Meet Shoestring Warrior and PhD Candidate in Earth System Science Emily J Francis

Science camp, math camp, basketball camp, soccer camp, marine biology camp…marine biology camp?! Yup, you read that right. While her peers were playing soccer or studying chemistry, this week’s Shoestring Warrior was at marine biology camp collecting data, in the lab, and analyzing data and writing up the results. Meet Shoestring Warrior and PhD Candidate in Earth System Science Emily J Francis. When she wasn’t at camp, Emily spent a lot of time watching the BBC Blue Planet Series. She credits her supportive parents for fostering a love for science which led her to study forest ecology in college and to eventually pursue a PhD in Earth System Science.

These key experiences helped me to feel comfortable in the world of science and made me confident enough to pursue a PhD – but these opportunities certainly aren’t available to most kids and teenagers in the US, and I feel extremely lucky to have had supportive parents and mentors.

Emily has been fortunate to have inspiring mentors throughout her educational career and her dream is to one day create a scientific space for students of diverse backgrounds to be able to pursue their own research questions. Curious about what her own research question is? I’ll give you a hint, it involves redwoods and climate change. Keep reading to learn more about what it’s like to study TREES!

Connect with Emily on LinkedIn and GoogleScholar and follow her adventures on Instagram and Twitter.

If you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, come to the Patagonia store in Palo Alto (525 Alma St, Palo Alto) for a special event on Thursday, September 27th at 7:00pm to hear more from Emily about her research! Drinks and snacks will be provided and Canopy, a local environmental non-profit, will be tabling at the event. 

Shoestring Warrior: Emily J Francis


San Mateo, CA

Current location:

Palo Alto, CA


PhD candidate in Earth System Science

What are your passions outside of work?

I do yoga, run, dance, and cycle. I spend time at the gym doing physical therapy exercises to prevent injuries. I paint, both small watercolor paintings and also large, wall-sized canvas pieces. I perform – modern dance and recently acting. I have a serious passion for backpacking. I particularly enjoy backpacking trips in the mountains and with challenging weather conditions. I enjoy spending time with my friends and family and hanging out with my friends’ dogs.  

Tell us about yourself!

I’m committed to my career in ecology; it’s what has taught me the most about myself.

I have a dream of someday having my own lab, where I could support students of diverse backgrounds to pursue their own research questions. 

I like to push myself, but I don’t like to go fast, so I go uphill.  

When did you first discover your love for ecology and the natural world?

My love for ecology was something that I think I cultivated – with the support of my parents and teachers – from a young age. I can remember a couple of important experiences, though. I remember spending a lot of time in the dirt in my parents’ backyard as a young child. I also remember watching the BBC Blue Planet series – and watching the episode about coral reefs, which is when I decided I wanted to be a marine biologist. I didn’t end up becoming a marine biologist, but it helped me figure out I wanted to do forest ecology in college. From the ages of 13-18 I went to science camps for a couple of weeks every summer. A couple of these were marine biology summer camps, where we spent time collecting data, in the lab, and analyzing data and writing up the results. I definitely wouldn’t have been able to do that without my parents’ support. These key experiences helped me to feel comfortable in the world of science and made me confident enough to pursue a PhD – but these opportunities certainly aren’t available to most kids and teenagers in the US, and I feel extremely lucky to have had supportive parents and mentors.

What is your main research focus as a PhD candidate in Stanford University’s Earth System Science program?

My dissertation is on redwood forest ecohydrology. I study how redwoods respond to variability in fog and groundwater over space and time.

I’m trying to answer the question – how does water constrain where redwoods are currently able to grow, and how trees have responded to past climate changes?

My hope is that with a better understanding of how water affects where redwoods grow now, conservationists could make strategic land-management decisions to preserve redwood forests that are more likely to be buffered against future changes in water availability as a result of climate change.

What does a “typical” day as a Phd student studying global ecology look like?

Most days, I go to my office, and spend the morning either writing code to analyze data or writing a manuscript. I usually have a couple of meetings throughout the day where I’m either mentoring or teaching, presenting my work and getting feedback from my colleagues or advisors, or giving feedback on someone else’s work. I usually spend about a month during the summer doing fieldwork, where I’m going into forests and collecting samples from places I’ve identified on a map. I try to bring students into the field with me to share the experience of doing fieldwork and help them gain those skills in ecology.

What is the most challenging aspect of conducting research in the field?

The most challenging – and most fun! – part of fieldwork is being able to adjust when things don’t go as planned. Last summer I was collecting wood samples and I had a tool that kept breaking. It broke in so many different ways. So a lot of my work was going a long way to the field with plans to collect samples, and then learning how to fix the tool in a new way. I kept trying to make plans to get X many samples each day, and then the tool would break unexpectedly and I’d end up spending the whole day fixing it. The whole experience became a lot more enjoyable when I learned how to always be prepared to collect as many samples as possible if the tool was working, and always be prepared to spend the whole day fixing it if it broke. 

It felt like good practice in zen.  

What role does technology play in your research?

Technology makes it possible for us to have unprecedented insights into how many natural systems, including redwood forests, function. A lot of my work involves applying methods that have been developed in other fields to answer questions in ecology.

I use data collected from airplanes, satellites, and wood samples.

Machine learning has been a useful tool to analyze these large datasets effectively. My advisor and my lab-mates are thinking really creatively about how to apply different algorithms to answer our questions, and I am constantly inspired and challenged by them.

Which biologists, conservationists, or environmentalists inspire you the most?

I’m inspired by researchers who use ecological theory to answer questions with applied relevance to society. I’m inspired by professors who make a concerted effort to support individuals to pursue careers in science who wouldn’t have otherwise had the opportunity. I’m inspired by professors who work closely with the people in the communities where they work. I know one professor at Stanford who has done a really amazing job of working with locals in the community where he does his field work while also building a strong academic research program at Stanford.

He recognizes the knowledge of the people who live and work in the environments where he conducts his field work, but aren’t necessarily pursuing academic careers. I’m really inspired by that.

What advice do you have for someone thinking about pursuing a PhD in earth sciences?

Find good mentors. Be ruthless about having a life outside of your work when you need to. Own your mistakes and stay committed to the process.

Remember to enjoy it!

Funniest outdoor experience/mishap?  

It’s hard to pick one, but when I worked in Montana and was backpacking a lot, we used to mix together dehydrated mac n cheese and dehydrated chili and call it ‘mac and cheen.’

Where’s your next adventure?

Spending two nights backpacking with friends in Pt. Reyes this weekend!

The perfect s’more? (if you don’t like s’mores, what’s your favorite campfire dessert?)

All food tastes better outside. When I’m backpacking, my favorite dessert is dried fruit and dark chocolate!

Photos © 2018 Emily J Francis

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