Lisa White: Redefining a "Rockstar Scientist"

Lisa White didn’t always know that she wanted to study science.  Born and raised in San Francisco near Golden Gate Park, Lisa grew up with a love for landscape photography and intended to study photography at San Francisco State.  When she was in college, Lisa took a geology class and became interested in how landscapes are formed.  From that point on, Lisa was hooked.  She interned at the US Geological Survey (USGS) where she became fascinated by earthquake monitoring and the study of other geological hazards like the eruption of Mount St. Helens.  When she got back to school, Lisa changed her major to geology and had the opportunity to do field work with the USGS in places like Denali National Park and the Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska.  She eventually migrated to paleontology thanks to some great women mentors at the USGS.
After finishing her BA in Geology at SF State, Lisa got her PhD at UC Santa Cruz in Earth Sciences.  LIsa’s field of study is in diatom micropaleontology, where she specifically looks at the age and distribution of diatom microfossils in Miocene rocks in California and around the Pacific Rim.  She really enjoys going into the field and collecting data, making observations, and asking new questions about how features form, “the field is where the info comes together and you can create camaraderie with your colleagues.”  Lisa also loves the travel aspect of doing work as her research has taken her places such as Northeastern Australia, Japan, China, India, Costa Rica, Panama Egypt, Israel and Zimbabwe.  She seemingly has been everywhere.
Some of Lisa’s mentors include professors David Mustart and Raymond Sullivan from San Francisco State University.  While she valued their mentorship, she notes that the geology field is mainly dominated by white males.  Lisa says, “there are lots of strong stereotypes to battle as a woman of color,” and that she often felt “classic feelings of isolation and imposter syndrome” as she worked to advance in the discipline.  When I was an undergraduate student, most of the people in the geology field were “burly guys with a background in hiking and the outdoors,” and “all images of geologists supported these stereotypes.”
Lisa notes that her USGS internship included students from many different backgrounds the cohort was “very welcoming and open to opportunities to diversify the geosciences.”  One of the scientists that helped create this welcoming culture was Joyce Blueford, a geologist who directed the internship program.  Here, with the emphasis on diversity and inclusion, Lisa felt welcomed and started to develop a passion for changing the stereotypes of what it means to be a geoscientist.
Lisa continued to build her passion for science outreach as a faculty member at SF State.  In addition to teaching classes and doing research, Lisa worked with the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science (COPUS) and the NSF-funded Minority Education through Traveling and Learning in the Sciences (METALS) among other science outreach programs.  She has used these platforms as a “way to invest in the next generation.”  Lisa is motivated to reach others because she is thankful for those that were “fundamental in her own development” and wants to be that for future scientists.
Lisa now works as the Director of Education and Outreach at the UC Museum of Paleontology, a position that was previously held by a former science collaborator Judy Scotchmoor.  In this role, Lisa got connected with CRS and currently serves on the CRS Advisory Council, helping advance science outreach in the Bay Area. She continues to be a strong advocate for science outreach and a leading voice in ensuring that all young students see science role models that look like them.
This summer, Lisa co-led a trip appropriately named the “School of Rock,” where 10 high school teachers and 10 faculty members travel from the Philippines to Australia together on JOIDES Resolution, a research vessel that drills into the ocean floor to collect and study sedimentary core samples.  This trip serves the dual purpose of collecting scientific data as well as exposing teachers to the scientific process so they can pass it along to their students.  Lisa is passionate about investing in the next generation of scientists as she believes that her teachers were “key to successfully navigating a path to science.”  The trip is a memorable one for scientists and educators alike, incorporating fun traditions when the vessel passes the equator .
From her feature on the PBS special “Making North America” to a spot on Bill Nye the Science Guy, Lisa has used her platform to share science with others on television.  In her “Making North America” feature, Lisa collaborated with NOVA and Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History Director Kirk Johnson to explore the San Andreas Fault, taking viewers to Tomales Bay and the Bug Creek Mine in California.  With Bill Nye, Lisa was in the “Way Cool Scientist” segment, sharing the research in her lab.  While she “doesn’t’ always like being on camera,” Lisa cherishes the opportunity to break down barriers as an African-American Woman in STEM and share sound science with others.  She notes that it’s “important for young students to see science role models that look like them” and that television is a great place to gain that exposure. 
In her spare time, Lisa continues her original passion of photography and takes large format black and white photos in the style of Ansel Adams.  She loves the outdoors, especially hiking locally in the Bay Area like Mt. Davidson and the Marin Headlands.  Lisa also loves sports and enjoys watching the Bay Area teams including the Golden State Warriors and the Cal Bears.  We are thankful for Lisa’s science journey and love her story of redefining what it means to be a “rockstar scientist.”