“This Is What A Great Lakes Scientist Looks Like” is an article series from Michigan Sea Grant celebrating the many intersecting and unique identities embodied by Great Lakes researchers and knowledge-creators. If you’re interested in contributing your perspective to the series, contact Geneva Langeland at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Christine Kitchens
Christine Kitchens (she/her) is a research laboratory specialist with the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR). She’s one of many sets of “boots on the ground” with responsibilities ranging from sample collection to analysis to writing up data. Christine received a B.S. in Environmental Science from North Carolina State University in 2014 and a M.S. in Natural Resources and Environment from the University of Michigan in 2017.
How would you describe your current work with the Great Lakes?
My current work varies based on the season. During the summer, I’m one of many folks who helps carry out various monitoring missions in the Great Lakes. Every week, we collect water samples and process them for various parameters. My co-worker counted and discovered that, for each weekly Western Lake Erie monitoring cruise, we generate almost 1,000 samples for different parameters (e.g. chlorophyll a, total phosphorus, etc).
While all the weekly recurring cruises go on, we normally have several one-off experiments happening. For example, in 2019 we collected sediment cores and incubated them over the course of a 24-hour period to see how different nutrients move in and out of the sediment with changes in oxygen. Another time, we collected water from Lake Michigan and ran 12-hour light experiments to understand how different-sized particles in the water affected light attenuation.
While summers are an absolute whirlwind, winter is a time where we put our noses to the grindstone and analyze the thousands of samples we collected during the field season and analyze that data. Right now, I’m finishing processing samples collected from the central basin of Lake Erie for manganese analysis and analyzing that data. Hopefully the data will help us understand manganese flux as it relates to seasonal hypoxia.
What got you interested in science, and how did you end up as a Great Lakes scientist?
I think I always knew that I belonged SOMEWHERE in STEM. I just didn’t realize where in the beginning. Back in undergrad, I initially pursued a B.S. in Environmental Engineering. I remember the class where we started learning about drinking water and waste water management and something just clicked in my brain. I couldn’t get enough on the topic and even skipped class to go on a club outing to a local drinking water plant. After a particularly harrowing semester, I realized that I wasn’t as suited to engineering as I thought. I knew I loved water science though, so I jumped ship to the Environmental Science program and started working in a soil science lab that analyzed arsenic in well water. After graduating with my B.S., I went on to attend grad school at the University of Michigan. There, I completed thesis research focused on overwintering algal bloom ecology under the mentorship of Tom Johengen. My thesis research involved me working directly with CIGLR. After I graduated, I stayed at CIGLR and continue to rock some serious “women in STEM” energy.
What’s your favorite thing about studying the Great Lakes?
Honestly, the best part about studying the Great Lakes is the passion the public has for them. Not every population has a deep appreciation for natural resources and the environment. It can be pretty demoralizing trying to champion science when various players in the public and private sphere don’t value the environment you’re trying to understand and protect. In the Great Lakes, people from all walks are so passionate about water. Enjoying that kind of public support and involvement generates an amazing synergy that makes those long nights in a lab worthwhile.
Has your queer identity intersected with your journey as a scientist?
Honestly, for a long time, I intentionally made sure my queer identity DIDN’T intersect with my identity as a scientist. I identify as pansexual and polyamorous. Pansexual meaning that sex or gender identity doesn’t influence my attraction to someone. Polyamorous meaning that I practice ethical nonmonogamy. In a field that was seemingly very cisgender and heteronormative, the very thought of broaching the subject of my identity brought on epic levels of anxiety. So instead I just didn’t talk about it at all. As a result, I felt pretty isolated from a lot of my school peers and coworkers. My inability to talk about my home life made it challenging to authentically connect with people I met in my professional life. However, in an ironic twist, a student at UM SEAS (where I did my grad program) noticed my OkCupid profile and immediately messaged me. There apparently WAS a queer group within SEAS (I think they were a bit underground at the time) and they told me I should join the group. I remember attending the first happy hour and being stunned at the people who were also queer. Folks I never expected to be queer. I remember feeling elated to finally have my worlds crossing. Being able to be 100% my authentic self around fellow queer environmentalists allowed me to start being more open about my life to all the people in my life.
What’s a way that your coworkers or mentors have stepped up to support you? Or what’s a way that you wish they had?
Honestly, the greatest gift I’ve ever received from my coworkers has been their willingness to talk about their personal lives. Like I mentioned, I haven’t always been open about my identity at work (which has led to more than one mortifying grocery store encounter with a co-worker when I’ve been out and about with a partner they didn’t know about). But, as some of my coworkers started to be open about their personal lives, even at their most harrowing moments, it empowered me to feel comfortable doing the same. Extending that bit of trust and confidence has meant the world.
What advice might you give students interested in a career in science?
I’d say ask questions and that it’s okay to make mistakes. I made some pretty epic mistakes in my early science career (and still do from time to time these days). On these days, imposter syndrome rears its ugly head. I think to myself, “I made a mistake going into this field. I should have just kept working at McDonald’s.” The reality is so much of science is trial and error. Learning how to make mistakes and learn from them is a critical skill. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. I’ve seen a lot of people be too scared to ask questions because they’re afraid of looking dim-witted. The greatest thing I ever learned was to push back that feeling and ask what I want to know. Never fear advocating for yourself and the knowledge you need to be successful.
Find the first article in our “This Is What a Great Lakes Scientist Looks Like” series here: El Lower