UO's COACh organization sponsors international gathering of women scientists

The first in a series of three-day workshops geared toward women scientists who have the potential to use their scientific expertise to save lives and mitigate the effects of natural disasters, was held in Santiago, Chile, Nov. 12-15. The program was funded through a grant from the National Science Foundation and presented by COACh, a grass-roots organization founded at the University of Oregon that works to increase the number and career success of women scientists and engineers.

“The opportunity to meet and share experiences with other women who work in natural hazards in Latin America and the Caribbean was unique and opened the way for new networks to be built — not only related to research collaborations but also to very important issues such as education and communication with other groups involved in risk,” said Lizzette A. Rodríguez Iglesias, an assistant professor and director of the geology department at the University of Puerto Rico - Mayaguez Campus who attended the workshop. “We started with an idea of what could be accomplished and discovered so much more along the way.  It was an experience that all of us will build upon.”

One of the aims of the meetings is to advance women into leadership roles in the geosciences. Rodríguez Iglesias, a volcanologist whose research is focused on volcanic gas emissions and volcano-atmosphere interactions, says she signed up for the Santiago workshop because she was interested in meeting with women in her field and in other fields related to natural hazards. Titled “Developing Sustainable Networks of Women Scientists for Addressing Issues of Tectonic Hazards,” the workshop was focused on environmental hazards such as earthquakes and tsunamis. It drew some 20 women scientists from the U.S. and countries across Latin America and the Caribbean with expertise in volcanology, seismology, risk assessment, tsunamis and other fields.

Another intent of the program is to develop a network of women who can develop strategies to assist scientists and women in their communities to prepare for and mitigate the effects of natural disasters. The Latin American region was chosen due to its severe low latitude weather patterns, high probability for earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and the fact that women in developing countries in the region are particularly vulnerable and disproportionately affected by natural disasters.

“Women and children bear a heavy burden when natural disasters strike,” said Geri Richmond, professor of chemistry at the University of Oregon and founder of COACh. “By developing a research-based network of women scientists, this program promises to deliver some relief to countries that are hit hard by natural environmental hazards and also create a strong network that will help enhance the careers of women scientists and encourage research excellence.”

Richmond participated in the Santiago meeting along with fellow UO faculty members volcanologist Katharine Cashman and sociologist Jean Stockard. The program provided the opportunity for participants to share research and professional interests associated with tectonic hazards and to develop collaborative research and educational projects. The COACh organization pledged to facilitate and sustain the projects that emerge from the meetings and workshops. The hope is to continue to grow the network to other countries and to attract additional women scientists with related interests.

“This was an incredibly unique event in so many ways,” Richmond said. “One woman was very emotional about being invited to the workshop given that women at her university are never elevated to any type of leadership status in her area of expertise.”

The three-day Santiago meeting provided an opportunity for scientists to compare how their individual countries and cultures handled natural disasters and how women geoscientists fare in this largely male-dominated field.

"By participating in this global exchange, UO researchers are sharing their expertise and gaining insights into international issues,” said Kimberly Andrews Espy, UO vice president for research and innovation and dean of the graduate school. “In the long run, these workshops will help save lives and empower women scientists, and reflect our institution’s commitment to global engagement."

An exercise on the third day of the program brought 50 low-income middle school girls from Santiago and the Chilean town of Catemu to the U.S. Embassy for the opportunity to conduct experiments with the women geoscientists attending the meeting. The experiments were designed to provide an educational experience for students on some basic principles in volcanology, while also giving them the opportunity to interact personally with some of the leading women in Latin America in the field.

“To see so many women scientists working together on issues big and small was an extremely moving experience,” said Mary Sue Fields, cultural affairs officer for the U.S. Embassy in Santiago. “The participants’ outreach to disadvantaged Chilean youth highlighted potential education paths for young women and helped build a foundation for a scientifically literate future generation.”

A second workshop for women scientists will be held in November 2013. The focus will be on environmental hazards associated with water and hydrology. The meeting will take place in Brazil or in a nearby country.