Monday, October 15, 2012

Ada Lovelace Day -- women in Soviet & Russian geology and beyond

statue of Soviets mapping geology
For Ada Lovelace Day (16 October 2012) – Women in the Far East Division of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and their (more recent) contributions to volcanology, geomorphology and paleoseismology.  And the next generation around the world.

These are my own personal acquaintances.  For some phenomenal history of Soviet geology done by both women and men, see the website Geologist-to-Geologist by Svetlana Tikhomirova (photo to right is from this site):  2014 note:  the site has disappeared.

Elena Sassarova to the left

 I first visited Kamchatka in 1996 for a meeting on tsunamis.  The most forceful woman I remember there was Elena V. Sassorova, from the Shirshov Institute of Oceanology in Moscow.  Elena spent some of her earlier career years on Sakhalin; she is a geophysicist.  What was most remarkable about Elena at this 1996 meeting was that she led a climb of Avachinsky volcano in blowing fog and rain, after having done it a couple days before to know the route.  Her energy level was astounding, and she was really sad that we didn’t make it to the top – she would have, but we couldn’t keep up with her.  The thing is, she was smaller and older than any of the rest of us.  Elena has a force field around her that is amazing.  I have been pleased to meet her at many meetings since 1996.

Tanya Pinegina on Kultuchnoe Lake, 1998
The other woman I remember from that 1996 meeting, Tatiana K. Pinegina, was in more of a stealth force field.  Tanya was 24 years old at the time, and had insinuated herself into the Institute of Volcanic Geology and Geochemistry by her sheer will and her native brilliance.  She had come to Kamchatka for field camp and has remained anchored there ever since.  That brilliance was illustrated in her 1996 workshop talk, which she gave rather nervously, but the science was phenomenal, especially for someone who was largely self-taught and independent.  Who is this young woman?, I asked myself.  I had a brief chat with her, but she didn’t participate in social functions and thus stayed in the background; she could read English but had no practice.  At the time she still had no official position at the institute, but was impressing scientists who recommended her for a visit to the U.S. sponsored by the U.S.G.S. in the summer of 1997, when she stayed at my house and we worked on paleoseismology of the Snohomish delta in Everett/Marysville, Washington State; she also worked with Brian Atwater, her U.S.G.S. host.  The formal language barrier was pretty high, but we bonded and have worked together ever since, primarily on Kamchatka.  Tanya also has an amazing force field and has now become a science leader in her institute.  We have worked together in the summers (and some winters!) of 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006-2008 in the Kuril Islands, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 (winter).

Beth, Tanya, Katya, 2004 Kamchatka
So—Russian women in geoscience--I was meeting many on Kamchatka, whereas in my field (tsunami studies and paleoseismology) in the U.S., and in my department, women were scarce.  For the first time in my life, I had teams that were not only significantly populated by women, but also led by women.  Was it the Soviet system that did not discriminate against women in science?  (though the lead roles and Soviet National Academy were male-dominated).  I’ll just cite a few more examples of Soviet/Russian women in science, of whom there are many one could write about.  Of course, in the Soviet era, one typically had little choice as to what one did and where one did it – the motto of Russian geologists, who are considered heroic figures, is “work or die” – field work was very rough and challenging, but the gulag was harder.  And despite the challenges, women were not excluded from the field.

Olga Alexandrovna Braitseva
Olga Alexandrovna Braitseva was one of the second-generation volcanologists on Kamchatka, getting her start in 1959, in particular mapping and dating key volcanic ash layers and thus elucidating the history of large (caldera-scale) volcanic eruptions on Kamchatka.  She was a mentor to Tanya Pinegina and also to third generation volcanologists Vera Viktorovna Ponomareva and Lilia Ivanovna Bazanova.  These women also helped promote Tanya’s career.  Olga Alexandrovna has since retired to Moscow, since I met her in the late 1990s in Petropavlovsk.  Lilia Ivanovna is still actively working out the history of Avachinsky volcano, the one closest to the city and hence most hazardous for people.  I have also come to know a bit Masha (Maria M.) Pevzner, part of the same group of volcanologists and tephrastratigraphers.

Vera Ponomareva (middle) with Ontario colleagues
 Vera Ponomareva has in particular become a close colleague and friend, as with Tanya Pinegina.  Vera came to Kamchatka in the 1970s and has worked there ever since, sometimes spending her winters in Moscow (and recently in Seattle!).  Vera has developed strong ties with several international groups; no doubt her original elementary education in an English-speaking Soviet school has helped her integrate her scientific work. She has published prolifically and internationally, and she spearheaded a website about Kamchatka volcanoes. The first time I met Vera was in 1999, when some of us were in a very isolated spot on the Kamchatka coast, waiting for Tanya to come back with Vera and her team, the whole lot of them about a week overdue.  We had no radio.  We just listened each day and night for a vez dihod (tracked vehicle) and wondered what we would do if another week went by. Finally one night around 1 AM we heard the vez dihod, and soon our team was reunited.  By around 2 AM we had a spread on the rustic table, with vodka of course, and I was wondering who this woman was who was speaking such proper English….

Nadia Razzhegaeva
I want to mention also Nadia Razzhegaeva (her name is spelled a million ways...), a pioneer in geomorphic and paleoenvironmental studies in the Russian Far East, based in Vladivostok.  I cannot remember the first time I met Nadia, but our work together on the Kuril Biocomplexity Project was a chance for me to get to know her well on shipboard and in the field, and her prolific work from that project, along with a number of other colleagues (mostly women) who did not go on the expedition, has outdistanced the rest of us.

Well, of course there have been many talented and wonderful men on our expeditions, sometimes as leaders, sometimes as colleagues, and many as workers.  Russia still more traditionally assigns physical field work such as digging and hauling to men.  And why not, my Russian colleagues would say, men have more upper body strength (in general).  Because women do commonly have the lead expedition and/or scientific roles, it is easier to assign other duties (digging, cooking) based on ability without apparent gender discrimination.  In fact, Russian men can be chivalrous, which originally I bristled as, but came to appreciate, especially as I got older.

I’ll end by mentioning some of the fourth generation of women who have worked on Kamchatka and elsewhere with our group (and others), though I am sure I will forget some names (write to me!).  Beth Mahrt (U.S.), Natalia Zaretskaia (Russia; her grandmother was a geologist!), Crystal Mann (Canada, U.S.), Maria Ortuno Candela (Spain), Ekaterina Kravchunovskaya (Russia), Viviana Alvarez (Ecuador), Veronika Dirksen (Russia), Flavia Gerardi (Italy), M.E. (Beth) Martin Arcos (U.S.), Bre MacInnes (U.S.), Megumi Sugimoto (Japan).  

Note added:  Tragically, we lost our Katya Kravchunovskaya to a mountaineering tragedy on 3 March 2013.  Her boundless energy is sorely missed, and hers was promising career cut short.

Website of the Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky

Website for Holocene volcanoes of Kamchatka, initiated and largely constructed by Vera Ponomareva: