How We #PressForProgress: Karen Hillis

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To celebrate International Women’s Day, Scientists in School joins thousands in the global push for gender equality. To honour this important day, we’re celebrating our science workshop presenters. Through their important work and accomplishments across various fields, many presenters at Scientists in School have defied gender stereotypes and misconceptions about women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Today, we’re shining the spotlight on one of our fantastic presenters, Karen Hillis.

As an Environmental Scientist in Atmospheric Environmental Services for Environment Canada, Karen Hillis’ important work focused on designing instruments to measure atmospheric gases that take part in ozone depletion and greenhouse gases chemistry. In her role, Karen helped deploy these instruments on Research high-altitude balloons and NASA’s high-altitude ER2 plane. Thanks to her incredible work, Karen was selected to join the Science Assessment and Policy Integration Branch as a secretariat for the Working Group on Air Quality Objectives and Guidelines. If that wasn’t already inspirational, Karen also helped develop software that analyzed water vapor data using satellite instrumentation at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at the University of Colorado.

Throughout her impressive career, and with a Bachelor of Science in Physics (Minor in Computer Science and Electronics) and a Master of Science in Physics under her belt, Karen co-authored several journal publications including “Intercomparison of total ozone observations at Fairbanks, Alaska, during POLARIS,” published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres and “Remote Sensing of Stratospheric Aerosols, Gases and Cloud” published in the book edited by Guy Brasseur, The Stratosphere and Its Role in the Climate System.

As a science workshop presenter with Scientists in School, Karen has gone above and beyond to create an enjoyable environment for students. While living in Egypt with her family as she attended the American University in Cairo for her Bachelor of Science studies, she learned Arabic. While working with students who also spoke the language, Karen was able to speak with them in Arabic when she noticed students had difficulty understanding the workshop content, creating a more at-ease environment.

We spoke with Karen, who presents workshops including May the Force Be With You, Energy: The Power to Change, Electricity: Get Charged! and Air and Flight, about her family’s special connection to STEM and how atmospheric research has a great impact on us all.

Is there someone who inspired you to go in to STEM? Who is your STEM role model?
My grandfather who was a chemist. Although he passed away while I was still very young, growing up I heard from my mom and many who knew him of how he connected science to everyday life. He taught at The American University in Cairo and many of my professors had been taught by my grandfather! They shared with me how loved he was and how he had inspired them and their curiosities.

What made you choose your field and what do you love about it?

Since a young age I have always enjoyed science and understanding how things work. I love the unveiling of mysteries and the excitement of connecting different scientific discoveries and concepts. I chose Atmospheric Research because I was interested in understanding the earth and its atmosphere. We’re still developing a complete understanding of how our atmosphere moves and interacts with the rest of our planet. I wanted to contribute to a field where the knowledge generated related directly to improving our quality of life.

Being an experimental physicist allowed me to combine my love for science and the outdoors. I love that I was able to work in interesting locations such as the Arctic, Alert and Eureka, in Fairbanks Alaska and at NASA Ames. Fieldwork involves groups from many universities and institutions from all over the world, each with our own set of instrumentation and knowledge striving to piece together how the atmosphere works and how to best deal with pollution issues. Not only did I find the science interesting, but it was also great experience to meet and work with colleagues from all over the world and to work together on correlating our data to better understand how the various gases in our atmosphere interact together and with wind patterns.

How are others impacted by the work done in your field?
Atmospheric Research allows us to develop better and more accurate models for predicting the effects of changes in atmospheric composition. Paired with this, the field data and the outputs from better models both allow us to provide governments and politicians with scientifically-based recommendations for air quality guidelines.

Should parents, teachers and STEM role models encourage girls to pursue STEM? Why?
For sure! As in all fields, women and men often bring a different set of skills to the table. Both are needed and both are very valuable. That said, in my opinion, I feel we fail our young women if we don’t also have conversations around careers and family-life balance when they are making career choices. This might help in decision-making that creates a balance that would make them happy. The reality is that there are some STEM fields that, more than others, offer women with flexibility should they make a choice at some point to work part-time or scale back for a period of time. Further, the STEM community needs to raise awareness and implement ways to support women in having more choices without penalizing them.

How has being a woman in STEM influenced or impacted your career, if at all?

It opened many doors for very interesting work and collaborations. Being a woman in STEM has given me the opportunity to go places I would never have dreamed of (like the far Arctic). It has also allowed me, on numerous occasions, to speak to and encourage young girls and women to not shy away from science and math, but to instead embrace their talents, interests and gifts.

Stay up to date with our International Women’s Day series on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, and let us know who your STEM role models are!

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