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Dr. Georgina King is an associate professor in the Institute of Earth Surface Dynamics at the University of Lausanne, where she leads the research group ICE: Interactions between Climate and Earth surface processes. As a geochronologist, she dates the ages of rocks, sediments, and geologic events, studying how and when environmental changes have occurred on Earth over the last few million years. Her research focuses on climatic shifts and their effect on the Earth’s surface in the Himalaya, Atacama Desert, Japanese Alps, and European Alps.


Growing up, Dr. King always enjoyed history (particularly English castles and heritage) and science. “When I was really little, I used to sketch robots that would solve problems, like helping with cleaning,” she shares. She also loved to read science fiction, particularly space operas like Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds. At school, she studied biology and geography, and considered pursuing archaeology or English literature before majoring in geography at the University of Oxford.


After completing her bachelor’s degree, Dr. King applied for a PhD position unsuccessfully. She then took a break and went snowboarding in St. Anton, Austria and Val Thorens, France. After a year, she knew she wanted to go back to school. She got her master’s in Quaternary Science at Royal Holloway/University College London and PhD in Earth Sciences at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.


When Dr. King first learned about optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating, she thought “this method sounds super dodgy,” but acknowledged its importance for understanding environmental changes during the Quaternary Period (the last 2.58 million years of Earth’s history). She explains that luminescence is “like a charged battery or a filled glass of water: if sediments are exposed to sunlight, this drains the battery or empties the glass.” After sediments are buried, electrons accumulate over time in the crystal lattice of the mineral grains. Dr. King collects sediment grains with a circular tube, protects them from light, and measures their luminescence to get at the amount of time since they were deposited. Dating helps her understand how and when landscapes formed, and how they respond to climatic changes.


Dr. King benefited from “fantastic” mentors and colleagues throughout her academic career. Her master’s supervisor invested time in discussing concepts with her so she could understand processes, gave timely feedback, and was available to her. Her PhD advisors were “less hands-on, but always positive and motivating.” They helped her discern signal from noise in her data and realize that “not everything is going to work, and that’s OK.” Other supervisors and colleagues inspired her to do rigorous analysis and quality control as well as “see the bigger picture: ask big questions and undertake projects with a larger impact.”


In her current role as a research group leader, Dr. King fosters a collegial environment and helps students become independent, confident scientists. She advises her students to read widely, and never underestimate the importance of previous studies. They should always keep the broader context of their research in mind, and “always be passionate—otherwise, there’s no point.”


Dr. King solves various time-related problems: both organizational (how to balance mentoring students, which takes time and patience, with doing her own research) and scientific (how to model processes that operate over millions of years on time scales humans can analyze). OSL dating is difficult to benchmark against other dating methods, which are either too young or too old. She is always looking for the “Goldilocks” dating method that is “just right” for her time periods of interest. “Timing is everything,” she says. “We need dates to understand how quickly landscape evolution processes happen.”


*Thank you to Dr. Georgina King for sharing her story with 500WS Bern-Fribourg. Click here to find out more about her research.


Gabrielle Vance

M.Sc. Geology



As the representation of women in university faculties increases, we have increasing chances to engage in the leadership of academic institutions. Leadership positions include intermediate positions of Center Directors, Department Heads, Deans, Vice Presidents, and Provosts as well as top executive positions of President, Rector, or Chancellor. Institutional policies and important decisions regarding hiring, promotion, and allocation of resources are made or at least strongly influenced by those in leadership positions.


Women remain severely underrepresented in university leadership world-wide (see figure, data source [1]). This will only change if we are willing to accept the challenges of top leadership and also to engage in leadership at the intermediate levels that are typical stepping stones toward top positions.



I have described my own experience as Director of the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (Eawag) in a 2019 paper [2]. In reflecting on my more than fifteen years of experience in this position and on my upcoming retirement at the end of this year, I propose eight questions regarding academic leadership. These questions are mainly directed to women who are considering whether to move into positions of academic leadership but may also be useful to women who are already in such positions.

Question 1. What do you want to accomplish in your leadership position? There can be many motivations for seeking positions of responsibility and authority. A leader’s goals can also evolve during tenure in a leadership position. We need to understand our goals to be able to assess whether we are satisfied with our progress, to evaluate whether we need to change our strategy or approach, and to decide how long to continue in a specific leadership position. We also need to consider how well our goals align with those of the institution we will be leading, since lack of alignment can lead to opposition.


Question 2. What constraints will you have to deal with? Are you likely to face opposition in achieving your goals or as a woman in a leadership position? Where would opposition originate? Would it be exercised through official or unofficial channels? To what extent will you be able to use your resources to overcome constraints?


Question 3. What resources will you have at your disposal? Will your resources allow you to achieve your goals and influence others in your organization? If not, can you acquire (or negotiate for) additional resources? Negotiating for additional resources is more effective while you are being recruited rather than after you have accepted a position. It is always better to have clarity and written confirmation of promised resources.


Question 4. What trade-offs will you make to accommodate your new responsibilities? Leadership positions come with new responsibilities and demands for time and energy. Very few of us have excess capacity, which means that we would need to adjust our current allocation of time and energy to accommodate new demands. How will these changes affect us and others who depend on us professionally or personally? Do we have personal and professional support systems in place to enable our leadership activities? Professional coaching or leadership training can help us to address these issues for ourselves and in our professional and personal circles.


Question 5. Who will you be able to depend on for advice and support? All leaders need friends and allies – these are not the same thing. Friends care about our interests and good friends (inside and outside the organization) will tell us what we need to hear, even when we may not want to hear it. Allies, especially those within the power structure of the institution, serve to advance mutual interests. Identify and cultivate your allies as early as possible so that you can call on them when you need to promote change or counter opposition.


Question 6. What are the leverage points for change in your organization? All organizations must have the capacity to change, if only in response to new opportunities or external constraints. At the same time, all organizations are resistant to change. Common levers for change are recruiting new people to the organization and providing incentives for current staff to pursue new directions. We need to understand how these levers operate within our own organization and how we can work with allies to promote change.


Question 7. How is information shared in your organization? There are always both formal and informal channels for information flow within an organization. Informal channels are often selective and can work to disadvantage particular groups or individuals. Formal channels can be based either on ‘push’ (where information is actively disseminated) or ‘pull’ (where information is available but must be sought out). It is impossible to overstate how quickly information (or its availability) is forgotten or how often it must be repeated to have its intended effect.


Question 8. What are the formal and informal power structures in your organization? While formal power structures are displayed in organizational charts, informal power structures are harder to identify. Informal power often arises from personal relationships or access to resources (including information) outside of formal channels. Underestimating or ignoring informal power structures can have unpleasant consequences.


These eight questions may seem somewhat daunting. I do not mean them to distract from the many satisfactions and rewards that come with leadership. Rather, I hope that they will help women to navigate leadership challenges. I have written this specifically for women not only because of our underrepresentation in leadership position. We also face particular challenges because our exercising of authority and agency violates stereotypical expectations for women, which triggers hostility and criticism [3]. With preparation and the support of friends and allies, however, we can be successful and help to shape our academic institutions for the future [4]. Courage!


References

1. Mayo, N. (2019) "One in six universities worldwide led by a woman" Times Higher Education, https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/one-six-universities-worldwide-led-woman. Data source: International Association of Universities’ World Higher Education Database.

2. Hering, J. G. (2019) “Women as Leaders in Academic Institutions: Personal Experience and Narrative Literature Review”, Pure and Applied Chemistry, 91(2): 331–338, https://doi.org/10.1515/pac-2018-0603.

3. Sieghart, M. A. (2022) The Authority Gap: Why women are still taken less seriously than men, and what we can do about it. Penguin, London, 384 pp.

4. Hering, J. G., Green, S. A., Heckmann, L., Katehi, L. P.B., Maurice, P. A. & Young, S. (2022). A call for an alliance between female academic leaders and early career researchers to improve the academic STEM system. Elephant in the Lab. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.6514731


Thanks to Prof. Sarah Green (Michigan Technological University) and Prof. Emer. Patricia Maurice (Notre Dame) for their helpful comments.


Prof. Janet G. Hering (@JanetGHering)

Director, Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science & Technology (Eawag)

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