Highlighting Women in Geobiology at MIT: Phoebe Cohen

EAPS Summons Lab reconnects with alumni and revisits their work at MIT.

Story originally written for the EAPS Summons Lab

Current Role:

I’m an Associate Professor in the Geosciences Department at Williams College, a liberal arts college in the Berkshires.

Years at MIT:


Favorite Memory:

Wow so many! I got to go to Australia twice while I was at MIT to help create virtual field trips for the NASA Astrobiology grant I was working on. Those trips were incredible — I got to snorkel with stromatolites in Shark Bay which was truly a once in a lifetime experience. Roger was on that trip and it was so fun to get out in the field with him!

Research Foci and Initiatives: 

I was the education and outreach lead for the MIT NASA Astrobiology Team. In that role, I developed  educational and outreach activities, acted as a liaison between researchers and educators, ran teacher workshops, and worked with other NASA educators on online educational activities. One of the most fun things I did was create a to-scale timeline of Earth History along the Charles river as a part of the Cambridge Science Festival. I also did research in Roger and Tanja Bosak’s labs, working on extracting biomarkers from rocks from the Chuar Formation and investigating enigmatic fossils from the Cryogenian of Mongolia.

Advice for young women pursuing STEM:

Find a support network — this can be mentors and advisors, but also peers. My peer network has been the thing that has really sustained me and supported me through hard times as an academic. I’ve also found a lot of support and solidarity on twitter, especially now that I’m in a more isolated place and in a much smaller community. I have always prioritized taking care of myself and having a life outside of work, which has really helped me weather the rougher times in my career. I would also say that it’s important to understand that sexism, racism, implicit bias, etc., do exist in science, even in younger scientists – realizing how widespread this was strangely helpful to me as a young scientist because I was able to put my own struggles into a better context, and also, I felt empowered to help others who had less privilege than me.

Featured Publications:

https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/6/e1700095.abstract — this one was the culmination of many years of research and is my favorite paper because it was a truly collaborative effort with an amazing team of scientists. It involved remote field work in the Yukon and high-powered electron microscopy — so from the very big to the very small — and documents the oldest evidence of eukaryotes making biomineralized structures.

The other is Cohen, Phoebe A., Rowan Lockwood, and Shanan Peters. Integrating Macrostrat and Rockd into undergraduate earth science teaching. Cambridge University Press, 2018. https://www.cambridge.org/core/elements/integrating-macrostrat-and-rockd-into-undergraduate-earth-science-teaching/460456BD59734928F9A641C69B09AD28

This paper was part of a paleontology education short course at the Geological Society of America meeting — we wrote an article to help teachers and faculty learn how to use digital geology tools in their classrooms. Especially with the move to remote teaching, these tools are even more valuable today, so I’m proud of this paper and hope that it helps others!

Closing thought: 

I loved my two years in the Summons lab. Roger was so supportive, letting me have a lot of freedom and flexibility while always just a knock on the door away.