmobile.  These GPS units collect data on how the glaciers are moving.

2)  Grace and the team will be putting out seismic stations; listening in and under the glaciers.

3)  The team will be using high frequency ground penetrating radar to  survey the area near where the WISSARD borehole will be drilled.  They will be looking for any evidence of crevasses in this area.


These five amazing young women of the WISSARD science team are all highly motivated, intelligent early career scientists.  It was really a pleasure hearing their stories.

I am always fascinated by the tales of how scientists became interested in their fields of study.  What caught their eye or attention?  What made them follow a pathway to science?  I hope that you, as one of my readers out there, have found something in science that has caught YOUR attention today.

11 responses to “Girl Power — The Young Women Scientists of WISSARD

  1. Two thumbs up and a high five for the women of science. By the way, are any of these women writing blogs and have they featured you. It would be interesting to read what others say about your amazing science talents and interests.

    • Oh you are so great, Kathy! I don’t think any of them have had time to post many blogs…they are busy with their science teams. I’m going to suggest that to them though! 🙂 Thanks for the idea!

  2. I agree with Kathy! It would be interesting to hear about what intrigues you about the science field and your passion for it.

  3. Thank you Betty! I am even more inspired working on the WISSARD project being surrounded by such amazing and dynamic women of science and education (especially you and Susan!).

    • It’s a great learning experience for me, to be surrounded by you and the other early career scientists; to write about your work and share that with others. It is inspiring to people of all ages to see the research that’s done here and around the world. We all have so much to learn and share! 🙂

  4. How inspiring to read about so many smart women. I love that so many of them kinda stumbled (no pun intended!)
    into Geology- I will share with Ella!

    • Hi Laura,
      Remember back when I used to babysit for you girls when you were little and I lived on the small farm in New Jersey…well those years were ones of constantly being outdoors, exploring the ponds, fields, and forests of our property. I loved science and nature as a child, but disliked it in middle and high school. It was only when I became a teacher that I got interested in science again…full throttle. I think it’s important for students to see (and everyone really) that we take different paths to find the things we become passionate about. I’ve had a teaching career filled with science and geography, history, culture. I try to convey those topics to my students in any way possible. Yes, share this with Ella! 🙂 Miss you!

  5. Hi Betty,
    Very inspiring and motivating to read about these women (you included) will share it with young scientist Sara soon :o)
    A hug from the Claps

    • Hi Michele,
      Great to hear from you and keep working with your young scientist, Sara! With two parents who have a science background she is going to learn a lot! 🙂 Wish you were here on the ice like the old Cape Roberts days. Talk with you soon….a hug right back to all of the Claps family!

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