Think you can’t have a career in STEM and raise a family? Dawnika Blatter, PhD, research geologist, worked hard (and feels blessed) to have both the family and the career she always wanted...but it wasn't easy.

November 10, 2020 9:53 pm

By Shelley Hunter

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About Dawnika Blatter, PhD

Research Geologist and FTIR Lab Manager

A couple of years into her post-doctorate degree, Dawnika Blatter had to tell her advisor that she was seven months pregnant with her first child. He responded, "You're not going to take any time off are you?" No, of course not.

With no other way to continue her career and simultaneously start a family, Dawnika buckled in and began the juggling act known as being a working mom.

Now, a couple of decades later with several academic achievements and publications to her credit, Dawnika is a highly-respected research geologist, lab manager, and professor. She is also a mother of four who looks back fondly on the terrain she traveled to have both a family and a career.  

Dawnika Blatter teaching

Dawnika Blatter, PhD, teaching.

The Challenge of Academia for Women

As Dawnika points out in this interview, careers in academia can be challenging for women, but not because they can't handle STEM subjects or the rigor of the industry. Careers in academia are difficult for women because the time at which a woman will be most marketable in her field is also the time she will need to have children, if she wants them. That collision between career desires and family goals often causes one to slide beneath the other--in geology terms, I think that's called subduction.

But Dawnika's advice is simple. "Do both," she says.

In this interview, Dawnika shares some of the ways in which she made it work including getting help from extended family, overloading herself with kid activities on the days she could be available, and asking for a few concessions where needed.

She also credits her husband with fully sharing parenting responsibilities and valuing her career as much as his own.

Dawnika Blatter measuring on hill

Dawnika Blatter, PhD, doing fieldwork.

I feel really blessed to have been able to have both the family that I've wanted and the career that I've wanted. They both bring me a lot of joy. I cannot imagine life without either one.

- Dawnika Blatter -

Dawnika Blatter and family

The Blatter Family

Choose Something You Love 

Lastly, a word of advice.

In talking to Dawnika, it's obvious she loves her job. Yes, she gets to travel to Mexico, Hawaii, Iceland, and other desirable places. And yes, she gets to ride in helicopters, stand atop great waterfalls, and work alongside remarkable minds. But it's evident she loves what she does because she fought for it.

She could have quit when her high school science classes were challenging. She could have quit when she had that first baby. She could have quit--and been one of many women on the leaky STEM pipeline--when she had more babies and had to out earn the cost of childcare in the challenging California economy. She could have quit many times, but she didn't want to.

She remembers, "I tried for a short period of time just not working and it was really hard on everybody. I was not happy and not nice to be around and my whole family realizes that everybody is much happier when I'm happy."

Now she's encouraging her own children to similarly choose passion over profit when they make career decisions.

Her advice is to find "something that you're really interested in and passionate about and just be the best at that thing that you can be. Then the career steps....will fall into place."

I totally agree.

Dawnika Blatter by waterfall

I just remember really being prayerful about trying to make this work... It turns out that it was a great time to take hold of that opportunity and it led to a lot of other opportunities that I've had since.

- Dawnika Blatter -

Dawnika Blatter by volano

What You'll Learn in this Episode

  • How Dawnika managed to complete her PhD while having children
  • How she had to put her husband's career ahead of her own at times
  • When to put your career on a back burner to simmer
  • A leap of faith she had to take to advance her career
  • The best advice she got from her mom
  • Most Importantly: How Dawnika has seen the Lord’s hand in her career

Download the Transcript

 How a Mom Can Rock the Cradle and Still Rock the World

Guest: Dawnika Blatter, PhD

Shelley Hunter: You're listening to the Faithful Career Moves Podcast, I'm your host Shelley Hunter and this is a place where we talk to people who recognize the Lord's hand in their lives and specifically in their careers. 

Thank you for joining me on episode 13 of the Faithful Career Moves Podcast. Today I'm interviewing a good friend of mine Dawnika Blatter. She is a geologist, a professor and a mother of four kids.

She's also really fun to be around. We play basketball together, softball, we've gone to young women's camp for years. She makes me laugh so often I forget how darn smart she is. But, Dawnika also has a dream job that includes travel and adventure as well as flexibility. But after talking to her, I discovered just how hard she worked to get that. And though on Instagram it looks idyllic, her decision to be a working mom came with some career sacrifices as well. 

If you have aspirations in STEM, science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or you have a daughter interested in those things, take some notes. The path may be challenging but Dawnika's advice is to do it anyway. 

I'll let Dawnika explain what she does for a living.

Dawnika Blatter: My current job is as a research geologist and I work on volcanoes and volcanic rocks to try to understand how magma is generated and how it's transported and where it's stored in the crust and how it erupts in order to look at volcanic hazards and volcanic risks.

Shelley: How did you get started in that?

Dawnika: It has not been a really straight path but I've always loved to be outside and was interested in science from a young age. Even though it didn't come easily. Science and math classes that I took were the more challenging classes for me. I was really interested though in earth science and environment. I started doing science fair projects, I was nerdy that way.

By about my junior year in high school I really had figured out what I wanted to do and that I wanted to do geology. I also think growing up in Utah and just having amazing exposures of beautiful outcrops of rocks everywhere to look at could really see geologic forces at work and think about those things just in everyday life.

Shelley: Talk a little bit about women in science, did you feel like you were encouraged in that direction or not?

Dawnika: Definitely. Starting with my mom, she didn't really have opportunities to pursue science when she was growing up. She really could either be a teacher or a nurse and those were the career options she felt were available. When she saw that I interested in that she really encouraged me and still does, she's still a big cheerleader for me.

Also, when I was in high school, I took an independent study class where I was able to leave school and go work at the Utah Geological Survey on a science project with one of the scientists there. He was probably my first mentor and even all my science teachers in high school were men but they encouraged me to do this.

Then once I had early success with these projects, there was some recruitment from geology department that reached out and encouraged me to apply and offered scholarships, and so I don't necessarily know that that was because they were trying to recruit women or if they just wanted somebody good, but I never felt like there were lack of opportunities.

Shelley: I'm glad to hear that. This is high school but where does it go from there?

Dawnika: I thought I would eventually go to law school. I thought maybe I wanted to do environmental geology. I was really interested in some of the environmental challenges that we are facing and so after college, I got my first job at an environmental consulting firm and I loved it, it was great. The travel, really fun colleagues, just lots of challenging projects, but as I did for a few years I realized that the demands of that job were not really probably compatible with some of my other goals in life with having a family. I ended up deciding to go back to graduate school and get a PhD so that I could teach.

Shelley: At what point did you get married in this process?

Dawnika: Early.

[laughter]

Yes I was not even quite 20, so I was 19 and got married early. Luckily. Because I do think marriage is a leap of faith, but I did choose somebody who was really supportive. Even though I moved, I moved states after I got married, I was able to pick up my schooling and finish my bachelor's degree and still get the kind of job I wanted in the career that I thought I wanted.

Then when we start talking about other family goals after we'd been married awhile, we decided together that I should go back and do the PhD, which is a big choice to make. It's a very long term commitment and to a different type of a career.

Shelley: When did kids come into play?

Dawnika: I had my first baby in graduate school. I was in my third year of my PhD. I remember being really worried about telling my advisor about this because he was large stature person in the field that I had chosen to work and, I think, took a risk taking me on as a student. I think I was maybe his third female student in a line of about 30 students.

Shelley: Wow.

Dawnika: I waited until I was about seven months pregnant literally [laughs] before I even told him. I don't know how he didn't figure it out. He has four kids of his own so you think he would have figured this out. But I told him and he just looked at me and said, "Well, you're not going to take any time off are you?" That wasn't really a legitimate thing to do when I was in training, there wasn't maternity leave, things like that.

I really didn't. I just stayed on track and then I finished my PhD and then I stayed there and did a postdoc with him before moving to Colorado and doing a postdoc there. Just was able to stay on track. But after baby number three we moved back to the Bay area and it was a lot to try to keep up with. Even just trying to figure out how to do childcare for three kids and even still make it worthwhile at work was a difficult thing.

Shelley: Right.

Dawnika: But I got really lucky because that same advisor, who initially had been pretty skeptical of me being able to work and be a mom, had come full circle. He invited me to come back and work with him and he said, "Even if you can only work a day a week, it'll be worth it. We can get a lot done, we can continue our work. It'll keep you with a foot in the door."

He was completely right about that. About the same time was when I found an advertisement for teaching a geology class at the local community college and so I started doing that part time as well. I was able to still have a lot of time with my kids and really be present with them but keep some semblance of the career going as well.

Shelley: Tell me about the trips you take.

Dawnika: Geology often involves a lot of field work and during my PhD I worked in the Mexican volcanic belt, so I spent a lot of time just mapping and sampling there. I currently have projects in Alaska, sometimes work takes me to Hawaii or Iceland or other places like that. I remember after I had my first baby and I still had lots of field work I needed to do, my husband and also my extended family really helped out.

I had a lot of help with taking care of my kids because sometimes I'd be gone for several weeks even up to a month. It's been really good I think for my husband and his relationships with the kids, because from day one he really had to know how to do everything I knew how to do. Never takes any instructions or anything special when I have to leave or when I'm going somewhere. Basically we just share our calendar and he knows what to do.

Shelley: That's amazing. What other family adjustments have you made?

Dawnika: All kind of crazy things have happened. One time I had to go interview for a faculty job and I was nursing my second baby and she would not take a bottle. I had to bring her with me and one of my younger sisters came with me to the interview and took care of her between all the different events that I had to do so that I could nurse her in between. Support like that has been amazing from extended family.

Then also just the day to day things like just carpools and organizing things like that because for a long time I was teaching two days a week and then working part time at my research job two days a week. The two days a week when I was teaching I was really close to home and so I would basically schedule every single thing I could do for my kids on those days. I would drive all the carpools, I would go to all the things I could do on those days because the days when I would go to the lab, I would be far away and unavailable.

Shelley: Did you carry any of the mom guilt?

Dawnika: Not too much because I tried for a short period of time just not working and it was really hard on everybody. I was not happy and not nice to be around and my whole family realizes that everybody is much happier when I'm happy.

[laughter]

Once they figured that out, because they know who I am and what it is that I need to do, they just support me in doing it and that's been amazing.

Shelley: Yes, I love that. Then on the flip side, are there some professional sacrifices that you've had to make?

Dawnika: Well, definitely. I think the biggest thing was when you were in academia, you are most marketable usually when you're doing your postdoctoral work and that was when I was literally during my postdoc at Colorado I'd had two babies in two years. I had a lot of field work and conferences and interviews and things going on when I was either pregnant or nursing. I interviewed I think for four different faculty jobs that I ultimately had to turn down because they weren't compatible with my husband's career. That was hard at that time.

One of the things my mom shared with me is advice which I took to heart and I think is a really good thing to consider. We have a lot of years to work, but only a short time for having kids. I think that this has worked out for me somehow, but I think structurally, it doesn't necessarily work out that well for the way academia is structured. Because the time when you're going to be most marketable, and when you're trying to get your tenure track job, and when you're trying to get tenure is also biologically the time when you need to be having kids if you want them.

Shelley: What advice would you give if I have both of these goals in mind?

Dawnika: Do it. Just do both. I feel really blessed to have been able to have both the family that I've wanted and the career that I've wanted. They both bring me a lot of joy. I cannot imagine life without either one.

Shelley: Do you have some practical tips?

Dawnika: Be prepared. Get as much education and training as possibly can. Also, be flexible because it might not be a really straightforward path. Like I said, I felt like I had a pretty straightforward path until there were four different faculty jobs that I turned down. I felt like at that time, I really had to take my career off of the main burner, and just put it on a side burner, but never really turn it off. You have to keep it simmering on the side and just be flexible about when you might have the opportunity to move it back over. I do think also things are definitely getting better for women. The experience I had when I had to tell my advisor that I was expecting my first baby.

I don't think it would go that way now. Women definitely do have a lot more options. There is maternity leave. Because more women have moved up through the ranks in the STEM field, it could be likely that people are just a lot more understanding and have seen a lot more women succeed at doing both. The other thing I would say is just really careful about your choice of mentors as well. I've had really great mentors, even that original advisor turned out to be a great choice. I've had good mentors ever since that have been understanding and able to work with me in a flexible way.

Shelley: Interesting. I can't help but think that one of the roles you've played is simply in making it easier for other women to have the option to be both a scientist and a mom.

Dawnika: I hope so. It was interesting with that same advisor. He did tell me when I was applying for jobs. I did go to one interview where I was really pregnant with my third baby. They asked him something that actually is illegal, you shouldn't ask, but they said, "Well, how many more kids do you think she's going to have?" He said to them, he had come around full circle. He said, "Well, I don't know. If she has more, I know that she can handle it. She's not going to be a problem." I think being reliable and being responsible. I do know that he did end up eventually having to make some adjustments for my schedule.

He was used to being a person who had an army of students and postdocs, and we would meet every morning for a coffee meeting. By the time he was at the end of his career, there were fewer and fewer other people. Eventually, it was just me. He realized that I was struggling to get there at eight o'clock every morning. He finally noticed. He said, "What time would work for you?" I said, "Oh. Well, nine o'clock. Nine would be much better." Then there was always the expectation that you would work every weekend as well in graduate school and postdoc. When I did have my first baby. I said, "Look, I can work every other Saturday, but I can't keep working every Saturday." We just had to make adjustments along the way.

Shelley: Dawnika, what haven't I asked you about your career that I should have?

Dawnika: A lot of people think so much about how marketable their degree is going to be and where the jobs are going to be and try to think so much about making money. Which is a really important thing. I guess I haven't had to think as much about that because I always had a spouse who was making money. But it's wonderful to actually be able to do something that you're passionate about and that you love to do and be able to make money. I think you have to find a balance with that. As I watch my kids grow up and make these choices. My oldest daughter, I think she chose something to make money and then hasn't necessarily been as happy doing it. She's looking at making a change at this point.

My next daughter is also pursuing something that makes money. I haven't been able to rub this off on my kids, the idea of just finding something that you're really interested in passionate about and just being the best at that thing that you can be. That the career steps, the path will fall into place, that those aren't the things that you have to worry about so much.

Shelley: Can you tell me about a leap of faith that you had to take with your career?

Dawnika: I think even just when I was teaching halftime and I was offered the part-time research job, I was really excited about the prospect of it, but I didn't see how I could do it. I live in the Bay Area, the traffic is terrible. The job is about 45 miles away, but sometimes that could take two hours. I just couldn't see how to make it all work. I just remember really being prayerful about trying to make this work and was it the right time. It turns out that it was a great time to take a hold of that opportunity and that it's led to a lot of other opportunities that I've had since.

Shelley: Well, that takes me into my last question for you which is how have you seen the hand of God in your career?

Dawnika: Definitely the whole way. Just from the beginning, from choosing what path to take from the big decisions. Like where to go to school, who to work with what to work on to even the little decisions. A lot of times with the experiments that I do and the fieldwork that I do, a lot of it is a leap of faith. I feel like just knowing that Heavenly Father has my back is that source of confidence to take chances. To also know that the challenges that we have are just opportunities to grow. I just can feel that trust in Him and just be able to take that leap. I think that that's been amazing in my career and in life choices.

Shelley: I love that. Thank you for being on the show with me today.

Dawnika: Sure. It's been fun, Shelley, it's nice to catch up.

Shelley: With each person, I talked to. I am more in awe of how well the Lord crafts the details of our individual paths to utilize our talents and interests and to bring us joy. No one size fits all path, but a fully individualized, nonlinear, sometimes messy, often confusing, perfect path. Dawnika worked hard and had to make sacrifices to get where she is now. It's possible she could have been further along in her career had she not put it on the side burner, and let it simmer for a while as she mentioned. She made that choice in order to start a family, to serve others, and to be present in her kids' lives. She has no regrets.

I think that's how this works. When we prayerfully make choices to press forward, or hold back or pause or take a leap, the end result is always better than we can imagine for ourselves. I'll echo the advice that Dawnika gave to her daughters. Pick something you love, work hard to be the very best you can be at that thing. Then put the actual career steps in the Lord's hands. I promise you'll be amazed at what He has in store for you. Thanks for sharing that, Dawnika, and thank you for listening.

Once again, thank you for listening to the Faithful Career Moves Podcast. It's my hope that listening to this episode will inspire you to think more broadly about how your career and your spiritual journey intersect. If you like that idea and want others to have a similar epiphany, then please share this podcast on social media. Leave a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts or leave a comment on the website. Doing so will help others find this content as well.


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Shelley Hunter

About the author

Founder of Gift Card Girlfriend, Shelley is a prolific content creator and personal branding expert. For the past 20 years, she's also been coaching people on how to up-level their careers, return to the workforce, and start side gigs of their own. Shelley is a work-at-home mom who left a traditional career as a programmer to be unapologetically home with her kids.

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