Dr. Kristin Morell
UVic Women in Science presents an interview series highlighting women in the scientific community on Vancouver Island. Dr. Kristin Morell is a UVic assistant professor conducting tectonic plate research to better understand past and understand future earthquakes. In her three and a half years at UVic, she has become an established and prominent scientist in her field.
Starting with your earlier years in academia, when did you first get excited about geology? I always liked the sciences, but there wasn’t geology in high school. It wasn’t until I went to university that I took a geology class. I really liked how it blended all of the sciences together. Once I took that class I decided to major in it and the rest is history.
Did you have any other interests or see yourself entering any other fields? I almost majored in spanish. My dad’s side of the family was born in Cuba and I lived in Mexico when I was 12 so I knew spanish really well and I took enough classes at the college to basically major in it and I thought maybe I’ll be an ambassador or something, but obviously I didn’t do that.
Have you had any strong mentors throughout your career? Yeah, I think one thing I’ve learned about mentoring is that you don’t have just one mentor - you have to get different pieces of help from a community of people. Obviously my PhD supervisor was a mentor. But there are a lot of people along the way that I’ve learned different things from. I had a lot of people involved in my PhD research and with our team, I feel I got all the advice I needed to be where I am.
Do you remember a time you were really proud of something in your career? The first thing that comes to mind is an experience I had when I was a masters student. I was giving a presentation at the AGU (American Geophysical Union) Conference which is the largest conferences in the geosciences. I remember being really nervous about it, because as a masters student, I felt like I didn’t really know what I was talking about. Because I was so worked up about that talk, I had practiced it so many times that the talk went really well. In the process of practicing it so many times, I learned a lot about my study area and what my research was all about. That was one of the first moments I thought: this research that I am doing is actually really cool.
I remember taking a Structural Geology course with you, and you showed us photos of your research in the Himalayas, and I recall this photo of you and all your colleagues where you were the only female on your entire research team. Could you share your experience working in the Himalayas and being on a research team of all men culturally different than yourself?
Working in India... it can be particularly hard. Women aren’t traditionally scientists or professors or in those types of roles. I think it was just one of those things that I became acutely aware of but there’s nothing you could do about it, you just move forward and do what you can. I was aware that I was the only female on the team, I think everyone else was too, but you just have to deal with it.
Can you tell me about this photo that’s on your website (see above)? The photo shows a temple that was built in the 1400’s, at the face of the high Himalayas. There’s a pilgrimage route that goes up to it to get to this town called Kedarnath in Uttarakhand, India. You have to walk (about) 14 km to get there. You can’t drive there and it’s part of a pilgrimage people take to visit this temple for worship. Unfortunately a glacial dam had broken and there was a big flood in 2015. The only way to get up there is the road next to a river, it’s a big gorge,and the whole gorge filled up with water. Our science team was up there looking at why the gorge has flooded and its consequences. It was an amazing experience to be able to go look at that temple and, unfortunately, to see all of the destruction from the flood. One of the really cool things was that the temple was the only structure that was not completely destroyed.
I remember this past March you got a lot of publicity for your Leech River Fault research. Can you talk a little about the research? We found evidence that the Leech River Fault, which has been around for a very long time, since the Eocene, has actually had two or three surface-ruptured earthquakes in the past 10,000 to 15,000 years. To show earthquakes rupturing to the surface onshore has never been demonstrated in Canada before. A part of the breakthrough was using LiDAR data to find relatively subtle topographic features. That allowed us to pinpoint exactly where to do trenching.
Notes: LiDAR is a method of surveying surficial land details gathered by plane and has recently become very precise. Trenching is a method of investigating active faults where surface ruptures are present.
Was the LiDAR flying over exposed bedrock? Yeah, partially. Also it was flying over recently deforested areas. The LiDAR data is powerful because it can penetrate through the vegetation. By covering the ground surface with lasers, you can get some ground returns and essentially strip off the vegetation. That’s really important around here because there are so many trees. And if you’re looking for relatively subtle features, like we are, you can’t see them in air photos.
And what was it like having all that publicity for that research? We sent out a media tip from UVic. I was talking on the phone with one person, and three were calling me- it was a blitz! One reporter said: I’ll be there in 10 minutes, and I was like: you need to give me 40 minutes. They wanted to do a video interview right then. here was one story that was funny - but maybe funny isn't the word. I did a 20 minute radio interview, and at the very end of the interview the interviewer, who was trying to be funny, said: You know what they say about women? I replied: What do they say about women? And he goes: They’re good at finding faults. I just said: Oh is that right? And that was the end of the interview. Once I was off the phone I just thought, wow! That happened on air.
Do you feel your findings were portrayed properly? Yeah, I tried very hard to stay on message. I thought ahead of time exactly what I wanted to say. One thing I didn’t want to be was an alarmist. What I wanted to do is encourage people to think about funding this kind of work more. There’s important work of this type that needs to be funded, whether it’s done by me or not. That was the aim of that media experience. It was to share that this type of research was going on and it deserves our attention.
Have you ever felt the effects of imposter syndrome? When I was in grad school I remember reading about it and feeling: Wow, I’ve totally felt that before. Especially the way academia is set up, it kind of encourages that. I think it’s a problem that needs to be addressed; why does academia have this issue and why do people feel it a lot? I think a part of it is that when you’re just starting out you feel like: All these people know so much stuff, I could never be like them. It’s hard to feel like you actually would fit into that mould. It takes a long time to get over it.
Are there any skills that you see young scientists lacking as they are going into research? One of the things with students that are just starting in research is that it’s really different from anything else a student has done in school before. In university, usually you’re reading and learning things that are known already. But the thing about research is you have to learn what’s not already known. Sometimes the data sets don’t look great and you have to sit down and think: how am I going to figure this out? If you’re not able to see the forest through the trees, you’re going to have a lot of trouble figuring it out. I actually find it’s really hard to tell who’s going to be good at research because it’s not about grades or smarts. Sometimes, it’s about making sense of messy datasets or thinking about things in a different way than someone else has thought about it before.
Do you have any advice to give to students or young females interested in science? I think you just have to go for it. I’ve had moments in my career when I thought it wasn’t going to work out but you just have to have some grit and keep trying. I’ve learned a lot from my failures. I think it’s important when something's not going your way to think: how can I change so that it does go my way or should I take it in another direction entirely? I think that learning from things that you perceive as failures at the time is really important to being successful.
Interview conducted by Seanna Zintel, Communication Committee Member, Summer 2017