Integrating work and family matters to Dean Pamela Matson
BY BRIAN D. LEE
How many people get the chance to find a spouse with the same career, or a job they love that also makes a positive impact on the world? For Pamela Matson, having the opportunity to bring together family and work, while making a difference, is what matters most. She discussed her life and work on Nov. 8 during the casual lecture series, "What Matters to Me and Why," held at Memorial Church by the Office for Religious Life.
"What matters to me most is that my life has been able to be integrated," said Matson, the Chester Naramore Dean of the School of Earth Sciences. "That I have been able to overcome the sharp divide between family and job, and finding a way to make a difference in the world.
They fit well together, and that is very lucky for me. Each truly is interlocking and interweaving for me."
A faculty member since 1997, Matson studies tropical forest and agricultural ecosystems in places such as Mexico, the Amazon Basin, Costa Rica and Hawaii. She holds the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Professorship in Environmental Studies and is a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.Marriage and careers
When people ask how she manages to successfully take on the roles of mother, dean, teacher, wife and scientist, she tells them that she married Peter Vitousek, the Clifford G. Morrison Professor in Population and Resource Studies at Stanford. "Pete has always been the right guy," she said. "He is just really, really good."
The couple has learned the importance of open communication by collaborating professionally, she said. "Our fields do overlap, so we have had the great fun of working together and the great tensions of working together," she explained. "Communication is everything. You've got to talk all the time. And the other thing is that, you know, I'm not always right."
Having a career she loves that is dedicated to improving the environment for her children also helps bridge family and work. "I love my research and I love my career," she said. "And maybe more importantly, I have felt that maybe it could be helping a little bit to make the world better for my kids."Lessons learned
Matson said she welcomed the opportunity to look back over her life and contemplate what matters most. "The opportunity to be self-reflective and introspective is really rare for an active scientist like myself," she said. "I really do appreciate it."
Matson shared memories of her grandmother who taught her a love of nature, albeit in a strict manner. "She would yell at all of us for being in her flower bed," she recalled. "But she also took me walking in the woods. She would take me picking spring flowers, and that was really where I fell in love with biology."
When Matson arrived at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire as an undergraduate, she soon realized how sheltered her early life had been. "My childhood was pretty good and pretty boring," she noted. "Then college came along and opened up my eyes to another life. I fell in love with learning in college and with the life of the mind."
She also said she became a feminist and environmentalist. "I did a lot of wild things as an undergraduate," she said. "I broke some laws, but I never lost the values or love of learning that I had growing up."
One of the most challenging periods in her life came with her son's diagnosis of cystic fibrosis. "One of the things that situation taught me was flexibility," she said. "In a situation like that, you are not in control, and so you learn in order to live well to become flexible."
She spoke of the importance of having a positive perspective when tackling the environmental crisis facing the planet. "I am an optimist by nature," she said. "If you become a pessimist you are no longer a part of the solution."
When an audience member asked if her environmental optimism involved faith, she replied, "I have a lot of faith people will wake up and start worrying about their children and grandchildren."
Brian D. Lee is a science-writing intern with the Stanford News Service.