Meet Dr. Hannah Waterhouse, Soil Science Post-Doctoral Researcher at UC Berkeley
Updated: Sep 13, 2020
Dr. Hannah Waterhouse excels as a scientist and as a health, minority representation, and self-acceptance advocate.
Dr. Hannah Waterhouse is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of California-Berkeley in the Bowles Agroecology Laboratory with Dr. Timothy Bowles. Hannah recently finished her Ph.D. in Soils and Biogeochemistry at the University of California Davis (UC Davis) (congratulations!). Her research focuses on leveraging soil mediating properties to mitigate agriculture’s impact on the environment with a focus on nitrogen cycling.
During her master’s program at UC Davis, Hannah looked at different irrigation and fertilization management practices to reduce nitrous oxide (greenhouse gas) emissions. For her Ph.D., Dr. Waterhouse proceeded to study strategies to increase groundwater storage using agricultural lands–flooding to recharge underground aquifers, a practice known as "Agricultural Managed Aquifer Recharge" and looking at how that might affect contamination of drinking water. In general, her research interest includes the nexus of agriculture’s impact on the environment and human health.
From Math to Soil Sciences
Dr. Waterhouse’s journey in STEM started by studying Math at Bryn Mawr College’s undergraduate program.
“I was in an all women’s college which I think was a really great environment for me to come into my own in a safe space. They really encouraged women to get into fields where we’re underrepresented. Math is a male-dominated field.”
During her undergraduate years, she struggled with finding the connection between theoretical mathematics and its applications. At the time, she took a geology class with professor Chris Oze where she had the opportunity to learn about soil science and fell in love with it. She graduated from her undergraduate program in 2009, during the height of the recession, facing a number of challenges.
“I was really struggling to find work, I had loans, I started working in a coffee shop and babysitting to make ends meet. I reached out to a professor of soil science I met at Univ. of Delaware asking “hey, what is this field and what can you do?” and he, Dr. Thomas Sims, was so kind and took 2 hours out of his time to sit down and talk to me. After those 2 hours, he offered me a job.”
Hannah ended up working for Dr. Sims as a lab technician for almost 3 years, while also managing an urban farm. During this time she developed a strong interest in soils and decided to continue her career in the soil sciences by pursuing graduate studies at UC Davis.
Deciding between doing a Ph.D. or joining the workforce
After Hannah completed her Master’s degree, she was unsure if she wanted to pursue a Ph.D. or a job. She ultimately decided to go for the Ph.D. program as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act was passed and it was a chance to pursue a really interesting project at the nexus of drought adaptation, nitrogen cycling, and environmental and human health.
“I felt I was getting old (she laughed) and that I wouldn’t go back and do one (Ph.D.) if I didn’t do it now. That thinking was flawed; there is no right way to do things, there is no set trajectory and timeline. You can come back and do a Ph.D. at 40 or 50 or whenever. I was limited in my thinking there.”
She also mentioned how many people that take non-traditional routes can make really good Ph.D. students by bringing to the table all the life experiences with them.
The power of connections and relationships through tough times
Hannah opened up about all the difficulties she’s experienced by being a gay woman in academia. For instance, during her time as a lab technician, she suffered from many unfair treatments and hurtful comments based on assumptions of her sexuality when she wasn’t openly out in the workplace.
“I just took it for a really long time., I never said anything., I laughed it off. I never denied it, but I never affirmed who I was, who I am.“
These experiences strongly affected her emotionally, making her feel intimidated and small.
“There was a guy I worked with who was much older than me, and much more conservative. We drove down to the sites and they were like an hour each way. We became really close even though he was much more conservative than I am. I finally came out to him and he just went “Hannah, I know… and I love you”. I don’t know if he was ever not okay with gay people but part of me thinks that our friendship overcame whatever assumptions or prejudices he might have had. It really made me realize the power of connections and relationships to overcome the fear of what you don’t know or don’t understand. And that just made me feel safer because we were interacting with these other people together. I felt like he had my back if anything happened.”
Homophobic micro- and macro aggressions can also happen in academia from academics. Dr. Waterhouse shared an unpleasant experience she had at the university when a professor made a very homophobic comment to her and her friend. This was a shocking moment for her since she did not expect this type of situation at UC Davis. Luckily, she had a wonderfully supportive friend who had the courage to visit the professor the morning following this event and tell him he’s comment was unacceptable. The professor eventually apologized to both of them. This type of supportive relationships is the ones Hannah described as essential during her Ph.D. program journey.
“Ph.D. usually coincides with a time in life where a lot can happen like deaths, marriages, babies, divorce, breakups, very intense times of life, and on top of that, add the stress of the Ph.D. So I think it’s just essential to have a community around you. I know I wouldn’t have made it through my PhD without friends who stood by me in incredibly difficult times.”
Hannah concluded explaining these experiences have made her a more resilient person. However, for her, these experiences were draining, distracting, and a lot of work. Some advice Dr. Waterhouse wanted to share regarding these situations was:
“Try to have the courage to be who you are. Be honest with who you are and dip into those sources of support like friends, partners, loved ones, family. Allies make a world of difference”.
Self-Care is incredibly important and should be prioritized
Dr. Waterhouse lives with chronic pain from a neck injury she suffered a couple of years ago. Computer work, which is a big part of Ph.D. students' lives, aggravates it. Unfortunately, she let this pain worsen to a point where it affected her mental health and the ability to connect with people. She’s now been able to manage the pain better because she advocated for herself within the healthcare system. This process was slow and frustrating, but she eventually succeeded in managing the situation by being persistent and patient. During this time, therapy certainly helped her manage the mental health component of her pain. She’s now an advocate for normalizing therapy for mental health.
“I go to therapy every other week now and it helped so much to get through my Ph.D. Sometimes I’m on my way to a therapy appointment and people ask me where you’re going and I’m just like “going to therapy!” ”.
Celebrating the good times
Co-founding the “Girls in Outdoor Adventure and Leadership in Science (GOALS)” group was one of the best experiences of Dr.Waterhouse's Ph.D. program. GOALS is a free summer science program for under-represented high school students to learn science hands-on while backpacking through the wilderness.
“Especially as a gay woman, you cannot avoid noticing the disparity between white man in the field and pretty much everyone else.t’s been really cool to be part of this group of women that started GOALS. Working with youth who may not otherwise have the opportunity to experience going out into the wilderness and backpacking and planning and conducting their own science projects while also contributing to a National Park science project, has just been the most rewarding experience.”
Dr. Waterhouse mentioned the enthusiasm of these girls is very contagious and that she’s feeling optimistic about how different the next generation of leaders is going to look from now.
“I think our advancements will be exponential by having so many diverse experiences and perspectives. I think your journey and what you’ve been through, how you’ve been treated or the issues you’ve been exposed to affects the way you perceive everything. I think that we need variety and diversity in perceptions. I’m really excited about it, I want to continue to work like that whether I go into academia or not.”
With an open mind, the future looks bright!
Hannah is open-minded about future career options after her post-doc. She’s mainly interested in a career that includes research, outreach, and education, especially with the youth. Most importantly, no matter what career path she decides to pursue, she wants to work in a location she feels comfortable and happy.
To all the young female students out there:
“You are the only person that can set your limitations so don’t let anyone tell you what you can and cannot do”
Dr. Waterhouse described graduate school as an exercise in tenacity.
“The frustrations and mistakes are all part of the process. They don’t reflect your inherent value as a scientist or as a researcher. They don’t validate any societal expectation of what you can be. Everyone makes mistakes”.
Comparing herself to others has been very detrimental for her development as a graduate student, leading the way to impostor syndrome.
“I think it’s very important to remember that everyone starts at a different place and a lot of that of where you start is based on history and societal constructs and institutionalized racism. Graduate school is your own individual journey. I think it’s a lot more productive to compare yourself with your own self with respect to time. Like, compare where you are now to where you were a year ago, or three years ago, or even more years ago. I still struggle with that (comparing myself to others) too, I have to keep reminding myself “Think about where you were 3 years ago, you’ve come so far, be gentle on yourself” ”.
Things to consider before and during the graduate school application and interview process
Hannah wishes she was told to ask more questions during the graduate application and interview process.
“You should also be interviewing them and making sure this is someone you get along with and who will provide good mentorship. Ask questions, ask a lot of questions about their mentorship style and how they deal with conflict. I think it's important for your own growth and development. You want to make sure the person guiding you through the Ph.D. cares about you”.
She also mentioned she would’ve liked to be advised on getting involved in other activities besides the Ph.D. earlier in her studies. In addition, she highlighted she was told to not do a Ph.D. not based on a “timeline” that you’re on, but rather making it because you’re really enthusiastic about it and you’re engaged.
Passions beyond work
Dr. Waterhouse loves spending time outdoors doing mountain biking, climbing, backpacking, and playing soccer. She enjoys watching women’s soccer and recently got back to gardening which she described as a very relaxing activity. She also loves cooking and hopes to get back to reading for pleasure.
Role models are essential for personal and professional growth. An example of woman Dr. Waterhouse admires is Megan Rapinoe, USA team professional soccer athlete, who she described as not only as an awesome player but a confident woman that fights for what she believes without an apology. She also admires all the athletes from the USA professional soccer team, especially because of all the sacrifices, passion and excitement they demonstrate. Most importantly, Hannah recognizes her younger sister as her biggest role model.
“My sister, she’s one of the most strong and compassionate people I’ve ever met and she’s younger. She’s someone I strive to be like morally, and I want to harness the empathy and compassion she navigates her life with daily and in her work.”
Improving the agricultural-environmental sector
Dr. Waterhouse mentioned that to improve part of the current challenges in agriculture and the environment it is essential to engage people in research, especially the communities that work in agricultural lands.
“A huge reason we haven’t made the progress we wish to see is because a lot of stakeholders have been left out of the conversation. I think this has been incredibly detrimental to progress. Farmers have been villainized and yet our lives and health depend on them, they grow the food that we eat. I think we’ve gotten better about this but going forward we need to better understand how including those voices can help by looking at the human ecology side of things too.”
Part of Dr. Waterhouse’s mission as a researcher is to always be mindful of engaging the people who these researches will affect and also their wealth of knowledge because they know their land and how it responds.
A Special Shout Out to:
RAICES: https://www.raicestexas.org where Hannah has been contributing in the past 10 years
For UCDavis students - UC Davis's counseling services: https://shcs.ucdavis.edu/counseling-services-0
ESWN (Earth Science Women's Network) network: eswnonline.org
Soil Health Website Dr. Waterhouse helped to develop: http://soilhealth.ucdavis.edu
You can find Dr. Hannah Waterhouse at:
Thank you so much, Dr. Waterhouse, for sharing your inspiring story with us!!!
The Women in Ag Science team
This interview was conducted and edited by WAGS Co-founder Noely Gonzalez-Maldonado.