By Sarah Fecht
This Q&A is part of a short series highlighting some of the Earth Institute’s women scientists as part of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11. Read more about the day and our related blog posts here.
Sturdy red oak trees currently dominate northeastern forests like the ones surrounding New York City. But will they continue to do so in the future, as climate change alters temperatures and precipitation patterns? That’s one question that Angelica Patterson is trying to answer. She’s a doctoral candidate within Columbia University’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and she studies how plants respond to climate change.
Trees may not be able to pick up and leave when the climate gets uncomfortable, but they do migrate over generations. As the planet heats up, many species have been moving northward, chasing the cooler temperatures they’re used to. When an important tree species becomes locally extinct, it can influence other plants and animals and dramatically change the overall composition of the forest. Red oak trees are one of those keystone species.
That’s why Patterson is in the midst of a greenhouse experiment that is investigating how flexibly red oak trees respond to high temperatures. Studying red oak seedlings from the New York region, she plans to find out whether the trees’ rates of photosynthesis and respiration change in a hotter environment. And if so, do those changes help them tolerate the heat, or do they make them more vulnerable to it? The work will help to show whether New York’s red oak seedlings will continue to take root and thrive under a warming climate, or whether the species will die out locally, with major consequences for the rest of the forest.
In addition to being a scientist, Patterson is a science educator at Black Rock Forest in the Hudson Valley, and an advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion. In 2016, she was awarded a Campbell Award from the Columbia Alumni Association for her leadership roles in two graduate groups: Women in Science at Columbia and the Students of Color Alliance.
In the Q&A below, Patterson tells us about her path to becoming a scientist, and offers advice for how other women and girls can do the same.
What’s your favorite thing about the research you do?
My favorite thing about doing this kind of research is that every quest to answer a question reveals some evidence about what our forests may look like in the future. More questions arise from previous ones — it’s never-ending really, but that is science. And to be a scientist, you must be driven to explore and make observations, ask questions about that observation, test it, and then distill all that you’ve learned and try to explain what you found about the system you’re studying and tie it to a larger story about the environment. If I wasn’t a scientist, perhaps I would’ve been a detective, because the journey to discovery or the search for truth is really a puzzle game I enjoy playing.
How did you earn the nickname “the Shotgun Scientist”?
I have to give credit to Anna Turns, the journalist who wrote the Guardian article about my research in the fall of 2020. It had a great ring to it and pays tribute to the method I use to collect leaf samples from high in the tree canopy. After an impressive day of shooting trees (and collecting leaves with no shotgun holes in them), I would proudly tout around and call myself “Angie Oakley” — although, more often than not, my sharpshooting skills were average, at best. But “The Shotgun Scientist” is catchy, and if it could attract an audience to learn more about plants and climate change research, I’m all for it.
Did you know from a young age that you would end up studying plants and climate change, or how did that evolve?
I had no idea that I’d be in this line of work so many years later. Growing up, I had a lot of career aspirations, from becoming a doctor, a lawyer, to an astronomer, and then a veterinarian. I went to Cornell University enrolled as an animal science major during my first year as an undergraduate student. However, I quickly learned that veterinary medicine was not for me and decided to explore what I wanted to study by taking as many different courses as I could. Among the many courses I selected, Introduction to Conservation Biology changed the course of my life. It was there where I had this natural pull to the questions being asked about how the natural world worked and the cascading effects humans had on the environment and the processes within.
After taking that course, I changed my major to Natural Resources and sought out research opportunities in environmental sciences. My first research opportunity was in an ecology and evolutionary biology lab where I studied the effects of disease on Kansas grasses. My second research opportunity took me to the deserts of Arizona where I got to learn about the symbiotic mutualism between the senita moth and the senita cactus. My first job as a research assistant was in a plant biology lab at Barnard College where I explored epigenetics — how gene expression changes under varying environmental conditions. I then took classes as a post-baccalaureate where I discovered plant physiology and climate change.
You’ve also worked as an educator. Why is communicating about science important to you?
I understand the impact that science literacy can have on people’s ability to feel knowledgeable and then empowered to become stewards of the environment. Had I not taken that one course in conservation biology, I may not have been as cognizant of the negative impacts being made to the environment, and may not have been influenced to educate others about the negative consequence climate change has on our health and the future of our planet.
What sorts of challenges do girls and women, and in particular women of color, face when trying to study or work in the sciences? How did you manage to not let those challenges stop you?
Unfortunately, the challenges that impact women of color trying to work in the sciences are complex and affect the professional aspirations and upward mobility of women of color aspiring to make a positive impact in their field. The intersectionality of being a woman and one who identifies as BIPOC begins at an early age where representation of both identities is rarely seen as the mainstream. During study, all I ever saw were white cis men as the symbol behind every scientific discovery that was awarded Nobel prizes or distinguished honors. And if a woman was awarded, it was usually a white woman. When it comes to professional upward mobility, especially in academia, the contribution and ideas of BIPOC members are usually overlooked or claimed by their white counterparts, who are usually heard and hold power to make things happen in collaborative spaces.
I have overcome some of these challenges by advocating for myself and making sure that I am recognized for my ideas and efforts, which means that I have to speak up and either claim a leadership role in projects or make sure I am recognized in a public-facing manner. Unfortunately, it could be a double-edged sword because it means that I must do work above and beyond my baseline responsibilities, and that could also have a negative impact on my productivity. It’s a delicate balance one has to take, and I hope that equity and inclusion efforts can relieve the burden this has on BIPOC women’s work.
Editor’s note: Last October, Patterson participated in a Sustain What panel discussion about the challenges that women and people of color still face in the sciences. Watch the video here:
Do you have any advice for girls who might want to go into this field?
I would advise any girl who wants to be an environmental scientist to surround themselves with as many people who can become sponsors for you — someone who can connect you with people who will help you reach your goals. Seek out mentors and advisors who can help you stay on track and teach you how to navigate the professional world and guide you to be the best person you could be. Support is crucial to your success and building a group of friends who could inspire you along the journey is key. Don’t forget to give back as well — there’s always someone who is looking at you for inspiration. And finally, don’t let anyone discourage you from pursuing your dreams.
Anything else you’d like readers to know?
I am always looking to connect with people who are passionate about learning or teaching others about the environmental sciences, so please reach out and connect with me on Twitter @ColorfulSciGirl, or visit my website.
Content Manager, State of the Planet
Earth Institute, Columbia University