Six Questions with SWMS – Dr. Rika Anderson

“Six Questions with SWMS” is a series of interviews with women across marine science with a wide range of career paths, degrees, and experiences. 

Dr. Rika Anderson
Dr. Rika Anderson

What is your current job, and how did you end up there?

I’m an assistant professor in the biology department at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. I teach bioinformatics, introductory biology, a course on the origin of life, and I’m hoping to develop a study abroad program with a focus on oceanography and the history of oceanography. Carleton is a 4-year small liberal arts college, so I teach small classes of undergraduates, and during the school year and over the summers I have undergraduates working in my lab to help conduct research.

I’ve wanted to be a professor at a small liberal arts college ever since I graduated from a small liberal arts college (Carleton, coincidentally!). So throughout graduate school I made a point of telling my advisors and my graduate committee that this was my long-term goal, and I sought out teaching opportunities as a graduate student. I TA-ed more classes than was required by my program, and I found ways to act as a co-instructor for classes in the oceanography department at the University of Washington, which is where I got my PhD. I wanted to develop my skills in pedagogy, so I participated in the Biology Education Research Group at UW to learn about the latest research on effective teaching practices. I knew that I needed to get teaching experience under my belt if I wanted to be competitive on the job market for a small liberal arts college, but I knew that I also needed a good postdoc. So I spent one quarter teaching oceanography at The Evergreen State College before starting a NASA postdoc. I went on the job market immediately during the first year of my postdoc (I saw it as a good way to practice, and it was!) and the next year I got my current position at Carleton.

What is your favorite thing about marine science, or your research field more specifically?

I study microbial evolution and ecology in deep-sea hydrothermal vent systems, so I dabble across astrobiology and oceanography. I love how interdisciplinary my field is, and I love the fact that we ask big-picture questions. I get to talk to oceanographers, geologists, biologists, chemists, atmospheric scientists, and astronomers as part of my job, which keeps things interesting and stretches my brain in new and fascinating ways. We ask questions related to the origin and early evolution of life, the fundamentals of evolution, how climate change might affect marine ecology, and more. Students love these kinds of big-picture questions, so it’s a powerful tool to attract students to STEM disciplines at all ages.

What is your greatest professional/educational accomplishment?

I always think of my students as my greatest accomplishments. Whenever I see a student go on to do great things, or even when I see a student’s eyes light up in response to something they’ve learned in class or in doing research with me, I feel like I’ve accomplished something. That’s why I love teaching.
What are your goals for the next six years?

Well, I’ve just started here, so my main goal is to keep my head screwed on straight, enjoy myself, and establish myself here at Carleton! I’m hoping to get my research program off the ground and publish some papers with my students, and thanks to some absolutely amazing students I had working with me this summer, we’ve made great progress on that. I’m also really looking forward to developing a study abroad program that focuses on a combination of science and society through the lens of oceanography, marine ecology, marine policy, and the history of oceanography and maritime exploration.

What advice would you give the six-years-ago version of yourself?

Six years ago was 2011, and I was deep in the throes of graduate school. I’d say it’s important to identify your goals and work towards them, but at the same time take time for yourself. Go on those backpacking trips, take the time to spend time with friends and family. It’s so easy to get overwhelmed by things like qualifying exams or generals in graduate school, or to feel like you aren’t accomplishing anything. Take the long view and keep the important things in mind: your long-term goals, and taking time for yourself.

Dr. Rika Anderson (center) and colleagues in the DSV Alvin ~7 years ago.
Dr. Rika Anderson (center) and colleagues in the DSV Alvin ~7 years ago.

Our theme for our 4th annual fall symposium is “Swimming in Confidence: Declaring your Scientific Authority.” How do you increase your self-confidence?

I’ve been told that I have a problem with confidence, and I think I’m not alone among women in academia! I find that teaching and mentoring is actually a huge confidence-booster. When I’m mentoring or teaching students, I can so often see myself in those students, reminding me of what it felt like to be in their shoes just 5 or 10 years ago, often asking the same questions they were asking me. It reminds me how far I’ve come, and helps me feel that I have, in fact, learned useful skills and become wiser (I think!) since I was a student in college.

I think an important distinction to draw is that it’s possible to be self-confident while also possessing a strong sense of self-awareness and humility. I place high value in being confident in my own skills and my knowledge while also recognizing the skills of others and understanding the limits of my knowledge. It can be difficult to admit to a class full of students that you don’t know something, but ultimately I’ve found that students’ respect for me increases if I tell them (confidently) that I don’t know something, but that there’s nothing wrong with that and that we can learn something new together.