Dipa Desai, Paleoclimatologist & Educator

Dipa working in Colorado with the National Park Service.

What do you do?

I am a paleoclimatologist, and I study the ecological and environmental effects of climate change using the fossil record. Specifically, I research how the Ross Ice Shelf in West Antarctica responded to temperature and atmospheric CO2 concentrations slightly higher than what Earth will experience in the next several decades. The Ross Ice Shelf is currently the largest mass of floating ice in the world, and West Antarctica is currently melting faster than the rest of the Antarctic Ice Sheet–what’s going to happen when this much ice melts into the ocean? How will melting affect regional plankton communities, the base of marine food webs? When that much freshwater is added to the ocean, what happens to ocean currents and circulation? I’m interested in answering these questions and using research outcomes to improve environmental policies and climate change mitigation strategies.

I’m also an educator! I spent the last two years in the classroom teaching 5th and 6th grade STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) classes, and I informally teach when I participate in STEM outreach events and programs. I plan to use my research as a model to teach the next generation of voters and environmental stewards about their planet’s historical and future climate change, and inspire the next generations of diverse, innovative STEM professionals. As an educator, I have seen how disparities in access to educational opportunities disproportionately affect low-income communities, communities of color, immigrants and non-native English speakers, and other traditionally oppressed and disadvantaged groups. As a member of these communities, I see a lack of representation and inclusion in STEM professions, and a gap in scientific literacy in our policymakers, so I want to use STEM education to affect greater social and political change.

What do you love about being a scientist?

I love learning about the Earth’s past–being the first person ever to see a fossil since its deposition, using clues in the fossil record to understand and imagine what the Earth looked like millions of years ago, and making connections to predict what our world will look like in the future. However, my favorite part of the job is telling other people about what I do! I can see folks light up when I mention I study fossils, and it’s cool to see how many people grew up wanting to become a paleontologist, just like me! I think most people believe paleontology doesn’t have any real-world applications but in reality, paleontology offers a unique perspective to understanding the modern environment. When I tell students, I see them get excited about science and all its possibilities: I remember when I judged the MA State Middle School Science Fair once year, a participant was amazed that you can use fossils to study climate change, and she asked what else can we study using fossils? It is exciting to share my career with youths, especially those who look like me, because their idea of what a paleontologist looks like and does changes when they meet me.

Describe your path to becoming a scientist. 

As a kid I loved dinosaurs and exploring outside, so I knew I wanted to be a paleontologist from an early age, but I wasn’t sure if I’d ever get here. Growing up as a child of undocumented immigrants, our family faced housing, food, and financial insecurities, so college seemed beyond our means. However, I received the Carolina Covenant Scholarship to become the first person in my family to attend college, and I studied Biology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Fun Fact: Time Scavengers Collaborator Sarah Sheffield was my teaching assistant for Prehistoric Life class!). I completed a B.S. in Biology, and minors in Geological Science, Archaeology, and Chemistry.

While I was an undergraduate at a large research institution, I didn’t have a dedicated mentor or the cultural capital to know I should pursue undergraduate research as a stepping-stone to getting into graduate school. After graduation, I pursued research opportunities with the National Park Service in Colorado and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, where I got the chance to conduct independent research projects, help excavate and catalog fossils, and teach local people about their community’s paleontological history. While in Panama, I became fluent in Spanish and wondered how I could use my new experiences and skills to communicate complex STEM concepts to broader audiences. I transitioned to teaching middle school for the next two years; I taught hands-on STEM classes to 5th and 6th graders in the largely immigrant community of Chelsea, Massachusetts. I enjoyed giving my students educational opportunities that will help them in the future, and the challenges my family faced in my childhood prepared me as an educator to understand how my students’ personal lives affected their learning in my classroom.

The experiences I pursued after my undergraduate career gave me the skills and clarity needed to develop and pursue a graduate research degree. I’m currently working on my Master’s/Doctoral joint degree in Geosciences at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

How do you communicate science? How does your science contribute to understanding climate change?

For my graduate research, I’m studying how warmer-than-present paleoclimates affected Antarctic ice cover and the paleoecology of the surrounding ocean. Specifically, I study the Miocene Climatic Optimum, when global temperatures and atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations were slightly higher than they are today, and close to what we expect to see at the end of the century. Studying the deep sea records of this time period reveals how microfaunal communities (i.e. foraminifera) reacted to a rapidly warming global climate, and how changes in Antarctic ice cover impacted sea level and ocean circulation; this can be applied to improve climate models and future environmental policies.

I want to bring my research to public audiences through in-person, multilingual outreach at museums, schools, and other educational institutions, and through online media to make climate science accessible and improve scientific literacy. Using multimedia, interactive, and open-access platforms to communicate science not only reaches more people, but also fits the needs of many different learning populations; this is why I believe STEM disciplines need to move away from the traditional format of communicating findings in paid science journals and articles.

What is your advice for aspiring scientists?

Mistakes are the first steps to being awesome at something.

Try as many new experiences as possible.

Identify what skills you need to do the job you want, then identify opportunities that will give you those skills.

Find a career that you enjoy, you are good at, that helps others, and hopefully makes you some money along the way.

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