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.

Gearing up for SWMS 2017

Steering Committee at OCB meeting

By Chrissy Hernandez

For the past few years, the SWMS Steering Committee has been comprised primarily of students and postdocs based at WHOI and MIT. Despite our close geographical locations, we have all of our meetings via Skype. This has made it easy to transition to having Steering Committee members in more far-flung locations. When Femke DeJong was wrapping up her postdoc and spending more time at home in the Netherlands, she continued to participate in our meetings and with website upkeep. And this past year, after Ellie Bors and Sophie Chu defended their theses at WHOI, they moved on to exciting postdoctoral fellowships but have continued to support us back ‘home’ as we work to grow SWMS. Ellie is currently a Knauss fellow in DC, and Sophie is in Seattle, splitting her time between NOAA and the University of Washington.

The 2016 Symposium was  planned entirely over Skype!
The 2016 Symposium was planned entirely over Skype! Annie, Sophie, Femke, Gabi, Ellie, and Chrissy (clockwise from top left) are used to e-meetings, but we are excited to add two new members to our crew. 

As exciting as it is that our experienced Steering Committee members are staying on to help guide our organization through some growing pains, it’s an even bigger deal to bring in some fresh blood! Alexa Sterling and Anna Robuck, students at the URI Graduate School of Oceanography, have generously volunteered to help plan and run the 2017 SWMS Symposium. These ladies are already doing an amazing job with the URI Chapter of SWMS, which you can read about here. Their participation in planning the 2017 Symposium will be invaluable because they add a perspective that is outside of WHOI, and because they’re bringing all kinds of great ideas about what has worked well for SWMS at URI!

I guess that in our highly-connected, social-media-filled society, it shouldn’t seem so weird to meet people and collaborate with them electronically…but it still does! Since Alexa was in Woods Hole last week for the Ocean Carbon Biogeochemistry (OCB) meeting, she and I made plans to meet up in person (for the first time ever!). When I realized that Sophie, Hilary, and Annie were also participating in OCB, I was so excited to have a get together!

Although I wasn’t participating in OCB this year (#fieldwork), I went to the Tuesday evening poster session and had the opportunity to hear about Hilary’s current research. We asked a kind stranger to take some photos of us, because this is the first time we’ve had this many Steering Committee members in one room (outside of the Symposium). After that, the 5 of us went to the Captain Kidd for a lively session of eating, drinking, talking, and being merry! It was a special treat to have Annie out with us for the evening (big thank you to her husband for watching their kids!), to have Sophie back in town, and to meet Alexa face-to-face! Of course, I also had fun hanging out with Hilary, but I get to see her most frequently outside of the group.

Steering Committee at OCB meeting
SWMS Steering Committee members Sophie, Alexa, Annie, Hilary, and Chrissy (L to R) got together at the OCB meeting.

After this brainstorming session, we’re ready to hit the ground running with planning the SWMS 2017 Fall Symposium. Our next priorities are to pick a theme and invite a keynote speaker. We’re also working on setting up registration forms and designing our program. If you have a scientist in mind that you would like to hear speak, on either their awesome science or the specific experience of being a woman in marine science, please email us at!

We are so excited to see you on November 3rd in Woods Hole!

Member Updates: Corals, Parasites, and Graduation

Megan Frenkel: first paper published!

Megan (Meg) Frenkel, a PhD student at Columbia/LDEO, published her first paper! “Quantifying bamboo coral growth rate nonlinearity with the radiocarbon bomb spike: A new model for paleoceanographic chronology development” was published in Deep Sea Research I, and is based on her undergraduate honors thesis at Bowdoin College with Michèle LaVigne

Close up of Meg Frenkel smiling at the camera
Meg Frenkel

Meg’s journey to publication was not exactly smooth: when she was almost ready to submit the paper, her computer crashed and she had to remake all her figures and reprocess part of the data — yikes! She is excited to have her first publication out and is now transitioning to working on dust flux at Lamont. You can read her paper here.

Bamboo coral with calcitic internodes (white) and organic gorgonin nodes (black). Image credit: NOAA
Bamboo coral with calcitic internodes (white) and organic gorgonin nodes (black). Image credit: NOAA

Meg is on Twitter at @megfrenkel.

Jillian Freese: review paper published!

Did you know that there are over 6,000 species of red algae, and that the latest review published about this huge assemblage of species and their parasites was written by a grad student?  Jillian Freese, a PhD student at the University of Rhode Island, recently published an invited review in Molecular and Biochemical Parasitology on parasitism in red algae. Her research in the Biological and Environmental Science department focuses on red algal parasite development. While researching for her paper, Jillian really enjoyed seeing how much each paper built off others from the past, even as far back as the 19th century.  At that point, the most cutting edge research focused on the appearance and shape, or morphology, of red algae specimens.

red algae illustration
This illustration of red algae was published in 1849. Image contributed to the Biodiversity Heritage Library by Museums Victoria.



Red algae
Modern photograph of red algae. Image credit: University of Wisconsin Plant Teaching Collection, used with permission.








The most challenging part of getting the paper out was the actual writing. “There’s something about that blank document and blinking cursor that can be intimidating,” Jillian said. Read her paper here to learn all about the fascinating link between red algae species and their parasite friends.

Jilliane Freese with red algae
Jillian Freese with red algae sample.

You can find Jillian on Twitter @JillianFreese.

Dr. Sophie Chu: graduation!

Model, doctor, or both?!
Model, doctor, or both?!

Sophie Chu defended her thesis back in January, but she finally got to wear a funny hat and walk across the stage this month! Dr. Chu earned her PhD in the MIT-WHOI Joint Program in Oceanography. She traded one joint program for another when she graduated and is now a postdoc with the Joint Institute for the Study of Atmospheres and Oceans (JISAO), where she is part of the NOAA PMEL carbon group.

Sophie and her boyfriend in front of mountains
Sophie and her boyfriend are loving the PNW life!

Sophie is a SWMS steering committee member and is working on starting a Seattle chapter of SWMS.

Written by Gabi Serrato Marks, PhD student in the MIT-WHOI Joint Program and SWMS steering committee member.

Do you have news to share?

The Society for Women in Marine Science would like to start posting about our members’ exciting news and accomplishments to highlight the excellent work being done by women marine scientists.

Is your first (or fiftieth) paper coming out? Are you graduating, or did you get tenure? Did you just get back from a two week cruise? Did you write an article for a public outlet?


We want to hear about it! Nothing is too small to celebrate.

Please fill out this form about your news, and then email us a picture at to go along with it.We plan to write posts with a group of member updates, so look out for those in the future. We can’t wait to hear what you are all up to!


PS: not a member yet? Fill out our membership form here, and then send the link to your friends.