Truth Talks: Alex

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meet alex,

a Gaucho, a photographer, a Woman Doing Science.

and so much more.

Alex juggles many hats and many passions and does so with grace, humility, enthusiasm, and a happiness that is infectious beyond words.

i met Alex in a sociology class back at UC Santa Barbara and was immediately in awe of not just how brilliant she is how hard she works to chase her dreams - no accidental success here - but how she does so with a smile on her face and enthusiasm that cannot be replicated. she’s so personable and cares so deeply that you cannot help but be motivated to put your heart on the line and turn your plans into action, too.

since it’s been four years, i figured it was way overdue to catch up and talk about grad school, photography, balance, and what it really looks like when a woman does science.

Hi. So I have to ask… are you a big coffee person, or are you more into tea?

Definitely coffee. 

Okay. 

What about you?

Um, well I used to drink soda. When we were friends at school, I drank soda every day, so now I’m getting into tea. Maybe one day I’ll transition into coffee.

Coffee is pretty delicious. I started drinking coffee when I started taking O-chem in college, because you can’t survive O-Chem without caffeine, so that really helped. Now, I’m totally addicted, so…

I feel like you can’t survive O-Chem at all, so…

No, O-Chem is pretty fun! It’s like a puzzle, so it’s actually not that bad. 

Oh my gosh. Are you working towards your PhD full-time? 

Yeah, it’s pretty much full-time. It’s like fifty hours a week... so that’s full-time. But then I do photography to make a little extra money on the side. 

Yeah, I was gonna say, fifty hours a week… kinda full time. 

Well, yeah, it’s full-time.

That’s crazy. So we met at school in a sociology class, but you didn’t study sociology as your major. What is your favorite memory from university, and what advice do you have for freshman or current kids? It’s weird to call them kids, but I feel so much older than them now.

We were like seventeen or eighteen when we started college. We were definitely kids. Favorite memories… I mean, that class we took together was just so great. It was definitely the first time where I learned real life skills in class, you know, in 152B? And I think one of the best things I learned in that class was the concept of stepping up and stepping back in the group discussions we had. I found myself very cognizant because I like to say my opinions because I’m a talker and I’m more of a natural leader, and so it was very helpful for me to see that I could be stepping forward too much and then tell myself to step back. It was really great practicing communication with other people and learning to respect each other’s opinions. 

What advice do you have for current freshman or Gauchos?

I think a lot of people come to school really burnt out, so try to minimize that burnt out feeling before you start college. I think that’s super important. Some of the best advice I got in my first year was to not sign up for too many things and just focus on school for the first quarter or two, because it’s really easy when you’re burnt out to overcommit to lots of extracurriculars or to get an on-campus job. I chose not to work my first year because I wanted to really focus on school, and that gave me a really good foundation to continue with my classes. Especially with things like chemistry and biology where, if you don’t get the foundation your first class, you’re not going to do well in the following ones. For your first few quarters, really focus on school and try not to do other things. Some people get so much enjoyment from those extra curriculars so maybe it’s hard advice to follow but I promise it’s worth it!

I think you’re more decisive and more committed in more ways than one once you get settled a bit.

I mean, really, your one job is to be the best student that you can be.

That’s what my parents always told me.

That’s your job, to be a student. 

Yeah! 

My parents said that, too.

Your parents seem so great from all the things that you would say in class.

Aw. Yeah, they’re pretty great. 

What was your favorite class that you took?

My favorite class that I took was Math 8. It is kind of like the introduction to theoretical math, so it’s the first stepping stone where you get away from things like calculus and solving differential equations and doing traditional math that you might think of, and it’s the first class where you learn how to do the logic behind math and writing proofs. It’s all this philosophy, really. It’s very much about “How do you form an argument? What are different ways to prove something? How does math work structurally?” It was about pattern recognition and writing and thinking. It was such a different view of math, and I just loved it so much. I took so many more math classes after that that were in the theoretical math, and it was just a really, really cool class. I had never thought about math that way. 

Right? It kind of flips everything upside down in the best way.

Yeah. Although, the 152 class was a really good class, too. I miss taking fun classes. When you’re in grad school, you don’t get to take any classes for fun.

Did you always know that you wanted to go to grad school and study exactly what you’re studying?

I definitely knew I always wanted to go to grad school, ever since I was maybe fifteen, just because I really fell in love with the ocean in San Diego and really wanted to study it. I got an internship at an aquarium and I kind of dug into it more and talked with people at the oceanography school, and everyone made it very clear that you need to get a PhD. My mom is an academic and a doctor, so I knew about the structure early on, which is very lucky, because I could kind of tailor my college experiences to get into grad school.

You were definitely really drive and you had a plan. When we met, you had a set plan.

Thanks, yes. I had that plan throughout college. 

It was nice, because when you follow a specific plan, it’s a lot easier to say yes or no to opportunities. If it doesn’t fit your plan, you know that and you can say no easier.

Do you have a plan for after you get your PhD and what you want to do with it?

Less of a plan is there, but I’m really interested in going into science policy. I study a lot of things that relate to climate change with nutrient cycling and carbon in the ocean and lakes. And like we talked about, current climate change policies are really not adequate at this point and we need a lot more legislation on climate change, and so I’d like to get into that field. Moving to DC is probably in my future.

Oh, my gosh. That’s so cool. I learned about the COP and all of that in class, and what slapped me in the face was the fact that we can go and get involved, but all we can do is pledge, there’s a different process to legally adopt it, and the fact that we can’t get any legislation on board in a race against time is just… beyond frustrating.

Yeah, it’s super frustrating.  

Do you think that our generation, or even the younger kids that are graduating high school now, will be the ones to finally crack down and solve a lot of these big issues that the needle maybe doesn’t seem to be moving much on? 

It’s really hard to say. I think that it’s definitely moving in some other countries that have a lot more of a focus on climate change science. I think when our generation is middle aged, when people in our generation are actually in office, I think that will be a bigger impact than just the younger people right now advocating. I think we have to wait a little bit longer, at least twenty or thirty more years, in order to see these big changes. But if we get democratic control of our government, I think that that will make a big difference, too. Unfortunately, we’re kind of at the whims of the current administration. Obama was pushing a lot of different climate policies and the science and funding related to it, but now you’re not even allowed to say “global warming” in Trump’s administration, so that makes it difficult. Our poor little liberal bubble just popped aggressively.

I’m interested to read books twenty years from now from people who theorize how it happened.  

Oh, yeah.

Because right now, so many people are like, “I just don’t know. I don’t know how it happened.” 

It just seems so unbelievable, you know?

It’s so interesting. We’ll see. Do you think that policy will be the bigger change leader when it comes to climate change, or do you think individual action and lifestyle changes will be just as necessary? I mean we need both and we need all of it. 

Right, you know, individual change is important and I should say I haven’t read any studies that talk about the different implications of individual action, but I think that in order to get climate change mitigated, we have to have state and country wide policies. I don’t think it can be just individuals, but I do think it could be just policy. Because these policies are really powerful. The main problem is not individuals; it’s companies and corporations. There’s just not enough incentives for companies to be clean and energy efficient or CO2 neutral. We also need more incentives for companies to not just be CO2 neutral, but CO2 negative, actually sequestering carbon, and we don’t really have enough tax breaks in place for that. We also don’t have enough research on carbon sequestration right now to implement it at the giant scale that it’s needed to even think about reaching Paris agreements. I think policy-wise, it’s really important for us to catch up.

I agree. Just in California, we banned the plastic bags, but people still buy them. But then going from that to New York where they triple bag everything is the craziest thing. Or you know when you go to a coffee shop here and you buy an iced coffee, how condensation happens on the cup? If you go to a Dunkin Donuts, especially in Massachusetts, they will put your iced coffee in that plastic cup, but they will put a Styrofoam cup over it to trap the condensation. That’s just standard practice – you don’t have to ask for it. 

That’s crazy. I’ve never thought about it like that. It’s definitely great that we had the plastic ban here.  

And it was a ban. That’s the only way, in a way, I think we forced that change. 

Yeah, definitely.

I don’t think we would have gotten as much as an impact if we just asked people to switch.

Yeah, we need major benefits and cuts and policies. Like when solar panels first came to the market they were way too expensive and then California gave huge tax cuts to individuals who put solar panels on their roofs, and all of a sudden, supply and demand made it so that solar panels are now super cheap compared to what they used to be. 

And now it’s almost a trend, which is so interesting to think about how people are swayed by trends and not like saving… 

The Earth? Yeah.

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Yeah. Also, I did a little bit of research and I noticed that you also manage the Women Doing Science Instagram page. What has that been like? Because you already work fifty hours a week. You’re busy!

Yeah, I’m busy. I like to be busy. I’m not very good at staying still. It was a bit of a side project. I started it about a year ago, in June… June 15 or something like that. I just started it because I had a friend of mine who posted these really cool pictures of her out in the field, and everything and I thought they were just so neat. I remember thinking, “I wish I would’ve seen way more pictures like that growing up,” because I got to experience my mom in the lab as a doctor and as a scientist, and that was really formative for me, but I had no exposure to geologists growing up. I didn’t even think that that was a career.

Oh, me either!

Yeah, I mean who thinks you can just go outside and look at rocks and that’s a job? 

I started the Instagram with just a picture of myself in the field, kind of an action shot, and the main thing I was trying to do is increase the visibility of women in science, not as stock photos and not as headshots, but actual pictures that you could relate to, as if you were seeing someone work. Because we don’t really get a lot of exposure to what science looks like every day in the general public. People have that stereotypical idea of what science looks like. I really wanted there to be a ton of examples from lots of different fields about what it really looks like to be a scientist and what it looks like to be a female scientist.

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I love it because for me, science never came naturally to me, and when I was in high school, I was like, “Oh, I don’t think I’ll be a scientist.” My teachers were so quick to be like, “Yeah, take another history class instead.” So, I never got into it or gave it another chance, and I think if I had seen something like that, if someone had pointed out, “So, you’re not that great at chemistry, but you could study marine biology,” I maybe would’ve tried more or explored a different avenue. it’s not one-or-nothing type of thing.

There’s so many different fields.

And you also show such depth. It’s not a stock photo, like you said. These women are doing science, but they’re not just a scientist. There’s so much more to them. And I think it almost makes it more accessible.

I hope so!

Yeah, I’ve always felt like science was kind of unapproachable in a way because I don’t know much. I felt very “outside looking in” because I barely mastered the basics. So, seeing all the different things you can do in science and from a female perspective, is just the most exciting thing.

Thanks. I really like it. It’s a lot of work.

Oh, I bet! Do you reach out to people, or do people reach out to you?

We reach out to people. and it’s not just me anymore, which is great. There’s a team of people that are working on it with me. I have one person who is just in charge of reaching out to black scientists, actually, so she’s our diversity rep, because we try to post 3-4 black women a month. Not just African American, because it’s international. Actually, only 30% of the followers are from the U.S., which is cool. We have a team of translators who translate some of the bios to other languages if people need them, or to review the bios in different languages. They sometimes will reach out to us, but we try to reach out to most of them because we try to keep the page really diverse. We’re trying to make sure we don’t only have white women that do biology and chemistry.

You guys do a great job. It feels more authentic and diverse than most mass media publications are… with any topic. 

We definitely spend a lot of time trying to make it diverse. Over 20% of the posts are in different languages, which is cool.

That is so cool. I hope other fields become more diverse, and I don’t know what it will take to create diversity in every field, you know? Because people say that they don’t see it, or that they never notice… but that’s almost an ignorance is bliss problem, too, in a way.

Right. Yeah. 

And I think it’s important to be uncomfortable at times.

Yeah. It’s true. It helps you learn.

You mentioned earlier that you like to be busy all the time, why is that? Has that always been a part of your personality? 

I think so. Actually, I didn’t do very well in high school. I was pretty lazy. 

What??

I know. I didn’t study. I got pretty bad grades! 

What? What is your idea of a bad grade? An A-?

No. I got C’s. Like, I failed math in high school and had to get put into a sort of remedial math, actually.

Oh, my gosh.

I know. I wasn’t like a bad kid; I wasn’t sneaking out and smoking and stuff like that. But I did not care. I didn’t try. For sure, I didn’t try. I just didn’t really see the point in trying and I was kind of smart, so I was kind of okay with that. But my senior year of high school, something happened and I just kind of clicked into a study mode. I realized that if you try, you actually learn, and then you get good grades. Haha. I don’t know why it took me until I was seventeen, but I got into UC Santa Barbara on what feels like a whim, because my grades were quite bad. But I studied for the S.A.T. and did okay. I got into UCSB by some miracle. It was the only UC school I got into. I went there, and I just worked so hard to make up for all the times I didn’t study in high school.

I just really was so motivated by this fresh start.

My GPA was gone, I had this opportunity to work really hard and try super hard. And that’s what I did, for like four years in a row. I studied until like 2 A.M. most nights, and worked super, super hard. I got the most out of that education that I think I could have. it was really worthwhile.

That’s amazing.

I think the busyness started then.

And then it almost becomes a lifestyle, in a way. 

Yeah, it does. 

It becomes part of how I define myself, that I work hard. I think if I lost that identity, it would be really hard for me. So, I try to keep busy.

Right. You said the only UC was Santa Barbara. Were there other schools you were interested in, or was Santa Barbara your number one?

I think I applied to all the different UC schools, but I didn’t have a specific school I really wanted to go to. UCSB was definitely a really great surprise to get into. I was thinking of going to a smaller liberal school, and then I got into UCSB and visited, and you know... impossible not to go there once you see it.

Of course. But not going to lie… this is so embarrassing but there’s only two reasons why I went to Santa Barbara. Number one, I needed to go to a UC school because my dad had the GI bill. State school or bust, basically. Number two, and more importantly, the man who discovered the Titanic went to UCSB. 

I was on the submarine that explored the Titanic wreck! 

No, you weren’t.

Yeah! I took an Alvin dive right after I graduated.

Oh, my gosh. We need to discuss this after the interview or else I will get so side-tracked. Let’s talk about photography, because that’s something I didn’t know about you until after we graduated. Where did your love for photography come from and how have you… I’m about to say something stupid, but… developed it over the last few years or so?

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I did a lot of photography in high school during that time where I didn’t study. I was just constantly taking pictures. I would go out on photo adventures a lot after school and before school, mostly shooting film. I didn’t have a digital camera until college. So, it’s the classic story. I found my dad’s old Pentax camera in the basement and some old lenses, and I actually broke that camera. So, I bought a different one, a Canon. I shot that Canon… I must have shot over a hundred rolls of film a year in high school. I was just crazy.

I worked at the Ben and Jerry’s at UTC mall in San Diego, and I knew the guys at the camera store pretty well because I would come in and I would trade them film developments for milkshakes, which saved me a lot of money. They were super nice. I have boxes and boxes and boxes of film photos from high school. I just really liked shooting people, kind of documentary style of film. A little bit posed, but trying to get the middle ground between natural and posed. Lots of natural light. Just exploring with a camera, really. It’s still what I like to do. And then I picked up a digital camera because I couldn’t afford the crazy amounts of film.

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Yeah. Do you prefer film over digital, or do you switch back and forth now?

I still switch back and forth a lot, but I think I’ll always enjoy film more. It’s a bit frustrating sometimes, whereas digital is super forgiving because you can take a hundred photos and it’s very safe. Film is riskier, but when you get that shot, it’s so satisfying.

Right. Color or black and white?

Color.



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Do you think you’d ever get into video or other types of media, or would you rather stick to photography?

I think I’d rather just get more into photography. I don’t have as much time to do it as I’d like right now, because mostly what I do right now is photography for money. Shooting some weddings, some pictures of people, which I really enjoy, but I’d love to grow a camera collection and collect tons of more film cameras and develop my own film instead of sending it out all the time.

That would be cool, to have your own studio, eventually.

Oh, my gosh. I’d love to get all the film cameras that my heart desires and just shoot film all the time. Do more photos for me and have a dedicated studio.

I agree with you. Because that’s something you’re never a master of. Do you ever have a situation where you’ll love how something turned out, and then you’ll look back on it a year later and hate it?

Yes. Although that never happens with film pictures. It always happens with digital.

But the nice thing about film is that you don’t really edit the photo, you know. It just is what it is. You can’t really go back and hate it, because that’s just a representation of what it was. It’s really nice.

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I agree. I’m constantly learning, and I use mostly digital and Lightroom. But when you’re a perfectionist, you always change your mind. 

Of course. I like Lightroom, too. I use Lightroom all the time.

Looking at your Instagram bio… if you’re a cookie monster by night, what’s your favorite kind of cookie?

Oh my God. All cookies. I love peanut butter cookies, I make double chocolate chip cookies a lot.

Oh my gosh, so you like to bake them versus get them at a store or restaurant.

Yeah. I like to bake them.

We’re gonna have a cookie party.  Other than bake, what is one thing everyone should know how to do?

Take a decent picture. Is that a bad thing to say?

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No! That’s not. What does a typical day look like for you?

I wake up at seven, make myself a latte at home with my little espresso machine, which is my favorite thing ever. Then, I go to work and I measure things on a mass spectrometer or run an experiment in the lab. Basically I do organic chemistry during the day, - and I eat my lunch at my desk and take a swim break. Then at around 6pm, I go home and make dinner. Usually I go exercise again, like climbing or volleyball, and then I just chill.

Something I’ve always admired about you is that you have this acute sense of self. Like, you’re very aware of who you are and what you want, but also what you don’t know. Where do you seek your inspiration from, or what inspires you to grow and change and be a doer and an achiever, so to speak?

Definitely my mom. She’s amazing. She works a hundred hours a week, easily. She’s a doctor and she just… she takes so much care for her patients and she will do everything above and beyond. Last weekend, she went into work on a Saturday even though it was her first Saturday off in like three weeks. She went into work and spent two hours with some other physicians developing an app for one of the patients to use to get better blood glucose deliveries with his insulin device. 

Oh, my gosh.

Like… you don’t need to do that. But the crazy thing is that she will do all of that and someone will be like, “I need help with this thing,” and she will drop everything to help that person. She is so selfless, and just such an incredible person. You know, to be that busy all the time, and to not be so self-absorbed. Because I don’t know if that happens to you, but sometimes when I get stressful busy, I can’t think about anything else except for my problems.

Yes. And I almost fixate on it. I have to almost fix one of the things that is stressing me out before I can move onto anything else. I fixate.

Yeah, definitely. My mom doesn’t do that and it’s amazing. As for artistic inspiration? I get a lot of artistic inspiration from fashion magazines. 

Okay. Do you have a favorite?

I really like Vogue for its’ ads. I don’t really read much of it; I just look at the ads. That’s weird, but that’s what most people do, right?

 That’s what I do. 

Yeah. Okay. I think editorial style of digital is really cool, and I love that… those ads are just really cool. I get like a monthly subscription to Vogue and Science magazine.

Balance! Speaking of… how do you define balance?

Oh, man. 

I think you just gotta be happy. I think if you’re happy, then you’re probably finding balance.

True. Because… I think I learned what time meant to me through the quarter system.

Yeah, it’s so fast-paced.

Some quarters felt like they dragged and some didn’t, but I think it gives you a really healthy perspective of what you have to do. Sacrifice, but also being selfish when you have to be.

Definitely.

Where do you get the courage to try new things?

I feel like I’m bad at trying new things. I don’t know. I’ve always felt like I was really bad at trying new things. I think I’m bad at pushing my comfort zone, but usually I will do it with a friend or try to use someone’s motivation as my own, you know what I mean?

You have such diverse hobbies. You rock climb, you exercise, but you have science, you have art. You really have such diversity and depth to you that there are times when I think, “If she can do it, I can do it.”

Aw, thanks. Well, I am really bad at trying new things. Like, I hate going to new restaurants. I’m terrified of spending money on something I won’t like. I’d rather go to the same places that I definitely like and drink the same beers that I know I like. 

True. I’m not a foodie.

Well, I love food, but I want it to be the same good food.

Because what if it’s bad?

I know. Then you spent $30!

Oh, yeah.

Not fun.

So… I hate five-year plans. But where do you see yourself in the future? You can say where you see yourself tomorrow, even, but do you have an idea? You mention going to DC, and you had that plan in college and you executed it. Now, it’s more ambiguous. Are you enjoying the ambiguity? Or do you want to create a plan?

No, definitely not loving the ambiguity. It’s really hard because it’s hard to create a plan for your career when you don’t know exactly if you’re going to like it. I’m fighting it, but I’m trying to go with the flow. It’s very much not like me to not have a big plan, but I’m really interested in science policy. I have no practice at it. It’s just something that I find interesting. My plan is to just move to DC and try it and see how it goes. One plan that I’m excited for is that after I graduate, I’m going to try to take six months off before I start any job and just… I’ve been kind of running 60 miles an hour with undergrad, and then I went straight to grad school. I only took two weeks off before grad school, and grad school doesn’t really give you much vacation time. 

I really want a break. I want to get bored. I want to try my best to not do as many things, and focus on having fun for a bit.

And almost sit with yourself and see where you’re really at, in a way.

Yeah. Re-evaluate. Give it a try. Get more exercise.

Stop. Haha. Okay, this kind of ties into it… because you’ve struck this balance between following your passions and integrating them into your life while also following plans you’ve made for yourself. I think now more than ever, the comparison game is so strong. It always seems as if the person next to you is doing better. Do you have any advice for someone that’s struggling with passion versus plan, or comparing themselves to others?

I think it’s really easy to fall into that comparison trap. I think everyone does it. It seems normal. Very human. Especially being at a place like Caltech, which is this really intense place, academically.  

Everyone has this urge to compare themselves academically and I found that doing these other things, like photography, and when I’m doing science, it made me feel more secure because I had my own identities. Does that make sense? Trying not to be defined by just one thing will help you with the comparisons, because you’re a more complex person than the one thing you’re comparing the person to.

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the quick fix:

I can’t go a day without… swimming. And coffee!

Everyone should read…The Name of the Wind. It’s a great fantasy book. If you’re only going to read one fantasy book, it should be that. I read it in college, and then I re-read it a few times. It’s so beautifully written. This guy takes like twenty years to write a single book, and it just flows so well. The story is really interesting. He’s only written two of the books; it’s a trilogy. It’s been almost twenty years since the second book came out, so hopefully he publishes the third one soon.

Life is better with a little… dark chocolate.

Everyone in their 20s should… travel internationally.

One insider thing to do in Pasadena… go hike Echo mountain at night. You can hike up at sunset and hang out and you get a view of the whole LA basin, and then the stars come out. Bring some wine and food and then hike down with a headlamp.

What the world needs right now is… better climate change policy.

One way to spread love is… this may be a really specific answer as a photographer, but I always love giving people pictures. I like to print pictures and mail them to people. It’s a great way to spread love.

You can follow Alex here and her photography account here (also click here to check out her portfolio + to book her!)

You can follow Women Doing Science on Instagram here.

All photos by Alex Phillips.