U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service
Meet Dr. Lindsey Rustad – the 6th female scientist featured in our Women Doing Science blog series.
Bachelor of Arts, Philosophy
Master of Forest Science, Forest Ecology
Doctorate, Plant Science
Dr. Lindsey Rustad is the Director of the USDA Northeast Climate Hub, providing expertise on the impacts of global change on northeastern forests. She is also a Research Ecologist for the USDA Forest Service Center for Research on Ecosystem Change in Durham, New Hampshire. Her areas of expertise include biogeochemistry, global change impacts, and advanced environmental sensor systems. Her current interests include implementation of cybertechnology in forests across the northeastern United States and integration of Arts and Science at long-term ecological field stations. She urges female scientists to find a way through closed doors, glass ceilings, and any other obstacles that try to impede their path to success.
INTERVIEWEE: Dr. Lindsey Rustad
INTERVIEWER: Anna Banda
BANDA: Alright, welcome to our Azura blog series. My name is Anna Banda, and I am an employee for Azura Consulting here in Dallas, Texas, and we have a Women in Science Blog Series where we invite female scientists to come and talk about their experiences. And, today, we have Dr. Lindsay Rustad who is our sixth interview for this series. Welcome! We really appreciate your time. So, first, if you just want to kind of tell us all about you, about your job title, what that all entails, you know briefly. Probably has a lot more than we can cover in ours, but the highlights would be great.
RUSTAD: Yea, well great, well first of all, thank you so much for having me doing this vlog series. It is really, really great to be here. So, I am Lindsay Rustad. I am a research ecologist. I work for the USDA Forest Service, and my job is to help provide the science to manage our nation’s forests, for now and for the future. Perhaps an easier way to say that is that I like to figure out what makes forests tick. I like to figure out what makes them healthy, if they are sick, and what makes them sick when they are healthy. So, I’ve been at this actually for about three decades now. It seems hard to believe, but my job, and I’m sure we will get back to it more, is just incredibly varied. Every day is a little bit different, but some of the highlights of what I get to do. I love doing field work. I love being out in the woods. I always have some sort of outdoor experiment going. I do large-scale experiments in forests. Some people like to call me the grand manipulator. That’s a manipulator of forests, not people…Excuse me, excuse me… And, so, I like to kind of nudge forests. So, if you think of doing large-scale disturbances, so how do forests respond to air pollution, how they respond to climate change, how do they respond to extreme events. So, I’m always doing large-scale forest manipulations. I also really like working across forests, across sites, bringing together researchers from around the region, around the country, around the world who are working on a specific problem, bringing them together and sharing out insights, our data, and doing syntheses of what we know. And, then the final way I work is that I actually manage a long-term ecological research site. It is called the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest. It is about an 80,000-acre forest. It is nestled into the beautiful White Mountains of New Hampshire, and it has been running since 1955, and it is now one the longest continuously running, one of the most comprehensive research study sites in the world. And, of course, I am biased – you can tell, but managing the forests, managing our staff, our infrastructure, our science, so kind of doing my science in three ways: on the ground experiments, working with the people, and then managing the forests. So, I guess that is a start.
BANDA: It is, that’s great! Thank you for diving into that. So,…
RUSTAD: I turned that off.
BANDA: When did you know that this is what you wanted to do?
RUSTAD: Well, you know that, that is an interesting question. I did not know right away when I was growing up, so I came from a family of scientists. So, my father was a physicist, Michael was a marine biologist, and my mother was a science writer, and as you can imagine, when I got into my teens, I went as far away from science as I possibly could. So, I actually love reading and I love writing, and I got an undergrad degree in liberal arts, so I actually have an undergrad degree in philosophy from Cornell University, and as part of that degree, the university made me take the distribution requirement and that means because I was liberal arts major, they made me take a science, and they made me take a math. And it turned out that I loved science and math, and I didn’t really even know it. I also loved the outdoors, and I was able to take environmental science classes and learn about natural science and animals and plants and water systems, and I realized that I could combine what I loved in the outdoors with what I loved in studying. So, I went on to take quite a number of courses in science after that first distribution requirement, and then I went on to get a master’s in forest science and then a PhD in plant science, so it was kind of a circuitous route, and I have to give a shout out to all those universities that require distribution requirements. And I’m sure there are some of those students, right, who think they are going into science and math, and they have to take a philosophy course.
BANDA: Yea, it was sociology.
RUSTAD: There you go.
BANDA: But I loved it, I loved it. It was good. Yeah, it is funny how people can, you know, go a completely different route than what they planned, but that’s what’s great about college, I guess, that you can dabble into a lot of different subjects. Okay, so, how do you maintain and work/life balance? Or do you? Or do you still struggle?
RUSTAD: Well, you know, it is a struggle, but it is so incredibly important. Anything that we do, and we love passionately and deeply, we want to be in it for the long term, and so then we have to have bounds. We cannot burn out. And so, for me, you know, balancing work, balancing my life has been a struggle. I am…I’ll tell you a secret – I am a workaholic. So, it is particularly difficult, but for me, I am balancing work and family, and it is really trying to keep sight of what’s important: people, places, and things. It’s people, you know, it is people I’m working with, you know, who do I really need to be working with, who do I need to help prop up, who do I need to mentor, who do I need to be interacting with. And family, you know, who do I need to be, you know, taking care of or spending time with at a certain time. It is always keeping that in balance, keeping in balance, you know, just something as simple as what are the big dates, you know, what are the deadlines I cannot miss in work, and what are the deadlines I cannot miss in family. Right? A child’s birthday, right? A sporting event, you know? A recital, you know? My husband’s fishing trip, you know? It is always balancing these. And then the other thing within that balance is you have to keep yourself healthy. I think this is something that many of us forget, whether it is sleeping or eating or exercise or substances or whatever it is. I’ve had to learn in my life that I have to keep myself healthy so that I can do my work and so that I can help my family and my friends. So, it is constantly a balance, right? And sometimes work is going to take precedence – there is a big experiment going on, there is a big meeting to go to, there is a big deadline for a proposal. And sometimes family is going to take precedence, you know, in sickness or in health or there is a marriage, or you know, things are happening. So, it is always trying to keep your eye on the big things: people, places, and things.
BANDA: Right, good. Thank you. So, what’s one thing you wish you had known when you first starting working, just fresh out of college? Is there one good thing you would love share to help other people in the same situation?
RUSTAD: It probably sounds trite, but I think patience, right? We are often so impatient to have everything happen all at once. I wish I’d had more of a sense of the ebb and flow of a long, satisfying career, and there are going to be ups and downs, times of sickness, times of health, in budgets, there are going to be times you are flush, times you are really lean, you know, administrations are going to come and go. So, it is really, just you know, patience, and letting life play out on life’s terms.
BANDA: That’s good. I’d never really thought about the patience part, but that is very true. What is a challenge that you’ve had to overcome either in work or your personal life?
RUSTAD: You know, I’ve been going back at work. I think we have a name for it now, but the imposter syndrome. When I was coming of age, just getting my masters and my PhD, this is back in the late 70s, the 80s, there were not a lot of women in the environmental sciences, soil sciences, biogeochemistry which is what I do, and I had the good fortune that I work with a lot of really smart, incredible people and a lot of them are men, and I just never felt like I was good enough, right? I was never smart enough, I was never strong enough, I was never witty enough or you know whatever it was. And a lot of that was just the impostor syndrome. We didn’t have a name for it back then, but I think it is so much better that we can name it now. We can be open about it and talk about it because it is surprising how many people feel that way, you know, and for me, it was when I was soil science. You know, I’m there, but I’m kind of the token woman there. It’s not because my work is excellent, you know, it is because they have to have me. So, that was tough, and it took me quite a while to come to terms with that, and just you know, not that I’m great or not great; it is just I am who I am, you know, and I have just what I have to offer, nothing less and nothing more.
BANDA: Yes, yeah, I think I felt that way through college as well – quite the fraud sometimes.
RUSTAD: I know, I know! It is terrible!
BANDA: It is! I think it just how we are raised almost as women, you know. We always… that someone else can do something better.
RUSTAD: It is so amazing we can talk about it. We can have meetings, like in Hubbard Brook, we really encouraged students to speak up, and we are quite frank about it. It’s like, how many out there have the imposter syndrome? You know, all the people, the men and the women, raise their hands? Alright, well, let’s talk about it. You know we’ve come a long way.
BANDA: Yes, we have. I’m so glad we have. What’s one of your most favorite memories of your career?
RUSTAD: Well, I’m going to give you two. So, remember when I said I liked doing these large outdoor experiments, and I have to tell you, these experiments, it’s not like you are in lab with a beaker and your white lab coat. These experiments can take years, you know, if not a decade, you know, to begin to dream about, to do some pilot work, to proof of concept, to, you know, writing a big proposal, to get a multimillion-dollar proposal funded, to getting it in the ground. And in ecosystems, you have to study ecosystems, you know, for 3, 5, 7 years so these are big deals. One of my most recent experiments, I was doing an ice storm experiment. So, I study extreme weather events here in New England. Ice storms are one of our types of extreme winter weather events. We expect with the change in climate that we’re actually going to have an increase in frequency and severity of ice storms, so we wanted to study ice storms. So, we did pilot studies, we figured out how to make them in our backyard, our outdoor library at Hubbard Brook. We did pilot studies, and then we got a big study funded, and it took a couple of years to get this all set up, do the premanipulation monitoring. And then, in the winter of 2016, we went out there with a crew of 40 people, and we do this by using firefighting pumps and hoses and we went out in the deep dark January night. We took water out of the stream, and we sprayed it up over the trees, and it came down as a fine mist and everything froze. We had created this amazing ice storms, and the moment I remember was at dawn on the third day of doing this, almost no sleep, right? I don’t recommend it. But dawn and the light filtering through our ice storm and everyone else had left and everybody was safe, nobody had gotten hurt. And we pulled it off the first ever in the world experimental ice storm. So that was absolutely one of my all-time great, great moments. I’m going to tell you one other which has more to do with art and science and people. So, I also run the Hubbard Brook art-side program where we try to integrate art and science for lots of reasons, I could go into but I won’t now, but one of the early projects we had, it was called Wind Words, and we were working on a participatory art project with an amazing artist named Xavier Cortada. And we are going to the top of the White Mountains to one of these overlooks, and Xavier had created these incredible banners talking about the words of science that we use, and we were going to recite some of the abstracts of the famous papers from Hubbard Brook to the four corners of the compass, and we were going to have a public discussion about the value of science and what we had done. There were all these people there. And I was there, and I couldn’t possibly tell me team, too, that they had to come help me out with this, because this was kind of an extracurricular, it wasn’t direct science. It was art science, blah, blah blah, so I went up there all by myself, and we were supposed to lift these banners up so the people could see them, and I had no idea how I was going to do this, and I was up there, and the crowd was beginning to form. And Xavier was there, and I didn’t know how I was going to get this all together, and in comes the white forest service truck, you know, coming up the mountain and six of my team come streaming out with their hammers and nails. And they put up the banners, and they settled in, and they participated in the conversation, and it was absolutely amazing. And, so, my moment there was just seeing them coming, you know. They didn’t have to, you know, but they chose to come and be a part of this really special, you know, public discussion of our work. I don’t know if that makes any sense at all.
BANDA: No, it does! It is nice to have the support of your team to do that. No, that’s very important. So, have you ever experienced any gender-related challenges, when it comes to your career?
RUSTAD: You know, I think early on, it was back to the imposter syndrome. It was back to there were not a lot of women in the field I was in. It was soil science and biogeochemistry. I’d go to the Soil Science Society of America meetings and there were a couple other women there, and we really stuck together, and I have to do just a great shoutout to, you know, all the men who were at those meetings. They were incredibly, for the most part, incredibly welcoming and open and positive. It was almost my more internal imposter syndrome, of feeling different, you know, from other people. There have been a couple, I mean throughout my career, I’m sure a lot of women experiences, individual harassment, inappropriate behavior or words, so I definitely experienced that, but you know, in general, you know, it has been… you know, mine has been almost more internally driven than externally.
BANDA: Okay. For any of the external ones, did you say anything to them to get them to rethink their mindset or did you just kind of brush it off, let it go, or maybe a mix?
RUSTAD: It was a mix, and of course, you know, I let it go much more when I was younger, because I didn’t have the authority. I didn’t have the standing. So, more when I was younger, and I have to say, more recently, even in the last year, there was on a Listserv, a professional Listserv that I was part of, there was inappropriate images that were put up. They were kind of the old boy mentality, ha-ha-ha, girdling trees, women’s lingerie. Myself and another woman we spoke up on that Listserv and said that this made us very uncomfortable and it was inappropriate and there was a little bit of a back and forth on that. The men said “can’t you take a joke?”, and the women were…
BANDA: Oh, I love that one!
RUSTAD: So, it is still out there, but I think for me, you know, it is a maturity thing, but I think we live in the age of “Me, Too”, and I think women are much more empowered to speak out than we used to be.
BANDA: Mmm hmm, okay, so our last question. What advice could you give women, especially young girls, wishing to pursue a career similar to yours or just in the sciences in general?
RUSTAD: I guess I would say two things. One is the word persevere. Again, you know, one of our <unintelligible> of our science takes a while to play out and to mature knowing that you need to be patient and there are ups and down. Be patient, persevere, keep at it. And the other thing that is really related to that is that sometimes that we feel like we come to closed doors, right? Closed doors or glass ceilings. I think a lot of us have felt that, and my biggest word is don’t let that stop you, right? Find a way to go through that door, you know, or that ceiling, and if you have to go around or over or under, you know, find that way, because you owe it to yourself. But you also owe to the people coming in after you.
BANDA: That’s good advice. Is there anything you would want to add to the end of this? Or do you think that we covered a good chunk?
RUSTAD: No, I think that covers a lot. I just really appreciate the opportunity to talk to you, and it is really great to have these forums. I think a lot of, you know, what I talk about is relevant to, you know, women, to men, just across the board. There is so much more that needs to be done. It is just so exciting to see people coming up through the ranks and take it all on.
BANDA: Yes, well we can only do it together, right? So, we must work in unity. Well, thank you, and I appreciate you carving out the time to chat with us today and spread your knowledge and advice, so thank you very much, Dr. Rustad.
RUSTAD: Okay, thanks for having me.
BANDA: Alright, thank you!