State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Celebrating Women in Science: Disaster-Preparedness Researcher Thalia Balkaran

As a postdoctoral research scientist at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness, Thalia Balkaran focuses on disaster management and community resilience in the small islands of the Caribbean. Specifically, Balkaran helps develop disaster-preparedness plans that prioritize some of the most vulnerable inhabitants: children.

In the Q&A below, she discusses the importance of support networks and encouraging girls and women to feel like they belong in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields from an early age.

How did you get into science?

thalia balkaran

Science was one of the subjects I enjoyed most in high school. I especially gravitated toward and excelled in geography. During geography class, I was introduced to the field of disaster management, which I currently research as a postdoctoral scientist at the Columbia Climate School.

Living in the Caribbean, a disaster-prone region, further fueled my passion for the field. I have seen firsthand how sudden-impact disasters have the potential to severely affect a country’s economic and social fabric for many years. This perspective gave me a deeper understanding of the importance of disaster risk reduction. It is particularly critical to use the knowledge and scientific expertise from STEM fields to contribute to adaptation and resilience efforts.

How can we continue to support and mentor women scientists?

It is important, particularly in the education field, to support and create opportunities for female scientists. This can be done across varying disciplines and at different education levels from the earliest age. Fostering interest in science from elementary through high school would encourage girls to pursue science as a career.

There need to be investments in scholarships that target women and minority women specifically, especially at the tertiary level. Female scientists should also educate and interact with younger women through opportunities, such as targeted invitations by schools or through career fairs to allow for the mentorship of the next generation of female STEM scientists.

Within the workspace, accommodations should be made specifically for women to ensure a safe work environment. Research by and for women should also be encouraged through funding and other research support.

Do you have any advice for younger women or girls who are interested in entering the field?

It is essential for girls to be encouraged to explore all options available to them from a young age. If the traditional route of going from high school to college is not possible, find alternative routes to get to where you want to be professionally. This can include avenues such as community college or working while in school.

Younger women in science should also find a mentor, someone approachable who can guide them within their respective fields. In addition to education, it is important to be well-rounded, find balance, and ensure that you have extracurricular activities, whether through volunteering or pursuing a hobby. These activities will contribute to your joy and who you are as a person.

Also, never be intimidated or think that your opinion is not important. Speak up and let your voice be heard. Women can and should contribute equally to conversations within varying fields.

Meet some of the women scientists at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in our Science for the Planet series; read about others from DEES, IRI and CIESIN; and learn how Columbia University is promoting women in science.

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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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