This week, we sat down with Becky Larson, an extension specialist and Associate Professor in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at UW–Madison, as she shares her journey to becoming an expert in some of the smellier parts of science (biowaste management). She shares with us cautionary tales and optimism, and how she has learned to strike the right balance between the two as the faculty director of the Women in Science and Engineering Program.
She provides invaluable insights into her experiences and offers guidance on empowering young women in STEM to navigate the challenges they may encounter in their professional lives. Drawing from her 13 years of experience in academia, Becky sheds light on the highs and lows, while advocating for a more equitable and inclusive STEM field. Finally, she dives into the power of failure and the path to a more equitable future in STEM.
Michelle Chung | Host
Michelle first joined the Wisconsin Energy Institute in 2020 as a student intern. Now as a communications specialist, she continues to find creative ways to tell the stories of the people and research here at WEI and GLBRC.
Mary (Meg) Riker | Host
Science Writer Intern
Meg is an undergraduate civil and environmental engineering student who seeks to learn about the career experiences of a range of women in STEM.
Edited by: Michelle Chung
Produced by: Michelle Chung and Mary Riker
Music written and performed by: Mark E. Griffin
Michelle Chung: What do manure and academia have in common? They can sometimes be a messy business. And today's guest, Becky Larson, knows this business really well.
Meg Riker: In today's episode, Becky Larson, extension specialist and professor in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, lets us in on her journey into bio waste management. And in her career, she's seen the best and worst of academia. From finding freedom into failure and seeing the best of innovation and collaboration, to seeing the inner workings of institutional sexism.
Michelle Chung: She shares how working in extension is really all about listening and what she's learned, pushing those above her to make changes. Becky describes why her experiences led her to run the Women in Science and Engineering program and how to best educate young women in STEM for the issues or discrimination they might face in the future without taking away their passion for science.
Meg Riker: Get ready for a whole lot of wisdom with Becky Larson from the Wisconsin Energy Institute and the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center. I'm Meg.
Michelle Chung: And I'm Michelle.
Meg Riker: And you're listening to Propelling Women in Power, a podcast about the careers of women in energy at the Wisconsin Energy Institute on the UW Madison campus and our sister institution, the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center.
Michelle Chung: Let's get into it with Dr. Rebecca Larson.
Becky Larson: Rebecca Larson I go by Becky, and I've been at the university for, I think about 13 years now. I'm an associate professor and an extension specialist. So like, I do a lot of outreach and work with the general public. And I'm currently in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies.
Meg Riker: So could you tell me a bit about your current work that you do here on campus and also as an outreach specialist?
Becky Larson: Sure. So I think my official title when I got hired was a bio waste engineer. So I really work with anything that you think might be smells bad or is kind of dirty. So I work and taking any kind of waste products and trying to improve their environmental sustainability or make new products that are maybe better. So a lot of that actually ends up being working with a lot of manure.
So in the state, we have a lot of livestock animals. So I work a ton with manure and manure to energy or manure processing or trying to reduce environmental impacts from using manure for fertilizer. So lots of different things. And then also I work a little bit on food waste or other kinds of waste products. And so it it actually ends up ballooning to be a very big topic.
But I think those are the two biggest.
Meg Riker: So could you tell me a bit about when you first became interested in bio waste and then like Biological systems engineering, because I know that's your degree. Sure. And was there a moment when you knew you wanted to be someone who was involved in this kind of work in engineering?
Becky Larson: Yeah, I would say I had a long kind of weaving path to get to where I am. I when I went to college, I didn't really know many engineers and everybody kept telling me, you love math and science. Why don't you look at engineering? But I was like, I don't know. I was very stubborn. So I was like, No, that's not what I want.
And so I did a lot of basic science while doing math. And then finally, in like my fourth or fifth year of college, I switched to engineering. So I had to kind of start.There was a lot of classes to take when I wish I would have been having more fun, but I had plenty of fun through the beginning. And so then I really got into it. I started really liking it. I liked the mix of the environmental component as well as the kind of qualitative in math that I got to use.
And then I was much more interested in applied sciences. It wasn't really until I went to grad school and I started doing some projects and working in agriculture that it felt like a really different experience for me. So in undergrad I had worked for an entomologist and I started realizing that I really knew nothing about agriculture in the way it functioned.
And so then I started getting really interested in it, like a whole new area that that I had zero knowledge in. And so I really found it interesting. And then in my master's work, I started working with manure and manure systems and runoff, and I got really interested in trying to reduce those impacts and try to make new products.
And so I just kind of continued on from there. It's hard to find what you want to do in psychology. For a while I was in business for a while, you know, all over the board.
Meg Riker: So yeah, I think that's a bit of a fallacy. When you come to college, you have to know what you're doing, right? Yeah. You don't.
Becky Larson: Or even when you land somewhere and graduate, that that's what you have to do all the time. My work encompasses a whole lot of different things, you know, like if I get interested in human health, I can work on that aspect and partner with people. So not always what you. You don't always have to perfectly be aligned with exactly what.
Meg Riker: Did you have any mentors who were there and what role did they play in your success?
Becky Larson: So many mentors in many different places. And maybe, you know, you don't always necessarily recognize when you're younger, what, that they are mentors? My advisor, when I was in grad school, I wasn't the greatest student as an undergrad and he really helped me to say I was like, Well, I don't even know if I can get into grad school. And he was like, Guess you can write like, but you have to go to class.
It's like okay, I can do that, you know? And so he was very frank with me about what my where my limitations were and what I needed to figure out. And so that was really helpful. Sometimes you don't want to look at those things about yourself, you know, you know, when you're kind of maybe not doing what you think you're supposed to be doing and having someone point out like, Well, do you want to do it or not?
You know, like, and if you do, these are the adjustments you need to make. And so it was good to be given. Some of that is like a it's a question, right? It's it's the decision you want to make and there isn't a right choice. Right. So you have to decide what's for you. And then when I got to UW, I had a lot of really great mentors.
You know, I think people sometimes think when you become a professor that you know what you're doing or that you're super skillful or I really had no idea. I had just come out of grad school. I felt very confused.
And I was working really hard to try to make up for deficiencies I had or thought I had or, you know, whatever I was trying to do. And I met a lot of really great researchers, one at the USDA, who really helped me understand what applied sciences, some others in a few projects who really helped me understand in my extension program that work is supposed to support decision making, right?
You're not there to make people's decisions. You don't have to give them everything. You just have to produce science and explain it in a way that then informs people to make their decisions and supports them to make informed decisions. Right? So that's a really different way to think about it than I was. And it actually gave me much less stress to think about it in that way and to think about what my role really was as a professor and and in an extension professional, like what are my trying to do?
And I actually take that now to the heart with my students with all kinds of my work. Right. It's not about trying to convince anybody to do anything. I see people going down what I think is the wrong path in that direction. It's really about understanding your science and helping other people to understand something you've spent an entire lifetime studying in crazy detail and then trying to put it out there in a way that they can understand and make decisions that support their opinions and thoughts.
Michelle Chung: And so that that was really helpful to me. I had a lot of great mentors, you know, they're there all over. So sometimes mine were technical mentors. Sometimes you just need a mentor to help you navigate the system. You know, I had some other folks in my department that were extension people that really helped me understand a system or even understand how when I needed to push or when I needed to take care of my own career and my own personal thoughts.
Becky Larson: And when when pushing the bureaucracy maybe was a mistake or, you know, there's a lot of things to sort through. And so having some people there to trust and I also think the biggest thing about mentors is you have to pick them, right? So there's a lot of people around, some who really want to be your mentors that you are like, Oh.
I don't know your way, but I think the most important thing is like identifying some things and other individuals that you really admire or that, you know, there's somebody who's really good at this. Whenever I'm around them, I feel more at ease or that is some a skill I wish I had. And then thinking about what it is that they're doing that you might be able to learn from.
And it doesn't always have to be like this official mentorship. I don't think that, you know, but I think it can be really helpful if you can think of it in those terms.
Meg Riker: Yes. A secondary point that I wanted to bring up is you mentioned in our pre-interview that your parents did not go to college. How did this change your perspective on higher education and then now working in higher education?
Becky Larson: It's interesting. My parents started in community college, but they didn't have the same options that they provided me. So they eventually my dad eventually finished college and, you know, made a career out of that. But it it took him a long time. But I was kind of, you know, looking back on it now, they always stress education as being really important.
And I don't know that I always noticed that they you know, they didn't make it so obvious. It's more interesting now thinking back of like, you know, when they were talking about dropping us off at college, that they had no idea what it was to like, what are you supposed to put in a dorm room? They're like things that are very natural to me.
Now. The thing I really think about it now is they are really support. I mean, I felt like I hit the jackpot in terms of parents. Like I got very lucky. But when I think about it now is like there is a disadvantage vintage that I see with people who don't have input when I'm looking at my student or people who want to be professors or other things when you don't have someone to give you a little bit of guidance on how some of the things can be navigated, like there is some knowledge of the inside of how certain industry work.
And if you're lucky enough to know somebody in the industry, you're going into the profession, That's really great. But when you don't have that knowledge, we need to try to support other people gaining it because it really does have a, I think, a really big impact on your career perspectives and like where you can go. So that's one thing I you know, I don't think it affected me so much.
Like obviously I feel like I got where I needed to go and I feel lucky to have the parents I did who really stressed that education was important and learning things were important. And, you know, I think my dad was always saying, no one can ever take away what you learn, right? So the knowledge is something that you can always keep.
And so it makes me think now about ways people need to be supported when they didn't have when they didn't come from a background that they're not even really sure that they don't have. I don't know if that makes any sense. Right. But you can't know it that you don't understand it until you realize, okay, somebody is trying to help you see that there's a there's some information there that wasn't passed along your generation or family.
Meg Riker: What do you think would help support students the most who are in this type of situation?
Becky Larson: You know, you can always have communities where they can be educated. But I also think taking some of the stuff out of the dark, right. So these internal knowledge, like where we give people a little, oh, hey, you know, actually they want to see this, you know, they want to see this in a resume. And so and so I know from this area they always want to have this piece of information.
So why aren't we sharing that with everybody? You know, sometimes we hold those things because we know their advantages, but we should really try harder to make sure that everybody has that information. I mean, why are we holding on to these little pieces or not making it a part of our course content or, you know, there's a lot of ways to make sure everybody has access to it.
And, you know, our courses don't have to always be such technical or specific. Like they can cover a little broader of that information, which I think we try to do. But I think there we maybe haven't closed that gap completely. I'm a faculty advisor for the women in Science and Engineering program right now, and I'm always encouraging faculty to talk about the failures we've all experienced because I really see the students identify with that, right?
So they always think, you know, I had a grad student recently and we were out in the field and everything was falling apart and I was like, Oh, go get me that. Let's try something else. And he was like to be honest, Becky, I didn't know you sucked at this.
And I was like, Wait. And he's like, Well, you're you're screwing this up. And I was like. I am definitely screwing this up. But the point is, I'm going to keep trying till I figured it out. And he's like, That makes me feel a lot better. Where do you think I just got everything right all the time? No, I have lots of struggles throughout the process, Right? So I think that I think people understanding I think also, you know, speaking as a woman who came out in a in a career where there aren't a lot of women, you feel this pressure to make sure that if I mess up, they're going to see me as that one.
And to remind yourself everybody, everyone is allowed to mess up. Everybody does. They all do, no matter what they want you to think. That is the fact. And so just making those errors more known, more common, talking about them more and making them more learning opportunities, then the fact of, oh, you know, like trying to discipline somebody or make them feel bad because, you know, they made an error, especially in school.
And even here's a place to screw up. But even out there is a place to screw up, right? That is you will it will keep happening. There is not a point in life where you get it, all right? Right. That's just not a thing.
Meg Riker: You've talked a little bit about this, but what do you enjoy about your role as an associate professor and an extension specialist?
Becky Larson: Oh, so many things. You know, the base role of like I always say, I'm a lover of data, So if I get study results and it's like, you know, I finally don't get to look at the email till 11 p.m., I'm still going to be even though I should get some sleep, I'm still going to be this nerd like.
Oh, look at that, or I'll put it away. And then it or it didn't work out the way I thought it might work out. And so then I'm sitting there and then three days later I'm like, Oh, I have an idea, you know? And then I'm like, Oh, whatever this meeting, I got to go. You know, like I got what I got.
To go look at this date again. So that part I love, I love brainstorming when I'm in a room with people with different ideas like that is an amazing if you can get a team who's really open to putting ideas out there and who doesn't become intimidated by bad ideas. And I mean, if you can really get some good brainstorming with some knowledge behind it, that's a wonderful thing to participate in.
Like it is really amazing to use your brain to hear other people's ideas, to really feel like together you came out of a of an hour long session with a much stronger vision for something that is really cool. So I love that part. I love working with students. They have a lot of energy. I mean, that's everything's like a double edged sword a little bit.
You know, they take energy so they need things. But it's rewarding in the fact that you feel like I want to try to help people become what they want to be, you know? So if you're working towards that, you know, I always say if you're putting in any effort, I'm happy to put an effort right. If you're trying, I'll be I'll try to like, let's do that together.
So I think those three things are like that. My favorite part of the job.
Meg Riker: Yeah.
Becky Larson: Yeah. So there's a ton of negatives in in a job too, right? So, you know, when I was facing some burnout, I think I read this interesting article that was talking about, like medical doctors and that they were they were learning that in sometimes in burnout, it's not about stepping back. You do, sometimes you do, but maybe about shifting or stepping into harder the things that are really important to you and trying to step back from the things that become the tasks that you don't love.
So I've been really trying in the last five years to really focus on there are things in our lives that really feel like really just important and we love them. And so trying to increase our time in those activities and maybe recognizing the things that we kind of hate and that make us not want to show up or so we start dreading a few days before maybe somebody else doesn't hate that right?
Maybe there's a way we can shift this or at least reduce like our role in that activity. Not always, but I think a lot of it that you can tweak it enough to make things good for you, you know? Yeah, you can live with. I actually think almost everyone has those moments. Sometimes we don't talk about them or sometimes we don't recognize what they're attached to, right? Like, I feel like we only have so much capacity for stress.
Becky Larson:And when it pushes us too far, it starts to impact so many other things in our life and we start to think, Well, that's the thing and that's the thing. It's like, no, the stress. You know, I try to remind people all the time who are in such high stress lives that, you know, I see a lot of people like I'm screwing things up.
I'm like, no, you're under a ton of stress, right? We only have so much capacity at some point we can't handle more, right? We do have a limit, even though we sometimes pretend that if I just keep tackling things, you know, I can break down.
Meg Riker: So check. Checking off my boxes. It'll be okay. But that's not.
Becky Larson: How it works. Yes. No. And it's a tough thing to learn. And when like I think I mentioned, I'm stubborn and you just keep saying, No, I can get through this. I could, but eventually it'll just keep kicking you until you listen. And it can be a painful one to get through.
Meg Riker: Sure. But a good thing to realize.
Becky Larson: Yeah. The other side. I think you make it to the other side. Well, I wish I wouldn't have been a stubborn. Yeah, I think about the burnout before I was in a state where, I'm like, you know, melting down.
Meg Riker: So do you think professors are at higher risk for burnout?
Becky Larson: I think any job with a culture that is like the one that I think a lot of academics are in have high risk for burnout. There's not like a regular time frame for the job. Right? It can push into each part of your life if you let it. You have to be really aggressive all the time and not letting that happen.
And so you have these even though I feel like I tried up No, no, no, I want a Saturday. Like that's not happening anymore. I want there there's a week moment where you some you were busy and someone asked you something. You're like, fine, fine. And then you, you know, it spirals. But I think the bigger issue is sometimes we get into these positions.
We you don't become a professor because you want to be rich or you want to, as some people do it for notoriety, I guess. But generally, I would say you do it because you are caring about something, something you're super interested in, something that really you're impassioned about, right? You didn't make it through your Ph.D. because I don't know you.
You were having such a great time. I mean, you did you could have been having a great time, but it was like studying thing you loved, right? And so when something is your passion, it's hard to deny it, right? So so for example, when I'm a graduate student that needs another professor, its input on something and the professor is not taking a lot of interest, I'm, I'm like, just make him make it a point with them.
Tell him what the problem is. Right? And then almost always the professor gets an interest in. Okay, I will. You know, that's interesting. Let me you know, because we all have to that's why we got into these jobs, right? Is because we like to think about the challenges. We want to work on the challenges. And so sometimes limiting your passion is tough, particularly when the job starts demanding all of this time over here that maybe isn't your passion, that's more management and all these other things that come along with it.
But you still want the time for your passion. You still want that. So it's easy to let it balloon. And there's also this culture. I think it's a culture here of a little bit of workaholism, right? And that I think I went through this moment when I was talking to my sister. My sister was a surgeon, and we were talking one day about how you work too much, right?
You know, you're working too much. And then you decide to make an effort to dial back. But what happens that day when you dial back right now, you have this time you're kind of person that feels like they were wanting to stay busy all the time. So you have to sit with this slower pace. And you what was happening to me as I was like, Well, what I must be doing right now, you know, I had let a lot of my relationships fall apart, so some of those weren't accessible.
So, okay, I have to wait two days to see somebody. I've let a lot of my passions kind of fall away. And so I found myself sitting there and saying, well, I could get some work done. But it was like this, the objective at all.
So you have to tell yourself at the beginning of that there's going to be a lot of moments where you're don't know what to do. So dialing back from when you fed into that because in the beginning of your career, sometimes you have to. And then the problem is then trying you keep telling yourself, I'm going to go, I'm going to dial this back.
But once you try to, you're not really sure how to begin that journey. And that journey can be painful. You know, I went through that of, okay, what were my passions? What did he even enjoy before? And then you beginning, you start doing them again. And I don't know that you love them like you thought you did. And then it just takes a little work of understanding yourself and reminding yourself that where you got to, you knew it wasn't where you could sustain any more, but having to learn a new way to live is also a lot of work.
And so you got to give yourself a lot of grace, I think are like a lot of space to kind of figure out what that feels like into it, to be okay with it. Not feeling good.And to not go back to the old remind yourself that the old you wanted to move forward. And so maybe I'm getting way too often this my little personal journey.
Meg Riker: You know, this is the best explanation I've heard of something that I've actually gone through but could not describe.
I think it's a tough thing to navigate. And it's a tough thing to recognize because we love to go back and do our old pattern for our old patterns feel safe. Even though we've learned this pattern is not working, this habit is not working for my life yet, I want to change it. And then something freaks me out.
And so I'm going to go back and then you're like, wait a minute, and it's okay. You will. I always try to tell people that are then going through that journey, you're going to go back and you're you just need to remind yourself, recognize it if you can, and move yourself back onto the track as soon as you as soon as you have the energy to do that again, you know.
Meg Riker: Did you ever want to turn completely to a different professional field or change what you do with your life?
Becky Larson: I imagine every professor that comes.In, yes. I think a lot of people would say, yeah. Yes, I think so. I my sister, I talk about this all the time. You know, the grass is always greener, right. You can always think about I was just talking about with my sister the other day. I love being outside, working on the environment. It's part of my job. But I think we both talk about if we took different jobs that were less demanding that we would have loved to do something where we were outside more often and actually in the environment.
Working on a computer, talking about the environment. But, you know, I think it's hard to say that that would have been better. I try to remind myself I made the choices I made at the time for a reason. I didn't just wake up and have somebody else tell me what I was. That actually can happen in life, right?
That you're like, Wait, I'm not making my own decisions. But for me, I think I was making my own decision. So I try to remind myself I made these decisions to get here. Let's not worry about those. Let's worry about my decisions moving forward now. Right. So now I've got new decisions. If I'm really unhappy, why is that?
So I do this new thing where I'm like, okay, I'm not so happy with this. I'm going to make a change and I'm not going to think about it for six months. For a year. I'm going to see how it feels because the what overwhelms me sometimes is this constant indecision. Is this the right job? Isn't this the right job or whatever?
So then I try to think about it more. What is making me unhappy right now? How do I think I can fix that? And then let's not think about it every day. Let's make a decision on it. Give it six months and see if I still feel the same way or see if it's changed at all. Or sometimes I need to wait two years or, you know, it takes away this immediacy and the anxiety that sometimes for me builds up in that.
So but yeah, I mean, I do look out my window some days and wish I was a park ranger or something, but then I think sometimes I have to clean bathrooms and direct traffic. So that job has terrible parts too. Yeah, I think they're all like that, right? Yeah.
Meg Riker: How and why did you make outreach with your farmers a priority in your work? And then as a follow up to that, how how can we make this contact and communication with people who are not engineers more normalized in the engineering domain? Because for me, I see a lot of people who are engineers just interact with an engineer and I'm like, Well, but you're supposed to be helping society and why aren't you interacting with society?
Becky Larson: Yeah, that's a good question. And I would say because it's hard. That's really hard. I think for me extension or something I learned about and I actually did an internship when I was in school in an extension office. And so I started to learn about that. But then I also I felt like I'm an applied science person and I like the idea of the things we do having impact. And so for me, if you don't stay engaged with your stakeholders, how can you do that?
And and I think my thoughts on this have transitioned quite a bit since I took on this role. And I actually feel like you have to understand what's going on in the context of where you working. And the only way to do that is to meet and talk to people and do those things. And actually as a person, I hate those things.They give me anxiety and.I had to go into these giant rooms of all these people and we're talking about weird things and, you know, it's sometimes it's it's actually the part of my job that I hate the most, even though I think is the most important. I know that's a weird thing to say. And maybe people will be like, Well, you shouldn't have that job.
But it's what is it is what it is, right? So I don't love all the interaction because it's hard, right? So my it would be easier for me to go into my lab and work with my students and just design whatever I want and say, Hey, I'm going to put that out there and eventually someone will use it. But I have to inform myself of what all of these people need and want so that I can better reflect that in the job I'm doing. And I think there's kind of two parts to it. I'm trying to sometimes immediately respond to stakeholder needs, but I'm also trying to predict out here what they're going to need. That's a little tougher.
And I'm not always right, but if I can start doing that, research takes a really long time. We don't move as fast as everybody else. And so you have to start predicting what you think is going to be needed. Or I also think our job is to show people what is possible, right? I'm not trying to force you into a direction, but I'm trying to show you what the possibilities could be and a little bit of where we could go and where they would lead us as best I can through science so that people can make informed decisions before, you know, sometimes timing's really important.
And if they're making those decisions or they don't have the information too late, it can have really bad consequences that then are much harder to solve. So I think it's really important. That being said, it is really tough. And even myself, how much I integrate, how much time I could spend my entire day, every day integrating with my stakeholders and getting nothing done, that's not very effective, right?
It's also not very effective if I spend zero time. So there's this really difficult thing to figure out how much you need to know. I think working internationally really helped me, developed these thoughts a lot more. So I was working in Uganda and I was in India in the beginning. I will say that for sure that I, I remember being, oh, you know, they needed this waste system to go on to something in a rural area.
And I wanted to give it a little power just a little bit to make something work. And so I put a solar panel on it and I was like, okay, it's not that expensive. We can make it work. And they were like, This isn't going to work. I'm like, No, it totally works. Like, we set it up. It works.
And they're like, Well, what do you think is the first thing that's going to happen here, Becky? And I was like, Oh, I don't know. And they're like, They're going to use this solar panel to charge your phones to use for their computers to you like there's a higher value for this than what you're doing here. And I didn't listen to them.
I didn't even ask them. Right. And so then I stopped doing that and I said, okay, you tell me what you need and let me give you some technical options. And you pick one that you think fits your circumstance. I'm never going to know your circumstances as well as you do. So I need to do my job as a technical advisor.
And I can't do that by just telling you which one I need to give you options in a way that you can make an informed decision. And so that's really changed my mindset a lot about how I function and do things. Now. How can other people do that? You had to go through the process, right? So you had to you have to start talking to stakeholders.
You have to stop thinking. So my hardest thing and this might sound stupid or make me seem egotistical or something, but you have to stop thinking you're going to bring a solution, right? That's not how it works. You can be part of a group who can achieve something right? And you have to know what your role is and you have to understand what their role is and think what is the most important part you need to play in this.
And it's not making decisions. And so communication gets really important, right? You can see that's a challenge of trying to explain things without putting your opinion in it. So really trying hard. And what I started doing was just saying, here is the fact now I'm going to get a little bit into my opinion if you want to hear it, but you don't have to, Right?
Here's the facts. I'll let you make your decision. So all of these things have been really complicated for me personally to get to a functionality that seems like it's working. So I understand why it's difficult for other people. You don't have to spend a million days with people, but you do have to have the conversations. Yeah, you do have to stop thinking, you know, all the pieces.
If you could tell yourself, I don't know the pieces, that would be a better place to start then thinking you do know the pieces. Yeah, I don't even think I've ever really thought about it in a way that I should be teaching it, right? It's something I. It was really hard to learn. Why wouldn't I think about teaching it, right? Yeah. I don't know.
That's a crazy thing to think, but it, you know, we give some guidance like you need to talk to people, but the inner workings of it, maybe it just because I'm an engineer and I'm sure other disciplines have very much thought of. Yeah, and I don't recall. I'm getting so full that we forget that there's other aspects. But yeah, I'm being concise when you're particularly when you're communicating some technical things, being thoughtful of your language, never expecting any background knowledge from people. We do that way too often.
Meg Riker: Oh yeah, right.
Becky Larson: And people feel uncomfortable. You know, there are so many times I just started always saying, I don't know what you're talking about to people. And it has been so surprising to me in a room that I'm like, I'm going to be an idiot here, but this is a waste of my time. Right? And I have to say, I don't know what you're talking about. And then so many other people are like, either do.
Can we just say that more often? Going to say so Then the person talking realizes that I'm not connecting with these people through this kind of information because, you know, I'm being too technical or I'm assuming a background because I'm talking to people about this every day that do have this background because I work in this little pod and then I go out there and I forget, Oh, yeah, that's a weird term. Right? Yeah.
Yeah. And I think like even thinking about. So I need to think about what other people want. And then I had to tell myself, I don't know what other people want. And it's a constant. You have to constantly remind yourself because you get a few, like you hold one session and you're like, Oh, I learned some things. And then you start thinking, I know now, and you had to keep reminding yourself, I don't know.
The best way to know what people want is to keep asking people what they want or to put it idea together and get feedback. I mean, we never do that enough through the process. I see a lot of people that finish the process and then get feedback and you're so resistant feedback at that point, right?
You're like, My idea is good, and now you're attacking me and my idea. The sooner you integrate the, the quicker you can do that, the better the process feels. And I try to tell my graduates and sometimes stop thinking of me as telling you you're wrong, thinking of me and you trying to work towards a better solution.
And if you come in thinking your solutions already, the solution that isn't going to work. I mean and I mean I say I tell my graduates that I try to remind myself of that too, because it happens to me all the time. Just the other day in a meeting, I had to stop and be like, okay, I'm being defensive about this and I need to back off. So I want you guys to start again with your critiques of why this is so hard.
So we all make mistakes and that's hard is hard to.
Meg Riker: Taking any sort of criticism is hard. But as engineers, I think we have to sign up for a little bit. Absolutely. We're trying to solve complicated problems. You mentioned in your pre-interview that you thought the world was built where we all equal before you joined academia, but your experience in academia has changed that perspective. Why is that?
Becky Larson:I think I well, I think a few things. I was naive. I think I was privileged enough to live in a bubble where I was protected from some of that, where I was encouraged, and the people who protected me loved me and wanted me to be able to have whatever others had. And so I don't think it's a bad thing to be protected.
I think I was lucky. I was lucky to live so many years with this. Like I try to think of my young self. I was so impassioned. I always thought I knew what I wanted and how to stand up for like everything was clear to me as a kid. I was just thinking that the other day when I saw a picture of myself as a little kid, and then eventually people's thoughts start to creep into your passion and your, I don't know, your confidence.
Society pushes on that a little bit. You know, you felt it a little bit, but once there's a lot of science about this, about once I got into academia, there's a lot of difference about being a peer as to being somebody who's thought of as below somebody else, right? So when certain people were my superiors, they were encouraging and supportive.
When you become a peer, people think of it differently. Um, you know, I got here immediately. I was put on a social committee and people would ask me things like, I need an opinion from a graduate student and you know, it just and, and more and more terrible things that I don't need to get into those stories. But I started feeling that I didn't know what I was doing and that these people were right and that they even when I thought I had a really good idea, I was letting them push that idea down and I wasn't.
And I was feeling conflicted. Like, I feel like this is a good idea, but I'm getting all this really negative feedback or, you know, sometimes it would hit me in a time that I just would be so stunned by it. I had decided after a lot of bad things had happened, I want to do something positive. So I started a women's shop right in my department and I got a lot of really harsh critique for that that I was not expecting, right?
I found the money for it. I donated my time. So, you know, there was a gentleman in my department who also the only time I didn't think people would why would they have a problem with that? And then I realized, you know, in certain circumstances, their problem is sexism. This is what this is. And I went through so much time fighting the feeling, thinking, not sure there's this unsure is this, you know, I don't want to call it sexism when maybe maybe I am not just doing this quite right.
And I certainly probably I absolutely was not doing everything right. But there was also sexism present there, too. Right. And so it was really pushing on me in an additional way that a new job and new responsibilities and pressure were also pushing. So the force of those two things together are brutal and your your confidence in yourself. Your question, it's the questioning of if you really know what's going on or not.
I'm like trusting myself to know that this is happening. That was really the what some of the most brutal things I've been through in my life. And I was lucky in that my dad actually, I had a lot of problems, that some of the sexism was very overt, but I would be so dumb, like so shocked by I didn't say anything.
And that doesn't feel like me, right? I like I like to know that's wrong.
But I wouldn't say anything because, you know, I was feeling these ways and it shocked me sometimes. And my dad actually helped me to like he was like, you know, if you make a statement, let's repeat it over and over and over again. Right. That is something you want to live with, that any time somebody says something to you that you feel is not aboveboard, you see this statement that really helped me.
So if so, then at least I wasn't saying this wasn't happening, right. I wasn't being complicit. I wasn't not standing up for myself. So I had the statement and I wasn't aggressive. It was just a way to say, you know, for me, I can't remember the statement. And that makes me really sad. But to say the statement of, you know, I don't agree with that and I don't feel supported with that and that I think it was something more on the lines of I don't agree with what you're saying, and that goes against my values.
And and so that wasn't saying you're saying it, you know, like but it was just here's and here's a calm response that I want to have. This is a response. I want it's not my job to change you. It's not my job to think it is my job to make myself feel okay with what I'm living through. And so that's what I said there.
So being in this environment was tough. There was a lot. The questioning was the worst. Then there was the knowledge of that it was going on. Then there was the digging around and finding out It's going on much more than I thought it was, and I'm seeing it everywhere now, and that's probably a little bit a product of your inflamed and aggravated and your emotions are tweaked.
And then I started fighting it and it got worse. It got so much worse and that people that I thought were friends and supporters also giving me this really negative, because when you start challenging the system, you're going to get pushback even from the people who I think wanted to do the right thing. But when they push, they got pushback.
It wasn't affecting them. So then they just want it to go away. They just want you to go away. They want the problem to go away. Let's keep the problem under wraps. So in it, it got really bad. It got to the point where I didn't want my job anymore. I wanted to leave and it was a really painful situation.
But I made some changes and I kept standing up for what I believed in. I think it affected change for good. How much? Maybe just a little tweak was it worthwhile? I went through? I don't know. You know, I think there was a point where I was sticking it out in my department and staying there because I felt this obligation to the next generation.
Right? Like, how can I leave this to the next group? But at some point I just realized I'm just brutalizing myself, right?
And that I can't get people to do things without power. Without power, you can do nothing. So I kept pushing those above me to make some changes. They were too slow. I did it. Not everybody can change things overnight. I get that. But I don't think the response has been big enough. We've known about these problems for a very long time.
They reported them at Faculty Senate on a regular basis. And they make no changes, you know, no significant changes. And so they they tweak it. And I get that there's a difficult process to go through, but I think they hide behind that a little bit. Yeah. And so I made some changes. And the most wonderful about that, I didn't know if it was the right thing to do, but it was one of those things when I said earlier, you know, you make a change and you see how things are in two years and that's I'm still in the two years, but I feel better.
So I moved departments to one that was more supportive. And it's been a really wonderful change for me personally. But the outpouring of support after that from so many women who I thought would tell me that I bailed, you know, like I bailed, I was leading a charge. I said I was going keep going and I bailed. They were actually like, good for you, good for you.
You did the right thing. You showed people that we don't have to just keep taking this anymore. So that was like a really maybe the nicest compliment anyone has ever given me. So that was really nice. But it's I like to talk about it because it's there. It's going to be there for everybody, even if they want to pretend it's not there.
A lot of people do. A lot of people want to pretend these things don't exist, but they're there. And they affect people. I, I think some of the hardest thing is learning how many people have the experience, right? How many are walking around and not even saying how it's affecting them, like how brutal it is, and then not even being able to see it. And I know why I didn't know that. I understood that before. But after speaking up and the brutality that I felt that came with that, I understand.
I understand. You know, you know, I know a lot of colleagues that have children. Right. And so totally quitting their job and leaving like that's a huge risk to take. That's a why should I have to uproot my life and then realizing there is no guarantee where I'm going is going to be any better. Right? Right. When it's a societal issue, how can I say it's going to be any any better somewhere else?
Right. And so, you know, I, I think meaningful steps are slow. I think they come I think there's places where you can get what you want. And I encourage people make to make the changes you can, but don't think it's on you without power to make a change because you don't have the power. If the people with the power aren't to hear it and aren't willing to do the meaningful things, you're just going to be torturing yourself.
You know, if it's not something you can live with, it's time to start looking at other alternatives.
Meg Riker: Why do you think programs like UW Medicine's Women in Science and Engineering Learning Community, which you are part of, are important for preventing things like this from happening in the future or making it better for the next generation?
Becky Larson: And that's a it's an interesting question. So I think my thoughts on this have evolved Again, I mean, everything of all right, I should stop saying that. But when I started, I wanted to like all the feelings I had, right. All the things had to do with I wanted to be able in my seminar to like, this is what you're going to run into.
This is what you're going to see. I don't want it to blindside you. I want you to have some skills. I want you to know your value. I want you to know how to fight for more money. I want you to know how to invest your money. Like I want all of you to become these super whoever you want to be without these to be prepared for the things that people are going to put on you.
What I found was at that stage, they're not ready for all of that. Right. And it was it's like this weird walk between not ruining their excitement for their lives and what they're doing, but also preparing them. So I think have shifted a little and that more. I want to empower them and make them know there's a community.
When I knew when I started speaking up more, more, I found a community, some really interesting people that helped me think men and women and, you know, all not binary, all types of people that could provide you a community of support. Right. Who like when I was fighting for something, I remember this day where these two other faculty members said, you know, I know that you're really trying here, but you might we need to shift about how we're thinking about this.
So they taught me to stop being so my passion was good. But let's use our brains to to try to you to get things to change. Right? So that was really helpful for me to have these other people who I knew were in the same sphere, to have the support in the thoughts and the brainstorming with them. And so I think creating a community where you feel supported is the most important thing, right?
You can't really do anything without that. And if you don't have that, you feel alone, you feel struggle, you feel desperation. There's a million things like.
That are solved terrible. And I don't want anyone to feel that way. So if you can have some community, if you can know other people feel these things, it just feels it's just better. It's just all around better. So that's my first goal and I think that's really important. And then making them aware of some of the situation without it being so heavy, so let's just talk about some of the things we're going to do and then really showing them how to empower yourself, how other women have been empowered, how others have come together or done something amazing and you know that they're out there and it doesn't need to be that you solved world hunger.
It just showing up that you came, that you did your job, that you were allowed to do your science and you didn't have to be on the social committee. Right. Whatever you want. Your story to be you. I want you to be empowered to make that story happen. Right. And so that's that's how I feel. Like if you can start getting that message out there, I am finally getting through.
I'm 40, right? I'm finally starting to if I can help anybody, have some of these tools at 20, that is, I hope it will be a less painful journey. I'm sure everybody has paid in their life. Everything is going to come, but maybe that that one can be a little less awful than it was for others, and I'm sure more awful than some people who came before me.
Right. So, you know, I got to do my part. Someone did their part. I want to do my part.
Meg Riker: Yes.
Becky Larson: It's you know, we can talk about it and I can like, Oh, yeah, But it's it it's a brutal thing. It's a hard thing to live through. And I don't think people understand the impact it has on people's lives. I don't think they understand that it's not just you hurting my work. It leaks into everything else, right?
It affects my life. What your behavior, this systematic way of being unjust is it It really impacts people's life. And the amazing thing is small changes in the right direction really inspire people and make them feel great. And that's really wonderful thing.
Meg Riker: In your opinion, how can we address gender gaps or just overall gaps? And it minorities in STEM and executive leadership and academia? How can we how can we improve these ratios?
Becky Larson: So there are so many ways and so many proven ways and so many things we know and a lot of things we don't know. But I really hate when people hide behind that. We we don't know what to do. It's like, that's nonsense. Number one for me is transparency. We need systems and we need them to be transparent.
We make them we make we need to make changes. We can't just keep on the status quo. We've proven over and over again with racism. Status quo is not the jam. Right. We need to move on. We need to try things. It's very easy to have a system. I always push for systems are easy to define. I'm an engineer, so of course I like systems, but you can define them, you put them there.
The great thing about our system is, you know what I can see when I look at it? I can look at it as independent person and say, “Am I getting to move through this the same way everybody else is? Am I getting this fair?” Here's a few benchmarks you put in there. Maybe they're not perfect, maybe they're not right.
But I can see if these particular things that are supposed to be there in the structure are happening for me. Number one. Number two, we adjust them, we get feedback, we learn they're not right. We learn they're having some unintended consequences. We adjust the system. And these systems can be done in so many ways. Pay–easiest, biggest thing that causes everybody to be angry.
And I always hated when I stood up for pay. It is it is not that I'm a money grubbing, dirty like I want my $10 is because it makes me feel like a piece of shit that you don't value me like you value that person. And I am working just as hard, if not harder. And sometimes it's very clear and you are not compensating me, which is the way we tell people their value here.
And I'm sorry, but that's the way it works. So I get really mad about that. That's easy ways. There's data, you look at data, you make strongholds, you use money for increasing those kinds of equity issues, all kinds of things. There is a lot to work through. People say, Oh, but, but some people have been here longer. It's like, No, it's very easy to take all that into account.
You know, I always push for things like with pay, it's like, well, part of the money can go to equity, part of it can go to merit. Let's decide the percentages. Let's make some agreement right. Let's talk about making a structure. Let's keep it simple and then we move through that. And boom, look at that transparency. Everybody knows the system, and away we go.
Tenure, committees, you know, even even thinking about like as a female faculty, I also have to teach WISE, there's not an equivalent thing a dude's doing, right. That's that's not a thing. So we have to keep putting our effort into things. We're on more committees. It’s documented over and over and over again. And yet nothing changes.
They do nothing. Even people who I think are my allies would sometimes tell me, we asked you to be on too many committees right before they said, but I need you to be on another committee. F that right. You can't say you're a proponent for change and then keep doing the things because it's easier, right? It's easier for you to not go ask that a-hole over there that doesn't want to be on a committee than to just ask me because, hey, I'm a decent person, right?
Right. That's not right. That's not right. And so these kinds of things are really easy to knock out. You make simple benchmarks, you make minimum standards. We can't make everybody do everything. But it's very easy to say, here's some minimums you have to meet after this. What you want to do, so long as it's, you know, working towards the mission, you have that flexibility because our–I mean, as a professor, there's other industries where maybe it's not that, but you make clear benchmarks what the roles are.
That's what it is. Right? That–there's– it's not that hard. People make it that hard because they don't want to change. That's the that's the reality. So I think clear goals, clear focused systems that show us promotions, what our time allotments need to be, what our pay structure needs to be, how we agree as a community that we're going to treat people.
These are all not really that difficult to implement. They require attention and adjustment and all kinds of things. And there's a lot of great people on the campus working on a lot of these things. The problem, in my opinion, is that the power has to then approve them and put the put the meat to it. Right. So there's like a you know, people say carrot and stick approach and I'm really into that, right?
You can attract people with carrots. But there has to be a minimum level that we say and we enforce and we have to have consequences for when behaviors are terrible or people do these things outside of the systems we've agreed that are the standards of how we want to do things. So I know that's a big overarching thing. It would take four years to go through.
Meg Riker: Yeah.
Becky Larson: Of this, to talk about all the pieces. But they're out there and there's a lot of great ideas. And so it's really just that the people up at the top don't want to enforce them and and that's because they're going to get some pushback and it's going to it's going to be a challenge for the people who do have a lot of power and are benefiting from the systems that we currently have in place.
So this or that. But what I've learned is that people can kind of find this middle ground if you have the discussions.
Meg Riker: If you have conversations with people.
Becky Larson: But what happens is a lot of times it's not even malicious. There is malicious that does exist. So I want to say– people want to pretend malicious still isn’t here at this university and in our society. It absolutely is. But there are a lot of people who it’s just a burden and it's a difficult thing to talk about.
It's uncomfortable, but there's a lot of ways to work through that and make it more clear. It's like we have a goal. Let's move through these goals.
Meg Riker: And yeah, absolutely.
Becky Larson: Yeah.
Meg Riker: This kind of a related question, but if you feel comfortable sharing your answer to it, what role do you think health care access plays An impacting one's ability to become successful in as a STEM professional, but also in any profession?
Becky Larson: Wow, that's interesting. I, I would say my, my, I'm not super well versed in health care, but I am I will say I know that health care, food security, energy, worrying about even you know, I think it's even as simple as like if my family is having a bunch of trouble, that is going to overwhelm me, you know, and my thought process and affect my learning abilities.
Right? So the more and more we can provide people with stability in all of these areas is really important. It's really important. And I know that maybe, you know, that we can't fix everything. Sometimes she will say, but shouldn't that be our goal? Right? Why wouldn't we be trying to fix everything so as many things as we can help them as many things is that as we can afford or can figure out how to support and I think there are some like health care and pay.
Those are easy. There are some hard ones, right? Those ones are pretty easy. Why? Why? We know the answer. People need them. Yeah. Let's figure out a way to give it to them now. World has been challenging, right? I. I found my position here challenging. I feel stronger. You know, I do hate that where everybody says what doesn't hurt you makes you stronger.
That's actually really not true. They've proven that many times. The challenges that we force people to go through to be successful we can we can fix. We can make those better. They don't need to be that hard. And it's not I think as a person, I don't want underrepresented in any area to have to endure additional hardships. Right.
Why would we be wanting any one group to have to feel that additional. Bernard And if we can do something to improve that, I want to support that. I also think a lot of people might think, you know, there's so many things going on and if in the end, our mission isn't to try to uplift people and make lives better, what is our mission then?
Right. And that's part of education. That's that's part of what I think is the mission of this University of the Wisconsin idea. And so I would hope that we become leaders in some of these areas. And I think in some little particular areas, we are I think I see some movement in some positive direction, some honesty. You know, I know I'm dragging this on longer, but some honesty about what the issues are.
Right. What I have found is when I am experiencing something like when I was experiencing sexism, everybody kept trying to tell me that wasn't happening. And that made it way worse for me. I don't know why they couldn't just say, Yeah, I agree with you that– we haven't figured this out. Do you know how less painful it would have been for me if they said that?
And they said okay. Or they didn't make a fake committee where what I call them where you, “Hey, we want your opinions on this.” And then they don't do anything with the output. Like what? That's just wasting– I see what you're doing. I see you're just trying to pacify me or what?
That just angers me more. So I think sometimes we have these structures that make it difficult for us. But I will say what I love about this university and working here is I found a community that has been really supportive. I have learned so much. I have traveled the world. I have met another other amazing people who are making really cool changes at this university.
So I guess I want to end– if there's not more questions, I want to end up with some optimism. Um, not that we don't have a lot of work to do, but that I feel we're up to the challenge. Like we have the ability and there are people that are not going to quit until it gets better. So at least there's that.
Meg Riker: Yes, Yes.
Michelle Chung: So, Meg, what stuck out to you from your talk with Becky?
Meg Riker: So one of the thoughts I had when listening to this interview is that no one has all the answers, but sometimes we come across people who know how to make effective decisions and change, which I think Dr. Larson really embodied, especially those who have experienced discrimination or harmful environments. And we could all improve by listening to what those people have to say, people who can articulate their experiences and recommendations and my mind are really invaluable to an institution because they're not trying to do the institution harm.They're just trying to speak their piece in a direct and positive way.
Michelle Chung: I think that's really important that in order for an organization to improve or run smoothly, you have to take into consideration things that will change the status quo. And with Becky and her journey, like she was that like agent of change.
Meg Riker: Yeah, I agree. Another thought I had when we came to the end of this, I was just so impressed with, like, her bravery and her straightforwardness and her honesty overall in this entire process. And we've been interviewing for a year now. So many more women are thoughtful about their jobs and their experiences and honest with us that I thought would be I was really inspired by that throughout this entire process.
But also in this interview specifically, Becky really became someone I, I look up to. You know, I'm someone who can give that straightforward advice that's really, really hit home and was just so well spoken about it. And I was just so impressed in the last that I had is her speaking on passion really struck me and struck a chord within me.
So she said, you can rediscover your passions if you step back, but that can be difficult. And this resonated a lot with me because I feel that in academically rigorous programs like engineering, but also many other types, it can be hard to maintain certain. I've definitely seen that happen in my life and made me feel more normal now that I've learned how to manage the academic side and again, getting into my passions as I get towards the end of my degree.
But it's shown me that this doesn't go away as you get older. It's just something you have to learn to deal with. Yeah, I wonder what you were thinking about that because you are graduated but you have a job also. How is that impacting like your passions and maybe your rediscovery of your passion.
Michelle Chung: Her experience, your experience? I've felt something super similar and what you said earlier, where it's not something that goes away. This brings to mind so many of the conversations we had last season about balance and like how it's going to be like a constant shifting of your priorities. And there will be those times where you get completely consumed by like work or a school and then it's, you know, taking that step back.
It's not taking a step back. And then you're like, I'll chill for the rest of your life. It's, you know, accepting that you're probably going to have to dive into something again and maybe lose sight of those passions. And maybe there are some people that can kind of strike that balance and, you know, maintain it. But yeah, that's just something that I've noticed.
And like with everyone that we've talked to that it kind of seems to be the trend where just like it's going to keep happening.
Meg Riker: Yeah. To me it really like deconstructs this idea that you can do it all and really taking it from the perspective sometimes it's going to be really busy and sometimes it's not. And when to you jump into your passions, maybe again, maybe new ones and when to recognize that, okay, I not have time for this now, but maybe in a month, three months, six months, two years.
I will. Yeah, yeah, yeah. That's what I took away from this one. Really enjoyed it.
Michelle Chung: And that's our show for today.
Meg Riker: Thank you to Dr. Rebecca Larson of the Nelson Institute and all of you listening in.
Michelle Chung: Please subscribe rate review and share this podcast with friend.
Meg Riker: You can find the Wisconsin Energy Institute at energy.wisc.edu and the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center at glbrc.org
Michelle Chung: Georgie This episode was produced by Michelle Chung and Meg Riker. We'll see you next time on Propelling Women in Power.
Meg Riker: What is your superpower?
Becky Larson: Superpower?
I just keep going, I guess. I know that's kind of a lame superpower, but I feel like I don't give up and I continue to try to turn bad things into helpful or positive, you know, like I try to use them to be inspiring or to help move something forward and help other people through them. So I don't know, you just just keep I just feel like you just keep going.