Young Women of Geoscience (YWOG)


“Believe in what you want and believe in yourself” – Meet Lonneke Roelofs, Junior Lecturer – Department of Physical Geography

What is your role or function at Utrecht University?

Officially my title is ‘lecturer’, because I didn’t do a PhD yet. I’m teaching some courses and I’ll also be working on improving the bachelor and master programs, so renewing certain courses and gathering new ideas on how we can improve our programs and what kind of things we should add.

Why did you decide to go into science in the first place?

I think I was always a very interested and curious kid and I was especially interested in the natural world around me. I grew up between the Meuse and the Rhine rivers, close to the German border, so all the floods interested me in river related topics, but together with my parents we also often went to the Wadden Islands where I found all the sea creatures very interesting and I knew a lot about them. So I was just a very curious kid and I think that was a very big driver me to go to university later on as well, just being very curious.

What drew you to education and teaching?

When I started my bachelor in the second year I became a student assistant for a number of courses, such as science philosophy but also the introductory courses for physical geography, and I actually really liked doing that. I noticed that I really liked interacting with students, that were not even that much younger than me at the time, and just passing on knowledge and making people excited by and interested in the topics that I am excited by and interested in.

In your role as an educator do you see many differences between male and female students?

That’s a good question, and I’ve been thinking about that as well. I think especially in the beginning in the bachelor when they come in there’s a difference between the male students and the female students, but I think that also has to do with how quickly male and female students develop. I think the girls in the beginning are already more mature, so they are studying more seriously and so on. I think what worries me sometimes is that in the Netherlands still fewer girls chose natural sciences than boys. I think you also see that partly in our incoming students, it’s like 60%/40% male/female. Therefore, I think we should really focus on the fact that everyone can do what they want, so if the females don’t chose to do more physics related subjects in the earth sciences that’s fine, but at least create an environment where they are shown that they can if they want.

There’s quite a big divide after masters level towards PhDs. What do you think would help students be more likely to stay in academia?

I think for me it was nice to have some role models during my studies that at least showed the different kind of women that worked in science. I think that was important for me to see because then you have someone to look up to and say to yourself; okay, I can do that as well if I want. Also what I think universities should do to not only attract females, but also people that are just not the stereotypical scientist, maybe people that are really interested in education, is that they have to create more flexible and diverse positions positions as well. That’s maybe for further on, not for PhD students because you have to get your PhD and do 4 years of research, but later on it would be nice if they had more diverse positions in which the focus is not per se on getting these very big grants, not that females can’t do that, they can of course do that, but I think in general for diversity in the university it would be nice to create these more flexible/diverse positions.

Do you think that students are aware of the topics of diversity and inclusion?

I don’t really think so actually, I haven’t seen much about the topic during my studies that refers to that or shows that there are maybe things that we are working on or trying to get better. I think these topics are in the media a lot so probably they will hear it from there, but not from the university itself, so maybe that’s something that we can work on as well.

Are there any ideas you have for improving diversity and inclusion at the university?

I think that for me it is very important in the bachelor and master programs to create an environment in which everyone feels welcome to join. So for fieldwork specifically I know that we had these excursions in which we had very few bathroom breaks, which is very inconvenient for a lot of females. This of course sounds silly, but I think it are those little things that people don’t really think about that could make the difference. Thinking about these little things can help people from different genders, so male or female, but also people with for example disabilities. A good starting point would be to just talk a bit more about the little (and of course bigger) things because I think that’s now often lacking. I don’t believe that comes from unwillingness but I think it comes from a lack of awareness that people that are different from you can experience problems in the regular programs. So in fieldwork if you have, for example, asthma or you have another problem there are of course always ways to find people that are responsible for the fieldwork, but I think it would be nice to make it more vocal so that the help should be offered rather than them having to seek it out. I think that would be very important.

What advice would you give to young female scientists?

Just really believe in what you want and believe in yourself, and if you’re really interested and driven in a specific topic or field of science just really go for it and be persistent. Sometimes you will get hurdles you have to take but find companions and you can take those hurdles together because these companions are definitely there. There are always people that want to help you, male and female, so get a nice group of people that can help you through the tough times, but really just believe in yourself. I think that’s the most important thing, believe that you can do it, don’t doubt yourself too much.

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