Christina Riesselman’s work looks back to the ancient past to discover things about the future. As a leading geologist working to piece together the climate record of past millennia, her research plays a crucial part in understanding climate change.
Based at Otago University, where she works out of the geology and marine science departments, Christina says her work gives her “an amazing magnifying glass into the past.
“The discovery element is really the main thing that got me into science; it was the recognition that there are crucial things about how the planet works that we still don’t know.”
With two scientists as parents, her choice of career seems inevitable. But Christina, who grew up in the US, was determined to follow another path.
“I wanted to be a writer, not a scientist. Before university, science is all about the delivery of facts,” she says.
“Now, there is a move to more discovery-based learning, which is good because you need to foster that hunger and curiosity.
“Science is about ideas and discovery, sometimes it’s incremental. It’s about the accumulation of evidence. Every person is a scientist - you can look out the window and recognise that it’s raining, so you can predict that your grass will turn from brown to green. Science is about applying that understanding.
“And, as I found out, in science, you still get to tell stories. If you’re not good at telling the story of your work, no one will understand it.”
After completing her bachelor’s degree at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in Geology and English, Christina spent time at the Joint Oceanographic Institutions in Washington DC, then on to Stanford for her PhD. Following postdoctoral work as a Research Scientist with the US Geological Survey, she came to New Zealand in 2013 and began a series of Antarctic expeditions under the auspices of Otago University.
In 2015, Christina was awarded the inaugural L'Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science New Zealand Fellowship, part of a wider programme encouraging women to take up careers in science.
Grants like the L’Oreal-UNESCO fellowship, which she will use to help her examine geological evidence dating back to the end of the last Ice Age, are crucial to extending her work, she says.
“Every grant you receive has a different project and different objective attached to it, but it is all so iterative because it leads you to another question. It grows like a tree, with questions branching out. It’s very much a long game. The work I’m doing now has branched out from my PhD.”
Christina says her own study and experience has been free from gender issues.
“My academic role models were mostly men, but my peers, especially as a grad student, were 50/50.
“The dean of earth sciences at Stanford was a woman, the head of the department of marine science at Otago is a woman. I don’t feel like my male colleagues treat me like a ‘woman scientist’, they treat me like a good scientist.
“I also think that if you’re the kind of person who is really interested in your work and barge ahead to do it, that kind of silly stuff just rolls off your back. Within my cohort, the men are gender blind, but I know not every field is like that.”
She has high hopes that her success and love of what she does will encourage more women into science careers.
“I don’t see any more that young women are being discouraged from learning about science.
“People get into the field they’re passionate and curious about. The things that made me curious and got me interested in this work still keep me excited about it.”