Front Porch Conversation

The theme of Tuesday’s Front Porch Conversation at the Murie Ranch is “Raising Strong Female Scientists.” Volcanologist and geochemist Terry Plank from Columbia University will speak at the free event, which starts at 5:45 p.m.

Marie Curie. Jane Goodall. Jill Tarter. Tiera Guinn Fletcher.

Women have been behind some of the biggest discoveries in science, but ask a group of young students “What does a scientist look like?” and chances are female faces aren’t the first to come to mind.

Educators at Teton Science Schools often begin their field education programs by asking students that very question.

“As a rule, students will draw white men in lab coats, a stereotype that leaves out many of today’s scientists and many of our students as well,” said Naomi Heindel, the school’s director of field education.

This evening Teton Science Schools is hosting a Front Porch Conversation, titled “Raising Strong Female Scientists,” to combat that stereotype.

During the free program at the Murie Ranch, Heindel will facilitate a conversation with Terry Plank, a professor of earth and environmental science at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Plank was lucky to be raised by her chemist mother who parked her curiosity about science by telling her to go get a hobby when she was 8 years old.

Plank lived in rock quarry in Delaware, so she started collecting. The hobby stuck.

“I loved it, and [my mom] fanned my flame, took me to meetings of the Delaware Geological Society and on field trips,” Plank said.

“My mom was a chemist by training but stay-at-home mom at that time,” Plank said. “She was wonderful at encouraging us to love science — drawing pictures of atoms at the breakfast table.”

When Plank and her brother went off to college, her mom went back, too, and the mother and daughter both studied geology. While Plank’s mother went on to work for the Delaware Geological Survey, Plank went on to be the first female full professor in her department at Columbia in 2008.

“Those days of me being the only female in the room are largely over for me,” Plank said. “Now we are almost 40 percent female, with a great diversity of views, styles and talents.”

It has been proven that diversity — in gender, race, styles, backgrounds, you name it — improves problem solving, Plank said.

“But I also like to think, ‘How can we do the best science without engaging the entire population? Why would one want to try do something difficult, like forecast volcanic eruptions, with only half the talent out there?’”

“Raising Strong Female Scientists” is open to all ages and genders, though Heindel hopes that a big crowd of aspiring female scientists join the conversation.

“I hope we have a big audience of women in science, young women aspiring to be scientists or curious about science and the parents, educators and other folks who will support and encourage them,” Heindel said. “These conversations are wonderful opportunities to build dialogue and to feel a sense of community strength and purpose.”

“Raising Strong Female Scientists” is the fourth part of a series about raising strong, scientifically minded children. It’s just one of Teton Science Schools’ many female-oriented programs, which include the WOLVES (Women’s Only Leadership, Volunteering, Exploration and Science) backpacking trip and Young Women and Science program.

“We hope that, through these programs, young women catch the science bug and gain the confidence in and excitement about being scientists,” Heindel said.

Starting that conversation with students early is critical, she said, because many students have a very limited view on who a scientist can be and what different types of sciences look like.

“Not every scientist is white or male, and not all science is done in a lab,” she said. 

Contact Julie Kukral via 732-7062 or

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