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Women’s History Month: A conversation with Dr. Angeline Pendergrass

Dr. Angeline Pendergrass
Dr. Angeline Pendergrass Photo credit: Dr. Flavio Lehner.

When did you first become interested in science and what led to your interest in atmospheric science?

From a pretty young age I watched math shows, and way too much of The Weather Channel. I grew up in Indiana, and a few tornados hit my neighborhood there. I was a nerdy kid, so when I got to high school and got to choose if I wanted to take upper level math and science, I went all the way with math and science. I really liked physics as well. But I thought, “I like math and physics, but what do I do with them?” So I decided to try weather. I didn’t have access to any atmospheric science classes in high school, so I didn’t try that out until college. I went to college and tried it, and then I just kept going after that.

You spent some time as an Advanced Studies Program postdoctoral research fellow at NCAR. How did your experience working at NCAR shape your interests?

One of the cool things at NCAR is that you’re part of a team—the whole center is a team and each division is a team, working on big projects that are fundamentally tied together. Being an extrovert, I really liked working with a lot of people closely. My time at NCAR expanded my idea of how science can work.

Your research is largely focused on extreme precipitation. Can you tell me what led to your interest in this?

I started working on precipitation as an undergrad for my honors thesis project at the University of Miami. My project was looking at global mean precipitation and how it changes in response to warming. I decided to do something else for my master’s degree but came back to precipitation for my PhD. I started with global mean precipitation again, and then I started looking at the intensity distribution of precipitation to connect the global mean to how heavy precipitation is when it falls. Once you start looking at the intensity distribution, what really grabs attention are extreme events, so I got pulled in. That is really what started me on the trajectory of looking at extreme precipitation.

Dr. Pendergrass. Photo courtesy of Ryan Johnson (NCAR).

What did you enjoy most about working as a visitor at ETH-Zurich in Switzerland? What was some research you worked on while you were there?

I got to be in Switzerland for eleven months and learned so many amazing things. I was a visitor at ETH-Zurich and got to meet and interact with a lot of wonderful people. It was a really great intellectually stimulating place and was a lot of fun. Being in Switzerland, you bike practically everywhere, which is great from a carbon footprint perspective. One thing that is really interesting in Switzerland is the discourse of climate change; there is a lot of hope, even that we might be able to meet the Paris Agreement target. This was such a different perspective from the discourse we have in the United States about climate change and climate science. While there, I was collaborating with Reto Knutti’s Climate Physics group. They’ve developed a great infrastructure for working with CMIP6 data that I got to plug into. So I got to use the data as it was coming online and compare how the global mean precipitation changed from CMIP5 to CMIP6, revisit emerging constraints on precipitation change, and look at the connection to climate sensitivity.

You’ve accomplished a lot in your career. Did you have any significant mentors?

I have many, many mentors. My mom and my grandmother are both scientists and so I think even before I realized it,  they were paving the way for me to be a scientist. Something I do that I find has been really helpful is that I extract mentorship from everyone around me. Relationships are really important to me. As an undergrad and also as a grad student, I was very quick to interact with the faculty, and to this day I still get so much mentorship from these relationships.

Dr. Pendergrass with her mom, Carmine Greene, and grandmother, Janet Pendergrass, at her college graduation.

As a mentor now yourself, what advice would you give to your younger self or to a woman just starting out in her career?

Stay in touch with yourself. Figure out what your energy sources are, and make sure you cultivate them, because you’re going to need them. There’s going to be pressure to “stay focused”—and you do need to focus to some extent—but you have to live life while you’re building your career. When things get tough (and they always do—that’s what life is), you’re going to need all the friends, mentors, and hobbies you’ve cultivated.

Dr. Pendergrass’s grandmother, Janet Pendergrass (left), teaching at Southwestern Michigan College; and her mother, Carmine Greene (right), in the lab as an MS student at Southern Illinois University.

What challenges have you faced as a woman in a male-dominated field?

I think it’s more as a woman in a male-dominated world. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve mostly happened upon or been able to find situations where I feel respected by the people I interact with day to day—my fellow students and professors as an undergrad, the students and faculty in grad school, and my colleagues at NCAR. I think the biggest challenge I’ve dealt with was navigating the step after my postdoc. As a student, your success is determined by people who you know pretty well—the faculty in your department who you take classes from, work closely with, and/or encounter in seminars and the hall for years.

As a postdoc, to make it to the next stage, you often have to find a toehold somewhere in the broader scientific community. The opportunities for that next step are bigger investments for institutions, so there are fewer of them and the competition is more intense. Up to that point I was always on the top of the pile, but it’s a pyramid so eventually you inevitably fall toward the middle. You apply to jobs and whether or not you make it to the next stage depends a lot more on people you don’t know very well, on their impressions of you from a talk you gave or a brief conversation at a conference, or—hopefully—from your publications.

That was when I started feeling weird things creep into my interactions. Similar conversations crept in with many different people, things like “you’re just so young.” And I would think: “why are we talking about my age?” And, I don’t think I’m actually all that young for the stage I’m at.  Subtle things like that made me feel like people didn’t always take me seriously. There was another postdoc—a tall bearded, white man a little younger than me— and I would think, “would they have that conversation with him? I know he’s younger than me, and I’m pretty sure no one is saying that to him.” And I also noticed how quickly he gets to talking about his science with people—are those related? And is it my fault—is it something I’m saying? I probably could have (and still could) say something different or do something different. But part of what was so tricky is that it’s hard to know. But it does seem different. Overall, that’s not so big of a thing to deal with in the grand scheme of things. But when the competition is so fierce to make it to the next step—more excellent people than positions for them to fill—these small interactions and impressions can really matter. And I think that’s reflected in the statistics.

A stage where a lot of women leave academic tracks is after their postdoc. After my postdoc, I was lucky and a project scientist position opened up at NCAR. There I got to try all kinds of new things with excellent colleagues, which was great. But once you feel these things, you can’t go back to not knowing.

Photos courtesy Dr. Angeline Pendergrass unless otherwise noted. 

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