16:10 PM

Postdocs Employ their Research to Advocate for Women in STEM

By Bradi Zapata

Two earnestly optimistic friends and colleagues reimagine the physics industry to be disciplines comprised of brilliant scientists, who are also inclusive and empathetic.  

Caroline Caplan, a cosmochemist and Sara Belontz, an environmental geoscientist, are researching complex issues relevant to everyday lives, in terms of evolution and sustainability. In addition to pursuing challenging postdoc research in the Department of Physics at Cal State San Marcos, on a daily basis, they utilize this research to also advocate for a much bigger cause; underrepresentation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).  

According to California State University Dashboards, of those enrolled in the College of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (CSTEM) at CSUSM during fall 2022, 42% were female, which is the lowest total percentage of female students since 2011. Within the applied physics major, only 22% of students enrolled during the fall of 2022 were female.  

In “STEM Jobs See Uneven Progress in Increasing Gender, Racial and Ethnic Diversity,” Pew Research said, “The long-term outlook for diversity in the STEM workforce is closely tied to representation in the STEM educational system, particularly across the nation’s colleges and universities.” 

While Caplan and Belontz feel immensely supported by faculty in the Department of Physics at CSUSM, they recount experiences they’ve shared within the field where this wasn’t always the case. 

“Being a woman in this field, especially in the realm of astronomy and physics, is partly empowering because I’m proud that I’ve proved I could make it,” Caplan said. “But on this other side, I often think ‘where is everybody else?’ Physics is cool, so where are all the other ladies? Where’s the other representation?” 

Caplan has found it challenging to respect her own boundaries after feeling like she must work much harder to prove she’s equivalent to expectations and be seen as enough. Situations like these have caused both Caplan and Belontz to feel isolated and fostered imposter syndrome. 

Belontz has been to a handful of talks and conferences where she was the only woman presenting her research and while she advocated for women in this space, these conversations took away from her work and achievements.  

“I try my best to change the narrative so that [women in STEM] aren’t seen as a disadvantage,” Belontz said. “I believe that women are meant to speak up and to take up space in any kind of discipline. Things are slowly starting to become more inclusive and it’s primarily because of women who are championing for other women to succeed.”  

Belontz and Caplan are in fact changing this narrative, in addition to the stereotypical narrative often portrayed in media sources, where women are pitted against one another. The two share an office space, are constantly working in one another’s labs, providing encouragement and advocating for one another. Together, they radiate infectious energy and are the epitome of female empowerment. 

They also have a shared vision of using academia to uplift and support young girls, who are excited about science. 

Caplan demonstrates this while participating in the NASA “Aerospace Academy” a program which supports local high school students, many from low-income backgrounds and engages them with scientific activities. It is through this program that she actually found her passion for academia, as she develops much of the curriculum and meets with the student ambassadors on a weekly basis.  

This conversational component of their daily work is paired with research advancements, in their vastly different laboratories: 

For Caplan’s postdoc, she is working to understand water on the moon and oxygen isotope exchange in the early solar system, which will provide a better understanding of how the earth came to be as it is now.  

Caplan always wanted to “touch outer space.” Now a core memory, a fifth-grade activity would shape the trajectory of her future; She clasped a handful of “star” glitter, threw it up, and watched in awe as it landed on a dark, black sheet of paper. She then created her own constellation from the unique way the glitter fell and gave her creation its origin story.  

Little did she know at 10 years old that her career would be comprised of a very similar activity; discovering how materials on Earth that originated from outer space, meteorites, may have shaped how the solar system evolved. 

Today, Caplan continues to understand the formation and evolution of the solar system by conducting experiments in the Isotope Characterization Experiment (ICE) lab. Her research focuses on how energetic fluxes in the solar system change the isotopic composition of ice and dust grains, such as those on the moon. These experiments run at ultra-high vacuum and use a beam of electrons to break the bonds of water ice and a substrate to promote the exchange of isotopes. This exchange of isotopes can give insight into processes that occurred during the formation of the solar system and help explain why planetary bodies are so unique.  

The entirety of this process helps scientists see possibilities of what may have happened in the early solar system. Earth and all the materials in the solar system were formed from the same dust cloud as the Sun, so they should have the same composition, yet so many materials look different. The answers to why this happened could give insight into planetary evolution. 

Belontz on the other hand, has developed a methodology to quantify nanoplastic particles in bottled water samples using an Atomic Force Microscopy based-Infrared Spectroscopy (AFM-IR) technique.  

 “[The impact of nanoplastic particles on] humans are still relatively unknown. This is because the quantification and assessment of sub-micron particles is lacking, likely due to the difficulty of detecting them using conventional microscopy and spectroscopy methods. One could assume that with a high surface-to-volume ratio, the potential toxicological effects of nanoplastic particles [being able to cross biological barriers] would be great.”  

 Her technique utilizes microscopy and infrared spectroscopy to chemically map and identify nanoplastics in drinking water. Once particles are detected, counted and measured, she can determine the concentrations and mass of nanoplastics in a 500 mL bottle of water.  

 “Nanoplastics can be released into bottled water for a number of reasons, including  

  • The opening and closing cycles of the bottle cap; the abrasion of the harder high density polyethylene cap (HDPE) with the softer polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle can increase fragmentation and release particles into the water.  
  • If the condition of the plastic bottle is altered by the user or by external stressors, for example, when pressurized water is added to the bottle during production, or if one were to leave it in a hot car for a long period of time, this could not only increase degradation but it could also expose humans to chemical leachates like bisphenol A (BPA).”    

“Interestingly, even though literature on this topic is significant, especially on how ubiquitous microplastics are in the environment and their interaction with aquatic and terrestrial organisms. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared that because ‘no clear conclusions’ have been made about their toxic effect on people, micro- and nanoplastics are not a problem of concern.” said Belontz 

Belontz is hoping that her research will be a steppingstone for future work on ecotoxicology studies or studies examining the characteristics of environmentally relevant nanoplastics and how they’re transported in the natural environment. She is currently writing a manuscript which, if published, would support these findings.  

Belontz has had to combat many obstacles in order to construct this type of research and methodology. As a Canadian resident and the first international postdoc student at CSUSM, she had to jump through several hoops before she was even able to physically begin her postdoc research.  

“I was the first member of my family to go to university. [Then I took that a step further by] earning a master's degree, then a Ph.D. at the age of only 28,” Belontz said. “It was a huge leap for me to drive all the way to California from Canada, not having any connections, not knowing where I was going to live and not even knowing much about the United States. I did this all just based on passion.” 

It’s clear that sometimes, passion paired with hard work is enough to make a difference. Belontz and Caplan’s resiliency, intelligence and passion proves to be a powerhouse for CSTEM and CSUSM. Their research and outlook are making strides for the advancement of physics and women in STEM.   

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Eric Breier, Public Affairs Specialist

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