Meet Dr. Karen Vaughan, Soil Scientist and Creative Science Communicator
Updated: Feb 18
Scientist, mother, and equity advocate, Dr. Vaughan thrives as she raises awareness of soil science within and beyond academia.
Dr. Karen Vaughan is a researcher, educator, and science communicator at the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management at the University of Wyoming, USA. She’s an Assistant Professor of Pedology who teaches courses including introductory to soil science and pedology in the classroom, and soil judging and a National Park field experience course outdoors. Part of her research interests includes soil formation and biogeochemistry where she studies landscape evolution and wetland biogeochemical processes.
Mentoring students is a part of the job as a professor that Dr. Vaughan highly enjoys and prioritizes.
“I place tremendous value on my role as a mentor, facilitator, and someone who encourages and challenges up and coming scientists. As a woman in soil science, I recognize and appreciate my position as a role model and advocate for future and current soil scientists.”
Women Underrepresentation in the Soil Sciences
Soil science is recognized as a male-dominated field. Dr. Vaughan mentioned how there is still a void of information in the soil science literature regarding the ethnic, cultural, and gender diversity (among others), and how the discipline could attract and retain diverse individuals with diverse backgrounds, needs, and potential contributions. Because of this, together with a group of passionate collaborators, Dr. Vaughan formally investigated the gender demographics within the soil science discipline resulting in a scientific article publication (https://bit.ly/356uwOM).
“Throughout this paper we provide recommendations towards greater inclusion and gender diversity as these represent important pathways to grow and innovate soil science.”
Dr. Karen is a passionate advocate for diversity and inclusion in the soil sciences and intends to continue exploring ways to improve these throughout her career.
Salary inequity in Academia
Dr. Vaughan expanded on issues she’s unfortunately experienced regarding salary inequity in academia on two occasions.
The first time this issue occurred was a year after being hired at a previous position. She communicated her concerns about an inequity regarding the salaries of herself and other female faculty compared to those of several men but was dismissed and told it was due to a difference in the hiring year.
“My counter was that the women (regardless of the year of hire) were all paid less than our male peers despite having equal or greater experience entering the positions. I was unable to resolve this issue before taking another position.”
In the new position, an inequity arose and she decided to develop a clear analysis of the salary differences within the department and college and provided the information to her supervisor. This issue was discussed over the course of many months and resolved.
Dr. Vaughan mentioned how she believes there needs to be measured in place to examine salaries as new faculty are hired. She highlighted that, although many changes like hiring years, inflation, lack of annual raises at some institutions can impact these decisions,
gender should never be part of the equation in determining worth via salary assignment.
“What I’ve learned from this experience is that when I see inequity, I have to speak out on my own behalf and for others. I do not want future generations to have to deal with the issues I currently face – but are much different than those of previous generations. We are where we are today thanks in part to the people who spoke out before us.”
After earning her Ph.D., Dr. Vaughan’s worked as a federal soil scientist in the Snow Survey and Soil Survey programs of the United States Department of Agriculture – Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA NRCS). Part of her responsibilities included installing, servicing, and repairing SNOTEL (Snowpack Telemetry) and SCAN (Soil Climate Analysis Network) stations. She also worked on analyzing data, describing and sampling soils, and installing soil moisture and temperature sensors. She also performed snow surveys in the winter and installed and repaired sites in the summer. Although she enjoyed her work, she mentioned there were two main reasons that made her change from federal scientist to academia.
“One, I was really missing the research and teaching aspects of work – it’s what I had trained to do and wanted to see if I could be effective in that role.
Secondly, despite all the fun I was having getting to see some beautiful country in Utah, Nevada, and eastern California – I was traveling a lot. I wanted to start a family and didn’t see how this lifestyle was compatible with having a child, so I applied for a faculty position and was fortunate enough to be selected.”
The pursuit of Tenure and Parenthood in Academia
Currently, Dr. Vaughan is going through the tenure and promotion evaluation process this year. Some other challenges Dr. Vaughan acknowledges experiencing through her job are balancing research-teaching-service, outreach components, mentoring, advising, and helping to build community. Fortunately, she’s had good support from her colleagues who provide feedback throughout her path.
Dr. Vaughan also talked about the challenges of parenting while being an academic. The job of an assistant professor can be intense, time-consuming and hard. That is why Dr. Vaughan decided to create hard boundaries between her time as a professor and as a family member. Karen works hard on being as efficient and effective as she can so she can enjoy the morning, evening, and weekend time with her family.
“I love involving my children in my work by taking them into the field, introducing them to other scientists, and having them spend a lot of time on campus. I want them to be exposed to the academy and know what I do while at work – all while still knowing that first and foremost, I am their mom.”
Building a supportive community is essential
Part of Dr. Vaughan’s positive experiences includes building a supportive community and having excellent mentorship. She mentioned how her community is becoming more important as she goes through her career path.
“Sure there have been a few individuals who haven’t exactly lifted me up – but my close mentors mean the world to me and I have them to thank for helping me become the scientists and educator I am today.”
Role Models can be excellent influences
Dr. Vaughan mentioned that while she had many female professors during her undergraduate education, she only had two during all of her graduate school years. She described her peers as her role models; for instance, Drs. Jane Zelikova and Kelly Sierra (co-founders of 500 Women Scientists) who approach science with a different and fresh perspective., Dr. Asmeret Asefaw Berhe (Professor of soil biogeochemistry at UC Merced) who collaborated with her on the Women in Soil Science review paper and had a recent inspiring and successful Ted talk (https://www.ted.com/speakers/asmeret_berhe).
Why is it important to highlight women in agricultural sciences?
“If you don’t see someone like you doing something you aspire to do, it’s still possible to travel that path – but if you do see someone like you out there – it’s easier to visualize yourself in that position.”
Some of the things Dr. Karen mentioned she wished she knew at the beginning of her journey were:
“Be true to yourself, because, at the end of the day, that’s all you really have. Do not reduce who you are to fit into a box because one day you’ll realize that you want out of that box. I’ve found that the best opportunities have been as a result of me being my true self and not hiding behind the perception of what I thought a scientist should look like.”
Outside the work environment
Trail running, spending time with her two children, puppies and husband (especially outdoors hiking, camping, skiing, and biking), doing fiber arts (knitting, weaving, felting), watercolor painting, and creating soil-based watercolors are some hobbies that Dr. Vaughan loves doing on her free time. She strongly recommended having hobbies outside work since they are critical for maintaining a balance in life.
“It’s easy to let those activities slide when things get hectic, but in my experience, that is when we need them even more. Running for me is an outlet that allows me to physically feel strong while allowing my mind to work through some of the challenges I’m having on other aspects of my life".
Science for everyone
Dr. Vaughan is a soil science communication enthusiast and is committed to making this scientific field accessible, relevant and engaging.
“I am involved in several projects that aim to spark curiosity and a visceral connection to soils. One particular project is a documentary-style film that will follow three soil scientists (Lydia Jennings, Yamina Pressler, and myself) as we run 150 miles over several days through a variety of ecosystems to tell the story of soil through the lens of the people who study it (willrunforsoil.com).”
They are currently raising funding for this project to start filming in September 2020. Karen is also very active on social media (Instagram: @fortheloveofsoil) where she promotes access to soil science by sharing original and creative content.
You can find Dr. Karen Vaughan in the following platforms:
@fortheloveofsoil and @willrunforsoil on Instagram
@vaughan_soil on twitter
Thank you, Dr. Vaughan, for collaborating with us!!
The Women in Ag Science Team
This interview was written and edited by WAGS Co-Founder Noelymar Gonzalez-Maldonado.