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Alumna shaking things up in STEM

Geologist chosen for groundbreaking Smithsonian exhibit


SUMMARY: Wendy Bohon ('98) is a geologist and science communication specialist who is furthering our understanding of earthquakes while also working to make science safer and more inclusive for women and minorities.

By Jim Heffernan (’96, ’17M)

A life-size statue of Wendy Bohon (’98) is on display at the Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., this month as part of the Smithsonian’s “IfThenSheCan” exhibit celebrating women in STEM.

Bohon is the geologist and senior science communication specialist at the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology, where she studies earthquakes and improves the communication of hazard and risk before, during and after geologic events.

Long before she became a rock star in her field, Bohon was an undergraduate at JMU with plans to pursue an acting career. But a course toward her General Education requirements ignited a passion for science that fuels her to this day.

Why did you choose JMU? Tell me a little about your Madison Experience.
I came to JMU for its illustrious Theatre program, particularly Theatre II. The idea that productions were student-led, student-directed, student-produced — that was what I wanted to do. I wanted to try all of the different components of the theatrical experience. I worked at Theatre II with the children’s theatre program for two summers. I had a show there, too.

But at JMU, you also had to take general education classes, so I ended up taking a 100-level geology class with Dr. [W. Cullen] Sherwood. I remember it was in a 250-seat lecture hall. I think I was the only person who was awake. I’m like, “Yes, tell me more about rising sea levels! This is incredible!” And then the guy who lived across the hall from me was a geology major. So I started talking to him about stuff. And then I signed up for a geomorphology class and I was hooked. I ended up double majoring in Theatre and Geology. Lynn Fichter was one of my favorite teachers. I still have his textbook that he put together with his laminated copies of the Wilson cycle. 

What did you do after graduating from JMU?
I left and went to L.A. to be an actress, not because I particularly wanted to do theater, but I didn’t really want to get a real job either. And I did some acting out there for a couple of years. Then late one night I felt the Hector Mine earthquake, which changed everything for me. I immediately went to the United States Geological Survey office in Pasadena to ask if I could volunteer. They said, “No, thank you.” Because maybe you shouldn’t go on the day after an earthquake, right? But I went back the next week, and I ended up volunteering there for two months while I was still acting. Eventually they were like, “You’re really good at this,” because I had such a good background in geology from JMU that I could hold my own with professional geologists. I also had the acting and communication background, so they hired me. I worked there for about seven years as their outreach and education coordinator for southern California, in the Earthquake Hazards Program. And then I decided that was really where I wanted to spend my time and focus. So I went back to school, got a master’s degree and then a Ph.D. in earthquake geology.

And now you’re at IRIS. What does your role there entail?
IRIS is a nonprofit consortium of universities that’s funded by the National Science Foundation. We maintain all of the global seismic data and seismic instrumentation. I am the lone geologist in a sea of geophysicists and also a science communication specialist. So, I handle all of the outward-facing stuff. I do the content production, social media and science writing. I handle the website, and I run science communication classes for a variety of people, mainly scientists, teaching them how to talk to the media, how to talk to other scientists, etc.

You mentioned you’re a geologist working with geophysicists. What’s the distinction?
I work with seismologists. They’re worried about the interior of the earth, the earthquake waves and those sorts of things. My research focuses on the parts that we can see — the rocks, how they break during earthquakes, looking at past earthquakes to figure out what might happen in the future. So my colleagues are focused on the mantle and the core, and I’m focused on the crust and the people. We almost don’t speak the same language.

What does the layperson need to know about earthquakes?
Earthquakes are inevitable. You don’t need to be scared of them. I’m always telling people, “Don’t be scared; be prepared.” We can’t stop them. We don’t know exactly when they’re going to happen. But we do understand why they happen. And, we can forecast them, not unlike a meteorologist. But instead of being able to say, “a 60% chance of rain on Wednesday,” what we can say, with some certainty, is “60% chance of a magnitude 7.0 or greater earthquake in the Bay Area in the next 30 years.” It’s a longer time frame, of course. We’re working with geologic time as opposed to human time.

You’re one of the founding members of the nonprofit 500 Women Scientists. What is its mission?
We’re working to make science safer and more inclusive for women and minorities. And we are building collective power. We’re making sure that we are pushing against the systemic barriers that hold people back from thriving in particular areas — in our case, STEM. Institutional discrimination is built into the fabric of science and society. It’s not anybody’s fault. But we need to confront it. We need to be bold about it. And we need to [find] solutions to these problems. As scientists, that’s what we do. We tackle hard problems.

As a woman, did you ever experience discrimination within your field or run into obstacles that you had to overcome?
Yes, it’s interesting. When I went to work at the USGS, it just so happened that there were an equal number of men and women in that office. And the women were in charge. I thought to myself, “I could do that. I could be a scientist. I could be a seismologist and study earthquakes.” It didn’t occur to me that I shouldn’t be there or that I wasn’t welcome in that environment. So when I went to grad school, it was shocking to me that I was the only woman in the program. I was overlooked for things. I didn’t get invited to do fieldwork.

Then, as I was getting ready to finish my master’s degree, I went to a conference and there was this senior scientist there who was like, “Hey, I’m really interested in this code you’re writing. Come see me and we’ll talk about it,” which is very common at scientific meetings. So I went and met him. But that was not what he was interested in at all, which was very frustrating. I was angry. But what was more damaging to me was, as I was walking back to the hotel, I ran into a guy in my research group, and I told him what happened. And he was like, “Well, that’s your fault. You didn’t actually think he’d want to talk to you about your science, did you?” So, it’s things like that that are hard because you only have your experience.

Being chosen for the Smithsonian’s “IfThenSheCan” exhibit must have been a validation of your career.
Let me tell you. This little girl came up to me over the weekend at the exhibit, and she’s like, “You’re a geologist” and she starts pulling rocks out of her pockets. I’m seeing myself, you know, as a 6-year-old. And she asks, “What are these rocks?” So we’re looking at them, and I ask her, “What did you learn in the exhibit today?” And she says, “I learned that I’m a girl, and that means I’m smart. I can do anything.” I just lost it. I’m crying. Her mom’s crying. … I went in hoping to transform things for young girls, but I didn’t realize how much it would transform me.

What would you say to young girls and women, at JMU and elsewhere, who are interested in becoming scientists?
I would tell them, no matter what anybody else says, that they belong. Their unique ideas and perspectives are important. Science is about answering questions. And we have some really fundamental pressing global questions right now that need to be sorted out. If we come at those problems from just one perspective, one point of view, we might not find the best answers. It’s critical that we get them on board, and we make sure that the culture that we bring them into is safe, and that they can not only survive in science, but thrive in science.

I want them to know that there are lots of people out there who are working for them. We are climbing the ladder, and we are reaching back to pull them up behind us. So look for us; look for the people ready to help them up. Grab hold of their power and really own it. Follow whatever it is they want to do.

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Published: Friday, March 11, 2022

Last Updated: Tuesday, March 15, 2022

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