What were some of the things that interested you as a child?

When I was a child, I was very interested in the theater and in acting. That was one of my big passions. I took a lot of that in high school. I performed in high-school plays and things like that.

I was also interested in politics. I used to follow that a lot on the news. I always wanted to travel to exotic places and leave wherever I was. When I was a kid in Scotland, I would watch the airplanes flying over my house, which was in a very rural area, and I would dream of getting on the plane to escape.

How did you become interested in science?

I guess I was interested in science from a very young age because my father was a scientist. I was introduced to it as early as I could remember. We used to go to the mountains a lot, and he would always explain the geology to me. My father has three daughters, and we are all scientists, so there was never this sense of well, you should never go into science. I considered it completely normal for me to be interested in science. It wasn’t until I got to high school that I encountered people who didn’t think women should be interested in science.

So I had a long-term interest in it and I always found it fascinating, particularly the geology and volcanoes and earthquakes and the power of the earth. I had one teacher in high school, Mr. Jackson, who was just a very good teacher. He was totally inspiring. He made it very fun in the classroom. I remember laughing a lot in science class in high school. That got me into that field.

In college, I wasn’t quite sure what to do. I was toying with the idea of going to drama school and pursuing acting. But I felt like I should have something to fall back on. I felt like the arts were something you keep an interest in on the side, but with science if you were going to drop it for a while, it was going to be a lot harder to get back into it. So I studied science in college. I studied geophysics.

How did you actually decide that you wanted to become a scientist?

Between my third and fourth year in my undergraduate program, which was in Edinburgh, Scotland, they required you to get work experience somewhere in the field of geophysics. Most people work for the oil companies in the summer in London, but because I wanted to go to the States so badly, I started sending out letters everywhere, seeing whether anybody would hire me for the summer to do anything remotely geophysical. They were just starting up a new program at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, a summer program to bring in undergraduates to work for a few months. So I went to Scripps knowing very little about it. I went to sea for ten days and just fell in love with going to sea. I thought, this is what I want to do. So I went back, finished my final year at Edinburgh, and went to graduate school at Scripps.

I graduated from Scripps and did a two-year postdoc there because there was a proposal I helped write as a graduate student that had gotten funded. Then I got a fellowship at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University in New York. Now I am there as an associate research scientist, a soft money position, working on my grants.

What challenges have you faced in your career as a woman?

Yeah, I do think women face particular challenges specific to their gender going into a field. Just on the base level, people just don’t think women should be at sea. Even junior scientists I’ve heard comment that they don’t think women should go to sea because they are too much trouble. And I think that on a broader scale, it’s still a problem in that people tend to not listen to you as much, not take you as seriously. Just overlook you at a very subconscious level. But as I said, there are also some wonderful people out there, wonderful men out there to work with who are really supportive of women. And I think the most important thing as a junior woman going into the field is to try and find senior mentors that you can work with and that are supportive and helpful to your career. They can really save you. And that’s what happened in my case. I found a couple of people who I could really work with, and it made all of the difference to whether or not I stayed in the field.

What continues to inspire you about your job?

What continues to inspire me in my career is the sense of exploration and the excitement of the exploration of the sea floor. The technology is evolving so rapidly that what we are capable of doing on the seafloor is so much better now than what we could do ten years ago, and it’s continuing to improve at an amazing rate. There are all sorts of exciting observatories being planned with fiber optic cables to the mid-ocean ridges. And the potential for that is just amazing.

In the future I hope to be involved in the new observatories and the evolving technology and being able to pick data up in real time. We will be able to see things on the seafloor as they are actually happening. It’s going to make such a difference to our understanding. And it already has in the areas where we have our real time seismic monitoring. So I would hope to be involved in that.

What do you do when you are not working on oceanography?
Outside of science, I am still interested in the acting on the side, particularly film and TV work. I’m working on a screenplay at the moment, so I like writing also. And reading and skiing.
Do you have any advice for people considering a career in oceanography?

In terms of advice for anyone interested in oceanography, I think if you are thinking of pursuing it as a career, you have to be really passionate about it. It’s a lot of hard work. It’s not just Jacques Cousteau and diving with the dolphins and all of that. Practical things to do to explore it further include trying to get on a research cruise. There are a lot of cruises going on where people are happy to take volunteers on the cruise. You can go to sea if you like going out to sea. At Woods Hole, there is a great program called Semester at Sea. You go out on a cruise with a bunch of other undergraduate students and do lots of different experiments. There are a lot of places where large institutions run programs like the one I did at Scripps where you can go work at an oceanographic institution for the summer and see whether you enjoy it.

Maya Tolstoy

  • Research Scientist
  • Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory Columbia University

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