From math to oceanography, Prairie discusses academic career
By Anna Lotko
Published on Friday, January 19, 2007
Students involved in the Women in Science Program gathered Thursday to hear Jennifer Prairie '04 discuss her experience as a graduate student at the University of San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Though most professors at Scripps are male, she said, most students are female.
In her presentation, Prairie told students that her education as a Dartmouth math major has helped her navigate graduate school in unexpected ways.
"What Dartmouth taught me more than anything was how to figure out things I don't know, how to learn on the spot," she said.
As a math major, Prairie originally doubted her ability to compete when applying to oceanography specific graduate schools.
"Trying to apply to graduate school with no [oceanography program] here at Dartmouth was really hard," she said.
Prairie rationalized her decision to embrace her liberal arts education, even though her graduate school consists mostly of students who came from science-focused institutions.
"What I'm interested in is applying my math background to the biological world," she said. "They definitely expected me to know some things I didn't, but I'm able to attack a broader range of problems."
Prairie discussed her graduate research of plankton, where she compares their distribution within a water column.
"My images look a lot like a night sky: white spots distributed on a black background," Prairie said. "We know the surface of the moon much better than we know the surface of our ocean."
Prairie described the thrill of oceanography field research to educate the WISP students.
"There's definitely a lot of excitement Ã‚ÂÃ‚Â-- you're in the ocean and hanging out. The fieldwork is a lot more exciting than other fieldwork," she said.
She was not excited about every aspect of her profession, however. The competition inherent in the research grant application process disappointed Prairie.
"Science works a lot more like business than I thought," she said.
Originally from San Diego, Prairie said her interest in science was second nature for her.
"I grew up tide-pooling and I went to Sea World. I wasn't a particularly ocean-going kid," she said. "I'm afraid of the ocean."
Deprived from the California coast, Prairie came to appreciate the ocean as an undergraduate at the College.
Mary Pavone, the director of WISP, organized the event to educate students on the experiences of other female scientists. Pavone said WISP holds similar events whenever a female scientist visits the College.