Jess Kapp is a geologist and educator at the University of Arizona, where she is an Associate Professor of Practice and the Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Geosciences. When she’s not teaching, she writes for a variety of blogs and hosts the Plucky Ladies podcast, which spotlights women working in science, technology, engineering, and math fields. She gave a TEDx Talk, “Say Yes: Taking Risks in Pursuit of Self-Discovery,” about her experiences traveling through the mountains of Tibet.
Why is it important that people know about geology?
It's just the fact that when you take a walk outside and look at a mountain or a hillside there are so many questions. Particularly today, the earth is changing so rapidly and we all have to be aware. People don't like to harp on climate change, but just having a basic understanding of how the planet works can help you appreciate how quickly it's changing.
What did you learn at your Alda Center workshop?
I just can't say enough good things about the workshop. I recommend them for everybody and I always talk them up here at the University of Arizona. I tell my friends, "You guys should do this, it's really worthwhile." I would like to encourage more scientists to think about communicating with the public, not just with other scientists.
I picked up some good tips about body language and tone and how to connect with people from the stage. Those types of things really bolstered my confidence. There's always this question when you give a talk: Are people going to care? Do people really want to listen to this? But being in the workshop, I met all these people with great stories and I would tell them my stories and they'd go, "Wow, that's fascinating." It helped me realize that there is a community of people who can get something from my experiences.
Let's talk about your podcast, Plucky Ladies. What was the genesis of that?
In the book, I discuss my tumultuous relationship with my advisor at UCLA. One day he told me that he didn't think I was all that smart but that I had “pluck.” At the time, it was devastating to hear that. Looking back, I feel like what a compliment that is, to tell someone that they're going to survive in whatever situation they find themselves in. Sometimes we downplay that.
We look at the people that we think are geniuses. What about all the people who are working really hard behind the scenes? That inspired me to interview other women who have stories to tell. And what I’ve found is that they've all taken chances and done different things and are better for it. The podcast is a fun way to get to know these women and highlight women's curiosity and perseverance.
Who inspires you to persevere?
Obviously my father did, but my mother too. She became a self-made businesswoman and worked her way up over a decade to become an executive. Then she was diagnosed with breast cancer in her forties and beat that, so she’s a very strong role model for me. Of course it's the women that I work with as well, the people here at the university that I see rocking it every day. They're still in a male dominated world and yet they're making strides. You've seen the story about the first photos of the black hole. It was a woman whose face was all over that story. I want young women to see more stories like that. I want them to think about what they really love doing and have the freedom to go for it.
In your TED Talk you spoke very movingly about your relationship with your father and his untimely death. Was it difficult to talk about that so publicly?
I think it would have been 20 years ago. My dad passed when I was 19 and I'm now in my 40s, so I can look back on it now and see what it meant to me. I'm not sure I ever would have taken a chance on science if it hadn't been for my father’s death, because I felt really secure in who I was and where I was heading. Sometimes people need to hear more personal stories and more about the things that make us who we are instead of just "This is what I do as a scientist." It makes us more human and relatable.
What do you want your TedX audience to come away with?
I’m just hoping that it inspires young people to question the path that they're on and think about what they're truly curious about. We all want to do what we think we're good at, but sometimes it's the stuff you don't think you're good at that is the most exciting. Often we're just afraid to take that chance. What if we don't succeed? What if I can't survive in a geology degree program and I have to go back and start over again? The truth is that's not the end of the world to lose a year or two figuring out what you really love.