Career Profile: Rebecca Ambers

Rebecca Ambers

Department of Environmental Studies, Sweet Briar College

Sweet Briar College is a liberal arts college.
Rebecca Ambers is one of the leaders of the 2008 "Early Career Geoscience Faculty" Workshop. Prior to the workshop, we asked each of the leaders to describe their careers, for the benefit of workshop participants, by answering the questions below.

Click on a topic to read Rebecca's answer to an individual question, or scroll down to read the entire profile: Educational background and career path * Early teaching challenges * Research transition * Institutional fit * Balancing responsibilities * Advice for new faculty

Briefly describe your educational background and career path.
I received a Bachelor of Arts degree with a double major in Geological Sciences and Anthropology from Indiana University in Bloomington in 1993. For my senior honors thesis, I studied tourmaline and garnet in aplites from granitic pegmatites in southwestern Maine. In 1996, I received a Master of Science degree in Geology from the University of Oklahoma. I focused on igneous petrology and geochemistry, and my thesis project again involved the study of aplites related to pegmatites. At that point, I decided I needed a change of both locale and area of expertise. For my doctoral studies, I shifted to environmental geology, studying clay mineralogy, mercury contamination, and sedimentation in the Dorena Lake watershed, a manmade reservoir in western Oregon. I completed my Ph.D. at the University of Oregon in 2000. I spent the next year as a tenure-track assistant professor in the Geoscience Department at Winona State University in southeastern Minnesota. Then I took a job as an assistant professor of Environmental Science in the new Environmental Studies Department at Sweet Briar College, a small woman's liberal arts college in central Virginia. I earned tenure and promotion to associate professor there in 2007.

What were some of the challenges you faced in your early years of full-time teaching? Could you briefly describe how you overcame one of those challenges?
The greatest difficulty I had as a new teacher was coping with the overwhelming workload involved in designing and teaching new classes. For my first several years of teaching, I ended up doing new courses virtually every semester. Many of these classes, such as Introduction to Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Introduction to Environmental Issues (a non-science course), were not squarely in my area of expertise, requiring me to continuously learn new material and then turn around and teach it to students. The way I coped with this challenge was to do as much preparatory work on each syllabus as a I could before the semester began. This included designing a highly detailed daily/weekly schedule including all readings, class assignments, quizzes, exams, and so on. Having this schedule for each course, I could then focus just on the tasks immediately in front of me each week: design a lecture on a particular topic for one class, write a quiz for another class, etc. This approach kept me from being overwhelmed by the magnitude of the job as a whole. At the end of the semester, I would take stock of how things went by discussing the course with my students, read my teaching evaluations carefully, and make notes to myself on how I wanted to change the course the next time I taught it.

While it was kind of scary to be teaching material that had been new to me the week before, I found that it does not take all that much knowledge to know more than your average undergraduate. I also realized that one of the skills I had acquired in earning my graduate degrees was learning how to learn and how to teach myself new information. That gave me the confidence to plow ahead and learn what I needed to know to teach effectively. I am also up-front with my students when I am teaching outside of my specialty, and I am not afraid to say when I do not know the answer to a question. I am a learner just as my students are, and there is no shame in not being all-knowing. I think the best teachers are those who model the learning process for their students and demonstrate how to seek out the answers to tough questions.

How did you make the transition from your Ph.D. research to your current research program?
My research interests have always been very broad, extending beyond the strict boundaries of geology. I most enjoy working in my local area, adapting my research questions to issues that are relevant wherever I live. I took that approach in my doctoral work on a local reservoir and watershed in Oregon, and I also took that approach in developing my research program at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. The college has a magnificent campus of nearly five square miles, formerly a plantation, including forests, pastures, two lakes, and numerous small streams. I found that by familiarizing myself with the campus and its history, a number of interesting environmental research questions came to mind. This preparatory work also helped me learn more about soil and water issues in this region, leading to a more regional research project. I have spent the last several years working on those projects with students, and three peer-reviewed publications have resulted. This is admittedly not earth-shattering research worthy of publication in Science or Nature; but my students and I enjoy it, and the college loves to see its name in print.

An essential component of achieving tenure is finding or making an alignment of your teaching/research goals with the goals of your institution.... How do your goals fit with those of your institution? Did you adjust your goals to achieve that fit? If so, how?
As a small liberal arts college for women, Sweet Briar's first priority is providing students with a high-quality education. Teaching is the part of my job that I enjoy the most, so my priorities align well with those of my institution. The college is also very interested in having its faculty utilize the campus for research and teaching. They term it "Learning on the Land." My place-based approach to finding research questions fits well with this agenda, and the kinds of environmental geoscience courses I teach lend themselves easily to local field work. I knew about these institutional goals when I took the job, and they are some of the main reasons I felt I would be a good fit for the position. Being "on the same page" with my institution from the start made things go more smoothly for me in the years leading up to my tenure application.

Many of the new faculty members in these workshops are interested in maintaining a modicum of balance while getting their careers off to a strong start. Please share a strategy or strategies that have helped you to balance teaching, research, and your other work responsibilities, OR balance work responsibilities with finding time for your personal life.
Finding balance in your life as a professor is very difficult, and I cannot claim to have perfected the art. There are a few things worth keeping in mind as you struggle to find a balance that works for you, however. First, the process of getting tenure does not happen overnight, so there are very few things that have to be done immediately or you risk losing your job. Make every attempt not to procrastinate so that you can stay organized and on top of your responsibilities; but recognize that every now and then, everyone slips up, and that is okay. Try to develop a long-term plan for yourself so you know where you are headed. Then focus on the day-to-day details as they arise, checking your overall progress every now and then to make sure you are on track.

Second, I found at a small liberal arts college that as my teaching got increasingly under control over the first few years, my other responsibilities (research and service) rapidly ramped up to fill in the gaps. If you are ever to have any time for yourself, you must learn how to say "no" when asked to take on extra responsibilities. You should not say no to everything, but be judicious and politic in your choices. Do not be a martyr and volunteer for all the most burdensome committee responsibilities. But do not focus so exclusively on your research that you neglect your service work either. At a small school, colleagues both inside and outside your department will likely have some say in your tenure decision, and it is important to get to know people across campus through service.

Finally, give yourself a break when you can. You are definitely earning it. Everyone deserves at least one day a week that is free of school work. And your spouse/family, if you have one, deserves to spend time with you. Do not neglect your health, and get enough sleep to feel well rested. Try to eat healthy foods and make the time to exercise. I know it sounds trite, but it really does give you more energy and helps to release stress. I highly recommend yoga in this regard. At first, you may feel like the time spent exercising and sleeping is wasted work time; but you will be much more productive in the time you do spend working if you are healthy, relaxed, and mentally alert. You have only to observe your peaked, sleep-deprived students on the day of an exam to see that this is true!

What advice do you have for faculty beginning academic careers in geoscience? What do you know now that you wish you had known as you started your career in academia?
Ideally, you should try to get a job at an institution that is a good match for your personal career goals and values. A researcher at a teaching college or a teacher at a research school are going to have more trouble fitting in, feeling good about his/her job, and getting tenure. If you take a job thinking you can make it work but find that the situation is deteriorating, do not hesitate to look for a more suitable situation. Do not become one of those dismal, sourpuss professors who hate their job but have become stuck at their institution. Changing jobs once or even twice before tenure and promotion is not a big deal and can improve your job satisfaction and chances for tenure immeasurably. It is usually much harder to shift institutions once you reach the associate professor level.

Being a beginning teacher is probably one of the most challenging jobs you can ever do. You have to juggle so many responsibilities that you barely have time to breathe. Whether you are teaching one class or four, it will take up more time that you ever imagined. As my parents often say (they are chemistry professors), "Teaching is like a gas. It fills all available space." During your first year or two, try to give yourself a break on your other job responsibilities. Do not feel guilty if your research program does not sprout wings and take off right away. Once your classes are under a bit more control, there will be time enough for these other things.