During women’s history month, it is a great time to reflect back and think about the many people who have influenced me and shaped my path over the years. One of those individuals is Dr. Daphne LaDue, so I was thrilled to see that she was a recipient of this year’s American Meteorological Society Robert H. and Joanne Simpson Mentorship Award. Daphne is a Senior Research Scientist at the University of Oklahoma (OU)and the Director of the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program at OU. Daphne’s investment in young scientists through the REU program has provided the opportunity for so many students to learn alongside scientists, and I am sure I am one of so many who can say that the REU experience was one of the formative experiences of my college years. I hope you enjoy learning about Daphne as much as I enjoyed catching up with her prior to writing this blog!
While the REU program deserves an entire blog post in the future to describe how important it is to undergraduates, suffice it to say that it is a summer-long research experience in which students are paired with a scientist mentor, conduct a research project, and present the results. There are also regular seminars for learning about different aspects of the field of meteorology, as well as social activites to help the students make meaningful connections to peers and colleagues. While the Oklahoma program is focused on the atmospheric sciences, there are excellent REU programs in many other disciplines as well (information here and here).
It was during her tenure as REU director that Daphne decided to go back to school and received her doctorate in Adult Education. Why Adult Education? Daphne wanted to learn how to do a better job at outreach (community outreach is something which all of us as meteorologists do, and it takes skill to be able to communicate weather information in an understandable and meaningful way to non-scientists), but also to investigate how meteorologists can better help emergency managers learn about storms and make informed decisions on behalf of their communities. Skillful communication of weather information in a way that helps people make appropriate decisions is so important, and so the interdisciplinary work that Daphne does is crucial.
While Daphne’s official title is ‘Senior Research Scientist’, it barely scratches the surface to describe what she does on a day-in and day-out basis. While Daphne’s work does involve writing research proposals and conducting research projects, she is also the director of the REU program- a position which she notes gave her hands-on proposal and grant management experience.
While I was a student in the REU program, Daphne, who was not the director at the time but was heavily involved in the program, always took the time to invest in each of us to learn about what our goals were, how the program was going, and anything else. She was always excellent about following up with us after the program to see how we were doing, what career paths we had taken, and it was always great to have those rare opportunities to catch up with her in person at conferences.
I could write a whole blog post (and likely will!) about the importance of mentorship- my philosophy is that we always need to ‘have a mentor, and be a mentor’ because we can all learn from each other. The years that Daphne has invested in the REU program and its students have ensured that so many students over the last 20 years had impactful experiences, not just learning how to conduct meteorological research, but also how to learn the intangibles such as collaboration and communication of results. The one-on-one mentorship that occurs during the REU program helps connect generations of scientists, and the peer connections have ensured that, now as colleagues, we continue to remain connected professionally.
When I asked Daphne about her workday, she explained that, like so many of us, she has no ‘typical’ day. Depending on the time of year, she may be planning for the REU program, recruiting, processing applications, and running the selection committee. Additionally, her job as a research scientist may involve many different tasks depending on the stage of the project. She could be working on data collection, choosing weather cases to use to test out new tools, setting up interviews, running focus groups, or analyzing results to understand how people use the information they have to make decisions. And, she is also working on a book!
She notes that while analyzing the reams of data that are collected from interviews and focus groups is something she loves, it can be challenging to see the ‘big picture’ perspective when you are in the weeds of data analysis. Daily work, she says, almost always takes longer than expected and can be interrupted with surprises (true!). Some of the best advice she received, during her doctorate studies, was to acknowledge that research is hard work and a slow process, and so often made up of baby steps and incremental progress rather than ‘Eureka!’ discoveries.
Reflecting on her career as a woman in a STEM field who has influenced countless young women as a mentor in her position at the REU program, Daphne said that when she was in college some people were taken aback and intimidated by a woman who was studying in the sciences. She looks for inspiration to the pioneering women in science who have gone before her (we’ve profiled some of them!), including the women who became famous in the book and movie ‘Hidden Figures’. These pioneers confirmed for Daphne that stereotypes don’t have to limit our visions for ourselves.