In celebration of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we’ve interviewed some of Cervest’s pioneering women scientists about what inspires them, why they chose their specialist fields, and how they overcame any challenges they’ve faced in their careers.
In this post, we’re talking to Dr. Greta C. Vega, Head of Earth Science, about looking for discoveries in unexpected places, how the academic system privileges ‘superstars’, and why it’s important to embrace rejection.
Greta, could you please introduce yourself and tell us about what you do at Cervest?
I am Greta Vega, Head of Earth Science at Cervest. I work to bring my knowledge around ecology, biodiversity, and conservation into our Climate Intelligence network.
Why did you decide to pursue a career in ecology?
It wasn’t a planned decision, per se.
When I finished high/secondary school I chose to study Earth and life sciences at a French university, the Université Paul Sabatier Toulouse III. The nice thing about the French system is that each semester you can choose to become more specialized. So I started my undergraduate degree studying the more general subject of Earth and life sciences. Then, in my second year, I chose to focus on ecology.
I spent the final year of my undergraduate studies as an Erasmus student at Imperial College London, where I completed a nine-month research project that introduced me to GIS and environmental variables. GIS stands for Geographic Information Systems; these are tools that collate and analyze data from maps. It was during this project that I learned how global biodiversity patterns are driven by climate.
I believe constant curiosity and openness to new opportunities took me to the path of ecology.
Which people and role models inspired you to follow this path?
I would summarize my career approach as “always looking forward to a discovery in the most unexpected place”. So the people who have inspired me haven’t necessarily belonged to ecology or climate science.
I think I have been very lucky to have the role models at home who were researchers and teachers themselves. My parents and grandparents always helped me see opportunities and pushed me to learn from unexpected situations. With their support, I was able to learn to focus and extract learnings from many situations.
When having to make choices during my career, I would dive head-first into a subject and find out if I had learned anything new or found the subject interesting. If it wasn’t interesting or I didn’t feel I was good at it, I would move on.
What did you study at university? What did you like most about this subject?
I studied ecology as an undergraduate, completing a project that heavily involved GIS. My masters was in evolutionary ecology. My PhD was on the conservation of natural resources. In my thesis, I looked at the risk of establishment of alien species in Antarctica, particularly of small animals called springtails, which are found in soil.
What I enjoyed the most was working with the data on my computer using the programming language R and geospatial processing software called ArcMap. These tools helped me create visualizations to present my results. I had horrible stage fright at the time but I managed to overcome it by relying on the visualizations. I let the graphs talk for themselves and deflected the spotlight onto them and away from me.
It wasn’t necessarily a subject from the syllabus but, through my academic education, I got to work in all continents except Asia. Working in different places and cultures gave me an invaluable insight into different ways of engaging with people and tackling problems. I believe this skill is critical to approach the complexity of climate change, which requires input from different domains (including science, technology and design).
What do you think are some of the challenges women face working in climate science? How have you overcome these obstacles in your own career?
I believe the academic system is currently rewarding ‘superstars’ of hot topic research and is leaving behind researchers that do a great job in subjects with a more localized impact. To be considered a ‘superstar’, you usually have to be agentic and individualistic. There is no room for self-doubt.
My main obstacle has been to feel comfortable selling my work and projecting myself as agentic. It’s something that doesn’t come naturally to me. Instead, I have tended to work in collaboration with other researchers.
I believe I have overcome these obstacles by learning not to be scared of being told “no”. By asking questions and knowing that if someone says “no”, it’s not the end of the world. I can take my ideas to the next person.
I also believe that is how I have ended up working closely with really talented people who care and take care of their co-workers and collaborators. With them I have been able to figure out my professional purpose: to democratize scientific knowledge for use in impactful decision making.
What’s the one piece of advice you would give to women and girls thinking about going into climate science?
Don’t be scared of rejection. An early “no” brings the yes closer. “When a door closes, a window opens”. Stay curious.
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