Black in Academia: An interview with UT paleobiologist Melissa Kemp

Jun 28, 2020 by

The American-Statesman recently spoke with Melissa Kemp, a University of Texas professor in the Department of Integrative Biology, who discussed her work using the fossil record to predict species’ future extinction risk and how to create a more equitable environment for Black researchers in academia.

A Maryland native, Kemp is a first generation college graduate, earning a bachelor’s degree in biology from Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., and a doctorate in biology from Stanford University in Stanford, Calif. She was a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard University Center for the Environment.

Melissa Kemp tweet #BlackInNature

Statesman: What inspired you to get into paleobiology originally?

Kemp: I’ve always had a fascination with the past. Growing up, I wouldn’t necessarily say I was a history buff, but I was always interested in learning about my family history. I wondered about what was on the land before my family was there, and I saw fossils as a way of understanding past life forms that graced the earth.

Statesman: What does your research focus on now?

Kemp: Our lab has a few projects going on, some local, based in Texas, and some in the Caribbean. All the work gravitates around the question of how biodiversity originated and how it is reshaped by changes in the environment. Things like climate change, sea level rise, deforestation, colonization and events like hurricanes and tornadoes — they’re all changing the environment. We think about what the environment looked like before a change happened, including the species that were there and the traits they possessed, and how those things changed after an environmental perturbation.

What I’m really excited about with this research is understanding how our present day ecosystems emerged by looking at the fossil record. The fossil record gives us information about past changes but also gives us insight into how those communities might change in the future. We’re using information from extinct species to predict extinction risk for species that are still around today.

Statesman: What do you enjoy most about your work?

Kemp: The biggest things that I enjoy about it are the people and being in the field — and those two go hand in hand. I’ve had a lot of really great experiences in the field. Most of my work is abroad, so I’ve learned about new cultures and a lot about myself, as well. I meet people who want to know about me and my experiences, and I’m interested in learning about their experiences. I get to collaborate with people from around the world, which is fun but can be challenging.

It’s also really enjoyable mentoring students in this work. I’ve been fortunate throughout my career to work with not only graduate students, but also undergraduate students and high school students from underrepresented backgrounds. And seeing the joy in their eyes when they touch a fossil for the first time or visit a museum collection has been really valuable to me, and is certainly one of the highlights of my career.

Statesman: Do you think race affected your path in academia?

Kemp: Yes, I think it has. Academia is painted as a meritocracy where the best person is rewarded, but it’s become very clear that people who come from privileged backgrounds — whether that’s from race, from the institution you attended or from the class that you were born into — have differential access to opportunities. People will ignore privilege until a person of color achieves something, and then the achievement is minimized to “they got this award because they are Black.” I have definitely experienced similar microaggressions relating to race throughout my career. A lot of people in academia generally haven’t had to interact with Black people or people of color as peers, and that’s very problematic. When they finally are in a room where they’re supposed to be equal to a person of color, they just don’t know how to interact with someone who is different.

Statesman: How do you think STEM and academia as a whole can be improved for future generations of young Black researchers?

continue: Black in Academia: An interview with UT paleobiologist Melissa Kemp – News – Austin American-Statesman – Austin, TX

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.