Glaciologist Benjamin Keisling on Diversity, Inclusion, and Objectivity in the Geosciences

by Ben Ramcharitar |October 14, 2020
benjamin keisling in a flowered suit jacket

Photo: Nigel Golden

Benjamin Keisling is a glaciologist and activist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. His research uses computer models to recreate the past behavior of ice sheets in order to predict how they will change with the warming climate. The newest project he’s involved with, GreenDrill, will drill into the bedrock underneath Greenland’s ice sheet to reveal the past distribution of the ice. He is also studying leadership models that promote diversity in geoscience with a project called Alliance-Building Offshore to Achieve Resilience and Diversity (All-ABOARD).

While he was a student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Keisling was a founding member of the BRiDGE UMass program, which aims to bring early-career speakers from underrepresented backgrounds to campus. He also serves on Lamont’s newly created Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Task Force, and is an outspoken figure dedicated to broadening participation of historically underrepresented groups in the geosciences.

Because research at Lamont is still ramped down due to COVID-19, Keisling and I recently spoke over Zoom. The following conversation has been edited for clarity.

What exactly is an ice sheet, and what questions are you asking with your research?

Ice sheets are basically big glaciers—there is one in Greenland and one in Antarctica. We know that in the past, large portions of those ice sheets melted due to natural variations in the Earth’s climate. The processes that caused the ice sheets to melt, what parts of them melted, and how quickly the melting happened remains very uncertain.

I am interested in trying to understand the processes that caused the ice sheets to be smaller in the past. For example, was it triggered by the way the ice was interacting with the ocean or the atmosphere? I try to understand the past better so that we can have more confidence in our projections of the future.

Is there any particular reason why you mainly work on Greenland?

I started working on Antarctica as an undergraduate student. I was just looking for a summer job and I didn’t want to go home after my first year in college. One of my professors was an Antarctic geophysicist and he used radar to look at the layers inside the ice sheet. I thought it sounded cool and I started working for him. It was the most money I had ever been making and at the same time I was learning about this really fascinating system and got hooked.

Towards the end of my undergraduate career I wanted to do something different. Greenland was different, and so for my senior thesis I wrote a paper about this vast part of this Greenland ice sheet that was flowing really fast. It was like a river made of ice that carries ice from the central part of the ice sheet out towards the ocean. It’s one of the longest rivers of ice on Earth and it’s called an ice stream. When I went to graduate school I was also really interested in Greenland. The professor that I was working with had some ongoing projects in the Greenland and I got to go to Greenland and it just became the focus of my work because of the opportunities around that.

Why have you stayed in the research area of ice sheets?

I never considered doing another kind of science, but I did consider not doing science. In terms of why I ultimately ended up staying in a similar research field, I think I just had really good mentors and a lot of opportunities when I was an undergrad.

One of the reasons my mentors were good is because, from the very beginning, even when I just getting up to speed, they were intentional about making me understand the impact of the kind of science we were doing on people and society. That was the thing that most pushed me away from science—that sometimes I thought that it was so disengaged and I didn’t want to commit my life to working on something that I didn’t think was going to make an impact on people’s lived reality.

Why have you stayed in science?

Honestly, I still think about that question a lot. I don’t think of it as something in the past. I think I make the choice relatively often to stay in science and sometimes I don’t know why I am doing it, because it can be really frustrating. I feel like sometimes it’s more work than it’s worth.

Sometimes I feel like I’m in science for the wrong reasons because some of the messaging that I get is that you should only do science if you’re really obsessed with the problem, so much so that you can like block out everything else and you’re just singularly fixated. But, I’ve just never had that kind of dedication to a scientific problem, and instead I’m staying in science because of people. Does that therefore prove I shouldn’t be staying in science? I’m not sure, but this dissonance is why I don’t primarily identify as a scientist, which is not something that I see a lot of other models for.

What do you identify as, if not a scientist?

“Science has normalized one way of looking at the world that is not universal and called that ‘objective.’ I think it’s immensely valuable when people’s subjectivity informs the way they look at a problem.”

One of the connotations that science has is that it’s objective, and I reject that objectivity even exists. I just don’t think that we’re ever objective and what we do in science especially replicates and further entrenches systems of oppression and inequality that exist outside science, so I tend to think of myself more as a scholar.

I also identify as an activist and I see that as equally as important to and closely linked to the science I do. I wouldn’t do science without activism and it’s taken me a long time to understand and be comfortable with that. I haven’t had a lot of mentors that exemplified it for me, but I have had mentors that kind of supported me in it. It has made a big difference to at least not have people say, ‘Oh you can’t do that.’

I’ve also had a lot of older mentors that tried to remain “neutral.”

The whole Black Lives Matter resurgence has given me kind of a new perspective on this trope of “It’s all going to get better when the old people leave” or “You can’t blame the old people for being so, like, out of the loop.” I just think about how many scientists in my community were in their 20s during the civil rights movement in the 1960s. How could you watch something like that and then not dedicate a large part of your career to fighting inequality?

If I saw the civil rights movement happen and I looked around me and realized there were no Black people in my department in 1963 during the march on Washington, I would have thought that we are replicating all of the problems in society within this little space where I actually have power. I feel like these older people should have more reason to be activists because they lived through such an influential and monumental period.

Can you expand on objectivity existing in science?

Early scientists, talked about as great explorers or pioneers of science, basically just went around the world, made observations, and wrote them down. They looked at everything through their own eyes and they brought their own perspective to it. But today when you bring up Indigenous ways of knowing or other knowledge systems that are not part of the western, scientific canon, there’s a lot of skepticism around ‘Well, how does that help you understand the world?’ Science is built on the idea of making observations about the world, but now that science is being expanded to include different people with different perspectives, this gets seen as a non-scientific thing.

I try to resist this framework by encouraging myself and others to do science in a way that is inclusive of their lived experience and identity. I think it’s immensely valuable when people’s subjectivity informs the way they look at a problem. We’ve normalized one way of looking at the world that is not universal and called that ‘objective,’ and said that the best way to do science is when it’s separate from anything else that you experience in your life.

Are there examples in the geosciences that have disregarded subjectivity?

The conversation about how Indigenous people interacted with the environment in North America has been about whether Indigenous people are good stewards of the land. But a lot of that conversation has taken place without the participation of Indigenous people that have a connection and share a history with the subjects of that study. Assuming that you can do that work without any input from Indigenous people is wrong. But it runs rampant.

The same thing is true in the Arctic. In glaciology specifically and in geoscience more generally, we have a pretty bad track record of engaging with Indigenous communities in the Arctic, where climate is changing faster than it ever has before. And yet, this is a region where there have been changes in the climate in the past that Indigenous people have persisted through and have learned to live in.

What does accepting Indigenous subjectivity in the Arctic look like?

One important element of doing decolonized science in the Arctic is involving Indigenous communities in the process of the science you’re doing from the very beginning. So even allowing other people to influence the questions that you’re asking.

When you’re coming from a place that is really far away and from a scientific background that rejects subjectivity as a way of knowing anything about the Earth, you may not even think to ask the same questions as the as people who have a different lived experience. That’s one of the main reasons why I think diversity is so critical to doing good science, because those different viewpoints lead you to ask different questions.

If you go somewhere to study something to improve your understanding of it, but it has no impact on the well-being or the enrichment on the lives of the people that live there, that is a kind of new scientific colonialism that is really dangerous. Why does it enrich my life to know about that environment? I think it’s insufficient to say, ‘Well I’m just interested in climate change because the Earth is just so big and beautiful and it’s interesting that the climate’s changing.’

What do you do as part of your activism?

Most of my activism takes place within science because I don’t see the values that I have in my personal life often reflected in my place of work. I have stopped doing so much outreach and have focused the outreach I do. Now I spend more time in administrative positions trying to identify and figure out how to dismantle the barriers to making academic geoscience a place where everyone can thrive.

Dr. Raquel Bryant [from Texas A&M University] and I put together a half day symposium about strategies for excellence in diversity and inclusion at the Geological Society of America conference this year on October 27. We will have speakers and facilitators that are student activists to help anyone develop an action plan for something that they could do on their campus to increase diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. It’s drawing on the expertise of all these students that do this work as a way to survive and as a mechanism for resilience.

We’ve actually been planning this since last year. Since there’s been a reinvigoration of commitments to diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, we’re now seeing a lot more interest. I’m hopeful that we’re going build a community of people in the same way that we build these scientific communities around people that study deep sea microbes or people that study ice sheets. I hope that we can build a robust and far-reaching community of people who are taking action towards increasing diversity and justice in geoscience and I’m excited to see what will come of that. 

Ben Ramcharitar is a research assistant at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University. He created this piece as part of the Sustainability Management course “Writing About Global Science for the International Media.”

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