Like the tide, she is resolute and reliable. But stubborn is how Ellen Druffel prefers to describe herself. It’s a trait that helps her rebound from occasional setbacks in her research. A world-class oceanographer and professor in UCI’s distinguished Department of Earth System Science, Druffel attributes much of her success to this stubbornness, and to the balance she doggedly maintains between her science career and family life.
Her earliest influence was her mother, an amateur astronomer, whose curiosity and encouragement triggered Druffel’s fascination with science. It was her mother who first opened the universe for Druffel and her four sisters through the lens of a backyard telescope. Over time, Druffel’s interests shifted earthward, diving from the skies to the seas, until the deep oceans and coral reefs captured her attention.
DEEP PASSION FOR SCIENCE
“The oceans constitute the greatest repository of the excess carbon we put into the atmosphere,” Druffel teaches her students. “Variations in sea surface temperature and chemistry determine the amount of carbon dioxide entering and leaving the ocean,” she adds, detailing a crucial factor in understanding carbon’s impact on global weather patterns.
Beyond the classroom, Druffel’s work often finds her on oceanographic research vessels or in shallow waters, collecting corals and dissolved carbon in seawater, fish, other living organisms and sediment gathered from the sea bottom. From these samples, using radiocarbon, she determines how fast excess carbon dioxide from fossil fuels and deforestation enters and circulates within the ocean.
“Ellen’s research has greatly advanced our understanding of the role oceans play in effecting climate change,” says Ron Stern, dean of UCI’s School of Physical Sciences. “She also is a natural leader who has played a key role in the development and study of Earth system science at UCI.” Indeed, the department was cited by the Institute for Scientific Information for having the greatest impact on geoscience research over the last decade.
True to form, Druffel shares credit for her part in such accolades with her family – especially her husband, Steve Rodriguez – and colleagues like Sheila Griffin, who has run Druffel’s UCI lab since 1993, when both women arrived on campus from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.
Now a role model, Druffel seeks to encourage opportunities for other women scientists. “Successful recruitment and retention of women in the sciences is still a major hurdle,” Druffel says. “We need to work harder to achieve gender equity in science, mathematics and engineering. This includes understanding the differences in the support systems for men and women, both at work and at home, and their impact on how we function and succeed.”
Druffel finds the global shortage of women in the science faculty particularly frustrating. “With more women graduating in the sciences than ever before, the leaky sieve in going from student to postdoc to professor is hard to understand. It’s clear we need more women role models and mentors in the sciences. I would have benefited from that early in my career.”
Druffel has drawn inspiration from such pioneering scientists as Rachel Carson, Marie Curie, Inge Lehmann and Inez Fung. In turn, she strives to cultivate the next generation of women scientists. “As a Girl Scout co-leader, I put lots of energy into devising science projects that engage the girls. I also speak to women’s groups about my work. When a woman comes up to me and says my talk makes her want to work in science, or that she, too, feels she can integrate her career with her family life, it’s immensely rewarding.”
In 2003, Druffel was one of two scientists named the first chairs of the UCI ADVANCE Program, which supports women faculty in the sciences in their efforts to gain tenure and fulfill their potential as teachers and researchers. “Successful women like Ellen send an encouraging signal to young women everywhere who may be considering careers in science,” says Susan Bryant, dean of the School of Biological Sciences and leader of the UCI ADVANCE Program.
CRYSTAL CLEAR PRIORITIES
Teaching, research and related travel limit Druffel’s spare time. Still, she manages to garden, work out in the gym and play her guitar. She and her husband spend as much time as possible with their two teenage children, Kevin and Rachel. “Their births made me more creative,” says Druffel. “My approach to science changed because of them. I became more organized and more efficient with my time.”
While she would like to be regarded as a scientist who contributes useful knowledge about global change, she stubbornly guards her role as wife and mother. “My family always comes first,” Druffel says. “In the end, you won’t regret not having published a scientific paper, but you’ll regret not having spent time with your children.
“I’m curious to know what the future has in store for them,” she adds. “My mother unveiled the stars for me when I was a girl, which led, eventually, to where I am today. The situation for women in science will improve in time, I hope. I’d love to get a glimpse of my daughter when she is my age to see how life and the world have treated her.”