Melina Luethje

Temporary Lecturer/Early Career Researcher, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Department, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

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Don't be afraid to be confidently and unapologetically yourself.

What do you do?

My job has two components, research and teaching. As a temporary lecture, I teach undergraduate students introductory geology. I focus on making the material relatable and enjoyable, while instilling an appreciation and an ability to think critically about the natural world.

As an early career researcher, I also collect, analyze, and interpret data. I study a type of algae called diatoms. Diatoms produce a beautiful glass shell that fossilizes. Since we know a lot about modern diatom habitat preferences, I use these fossils to interpret a lake's history. After collecting and analyzing my diatoms, I communicate those results to the public by publishing in scientific journals, writing blog posts, and sharing via social media.

Why did you choose this field?

I have always had an interest in science and history. As I made my decision to pursue an undergraduate college education, I was interested in pursuing a career in archaeology at first. It was at Marietta College in Ohio that I met one of my mentors, Veronica (Rocky) Freeman. She introduced me to the vertebrate paleontology prep lab, and I decided that geology/paleontology was the path for me!

As I continued my studies, I knew for certain that I wanted to obtain a graduate education. My first round of applications was a dud. I didn't get accepted, likely because I had a severe misunderstanding of the graduate application process. I began reaching out to Professors from programs that were recommended to me, and it was then that I met Jeff Snyder. Jeff saw my potential, and took me on as his student and research assistant studying diatoms from a Siberian lake.

I had NO IDEA about diatoms at this stage. As I learned more my interest grew, until the next thing I knew I was completely immersed. I never looked back! I sought out a Ph.D. program, with the full intention of working in an area that I was truly interested in.

This lead me to work with my current mentor, Sheri Fritz, as her PhD student. I migrated to studying tropical diatoms in the Andes.

Not only was I interested in the subject - but the networking relationships I have created were a HUGE part of shaping this experience. I maintain close relationships with all of my mentors and collaborators. Without this support group, I am not certain I would feel so strongly that I am in the place I am meant to be. Because of my experience with good mentors, I also strive to be someone who inspires students to study geology and learn more about the world around them.

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

This is a tie between publishing my first paper, and finishing my PhD.

Younger me was constantly struggling with anxiety. Anxiety over whether I was working hard enough, getting the grades I needed, etc. I often struggled with imposter syndrome, or not believing I deserved to be in the position I was in.

I would tell her to be patient. I would tell her to be gentle with herself. I would tell her that all of the hard work, even if it was just a little bit a day, is totally worth it.

Why do you love working in STEM?

THERE ARE SO MANY THINGS!

I get to explore new ideas. As a scientist, you are working at the forefront of what we know as a species. The idea that I have the knowledge and the skills to explore a new idea is so exciting to me!

On the topic of exploring, I get to explore! A huge part of my research is collecting data in the field. I got to travel to Ecuador to the Andes and the Amazon to literally play with lake mud. We collected mud from the bottom of lakes, and then I get to be the first person to analyze what is in that lake mud.

I love microscopes! Since I study organisms you can't see with the naked eye, I get to use a microscope often. I look forward to looking at a world that would otherwise be unknown to us without the help of science.

Best advice for next generation?

1. Don't be afraid to be confidently and unapologetically yourself.

In all STEM fields, there is pressure on women to fit into a certain category. Along with the pressures on women, there are certain pressures that come with being a scientist in academia.

Don't give into these! You can be a scientist without compromising who you are. You can like geology and also enjoy wearing sundresses. You can be a chemist and enjoy watching sports. You can be a biologist and enjoy playing video games.

2. Do not make your research your entire life.

If you are interested in science as an academic especially, there is a pressure to eat, breath, and sleep your research topic. You are allowed to have a life outside of your research!

Inspo quote / fun fact / role model

"The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any.” - Alice Walker

NOMINATE a woman in STEM

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