Young Women of Geoscience (YWOG)


“It’s normal to feel insecure” – Anne Baar, PhD candidate

What is your role or function at Utrecht University?

I was a PhD student in the Department of Physical Geography and I am now going to do a post doc in the University of Hull. I studied Earth Sciences (Bachelor) then a physical geography masters and then a PhD on sediment transport in rivers and river morphology which included doing experiments on sediment transport and models on river morphology trying to improve Delft3D models.

Why did you decide to go into science?

I always wanted to study at a university since I was a kid because I really liked going to museums with my dad and I was always interested in science. I decided to really pursue a career in science during my masters when I did my internship at Deltares, which might sound weird because that is a company but I found out there that I really liked working with computer models and doing experiments. At Deltares I also spoke to a lot of PhD students who were working with Deltares, and they told me more about what doing a PhD entailed, that it was not only studying one fundamental problem for four years (like looking at sediment transport) but also other stuff like teaching and going to conferences. So it was a combination of their stories and the enjoyment of doing model work that made me think a PhD is what I really want to do and not work at a company.

What drew you to your specific research topic?

It’s a physics topic, so you do math and develop models but you can also see it (sediment transport phenomena) happening. You can see what is happening at a specific moment, you can observe it in experiments and also in nature and trying to describe that with equations, that’s what I really like.

What was your favourite thing about doing your PhD research?

The part I enjoyed most (in terms of the research itself) was finding empirical relations in my data. So when you find data, plotting it in graphs, seeing model results and finding trends, that’s the best. But also I really liked going to conferences, working with kids and attending summer schools, taking every opportunity given to me, the whole package.

Do you find there are many women in this field? Are there role models or leading scientists who are female?

No, not at all. I really enjoyed collaborating with one PhD student, Julia Cisneros from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign but not really any role models per se.

Do you think life after you finish a PhD is different based on your gender?

I think personally, yes. When I spoke to people very concretely about post-doctoral opportunities, I didn’t feel like my gender played a role, but at the beginning when I started to consider doing post docs, I am not very bold in terms of emailing contacts and asking for positions, whereas I saw that my male colleagues found it way easier to arrange things for themselves.

What is your view for yourself and your future career?

I would like to complete my post doc and write my own grant whilst doing the post doc so I can continue with my own research and then ideally come back to the Netherlands and look for a job at the university, that would be perfect! Otherwise I will be happy to work at a research institute like Deltares.

What do you think needs to change for a 50/50 gender split in academia in the Netherlands?  

I feel like we as women are expected to adapt to male standards and that can scare women off. They don’t want to work in this male culture. I even feel intimidated about that when I think about the future, if I want to really work at a university. At the moment I am scared when I think about that because there is high pressure to write grants, write high impact papers and maybe I can do that but the focus on performance is too high. Instead of adapting to this male dominated scheme we should put importance on female strengths and characteristics and how important those can be for certain positions.

What advice would you give to young female scientists?

It is natural to feel insecure. Every woman in science feels insecure. It is good to talk about that with female PhDs who are further along in their career. What really helped me at the start of my PhD was not to think about the end. I was doubting if I would be good enough but if you think in small steps that you will learn along the way. I do that now as well, first do the post doc, then think about the next step. You have strength as a female that males lack and you should think about that and how you can use these strengths. When you communicate with other scientists think about what your strengths are but also how they think. I might feel insecure but it doesn’t appear that way to the outside world. Often people are not thinking “she’s insecure” or “she’s female”, they just see another scientist so try to keep that in mind.

From your work with kids (spreading the research of the university), what did you learn about the younger generations of upcoming female scientists?

Their enthusiasm is contagious. It really helped me to become re-energized and enthusiastic too. When I feel a bit stressed about the work I have to do, then I work with kids and I think “hey this is fun!”

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