Jessica Stellmann

Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Southern California

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Never let your own doubts, or anyone else's, hold you back from trying to accomplish something.

What do you do?

I usually start off by telling people that I am an Earth Scientist, as that is my field! As an Earth Scientist, my goal is to better understand how the different systems that operate on our planet, such as the oceans and climate and plate tectonics, all interact with each other. After that, it gets a little complicated. I've been in graduate school for several years now, and my job title has shifted as I have progressed!
When I started, I was a Ph.D. Student, and my job was to attend my classes and begin selecting and shaping the research topics that make up my Ph.D. Basically, I was paid to go to school, which was pretty awesome!
After I passed my qualifying exams, basically a series of tests to determine that I had enough knowledge of Earth Sciences to merit a Ph.D., I became a Ph.D. Candidate and my role shifted much more to research, with fewer courses! Alongside doing the research, I am also responsible for writing up the results for publication in a scientific journal and as chapters for my Ph.D. thesis.
As for what I actually do day-to-day for my job, I am what is called an Earth System's Modeler. I use computer models to try to better understand how all of Earth's various systems interact with each other and respond to change. One project that I worked on was to simulate the Earth's response to a Large Igneous Province (LIP) eruption (basically just a REALLY big volcanic event that can last for thousands of years). I was interested in this project because sometimes, LIP eruptions caused mass extinctions of almost ALL life on Earth, and sometimes they barely caused any changes at all! I wanted to know why. LIPs release massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere over a fairly short period of time, so they also provide an interesting test case for how the Earth's systems respond to rapidly increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. To study these LIP eruptions, I set up my model to add a certain amount of carbon dioxide to the model atmosphere every year for up to 10,000 model years! Thankfully a model year is only a few moments of "real-time". I was then able to see how the model Earth's climate and oceans, even typical ocean life, changed in response!
Alongside my research and coursework, I also have worked as a Teaching Assistant while at USC. I have taught the laboratory component of several geology courses, which I found to be a lot of fun! I enjoyed getting to know some of USC's undergraduate students. For the last several years, I have been a TA for USC's Joint Educational Project (JEP) and I really love this part of my job! JEP is a service-learning organization that places undergraduate students from USC into volunteer roles in the surrounding communities! My job there involves writing reflective questions that the participating students have to answer. I try to make these questions thought-provoking and connect them to the student's coursework.

Why did you choose this field?

Growing up I distinctly remember wanting to be all sorts of things at different times. I loved learning about past civilizations and cultures, and considered Archaeology for many years! I also remember wanting to be a botanist, a zoological veterinarian, and a witch (like the ones in Harry Potter, I was crushed when I did not get my Hogwarts letter at 11) at various points.
What set me on my current path was, believe it or not, a TV show. When I was about 15 (I'm now 29), I discovered a sci-fi show called Stargate SG-1 which is about a team of scientists and soldiers who travel through a device (a stargate) to other planets. One of the characters was Captain Samantha Carter, who was also a brilliant scientist, an astrophysicist. She was amazing and I decided I wanted to pursue astrophysics too. That may sound silly, but I didn't really have any personal role models growing up who were scientists. No one in my family or the small town where I grew up was one. Neither of my parents had even gone to college. But even though they weren't scientists themselves, my parents were always completely supportive of my dreams and goals. I always knew that they thought I could do anything! That helped a lot when making my decisions about college and beyond.
Once I was in college, I began my study of astrophysics, with a particular interest in exoplanets. One semester, I was taking a Planetary Sciences class for my astronomy major at the same time I was taking an Earth Sciences class as an elective. As I went back and forth between these two courses, I realized that there is so much we do not understand about the planet right under our feet. I asked myself how could we begin to really understand planets in other solar systems if we didn't even have all the answers about Earth? The next semester I changed my major to Geophysics & Planetary Sciences, and here we are! Since making that change I have been lucky enough to have the opportunity to follow my interests in terms of research projects, for which I feel very lucky!

What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?

When considering my personal achievements, I have to say that I don't know that younger me would have ever thought any of them were out of her reach. I grew up with an immense amount of privilege: I am white and was lucky enough to grow up in a middle-class home in a small town where my class sizes at school allowed a lot of individualized attention. Alongside my parents always cheering me on, this all combined to mean that there was very little that younger me thought she couldn't one day make happen for herself. 29 year old me has some more doubts, but I am so happy that younger me got to feel that way, and I wish that everyone had that same childhood experience. What I wish I could share with my younger self is something a little bit different.
For the last 3 years, and again this summer, I have been lucky enough to work with an organization called Project Scientist during the summer break between semesters at USC. Project Scientist is a non-profit organization that aims to increase the number of women in the STEM workforce by helping young girls gain and keep their confidence and interest in STEM topics. It offers girl-centered STEM Academies each summer, where girls get to work on hands-on science and engineering activities, meet women from across the STEM world, and go on Expeditions to see behind the scenes at STEM companies and labs! This summer we are running the program virtually so that we can keep the mission going, even during quarantine! Serving as a Site Director for these academies these past few years has been an experience I wish my younger self could have known about. I wish that she knew that it was possible to be in an environment full of other girls who loved science as much as she did, and that embraced and encouraged her to be the girl she wanted to be as well as the future scientist she wanted to be.

Why do you love working in STEM?

I love working in STEM because I love being around other people who share and encourage my natural curiosity about how things work. This curiosity lies at the core of every scientist, I think. The drive to poke and prod and dissect the world around us to figure out the hows and whys of everything. It makes for an awesome work environment, to be around other folks who share that, and are always interested in learning more about just about anything. I also really like that science is a practice of accepting that you might be wrong, and shifting your opinion and worldview when provided with evidence that you are wrong.
It might seem cliche, but I also really love working in my field because I just think my field is *really cool*. The Earth is a wild place, and understanding all of the cosmic dominoes that had to line up just right to make Earth, and our existence on it, what it is today is one of my biggest joys.
I always look forward to days when I am setting up my model runs, and the days when I get my results back, the most. What I love about using computer models is their endless possibilities. I can set up any set of circumstances I want, and see what happens! It's like getting a little peek into alternate Earths that never were!

Best advice for next generation?

Never let your own doubts, or anyone else's, hold you back from trying to accomplish something. You do not need to be a genius or an expert at anything to start down the path towards your future career. Failure feels terrible, but it really is how we learn to be better, and it's a fundamental part of STEM for that reason. Ask for help when you need it! Especially if you don't understand how the systems at play, be they colleges/universities, companies or industries, operate or how to access them--find someone who does or someone who can put you in touch with someone who does! Sadly there are very few guidebooks for how to navigate these worlds, but that just means we all get to work together to write it as we go!

Inspo quote / fun fact / role model

"All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us."-J.R.R. Tolkien as Gandalf, in The Fellowship of the Ring

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