Scientist in the Spotlight


In our newest series, "Scientist in the Spotlight" we’ll sit down with the ADBC (Advancing Digitization of Biodiversity Collections) program's best and brightest to learn more about what makes them tick. And who better to start this series than Lisa White, a geologist, Director of Education and Outreach at the University of California Museum of Paleontology and the head of the Eastern Pacific Invertebrate Communities of the Cenozoic (EPICC) TCN.

Where are you from?
I’m from San Francisco. My parents met at San Francisco State in the 50s, so there's a real tie to not only that University, but to San Francisco that stretches multiple generations. I grew up here. My undergraduate degree is from San Francisco State. My graduate degree is from the University of California at Santa Cruz. I’ve stayed in the Bay Area for my professional career and, before I came to Berkeley eight years ago, I was Professor of Geosciences at San Francisco State University. I was fortunate to be a faculty member at my Alma Mater for 22 years. 

When did you know you wanted to be a scientist or work in science?
I consider myself a bit of a late bloomer, especially, among paleontologists. Commonly paleontologists will say: “when I was a kid I loved dinosaurs” or “ I was drawn to this science.”  It really wasn’t until college that I became focused on a career in STEM and Geosciences.

I liked science in my youth. I grew up near the California Academy of Sciences, a natural history museum in San Francisco. We would go often. I certainly loved all the natural science displays of rocks, minerals, and fossils, but I didn’t make a connection to science in a way that would drive me to select it as a major or consider it as a career option. I was really more interested in the arts, so photography was my initial major when I was an undergrad at San Francisco State. There was something about the eruption of Mt Saint Helens that was really powerful for me as an undergraduate. I changed my major to geology that year and was really drawn to the topic.  I then had an opportunity for an internship at the US Geological Survey in the Bay Area in Menlo Park, California.  I had a lot of great mentors and in-depth opportunities for hands on research there. So, it was a combination of things that eventually led to a career in science.

Do you still practice photography?
Just a little bit. I wanted to be the Black female Ansel Adams. Adams was a nature photographer. He had the most beautiful photographs. They were shot mostly in large format and in black and white. Through being drawn to landscape photography, it served as a hook to geoscience for me. I kept thinking: “If I want to be a landscape photographer then I should know more about the origin of these landscapes.” In those days, when you majored in photography, we had to learn how to develop black and white photos in dark rooms. I think it’s much easier to have photography as a hobby with digital photography, so I take pride in taking a lot of photos when I travel. It’s not as serious a hobby I would like it to be...but it is certainly always there.

The photo on the left is an Ansel Adams photo. This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the National Archives Identifier (NAID) 519904.

How would you describe your day job to a child (6 year old?)
A large part of my job is creating new educational resources in support of broad opportunities to learn about and connect to paleontology, biological evolution, and the nature and process of science. Unlike the Florida Museum of Natural History – the UCMP does not have a large public space and is primarily a research museum. Because we are not open to the public, UCMP has always really embraced and invested in wide dissemination of what we know about the fossil record on our websites.

What do you like most about your job?
I really enjoy working within museum communities and networks associated with natural history museums. There is a real optimism and true enjoyment for what we do. We are in positions that receive a lot of quick feedback from the public, so knowing just how enthusiastic public audiences are about fossils and the history of life is exciting. I am fortunate to work within the broad museum community and utilize the digital network to reach more diverse communities.

What are some things you love working on at the Museum of Paleontology?
I really value the opportunity to bring some of the things that I am really passionate about, like serving diverse audiences, to the network of programs that we have at the museum. During my 22 years at San Francisco State University, I initiated a number of programs to work with urban youth to get them out to national parks and involved in research experiences that could lead to greater interest in Earth science. In my current position,  I am fortunate to have the platform at the Museum of Paleontology to draw from some of our resources to help support some of those students. We’ve started some programs that partner with community colleges in the Bay Area. It’s a way to introduce and support learning more about paleontology. 


What advice would you give to someone younger? ( to a student interested in becoming a paleontologist/geologist)
Be open about the different fields of science or professions that they may want to study. I think there’s a lot of pressure on young people to know exactly what they want to do right away. It’s common to require a declaration of a major before they go to college. We tell them to focus on a single area of study - realizing how competitive career preparation can be.

I think we need to be open minded as we consider what our purpose is in life and what we may want to study. There are opportunities to be introduced to other fields and subjects that one might be unaware of when they first enter college. It’s advantageous to have flexibility in what your interests because you never know where the opportunities may be. Young people should take advantage of internships, volunteer opportunities and take time to know about different professional fields. Because you truly don’t know about a discipline unless you're able to embed yourself in it.

What’s one interesting fact about yourself that your coworkers do not know?
My first big field experience occurred when I interned at the USGS. It was my first backpacking experience. It was in Alaska. In one week’s time, I received gun training as part of bear safety in Alaska, rode in a helicopter and camped on a cirque (a glacially-eroded valley in a high altitude area). The  week before that I was just a regular urbanite living and going to college in San Francisco.  By the next week, I was a backpacker, a camper and a person trained in firearms. So, you might not know when you first meet me that I have that spirit of adventure or that particular kind of training. I think it just reinforces how much opportunity there could be when you remain open to the possibilities.

What do you like to do in your free time?
I enjoy bike riding, hiking, sharing time with friends and family, watching professional sports, and listening to music. I really enjoy traveling and of course miss it.  I’m a bit of a history buff so being able to share my knowledge of the Bay Area with others is always fun. I really like talking about San Francisco history and giving walking tours to neighborhoods that people may be less familiar with.