Fort Lewis College associate professor Heidi Steltzer’s career has led to groundbreaking research, recognition as an outstanding teacher and a voice as an advocate for women in science. This year, it will also lead to the Arctic in Greenland and the bottom of the world in Antarctica.
Steltzer, in her mid-40s, began a sabbatical year with a return to where she fell in love with alpine botany at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Gothic, a ghost town near Crested Butte.
“In 1993, I had never been west of the Appalachians,” she said. “Then I spent a summer working at the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab Field Station in an undergraduate program, and that fall I applied to CU (the University of Colorado) Boulder and switched my studies to becoming a mountain researcher.”
After graduating from Duke University with a bachelor’s degree in biology, she earned her master’s and doctoral degrees at CU, Steltzer spent several years doing postdoctoral work at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.
“I had never gone camping, and I signed up for an experiential-ed (education) weeklong camping trip during my undergraduate work (at Duke). My 18-year-old brain decided I liked it, so I decided I could still be a biologist,” she said, adding that camping has turned out to be a pivotal component of her research. “At 28, I was living on gravel bars on the Noatak River (National Preserve) north of the Arctic Circle in Alaska, and every two weeks went into town to get groceries. I used to spend full summers in Greenland, and I remember crying when I saw fresh produce again.”
This summer will be different from her college days, as Steltzer takes her two sons, Roan Banks, 9, and Archer Banks, 6½, to Gothic for the second year in a row. Her husband, David Banks, will join them for a week-and-a-half at the bio lab. He has a doctorate in engineering and designs ways to make solar panels sturdier.
“I want my sons to have the experience of knowing scientists and interacting with adults in that way, but also be kids doing kid things,” Steltzer said. “They can catch marmots with scientists during the day, then have a real conversation with them in the dining hall at the end of the day.”
Roan may be headed for a career as a scientist.
“He acted like a scientist when he was 2,” Steltzer said, “very methodical, sorting his Legos by color. Archer is going to be an artist, maybe art related to science.”
After five weeks in Crested Butte, Steltzer will head to Greenland above the Arctic Circle as part of a project to create a curriculum about climate change for middle and high school teachers funded by the National Science Foundation.
And December will present the greatest adventure of her sabbatical. Steltzer is one of seven Americans among almost 80 female scientists from around the world selected for the first installment of a proposed decadelong Homeward Bound program, beginning with a three-week trip to Antarctica. Funded primarily by a grant, the program has a long-term goal of creating a network of female scientists 1,000-strong, with the hopes they will collaborate on research and advocacy endeavors for sustainable practices on the planet.
“The Antarctica trip is about how to better link society to science,” Steltzer said. “It may identify different things we should study to be more relevant to the people making decisions. It will include the kind of leadership training given in business schools but rarely to scientists.”
Steltzer as educator
A chance encounter at Carver Brewing Co., while in Durango on vacation led her to pursue a position at the college, where Steltzer has become a respected biology and environmental science teacher since joining the faculty in 2009. In 2013, she was named the inaugural recipient of the Sulzman Award for Excellence in Education and Mentoring from the American Geophysical Union.
“When we’re training scientists, we have to train them for very diverse careers, not just academics,” she said, “because faculty positions are incredibly competitive. They have to learn to do good science, be able to talk about research, maybe take it into policy-making, into business, into other arenas.”
Steltzer’s work in the classroom may end up being the best research project.
“I’ve learned so much by teaching,” she said. “I could make lists and lists of ideas learned from students, because they ask such amazing questions. I got a speeding ticket in New Mexico one time, and because of the learning dynamic and rapport I learned from my students, I got it dismissed.”