Katie Hoffman - Class of 2017
Editor-in-Chief of the Grace Gazette
From Grace to Antarctica: The Journey of a Female Scientist
You never know where you will end up when you start at Grace. The possibilities are endless. Take for example, Alexandra Boghosian. From a young age, Alex’s mind was filled with intellectual questions, yet she never imagined becoming a female scientist. She was interested in the arts and math; she even thought would grow up to be an architect. She never dreamed that her quest to find answers would lead her across the world to join a research team in Antarctica.
As a graduate student in glaciology at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, Alex has been working on a research team focusing on using satellite imagery to study surface hydrology in Antarctica, which has taken her to Greenland and Antarctica for fieldwork.
“What’s really strange is that I never really thought I was going to be a scientist. I very blindly didn’t realize that I was interested in science. I am still realizing it.”
When asked if it had anything to do with being a girl, she immediately replied “No,” but then reconsidered: did it? Was science not a role that was available in her set notion of what women do? She responded, “I want to say no because I want to defy this stereotype... but it is probably true.” She also did not imagine herself in Antarctica propelling giant computer floats out of a plane.
In 2016, Alex had the opportunity to do fieldwork in Antarctica, with one of the teams working on a project called ROSETTA: Decoding ice, ocean and tectonic mysteries of the Ross Ice Shelf. “Led by several leading scientists from different institutions, the point of the project is to map the Ross Ice Shelf, an area roughly the size of France that sits between east and west Antarctica.” Through mapping, the goal was to find out the shape of the ocean floor, learn the surface topography and map the internal surface of the ice. In addition, the team sought to gather information about the ocean next to the shelf. “There is this idea that warm ocean water is what is contributing to the melting ice shelves. The question is if the warm water is getting there or if it is farther out.” For this, Alex explained, they “actually push Alamo floats out of an airplane, which now send back emails everyday with data.” These ocean profilers collect information on temperature, salinity, and depth. While there are about four thousand of these profilers in the ocean, most of them are placed on ships, not chucked out of planes. “This is the first time anything like this has been done in Antarctica.”
Not only did they deploy these sophisticated measurement tools from the hatch of the plane, but Alex’s advisor specially developed the IcePod, a suite of instruments that can image the top and bottom of the ice as well as look at its interior structure."
Alex’s sense of science would evolve, but it all started at Grace. Alex wanted to find solutions to problems from a young age. In fifth grade, Alex and her partner Alexandre Tschumi were semifinalists in the Toshiba/National Science Teachers Association ExploraVision Awards contest. Their idea to use fractals to prevent counterfeiting was selected from more than 12,000 entries from around the country. Even then, Alex never saw herself going into science. “That was my first science project. The prompt was to take an existing technology and try to project it twenty years in the future. Which I guess is now...” Her mentor on this project was current science teacher Kim Chaloner, Dean of Community Life, Co-Coordinator of the Diversity Council. The two still keep in touch. Alex recalls, “In fifth grade science there was an earth science question and I couldn’t recall the word hydrosphere on a test. I was just driving myself crazy. Eventually, Ms. Chaloner told me.” It is interesting that memories of Grace teachers stay with people forever.
After Grace, Alex moved on to high school at St. Ann’s and received a Bachelor's Degree from the University of Chicago; she now is in the process of earning a Ph.D. at Columbia University.
The transition from St. Ann’s, where they have no grades, to the University of Chicago, which is highly competitive, was drastic. Many of her teachers and peers did not think it would be the right place for her. Alex recalled, “I went through the gamut of what I wanted to do. They said ‘You’re going to get really frustrated and it will not be creatively satisfying.’”
Alex did get frustrated. Despite having an inquiring mind, she struggled at first. “I would get really nervous and I turned in a blank test.” Yet one of her teachers recognized her potential. She sat her down and said that she understood Alex knew the information from her homework, classwork, and office hours, but when it came time to use this knowledge on a test, she froze. “I went to a lecture where it was explained that women who study math in college, experience this phenomenon. Women would take math tests, and if they were reminded of their gender before the test, they would perform badly.”
While she majored in math throughout her four years, she only had two women professors. Alex explained that math and science fields reward assertiveness. “You have an idea of how to proceed with something and you have to be confident enough to at least assert that one idea, even if it’s wrong. Guys were really good at this.” Some men in her classes would say things they thought were true that Alex had to explain were not. She found it difficult at first, got better at it, and notes that this attitude makes it much harder for women scientists, including herself, to speak their mind.
She had routinely been one of the only girls in her classes. To meet the requirements for her math degree, Alex took a Seismology class in the Geophysics department. Finally, in Seismology, gender roles disappeared when there were only five students in the class. “Some of my classmates would ask my opinion, they would ask me for help, and the conversation kind of changed.” This was a major turning point for Alex.
When offered an internship her seismology and oceanology professor, Alex jumped at the opportunity. “I got to run analog experiments about how an iceberg tips over... It depends on the shape and how much it can rotate. I built a little tank and I made these blocks...That is how I got into glaciology,” which is the study of the internal dynamics and effects of glaciers.
Alex was so used to asking questions, and now she had some answers. With this new voice as a female scientist, she wanted help make scientific information easier to understand. Working with Women’s Voices for Change, Alex wrote about science and technology for a broad audience to make it comprehensible and not scary. “To be able to communicate and know the audience that you are trying to reach and then be able to say something true and also in a way that is understandable is really difficult.”
Her journey to find answers led her to co-found the Sustainability Media Lab at Columbia University in 2013. There, Alex combined her interests in new media and technology and attempted to make earth science more accessible to students. She wanted to help answer the questions that she always had in a way that was more comprehensible bybridging the gap between academia and public understanding.
Currently, Alex is working toward her Ph.D. at Columbia, where she is supported bya fellowship from the National Science Foundation. She has already received a Master’s of Arts of environmental science and in a year she will earn her Master’s of Philosophy.
Alex Boghosian has gone from being a creative teenager who was interested in art, math and architecture to a scientist who travels the world to find, explore and discover answers. She has the opportunity to research science’s most challenging questions and decipher answers for the public to understand.