Rebecca Neumann is an Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering. She received her Ph.D. in Environmental Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2010. Dr. Neumann and her hydro-biogeochemistry research group determine how hydrologic, chemical and biological processes interact in soils, aquifer and surface waters to control chemical transport and fate. They aim to inform management and policy decisions that protect human and environmental health; thus, they tackle societally relevant topics, such as food and water quality and global climate change.
How did Dr. Neumann become interested in Environmental Engineering, and water in particular? “As a senior undergraduate, I took an elective course on groundwater hydrology. From there, I conducted research with the course professor and loved it. I took as many water-related classes that I could. Later, I got a job as an environmental consultant under one of EPA’s Superfund groups and addressed groundwater and contamination issues. I worked as a consultant for a year and a half before leaving to pursue my PhD.”
In an interview with UW ADVANCE, we asked Dr. Neumann to share what she enjoys about research and to offer advice for female PhD students and faculty members.
Q&A: research satisfaction and advice
Q: What do you most enjoy about conducting research?
A: My research program is multifaceted and cross-disciplinary. My group members and I harness knowledge and techniques from multiple disciplines, including hydrology, limnology, aquatic chemistry, soil science, plant ecophysiology, and microbial ecology. We use a combination of observational, experimental and computational methods, and we work across different spatial scales, from the micro-meter scale of microbes, to the centimeter scale of plant roots, up to the kilometer scale of field sites. I enjoy this diversity. Every day I learn something new. While it can be challenging to work in a cross-disciplinary space, it is very satisfying to take a holistic view of an issue and to tackle it using a range of different techniques. I love that I have the opportunity to approach science and research in this multifaceted manner.
Q: What advice would you share with women who are pursuing careers in science?
A: A lot of females decide that they don’t want to be professors because they want to have families, and feel like they can’t do both. I heard this a lot during graduate school, when my colleagues were figuring out their career paths. I want to tell people, as well as demonstrate, that it really is possible to do both. I have a family and a career, and I think it works pretty well. I wish more people would try instead of shying away from the option. Try it and then decide. Give it a shot and if it’s not working for you, do something else.
Based on my own experience, I would also say that graduate school is a good time to have a child — if you are ready and wanting to have a child. I had my first kid at the end of my PhD and found that it was a great time to start my family. I found that caring for my daughter provided nice writing breaks from my thesis. Also, professionally, I only had myself to worry about. Once I became a faculty member and had my second kid, I found the juggling process much more difficult. Even though I was technically on maternity leave, I still had to oversee my grants and funding, my lab, and those working under my guidance. Aside from teaching and attending meetings, I still had to keep everything running behind the scenes. Women are usually surprised when I suggest that they have children during their PhD process, but I think it’s a great option that worked really well for me.