“Do you sleep?” It's rhetorical but appropriate question asked of Alison Sloat at a recent College of Sciences Advisory Board meeting. She had just finished her presentation on the various community outreach programs in the college.
Sloat spearheaded or volunteers in most of the programs in the presentation. Her work runs the gamut from creating new and interesting courses, to developing Rebel Science Camp for local elementary school kids, to mentoring programs for current students, to writing grants to bring her next great idea to fruition.
Sloat seems to have an endless amount of energy and ideas to engage current students in classroom or young ones she hopes to see at UNLV in the future.
What inspired you to get into your field?
I went to college intending to be a screenwriter. I realized in that first year that I did not like it, but I didn’t know what else to do. I had always been interested in science, but I didn’t think I was smart enough to major in it.
I was searching through the course catalog (at California State University San Bernardino) when I found a class called Geology of National Parks. It required “strenuous hiking and camping,” and for the first time, I was excited and a little scared to take a class. I signed up, we went on a field trip to Yosemite National Park, and I fell in love with geology.
While we were in Yosemite Valley learning about the beautiful glacially carved granite, I was so excited to find a major that would lead to a career that allowed me to work outside, do something challenging, and save the Earth at the same time. Even though I was terrified of taking calculus, physics, and chemistry, I changed my major. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. A few years ago, I developed a Geology of National Parks class here at UNLV, and it’s one of my favorite classes to teach.
What is the biggest misconception about your field?
When I told my mom I was changing my major to geology, she said, “What are you going to do with that — look at rocks all day?!” Geologists do a lot more than looking at rocks. As earth scientists, we study everything about the Earth.
When I worked as a geologist after graduation, I primarily worked on cleaning up environmental contamination in soil and groundwater. It is a great feeling to have removed dangerous contaminants to restore a site so it no longer threatens human or animal health. Now I am particularly interested in climate change and how we can reduce future carbon emissions and subsequent warming.
What drew you to UNLV?
I was working as a geologist in environmental consulting when the 2008 (Great) Recession started, and I knew I was going to be laid off. I hoped that additional education would make me more marketable for the next economic downturn, so I came to UNLV for graduate school.
As I started teaching introductory geoscience classes and the first-year seminar, SCI 101, I found I love helping students navigate and find their paths. I earned my Ph.D. in geoscience in 2014, and since then, I’ve been given the opportunity to create new classes and outreach programs in the College of Sciences that teach and encourage students to work on scientific problems. The students taking my climate change and environmental remediation classes are the future scientists who are going to work on these problems, and they give me a lot of hope because of how committed they are to solving them. I love my job.
What was your greatest day on campus? And your toughest?
The toughest days happen when tragic events happen in my students’ lives. College is hard enough, but when they are taking care of family members who are sick or juggling working two jobs to pay for school, it is difficult to watch knowing I can’t do much to help except try to be supportive when they need it.
When my students graduate after a long struggle, find that major they are passionate about, are accepted into medical school and graduate school, win awards, get their first full-time jobs — those are the best days.
What’s the last big project you completed and how did you celebrate/decompress afterward?
The College of Sciences generously provided seed funding for my new Women Scientists: Force for Change program. It is a leadership and mentoring program for 25 undergraduate and graduate women in the College of Sciences, and we are just wrapping up our successful first semester.
We have met and discussed the highs and lows of being women in science, hiked, rock climbed, planted a tree, and mentored and supported each other through it all. After each meeting, I am continuously inspired by everyone’s strength, determination, and compassion to make the world a more diverse, accepting, and better place. As we were rock climbing a few weeks ago, I was so impressed by everyone’s grit and determination — if they fell, they got back up and immediately tried again (and again, and again) until they reached the top. Their willingness to take on new challenges inspires me to work harder to find funding so that more women can be supported in this program.
You created Rebel Science Camp and also support and judge for the Beal Bank USA Southern Nevada Regional Science and Engineering Fair hosted annually by the College of Sciences. What drives you to get local schools/students involved in these programs?
When I was a kid, my mom always said, “An education is the path out of poverty.” An education was my way out of poverty, and now I feel it’s my purpose to help others earn a college degree.
At Rebel Science Camp, we encourage fifth grade students from local CCSD (Clark County School District) schools to attend college and pursue science careers through fun activities that are led by undergraduate student leaders in the College of Sciences. It’s amazing how over the course of just one day at camp, their answers to “What do you want to be when you grow up?” change from YouTuber and NBA player to chemist, biologist, and geologist. We are showing those students that attending college and pursuing careers in the sciences is possible. This is just one of the reasons Rebel Science Camp is so successful — the Rebel Science Camp student leaders are incredible role models, and they inspire the elementary school students to become scientists. I hope that on the first day of the semester one year, I have students in my classes who say, “I came to Rebel Science Camp!”
What advice would you give your younger self?
Be adventurous, keep learning, and trust that everything will work out the way it’s supposed to.
What’s your ideal summer vacation?
I’m taking it this summer! After I finish teaching my Geology of National Parks class and teaching a summer STEM camp for kids, I’m hiking the John Muir Trail. We are taking 18 days to enjoy the peace, beauty, and simplicity of walking over 200 miles with everything we need in our backpacks. Most people look forward to the last day of summiting Mt. Whitney knowing that their packs will be lighter than when they started, but I already know mine will have some extra weight from all the pretty rocks I find along the way.