Environmental Science

REM professor shares experience being a woman and researcher in STEM

February 11, 2022

February 11th is internationally recognized as the Day of Women and Girls in Science. This year’s theme emphasizes the need for equal and full access for women and girls in these fields.  

Karen Kohfeld, an Earth systems and environmental scientist, and professor in SFU’s Schools of Resource and Environmental Management and Environmental Science shares her journey from entering science academia to spearheading innovative international research projects.  

Kohfeld has built an impressive career rooted in her passion for past climates. She often looks at elements like sea ice, coastal wetlands, extreme weather events, and more to demonstrate how climates have changed, and model what we can expect for our future.

Kohfeld’s path to success in science academia was not always clear. “When I started college, I wasn’t sure if I was going to be an English major, or a music major. I didn’t know what I wanted to do.” 

It wasn’t until she uncovered her interest in the environment and environmental policy and noticed a general lack of scientific knowledge in American policymaking that she decided to pursue science.

“I decided if I was going to do be able to do anything in my field, I needed to get a science degree,” says Kohfeld. “I wound up in one particular class about past climates and it blew me away that you could use the fossil of a single celled organism to tell how much ice was on land at that time in history. I never looked back.” 

Committed to studying past climates and Earth systems, Kohfeld encountered periods of isolation and frustration that are familiar to many female scientists and young women in STEM.  

“You have to be prepared to travel. It's a blessing, but it's isolating. You have to be confident enough to be alone and to say, ‘I want to do this.’ It can be a challenge, but it’s also invigorating,” says Kohfeld.  

For Kohfeld, isolation came in many forms as a young scientist. “I had a math teacher announce to the class that girls couldn’t do math. It made me so angry that I decided to get the best grade in the class and when I did, he said it was because girls can memorize better and that I didn’t actually understand math.”  

As a graduate student, Kohfeld was reminded again of the gender disparities in her field when studying at an institute with over 50 professors working in science and not one of them was a woman.  

“I remember going to my first geophysical union meeting and there were no lines for the women’s bathroom. When I go to that meeting now there are long lines for that restroom, and I smile when I have to stand in line. It makes me happy.”

While Kohfeld acknowledges that there is still work to be done to make the sciences more inclusive and inviting for women, she notices lots of young women in her classes, fully engaged, raising their hands, and advocating for the change they want to see. 

“It’s important to find your circle, and don’t be afraid to look broadly to find it,” says Kohfeld. “Make yourself known and talk with your professors... We wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t want to see you succeed.”

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