Five things I learned from “Courageous Leadership: A Conversation with Dr. Terry Root”
In celebration of Earth Day 2021, IonE Director Dr. Jessica Hellmann spoke with her mentor, acclaimed climate scientist and advocate Dr. Terry Root, at a virtual event co-organized by IonE and the Bell Museum: “Courageous Leadership: A Conversation with Dr. Terry Root.” [View a recording of their hour-long conversation below.]
Dr. Hellmann and Dr. Root spoke candidly about their experiences as women leaders in science, how to face challenging situations with bravery, and the tough work that’s needed to foster a future where people and planet prosper together.
Here are the top five things I learned from them:
1. The simplest action we can take against climate change is to vote.
According to Dr. Root, a political paradigm shift is needed in America before we can advance a collective understanding of what climate change is and how to effectively slow it down. Individual actions, such as reducing consumption of dairy and beef, are important – but even more critical are larger group actions, such as converting to solar and geothermal energy. However, such big changes can only happen with the support of people in power. That means that voting for people who care about climate change – and who will help to fund and develop systems that protect us against it – is a vital step toward facilitating renewed climate health. “It’s ultimately a collective action problem,” said Dr. Hellmann.
2. Diverse perspectives are key to forming the best solutions.
There are many ways to look at an issue, Dr. Root shared, but if the people looking at that issue are homogenous in their backgrounds and experiences, their approaches to problem-solving are likely to be one-dimensional. Practically speaking, that’s not the best way to approach an issue as complex as climate change. However, when there is a diverse set of individuals who carefully examine a problem and offer their own perspectives on it, more effective, multifaceted solutions are often created. That means that we need more people from varying backgrounds, including women and people of color, in decision-making positions. Dr. Hellmann calls on everyone in the sciences to “aggressively call out where barriers [to participation] live,” so that we can foster more diverse teams and together make more impactful progress on climate change.
3. When dealing with uncertainty, focus on what you do know.
Life is full of uncertainty, especially right now. So when Dr. Root and Dr. Hellmann invited questions from the audience, it wasn’t a surprise that many wanted advice for dealing with uncertainty, especially in regards to changes to scientific institutions and policies.
Their advice is pragmatic: “The way I approach uncertainty is by figuring [it] out on a scale: How uncertain is uncertain?” said Dr. Root. She explained that focusing on what is known enables us to explore and navigate unknowns with more ease, and could even lead to discovering answers to questions we have about them.
If your confidence is still wavering, remember that there is often something that you do know about the matter. As Dr. Hellmann shared: “build around what you have confidence in.”
4. Be direct, clear, and specific – and hold onto your integrity.
It can be challenging for scientists to discuss topics such as climate change when those topics are also seen in partisan terms. That’s why, when speaking, it’s vital to specify whether you are sharing scientific knowledge or an opinion. “Always hold onto your integrity … hold onto the science,” Dr. Root emphasizes. “When you get to a place where you have gone beyond the science, distinguish it. Say, ‘…this is my educated guess.’”
5. Follow your passion, not someone else’s.
Starting in your career or looking to make a change? Remember to first figure out what your own passion is, and to follow it rather than someone else’s. Simply put, it’s much easier to excel in work that you enjoy. As Dr. Root said, “If you follow [your] passion, I guarantee you are going to do fabulous things with your life.”
Rupsa Raychaudhuri is a sophomore at the University of Minnesota, studying Political Science, with minors in Statistics and Psychology.