Interview with PhD Candidate, Jen Baron

Jennifer Baron sitting in indoor space

In celebration of National Volunteer Week (NVW), we joined UBC Forestry’s Jen Baron to discuss what drew her to forest ecology, her volunteer work with Let’s Talk Science Outreach and her hopes for the future of STEM.

The theme for NVW 2022 is “Volunteering Is Empathy In Action”, which highlights the strong connection between volunteerism and empathy, and its role in building stronger communities.

Read Jen’s story below!

Q: Tell us about yourself!

“My name is Jen Baron and I’m a forest ecologist and wildland fire scientist currently doing my PhD at UBC Forestry. I’m interested in how wildfires have changed over time and what that means for current and future fire risk. Outside of my research I really enjoy rock climbing and skiing, and recently retired from competitive cheerleading as a high-performance athlete after 12 years.”

Q: What drew you to UBC Forestry? Why did you choose to pursue your PhD studies here?

“I came to UBC Forestry with a background in ecology and a growing interest in investigating an increasingly relevant disturbance – wildfire. I was attracted to the UBC Forestry’s well-earned reputation for excellence in applied research and thought I could have the greatest impact here.”

Jen Baron sitting in forest, writing on a notebook, with a white dog

Q: Can you share more about your volunteer work with Let’s Talk Science Outreach UBC?

“I began volunteering with Let’s Talk Science in 2019 through the LEEF (Lessons in Ecology and Evolution Fundamentals) program. Through the program, I teach hands-on lessons in classrooms, which last year included a wildfire escape room to reconstruct fire history from tree rings. I also volunteer with the Beaty Biodiversity Museum to host public outreach activities through Beaty@Home. These experiences build community-based relationships that help me share my curiosity and love for learning. Also, they’re really fun!”

Q: What inspired you to enter the STEM field, and now work and volunteer in it? What drew you to your research field?

“I took to science early in life, with my parents facilitating countless backyard experiments. I’ve always been fascinated by finding patterns in the natural world and research was the logical next step after my BSc. I was supported by strong mentorship as an undergraduate student, which included several research opportunities that sparked my interest.”

Q: What are your experiences being a woman in STEM? Where do you find motivation, and where do you find support?

“Although progress has been made in recent decades, forestry and wildland fire science remain male-dominated fields. Current (2017) statistics show that Canada’s forest sector is only 17% women, 9% visible minorities, and 7% Indigenous. Wage gaps, low retention, lack of opportunity for advancement, and workplace culture continue to serve as key barriers to a more diverse forest sector. As a young and highly motivated woman in research, I have often fought to be taken seriously. Despite these barriers, I find strong support from my co-supervisors (Dr. Lori Daniels & Dr. Sarah Gergel), who advocate for me, foster inclusive lab environments, and provide me with the resources and confidence to thrive. These are also the mentorship qualities I aim to emulate in my own relationships with students.”

Q: Having been in the field, and have volunteered with so many young people, what advice do you have for incoming students aspiring to pursue a STEM field?

“Your ideas have value; you deserve to be at the table and be heard. Don’t apologize for taking up space or having a different opinion. The barriers that exist are systematic and they are not your fault. A strong community and mentors will go a long way to support you in the face of adversity.”

Q: What are some of your most memorable experiences so far throughout your time here at UBC Forestry?

“During the 2021 field season, I hosted a field tour and workshop with local practitioners in the southern Rocky Mountain Trench to discuss wildfire risk and resilience. This overlapped with the heat dome that created extreme fire weather and overwhelmed fire suppression resources, leading to a catastrophic fire season. This meeting and the connections it created felt both relevant and urgent, as we discussed potential collaborations and strategies for forest resilience in the 40-degree heat.”

Jen Baron and colleagues during a Wildlife Fire Supression Training Session
Wildfire Suppression Training

Q: And finally, what is the most important message you want to send out to young people unsure about their futures?

“You get to decide who you want to be and what the future will look like. Self-doubt is real but you don’t have to let it win. Be persistent and find support from the people in your corner.”

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