AWIS 40th Anniversary Meeting, Session Summary


The Frontiers in Sustainability Panel at the AWIS 40th anniversary conference consisted of three speakers, all from different areas of environmental science.

The first speaker, Ms. Kristen Graf, is the Executive Director of the Women of Wind Energy organization (WoWE). Ms. Graf started out as an engineering major intent on developing wind technology, but realized the technology itself is already developed. However, fossil fuels and nuclear energy still dominate the generation of electricity over renewable energy sources. The relative proportions of nonrenewables and renewables have actually remained fairly stagnant even with all of the media buzz and politicking surrounding renewables. This has happened despite wind power growing in popularity worldwide. Puzzlingly, this stagnation has occurred despite the increase in wind turbine production in the U.S. So why is this? These U.S. produced turbines are being installed in rapidly developing nations such as China and India. She addressed the need to keep some of the turbines here, both for the economic impact as well as the environmental impact. (She echoed Nancy Jackson’s remarks earlier in the day: if science jobs in the US are in peril, then improving opportunities for women in science in the US is bleak.) Ms. Graf’s interest in effecting this change in wind power usage led her to leave engineering and ultimately to WoWE. She stressed that there is only a small window of time left to act on issues related to global warming. Ms. Graf presented some real examples of success (Cornell and Denmark) in using renewables.

Dr. Helen White was the next speaker, and is an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Haverford College. She presented the audience with an interesting environmental mystery that only a chemist could solve. Dr. White’s most recent research involved collecting samples from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. While much of the media coverage of the event focused on surface tragedies, such as the plight of birds, the impact of the spill on the deep sea was rarely mentioned. In the deep sea near the spill, brown oil flocculates were observed. In the same area, biologists noticed deep sea coral with rare tissue damage: the polyps were literally falling off. The biologists attributed this damage directly to the spill. Dr. White was skeptical of the causation; there is a lot of oil found naturally in the Gulf of Mexico. In order to address this from a chemist’s perspective, she traced the source of the oil. After all, oil is not just one compound, it is a mixture. So oil from different sources will have different chemical signatures. After testing several samples using a novel technique called 2D gas chromatography, she determined the spill was not to blame for the coral damage. This result was unpopular with the biologists, but the evidence was striking. In doing this work, Dr. White found a new mystery to solve: she found some quite improbable chemical signatures in some of the oil samples. Her next quest is to uncover this mystery. She speculates that there may be undiscovered biodegradation pathways in the deep sea.

The last speaker was Dr. Cat Shrier, President and Founder of Watercat Consulting, LLC. Her company focuses on finding innovative approaches to sustainable water management. Dr. Shrier emphasized the need for the water industry to pay attention to the whole water cycle. While the main goal might be to deliver water to customers, issues such as water waste, integration with nature, energy cost of water, and energy production from water should be given higher priority. However, water utility companies tend to be very conservative and not supportive of public discussion. Dr. Shrier underscored the need to fight this, to create open spaces for education and public discussion. She mentioned her website for this,, which will be unveiled soon. The conservatism and close-mindedness of the water industry naturally creates huge problems for women in this industry. While there are more women coming into the pipeline, there is a dearth of women in management positions. The industry is also self-regulated and there is no national association, making it difficult for these issues to even be raised. She stressed that these problems in the water industry are not history, they are happening now. Dr. Shrier believes the ultimate solution is to stop treating diversity as a nonessential, secondary issue. However, she admitted being unsure how to make this change happen.

All of the speakers touched on issues facing women in science that warrant a separate summary. Institutions, companies, and government all need diverse voices to make change and to be successful. We need more women leaders. As an example, we are woefully lagging behind other developed nations in the percentage of women holding an elected office. Women need mentors and to be mentors. Dr. White supervised an undergraduate woman for the research she presented. Ms. Graf mentioned a dark quote from Madeleine Albright, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” Further, we need men to be involved. Dr. Shrier noted that women cannot be solely responsible for their success or failure, as so much of career success has to do with standing on the shoulders of others. Lastly, all of the speakers testified to the importance of speaking one’s mind, whether it’s a call to action, an unpopular viewpoint, or bringing up a topic isn’t normally discussed.