Kate Huntington

Photo: Kate Huntington
Assistant Professor
Earth & Space Sciences
College of the Environment

What sparked your interest in earth sciences?

Actually, my mom is a high school earth science teacher. Ever since I was a little kid, she would take me out on nature walks and geology expeditions to go fossil hunting. Although I don’t study fossils now, her interest in the natural world sparked my interest. Also, my dad is a poly-sci college professor. I was always interested in research because I saw him doing it. So, I ended up becoming a meld of what my parents do.

I follow ideas that make me curious. So what’s most interesting to me is how landscape and solid things that we see interact with climate over millions of years. What’s also intriguing is how static landforms that we look at today (mountains, plateaus, etc.) have changed in the past. I want to understand how the earth surface evolves on the longtime scale.

What are you currently working on?

I have a lot of different projects going on but there is one that I just submitted a proposal for last week. It is a new thermometer tool, called the carbonate clumped isotope thermometer, which is used to measure temperature in the past. I use this tool in the Andes to try to figure out past climate and also past altitude in the Andes. I also have a project looking at erosion and sediments in rivers in the Himalayas.

What is your proudest accomplishment?

I’m most proud of my collaborations. In whatever thing I’m researching, I’m most motivated by my own curiosity, but I also love working with people who are also interested in what I do and what they do. They really broaden the way I think about things. I like to collaborate with people in related fields so that I’m always learning something new. I’m proud of the fact that I’m always challenging myself to work at the edge of my comfort zone to learn new things.

What have you found most surprising?

Doing field work in Argentina, five months pregnant, I found out that there are great laws for pregnant women. For example, you get special lines at grocery stores and better parking than handicapped people. It was surprising to me that you would get perks like that. But instead of frowning upon the fact that I was giving talks and serving on NSF panels while I was very pregnant, people just took it in stride.

What is the message that people should take away from your research?

A lot of what I do is method development for applications of new tools. I try to find new ways to apply tools to different kinds of questions from my research. I hope that people can take away not just the idea of new tools being used as a new opportunity to find new things, but rather these tools can be applied to their current work.

Have you faced any particular challenges because of your gender?

I also just had my first son who is currently three months old. The department has been very supportive of me so far, but that won’t work when I want to attend a conference or workshop. I don’t know how supportive the funding agency will be in the future once they realize that I won’t be as productive. So this is one of the challenges I face from being a woman in science. My male colleagues on the other hand, have also had children as young as mine, but returned to work within ten days. Nobody else can take over a mother’s job.

Do you have any advice for young women interested in science?

Don’t assume that you are not part of the “in” crowd. Assume that you are. That’s what a lot of my male peers do because it’s just part of their nature. For example, I heard of this meeting in grad school called “The Gilbert Club”. I’ve heard of it for several years and just thought of it as a club that I wasn’t in. So, after years of hearing about it, I finally asked somebody, “Okay, how do I get into this club?” and they told me, “Oh it’s not really a club, you just sign up online.”But when my office mate, who was a guy, first heard about it, his first reaction was “Club?! How do I get in the club?” At first, I found it sort of alien to think this way. But if you just start assuming that you are invited to lunch, that you are part of the conversation, and that people do care about your insights, you build confidence. The confidence you develop will make it easier for you to be included in things. Once you get into the habit of assuming that this is the case, you’ll realize that it really is the case.

What are you doing to inspire the next generation of women scientists?

I hope to lead by example, as far as somebody who can have successful research career, a happy home life, and diverse interests. I also talk with students at all levels, from hosting elementary and middle school students for field trips, to working in high schools as well. I like to get out there and show people that there are women scientists. In positions where I do have leadership, I try to recruit female speakers for colloquiums and conferences so that they are more diverse.