Career Profile: Elizabeth Ritchie

Department of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Arizona

The University of Arizona is a public research university.
Elizabeth Ritchie is one of the leaders of the 2010 "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 Elizabeth'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.

  • BSc. (Hons.) in Applied Mathematics in 1988 and Ph.D. in Meteorology in 1995 from Monash University, Clayton Australia
  • 1995-1996: Postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Meteorology at the Pennsylvania State University
  • 1997-2001: Research Assistant Professor in the Meteorology Department at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey CA
  • 2001-2005: Research Assistant/Associate Professor in first the Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) Department and then Earth and Planetary Sciences (E&PS) at the University of New Mexico (UNM)
  • 2006-2007: Associate Professor jointly between ECE and E&PS at UNM
  • 2007-present: Associate Professor, Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Arizona

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?

Challenges included:

  • maintaining a healthy research program while putting the time and effort I felt I needed to into my teaching (this is still a challenge - one must always be weighing the needs of your research with the needs of your students)
  • not letting the "service" part of my work overwhelm everything else - it is the research that suffers in this case. While I think departments are well aware of the need to help a young faculty member not get too overwhelmed by University/College service requests, I found that as a woman I was being constantly sought out to be the "female" representative on search committees.

Another aspect I never considered was that as a woman scientist I am somewhat of a curiosity. Students from Psychology and Social Sciences are (still) making constant requests to do experiments on me. I have learned to say "no"!

How did you make the transition from your Ph.D. research to your current research program?

This is an interesting question. Much of my basic research is an outgrowth of the techniques I developed during my Ph.D. and Postdoctoral years. The questions I am answering are generally slightly different. I have recently come full-circle and am once again working on the still-unsolved question of my Ph.D!

However, part of my research program grew out of the circumstances I found myself in at UNM. I was a spousal hire. My husband accepted a tenure-track position in the ECE department at UNM and I was hired into ECE as a research professor with the understanding that I would have fully funded myself from external sources within a year of my arrival. This I managed to do, but then realised that there were no trained Atmospheric Science (ATMO) graduate students to help me do my research. Instead, I started to work with ECE students who were interested in ATMO-related problems, including remote-sensing, signal processing, pattern recognition techniques etc. From this start, we have built a multi-disciplinary program at the U of A that includes ATMO, ECE, and Optical Sciences students working on ATMO-related problems in tropical cyclones, but using signal-processing, remote-sensing, and pattern-recognition techniques that come out of ECE.

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?

Actually for me it is easy. Climate change and water resources are major research goals of the U of A. Atmospheric Sciences is at the core of the science questions central to these issues. While at UNM I did start a research project looking at the impacts of tropical cyclones in the semi-arid southwest U.S. with an eye to water issues, and this project resonated strongly at U of A.

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.

Balance is a very hard thing to achieve for a hard-working faculty member. And there are two of us! We have small children (3 and 5) and so protecting family life has been a major issue for us. Number 1 - unless there is something extremely urgent one of us must get done, we do NOT pull our computers out during the week from the time we get home to when the kids go to bed. After that it's a free-for-all. Similarly on the weekends. Sometimes one of us needs to spend a couple of hours doing some work, but mostly we try to do it after the kids go to bed.

This means we must get everything done we need to get done during work hours, or late in the evenings. This is a challenge. We must be efficient with our use of time. But, it is possible to balance teaching with research with service commitments provided you keep track of what you are doing and don't take on too much!

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?

I would say take care to do the following things:

  • Dont take on more than two service commitments. Probably one should be to your campus the other to your professional community.
  • Do start writing proposals immediately if you have a research requirement. Waiting for that perfect idea and crafting it into a perfect proposal can take far too much time! Start small - one good idea at under $100K per year has more chance of being funded than a big idea at $200K per year!!