"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it." - Neil DeGrasse Tyson

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NAME

Maya Almaraz

JOB TITLE

Doctoral Candidate

LOCATION

Providence, RI

COMPANY

Brown University

Education

UC Berkeley, 4.5
BS and BA, Conservation and Resource Studies and Public Health
Activities and Societies: Field and lab experience in ecology, entomology, tropical ecology, botany and soil science. Research Education for Undergraduates abroad. Student health worker position in dormitories.

Brown University, 5
PhD (expected August 2016), Terrestrial biogeochemistry
Activities and Societies: Field research looking at farms in Kenya, agriculture in the Chesapeake Bay, tropical forests in Puerto Rico, and arid ecosystems in Western Australia. Presented work at Ecological Society of America and American Geophysical Union annual meeting. Part of NSF's Critical Zone Observatory and Partnership for International Research and Education.

Career Bio

The profession

I am a biogeochemist, which is a long way of saying that I study how chemicals cycle through plants, soils and air. Biogeochemistry cover topics like, how carbon dioxide is released by burning fossil fuels and can be removed from the atmosphere by plants, or how nitrogen is created to fertilizer crops but is often lost to waterways or as a greenhouse gas. Biogeochemistry is a great way to study environmental science, in part because solutions can often be applied broadly to combat environmental issues.

How I got here

I knew nothing about biogeochemistry when I graduated college, but one of my professors had asked for people to volunteer in her lab, which eventually turned into a full time position. I loved it because I learned a ton of new laboratory and field techniques, I got to spend a lot of time outside, everyone I worked with had great attitudes, and the science was very relevant to environmental problem solving. Plus, I didn't have to kill anything, which is rare as a biologist. There are still a lot of unknowns in the field of biogeochemistry, which left a lot of room to ask new questions about how ecosystems function. It was also hard, and I liked that. I had never taken a soils class and hadn't taken chemistry since high school, but I found that all I really needed to become a scientist was strong desire to learn. After working in that lab for two years I started a graduate program.

A typical day

The great thing about being a scientist is that you are always doing something different, often something you have no idea how to do when you start. You need a high tolerance for repetitive tasks, because there are a lot! My old boss once said that "every stage of this job is grunt work, we just happen to be people who like the grunt work". Some days I am in the lab from 7 am to 7 pm, other days I am preparing to give a talk at a conference, other days I am hiking through a jungle, and still other days I am home analyzing data or writing on my computer. The work is often hard and the days are often long (so you better love your job), but you get to decide your hours and if you don't like what you are working on this month, you will probably be doing something totally different the next month. The work involves a lot of travel and collaborating with other scientists, most of which are also friends, so there is a lot of overlap between your work life and home life.

The hardest parts

Graduate school is notoriously difficult. There is a lot demanded of you and often little direction. You need to be self-motivated and thick-skinned, but you also need to have fun or you will burn out. I would say the hardest part of the job is that it entails a lot of criticism. It's just part of the way science works. Anything you write, present, any idea you have needs to be scrutinized in order to cut out any misinformation, faults in logic, or anything that might waste a lot of time and money. You also have to teach yourself a lot of skills, which is daunting but doable. And, like any field, you have to navigate through a maze of personalities, some that are better than others. The impression of a scientist is often someone working late nights alone in a lab. While aspects of the work can be very lonely, I was surprised just how social the job is. Funny enough though, science does seem to attract the sorts of personalities that would prefer the hermit lifestyle.

The best parts

Travel. Hiking. Getting dirty. Learning so much. Sleeping in if you feel like it. Not really having to report to anyone. My work takes me all over the world. I was initially drawn to ecology because I loved field work. I considered medicine, but getting to spend so much time outside vs. in a hospital really swayed me. With my job I get to fly to a tropical forest somewhere, inevitably get lost in that forest, find my sites and then work with my hands all day taking soil cores. I also love the sense of community that comes with the job. Every conference is a reunion of old friends who just want to grab beers and nerd out about science. This may be the exception rather than the rule, but I work from home most of the time and just meet with my advisor on a weekly basis. My work is judged on my progress rather than by my time card. Plus you learn so much it becomes difficult to distill a comment about a topic into a single sentence. Your head is just overflowing with knowledge.

The myths of the profession

That you have to be really smart. I had a learning disability growning up and often struggled in school. You don't have to be born a genius to be a scientist, but you do have to enjoy learning and have a healthy work ethic. I also didn't have a background in this field, but I asked a lot of questions, went to a lot of talks, and read a lot of papers to learn all that I could. Because of this, I spent a lot of time feeling like I was playing catch up to all the other people in my field, but then I learned that is basically how everyone feels. You also don't have to be a total nerd. Growing up there wasn't a person in the world that would have guessed I would become a scientist. I don't come off as particularly smart or nerdy, in fact, I am kind of girly. But guess what, none of that really matters.

The workplace

The dress code is: plaid/hawaiian shirt, khaki pants, chacos, and maybe a wide brimmed hat. You should look like you are going hiking or to the field at all times, maybe even like you are going on a vacation with another couple from your retirement home. And be sure to NEVER DRESS NICER THAN THIS! It's actually pretty weird. The fashion of my field should be studied. And while I use to envy the well dressed business types downtown, I now kind of like my elastic wasted north face pants that convert into shorts.

Advice for someone thinking about going into the field

Great! Do it! But only after you have really thought it through. Get experience doing other jobs first and definitely take some time between college and graduate school to enjoy your youth. Graduate school is a long and serious commitment. It isn't a 9-5 job, but it's something that you are always kind of working on, or at least thinking about, whether you at the office, in the shower or on vacation. Also, only get a PhD if you need one to do what you want to do for a living. If you don't need it then there are much easier (and more lucrative) avenues to take. If you do decide to go into science than you should get as much lab and field experience as you can. This often means you will have to start off as a volunteer, which is best done in college. And find mentors. Find people you like to work with and follow their lead.

Advice to my younger self

Nice work. I traveled a lot, took my time finishing undergrad, and dabbled in a lot of different jobs/fields. In college, I sort of wish I would have taken more of the hard classes instead of avoiding them, but I caught up eventually. I would say that in graduate school, I wish I would have realized earlier that sometimes you can't please everyone and you maybe just need to have more confidence in yourself rather than just seeking the approval of others. Also, try to resist always comparing yourself to others, cause everyone has their faults, even if you can't always see them. And don't feel guilty for putting yourself first. Take the night off and go have fun. Go to that pilates class instead of staying home and working up data. You work hard. You deserve it.

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