Becky Alexander is an Associate Professor of Atmospheric Sciences. She received her Ph.D. in atmospheric chemistry from the University of California, San Diego in 2002, served as a Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard University from 2003 through 2005, and started her faculty position at the University of Washington in 2005. Why did she pursue academia? “I was continuously motivated by the next question and never really wanted to stop. In academia you can chase whatever research topic you want, provided that you can secure funding.” Dr. Alexander now juggles several exciting projects, including a study of snow chemistry in polar and mid-latitude regions. There they evaluate the relationship between snow chemistry, ice-core records, and air pollution. Her lab is also involved in a project that explores how the chemistry of the atmosphere changes over rapid climate change events. When interviewed, Dr. Alexander had just completed her first measurement over two rapid climate change events during the last glacial period and found dramatic changes in oxidant concentrations. Her lab is now busy determining why those changes occurred.
In an interview with UW ADVANCE, Dr. Alexander discusses her accomplishments and reflects on the role of gender on her professional trajectory.
Q&A: Current research and gender in engineering
Q: Do you have any accomplishments that you would like to highlight?
A: Personally, my biggest accomplishment has been successfully earning tenure while raising two children. Prior to starting my faculty position, I heard several messages discouraging me from doing both. Many individuals told me that a faculty career and young children were incompatible. Most advised me to earn tenure first and have children afterwards. However, I chose to disregard their advice and find out whether I could juggle these responsibilities for myself. I thought “well, if it’s true, then I won’t get tenure,” but I didn’t want to spend years wondering about or regretting my decisions. Fortunately, I did try and I did make it work. Of course, it has been very difficult, as raising kids is difficult whether one works or not, but I have made it work for me.
Q: How has your gender played a role in your career?
A: I realized that I was good at math in second grade. My teacher used to host daily math competitions and I almost always won. In retrospect, I don’t know that memorizing multiplication tables was a sure indication of my talent at the time, but I believed that I was good at math and grew confident in my abilities. I think that the confidence I felt in second grade carried with me through college. It wasn’t until graduate school that I began to face significant doubts. I was the only female in my lab and it had a machismo-like group culture. At the beginning, I felt like an oddity in the group and that my colleagues expected me to fail. Like many women, I began to question if I really fit in and whether I had chosen the right path. That led to a lot of angst during my first two years of years of graduate school. I almost quit many times. What kept me going, though, was reading really good scholarly papers. I would read a paper and say “this is really cool, I want to do this.” And I would stick with my path.
After two long years, I finally earned the respect of my colleagues. After that experience, though, I was very conscious when choosing my post-doc to ensure that I was one of several women. I joined a group with about 50% women, which ended up being one of my favorite groups of all time. It was an incredibly positive experience. Fortunately, my faculty experience at UW has also been positive. Even though I am one of a few female faculty members, I have always felt that others, including my male colleagues, have wanted and expected me to succeed.