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Pride in Sci: Identity and Research with Laura van der Pol

By: Caitlin Charlton, featuring Laura van der Pol

Representation matters. As scientists, we are constantly looking for ways to work together across disciplines and diversify the questions we ask to do the best research we can. Now more than ever, the individuals within scientific fields of study are beginning to reflect that. But the journey has just begun, and we have a long way to go.

We are starting a new EcoPress blog series entitled “Pride in Sci” to capture and celebrate the diversity that exists in our community. “Pride in Sci” is a celebration and lifting of LGBTQIA+ voices that have previously been excluded from mainstream spaces and have been historically unable to be their authentic selves.

To kick off this series, we are featuring Laura van der Pol (she/her/hers), a Ph.D. candidate in Dr. Francesca Cotrufo’s lab in the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology and Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory. We asked Laura to share her story, from her research to her personal journey with identity to how the two have come together.

Laura (left) and her wife, Keri Sikula (right), on a hike.

This is Pride in Sci with Laura van der Pol.  

Q: Can you share a bit on your research experience thus far?

A: My research is exploring paths towards agricultural sustainability by studying soil organic dynamics in annual and perennial grain systems. I’m exploring how legume integration and perenniality influence soil organic matter and the energy needed to grow our food. I’m also interested in ways that science can inform policy, and recently published a policy memo with two other graduate students (Dani Lin Hunter and Clara Tibbetts) for a special issue on climate change solutions in the Journal of Science Policy & Governance.

I came to the field of soil ecology through my interest in soil as a foundation of civilization and the root of how we relate to our planet. While I was in college, I joined the U.S. Coast Guard where I served for five years. My undergraduate studies were closely tied to marine systems and the fishing industry, and I had initially thought I might be able to link my service with my interest in developing more sustainable fishery policy. When I was assigned to a buoy tender based out of Charlston, SC servicing aids to navigation and intercepting migrants, I realized that career path was never going to unfold. I re-entered the research world studying terrestrial vegetation in the arctic tundra with the Marine Biological Laboratory at the LTER based out of Toolik, AK. That’s where I met my now-wife. There I learned a lot more about climate change, plants, and soils and knew I wanted to explore research more in-depth. I took a bit of a meandering path, as I decided I should learn how to teach and communicate science before dedicating myself to a degree. I taught high school science in Colorado Springs for several years before I applied to graduate school. 

When Francesca was looking for a PhD student, I felt very fortunate not to have to move too far to start my degree since my other options were scattered across the US. I learned I was awarded the NSF GRFP my first day on campus–what luck! I’m passionate about communicating science, rigorous fundamental research, and finding ways to nudge civilization to be one that has a chance of lasting for another millenia (or two).

Laura (right) with her nephew, Henry (left), at her field site in The Land Institute in Salina, KS (2020).

Q: Tell us about your journey with your identity!

A: I’ve never felt strongly defined by my sexual identity, probably because I think I pass as straight in many settings. Growing up in Houston, TX in a very homogeneous school, no one talked about “gay people” except in hushed tones students would gossip about as a reason that my cross-country coach and world history teacher might be fired. There were no “safe spaces” or LGBTQIA++ groups — that concept hadn’t yet emerged, at least no in the community where I lived. My earliest awareness of gay people was my mom talking to her friend about how upset she was that two women were holding hands in the Quaker church we attended and what a bad example that was for children. So I would say, I never thought of myself as gay growing up–it never occurred to me that was an option.

That all changed for me in college where I attended the all-women’s school Wellesley College. There I realized that there are all kinds of ways people identify. Having joined the military, though, under an era that was still ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’, I never considered myself part of any LGBTQIA++ group. That didn’t change until I left the Coast Guard and ended up meeting my Keri, my now wife. 

We actually got married before the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision that legalized gay marriage. We drove overnight on a Thanksgiving break (2013) to Pottawattamie County, Iowa where we got married in the courthouse witnessed by Keri’s mom who lives in the neighboring state, and we had a celebration with friends and family the following spring. Crazy to think about that now since gay marriage seems so normal! Now that we’re getting ready to have our first child, my parents are finally recognizing Keri as my partner (not just a ‘friend’). Progress!

Laura (right) and her wife Keri (left) with their baby, Neko.

Q: What does the phrase “pride in sci” mean to you?

“Pride in sci” reminds me that we could all strive to be more mindful about who feels welcome in a space. When working as a research technician at Toolik, I was always surprised when my lab manager would always ask me and others to think of ways to do things (repair a greenhouse, collect measurements, transport heavy things to the other side of a lake), though he’d been doing this type of work for decades. He emphasized that everyone’s brain worked a little differently and sometimes people had better ideas about how to do something than he did, though he’d done it dozens of times before. His mindset is one I think is important and relevant to “Pride in Sci” — who feels welcome to show up? contribute? Those in power — with seniority, experience, social status — need to create space and invite others to contribute. And sometimes great things can come of it.

Do you have a Pride in Sci story you want to share? We want to hear from you! Email to get started!