Young Women of Geoscience (YWOG)


“If you feel like there is a problem, talk about it. If people do not listen, talk to different people” – Meet Ronja Ebner, PhD candidate – Department of Earth Sciences

What is your role or function at Utrecht University?

Ronja Ebner sitting in front of two computer screens

I am a PhD student in department of Earth Sciences and although I am in the Tectonophysics group I don’t work on Tectonophysics. Together with Paul Meijer I focus on the Messinian Salinity Crisis and model possible circulations that could have led to the saltgiant that formed back then. I’m doing this research as part of a European Marie Skłodowska-Curie Project (SALTGIANT-ETN) where I am one of fifteen early-stage researchers.

What made you decide that you wanted to study science?

I was always interested in how things work, and why they work that way. At some point I realised that I was mainly interested in physics of the oceans. So, when I decided to study physics, I did not really think about what I wanted to do with it, I just wanted to learn about it. After I had finished my Master degree (in Rostock, Germany), I realised that I really like to have access to knowledge. I went a year without this access and really missed it, so I went back. But my whole relationship with science changed for the better when I found a role model that I could really identify with. Finding someone I could relate and look up to on a personal and professional level made working in academia more desirable.

Did you interest in science develop when you were young?

I was always the kid who annoyed the ‘grownups’ with questions. I was never really satisfied with the answers because they missed details. I still remember the moment when my mother was frustrated and said “I don’t know why trees are green, they are just green!”, so I began to ask my father who at some point started to explain wave-particle duality. As I was 6 years old, I didn’t really understand it back then, but I realised that there is so much to learn. I always liked the moment where you understand stuff, and I am hooked on that feeling.

Do you find big differences working as a woman in science in Germany vs. the Netherlands?

When I was in Germany, at the university, I was a student, so that is automatically a different setting. As a physics student, less than 10% of your fellow students are women which creates a certain dynamic. I definitely experienced more outspoken but ‘joking’ sexism in Germany than I do here. Here, the problem is mostly that everything is assumed to be equal which makes it harder to talk about those problems that still exist. The issues are more subtle.

Do people treat you differently when they know you are a queer female scientist?

In the Netherlands, I do not experience any outright homophobia. However, also here there often is a clear distinction between before and after me coming out. Not that people around me become unfriendly or are weirded out, but there is a transition between being seen as a woman and being seen as someone who is also romantically or sexually attracted to women. This transition is something that I still, after many years, find difficult to handle and it almost always leaves an icky feeling. I don’t want to talk to my male colleagues about how they view women. Especially when they begin to treat me as a heterosexual male, inviting me into a bro culture, kind of rewarding me for being attracted to women. This portrays an aspect of masculinity I do not identify with, so I actively distance myself from that. This of course creates a distance which I choose for myself. This is difficult to handle.

How have you found it working with a diverse group of researchers as part of the SALTGIANT project?

The group is 50/50 in terms of gender balance with a slight imbalance in the favour of women. I personally really like to work as part of mixed groups. At university I work in a dominantly male environment, which works fine, but the dynamic in a mixed group is different and I enjoy that a lot. SaltGiant is also diverse in terms of background. We have a lot of different branches of science in there, it’s not only physicists but also biologists, chemists etc. and that makes it even more interesting when we discuss topics. Everyone has a different approach, and it is acknowledged and appreciated that everyone has different ways to approach and solve problems.

It also requires different skills to work in an international group. In some ways I seem to be very German, and sometimes ran into problems (or what I perceived as problems) when people were discussing in a passionate, emotional state which to me felt like a tense argument, but to them was merely an interested discussion. When I tried to cool things down, people felt I was being distant and disengaged. So, in that regard I learned a lot. I also realised that hierarchies function differently in different countries. In my opinion, in Germany, hierarchy is very well-defined, or at least I knew how it worked. Already in the Netherlands I initially was a bit ‘out of my element’, but this is amplified when you have lots of different cultures which are even (I know, I know…) further apart than the Netherlands and Germany.

What do you see for yourself in your future career?

I have a very clear picture of what my perfect future would look like. One of my motivations to specialise in oceanography was wanting to really research a lake, a river ora patch of coast. I want to make sure that policymakers and stakeholders know how to handle that piece of environment, so it is not harmed in any way. I already had this type of job at Lake Constance, and I found it to be incredibly motivating and fulfilling. So, in the future, I want to do something like that, and use my education to have some positive environmental impact.

You are also in charge of running the YWOG social media accounts, what is your experience with social media, is it a useful tool?

I think it is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it is very important because you need to discuss problems in order to solve them. To become aware of problems you need to identify that this is not just a problem experienced by one person but by a whole group. Only this way you can really identify the problem. Social media can be a good way to help with that process. On the other side, a nuanced debate is not possible in online spaces, especially on Twitter of where you are limited in characters. That of course leads to a polarisation of topics, particularly in diversity issues, there is no black and white. There is no safe space for everybody, everybody has different needs and to address them, you need an environment where you can discuss the nuances.  For our organisation, the pros of social media outweigh the cons but it is easy to slip into places on the internet where discussion becomes hard and even counterproductive.

What advice would you give to young female scientists?

Looking back at my own career and development, I would say, if you feel like there is a problem talk about it, if people do not listen, talk to more people. It is important to keep in mind that there are problems, there probably will always be problems, but that doesn’t mean that it’s hell. As long as you love the learning part and have a good social network, then go for it!