Newswise — Monica Ridgeway, a University at Buffalo undergraduate entering her senior year, knows that when people think of a scientist, they usually think of a white male in a lab coat; but not too far in the future, she hopes they will envision someone more like herself, a young African-American woman with a head full of braids who is curious about correlations between frozen mud and global warming.
That's a tall order, because Ridgeway majors in geology, considered the physical science with the lowest percentage of African-Americans -- fewer than five percent nationally at the doctoral level.
But Ridgeway already is making some groundbreaking changes: this week, the self-described "city girl" leaves her native Buffalo for a two-week stint on Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic on a scientific expedition funded by the National Science Foundation and led by Jason Briner, Ph.D., assistant professor of geology at UB.
Ridgeway has never been so far north before, or anywhere near the "wilderness;" she has never even gone camping, but she is keeping her sense of humor about going so far from her home, family and her 20-month-old daughter.
"It didn't click at first that that was where I was going," says Ridgeway. "I was thinking, 'Oh an island, that sounds nice.' When I realized it was an island in the Arctic, I said 'I agreed to that?'"
She laughingly says she hopes it's not like the episodes of "Survivorman" that she's seen on TV.
During the expedition, she will travel with Briner and three other UB geology students to sample Arctic lake sediments and analyze them to reconstruct past climates.
The UB team will be based in Clyde River, a Nunavut town of about 800 residents, most of whom are Inuit. Each day, they will travel to frozen lakes on sleds in temperatures that could drop below zero Fahrenheit. They will drill through the ice and the water below to retrieve samples, long tubes full of mud, that they will send back to UB, where they will analyze them.
"Dr. Briner thinks it's important for undergraduates to be involved in the whole process," Ridgeway explains, "to go up there to do the collection of samples and see how it's done."
The samples that Ridgeway retrieves from those frozen lakes will be hers to analyze all summer with funding from a Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program scholarship. Named after the African-American astronaut who died in the 1984 Challenger Space Shuttle disaster, the federally funded McNair program is a paid summer research internship for underrepresented groups in which interns conduct faculty-supervised research and prepare for graduate school.
Ridgeway then will present her findings to a national meeting of geologists in the fall.
It's a far cry from where she thought would be a couple of years ago, when a career in science wasn't even on the radar, Ridgeway recalls.
Ridgeway attended the Buffalo Academy for the Visual and Performing Arts, where she now tutors students in science and math as part of UB's Liberty Partnerships Program. After receiving her associate's degree in human services from Erie Community College in Buffalo, she enrolled in UB, but she wasn't sure what area of study to pursue.
"The transfer counselor at UB saw that I had good grades in math and science and she told me that minorities are seriously needed in math and science," she says.
The same day, Ridgeway saw a flyer for the Buffalo Geosciences Program (BGP), a National Science Foundation-funded program at UB designed to promote diversity in the geosciences through outreach to underrepresented populations in area schools.
Ridgeway contacted Phil Stokes, a UB graduate student in geology and the program coordinator. Stokes not only helped her become a volunteer with the BGP, he also encouraged her to take Geology 102, Global Environmental Science.
"Once I took the class, I was hooked," said Ridgeway. "You get to think more critically in science and I really liked the labs."
Working with elementary and high school students through the program also helped her realize where her strengths were, she adds.
"The Buffalo Geosciences Program opened up a lot of possibilities for me," Ridgeway says. "I realized that if I want to work with people and teach then I can do that; if I want to stay in the lab and be a hermit, then I can do that. My options expanded once I took that step."
As part of her work volunteering with the BGP, Ridgeway and other UB geology students made a presentation on global warming to a class of fifth graders in a Buffalo Public Schools elementary school, an experience they later presented at a Geological Society of America meeting.
"When we asked the students how many of them knew what global warming was, less than one percent of them did," said Ridgeway. "Once I saw that so many kids didn't know what it was, I realized that probably their parents didn't, either."
She now feels strongly that she will use her science background in some way to educate people, especially those in the inner city, about global warming.
Ridgeway also hopes that in the future, she will be able to influence other students who attend Buffalo Public Schools, like she did, to become interested in geology.
"I want to show them that if I can do it, they can do it," she says.
The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, the largest and most comprehensive campus in the State University of New York. UB's more than 27,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.
Note to Editors: Monica Ridgeway will travel to the Arctic beginning Thursday evening, May 24. She will be reachable in the Arctic on a limited basis by satellite phone. She will return to Buffalo on June 5.