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"Women in Science Wednesday" - Q&A with MBS's Karen Bemis, Ph.D.

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This Women in Science Wednesday, we honor Karen Bemis, Ph.D., research faculty member, MBS Externship Exchange assistant director, and foundational member of Rutgers Professional Science Master’s (PSM) program. Bemis, with research expertise in two discrete fields—marine science and data visualization—lends her unique scientific background and academic versatility to support both MBS students and ongoing PSM program growth.

We spoke with Dr. Bemis about the beauty of visual data, the value of waiting for answers, and how growing up in the Midwest inspired a love of oceanography.

Women in Science Wednesday: Q&A with Karen Bemis, Ph.D.

Q. How did you become interested in science? Was it a lifelong interest, or was there a significant event?

I loved picking up pretty rocks as a child. While trying to identify what I found, I got interested in reading about how rocks are created.  My dad—who is a chemist but who always had some interest in geology and archeology—happily supplied me with a variety of books.  By the time I reached high school, I was reading college-level textbooks in geology and looking for a university that had a strong program in geology and geophysics. 

As an undergraduate, my interests shifted more into the mathematics and physics aspects of the field, which led me to pursue studies in heat transfer and plume/jet dynamics as a graduate student.  From there, I got interested in the growth of volcanoes.  Eventually, this led me to take a postdoctoral position using acoustics to study hot water plumes on the seafloor, which then led me to scientific and data visualization.

Q. Where did you grow up (geographically)? Also, your dad was a chemist; are there other scientists in your family?


I grew up in the upper Midwest – mostly a suburb of Chicago.  My parents loved hiking in Missouri, Illinois, and Wisconsin, and that pastime introduced me to rocks and landforms. Both of my parents and my maternal grandparents went to college and studied science – my dad was a Ph.D. chemist working in the petroleum industry, and he strongly encouraged both me and my brother to pursue our scientific interests. My mom’s mom studied mathematics in college, although she never had a chance for a career.


Q. Was there a certain person in your life who was instrumental in shaping your interests, or someone highly supportive who made you feel capable and competent about your abilities?

Both my father and his father always encouraged us kids to ask questions—so we asked a lot of them. As long as we didn’t interrupt answers or be rude, we could ask as many as we wanted. Questions about science and history were always encouraged, although they didn’t always know the answers.

Q. Who were some of your childhood heroes?

I remember reading about Marie Curie and being struck at how much she was able to achieve with so much resistance. 

Q. What was your experience pursuing STEM-based education as a female graduate student?

It’s hard to remember. My undergraduate program was very small—there were only five or six majors in my graduating class—but I think that half of those majors were women.  My graduate programs had fewer women than men.  In some of my experiences as a student or postdoc, I remember going into the field for geological research; sometimes, I’d be going to sea with only men other than me in the research group.  But not always. I never really thought about it at the time (too self-absorbed and too study-absorbed to really notice).

Q. In particular, what was your experience earning your Ph.D.? On what subject was your dissertation, and did you study under someone particularly influential?

My Ph.D. is in physical volcanology (geological sciences) and my advisor, Michael Carr, Ph.D., was very influential in collecting geochemical data, developing a tool to visualize it, and creating an atmosphere of open data-sharing.  

Q. What is/was the favorite part of your research area?

What I love most is modeling and visualizing data—that is, playing with data to see what it can say.  This crosses all the areas—physical volcanology, seafloor hydrothermal (hot water) systems, and ocean eddies—that I’ve studied.

Q. How did your academic/scientific path lead you to your current role at Rutgers?

One step at a time. I came to Rutgers as a Ph.D. student to study volcano growth.  Then, I got a postdoc with a new professor based on my master’s thesis on plumes rising above seafloor hot springs.  That led me to a collaboration on scientific visualization with MBS executive director Deborah Silver, Ph.D. [interviewed here] and the creation of Vizlab—a visualization lab that focuses on scientific visualization, information visualization, and computer graphics.

So now, I split my time between Rutgers Professional Science Master’s program and a series of research projects in volcanology and oceanography.

Q. Of what achievement / accomplishment are you particularly proud?

I’m proud of so many things. Personally creating (coding) a model of the growth of small explosive volcanic cones (known as scoria or cinder cones). I started this in 2D as a graduate student and it gets better every year – it is 3D now.  Working to create a feasible methodology to use acoustics to measure heat transfer by hot springs on the seafloor – this was largely an instrument development and it’s just growing into its potential for extraordinary science now.  Supporting communication between computer scientists and oceanographers to build a methodology of extracting and tracking ocean eddies in numerical simulations is also exciting and gratifying.

Q. Have you seen any changes or major shifts in your field as related to women?

I think the number of women geologists and oceanographers has increased, especially among the faculty at Rutgers.

Q. What is the most gratifying aspect of your roles and interactions with students?

I love to see students realize that they can do something challenging and interesting. It’s always a joy to see students  succeed, especially when they complete a project they initially thought was impossible.

Jen Reiseman-Briscoe
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