Mother, researcher, and educator, Dr. Meagan Schipanski, excels as an advocate for sustainable agriculture.
Dr. Meagan Schipanski is a Soil Science and Agroecology associate professor in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences at Colorado State University. Her position includes 60% research, 30% teaching, and 10% service. Dr. Schipanski recently received tenure in her job as a faculty in academia (congratulations!).
The tenure process was, as many can agree, a stressful process for Dr. Schipanski.
"It was stressful in the first year, knowing that there were expectations to be successful in grant writing and publishing. I was fortunate that both of these pieces started to fall into place by the end of my second year, and the stress of 'proving myself' largely lifted."
Why Academia? The Journey
Meagan described her journey as a "circuitous" one. Although she grew up in an academic family, she decided she did not want to pursue an academic career after her undergraduate studies in Biology at Oberlin College. Instead, she explored different job opportunities like being a research technician for ecologists and paleo-ecologists in Michigan and Minnesota, intern and then manager in field and greenhouse operations on diversified vegetable farms in Oregon and Illinois. She also worked temporary jobs in the off-season and became a program manager for an environmental non-profit providing training and internships for students in Seattle, WA.
These experiences let Meagan discover her passion for working with farmers to design and implement sustainable farming systems. After eight years, she decided to attend graduate school to pursue a master's degree and do extension work. But during this time, her plans took a slight turn.
"I chose to change to a Ph.D. program and pursue a career in academia primarily due to the flexibility and space for intellectual creativity. I enjoyed the research and felt that I could have an impact through my teaching and collaborative research with producers."
Maternity in Academia
Dr. Schipanski desired to expand her family; however, waiting until obtaining tenure to have kids (as some mentors suggested was the best time) was simply not an option for her. Meagan had her daughter while she was finishing her Ph.D. program and her son while she was a postdoc. She mentioned she faced several substantial challenges while being pregnant and being a mother in academia.
"We faced economic stress and I experienced mental stress during my first pregnancy as I felt responsible for finishing and getting a job to support my expanding family. This stress was compounded as I experienced discrimination from potential postdoc mentors when they realized I would be starting while also caring for a newborn. In addition, universities did not have clear policies or support for postdocs for parental leave or even an understanding that they qualify for unpaid leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act."
Dr. Schipanski also mentioned how another major challenge she has faced in academia is a combination of ageism (linked to physical size) and sexism, which she described often go hand-in-hand.
"A common refrain I have used, which I express sometimes internally, but also sometimes out loud, is "Well, there's nothing better than being underestimated because then it's hard not to impress people when the expectations are set so low."
Good mentoring has been one of the most impactful things in Dr. Schipanski's personal life and career. She mentioned how the support from her spouse, mentors, and excellent university childcare facilities had helped her much in her career while balancing parenting.
"I had mentors who gave me the confidence that I needed to believe I could succeed as an independent scientist and academic. I have benefited from many people supporting me, such as nominating me to lead large grant proposals or nominations for prominent speaking engagements, etc. I am very privileged as a white woman from an academic family that positioned me to be successful in the culture of research and higher education."
Dr. Schipanski is passionate about creating more sustainable food systems and mentoring
One of Meagan's goals is to help farmers and land managers use our natural resources wisely so that everyone can thrive today and into the future. Another of Dr. Schipanski's goals is to provide positive and impactful mentorship.
"I hope to have a broader impact through teaching and mentoring students so that they can go forth with critical thinking skills and an awareness of the complexity of agricultural and food systems and a desire to have a positive impact on the world around them."
"Agriculture has the potential to be at the center of positive change in so many ways."
Dr. Schipanski described agriculture as the bridge to help close the cultural and economic gaps between rural and urban communities. Interdisciplinary collaboration in research can play a crucial role in improving the agricultural sector that currently faces diverse, complex issues and has a strong impact on the environment and society in general.
"Agriculture has to be at the center of addressing global change issues, including slowing climate change, reducing nutrient pollution, and using limited water resources wisely. This will require a more inclusive vision for the future of agriculture and tough conversations across diverse stakeholder groups. This is part of why I have been increasingly collaborating with social scientists and economists to address the broader challenges that shape how agriculture is currently done and by whom."
Everyone's journey is different
Patience is a virtue, and life is a learning process. When we asked Meagan if there was something she wished she knew when she started her journey, her response was the following:
"... don't rush the journey and stay flexible to opportunities that contribute to your longer-term goals and what you are passionate about. I learned things from every part of my path that I use almost every day. While it is important to do work that I feel has an impact, I have learned to relax and give myself a break and not expect to see this impact realized overnight."
Some advice to all the young female students out there:
"You got this. Stay true to yourself. Find the mentors and community that will support you and do not expend emotional energy on those who are not supportive. Resist the common tendency to occupy less space than your male colleagues-- claim your space physically (negotiating lab space), economically in terms of pay and resources, and socially in speaking up and being a leader. It is possible to do this using your own communication and leadership style, and it is possible to be successful without reinforcing the competitive, individualistic culture that has shaped the current system."
"We need to speak up and raise our voices when we see injustices and discrimination of all types. We also need to choose our battles, and we need to enlist others in speaking up."
Let's do more of what we enjoy
In her free time and during different parts of the year, Dr. Shipanski enjoys gardening, hiking, reading, and cooking.
"In early spring, I plant peas in the garden and wonder why I'm not still farming. By mid-summer, I am happy to leave my garden the weeds and head to the mountains or sit on a cabin porch and read. In the winter, I enjoy skiing and cooking slow foods."
Why is it important to highlight women in agricultural sciences?
To date, women are still underrepresented in the fields of agronomy and soil sciences in academia, extension, agriculture, industry, and other professional settings. One of the many ways we might be able to solve this issue is by creating more female role models.
"We need to share the stories of women scientists and scientists from traditionally underrepresented groups in agriculture to create that more inclusive vision and culture required for agriculture to remain relevant."
Dr. Schipanski had the opportunity to do her graduate studies at Cornell University, where Barbara McClintock, a female scientist whom Meagan highly admired and did an undergraduate research project on, did some of her pioneering work. Interestingly, Meagan had the opportunity to receive the Barbara McClintock award as a graduate student.
"I use her story when teaching about plant genetics to my students as an example that we need to remain humble and open to the possibility that what we think is a 'known' fact today about science could be upended by tomorrow's discovery."
Dr. Schipanski also mentioned how different female scientists' actions of support and leadership inspire her.
"I am so excited and inspired by younger/earlier career female and people of color scientists who are speaking up, supporting each other, and changing the culture of agricultural science and science more broadly. WAGS is a great example of this. It makes me very hopeful for our future."
Thank you, Dr. Schipanski, for sharing your story with us!
- The Women in Agricultural Sciences (WAGS) Team
You can find Dr. Meagan Schipanski at:
This interview was edited by WAGS co-founder Noelymar Gonzalez-Maldonado.