The Prosaic Mosaic: Dr. Morgan Kelly

Dr. Morgan Kelly is an Assistant Professor at Louisiana State University where her lab integrates ecology, evolution, and genetics to inform the conservation of marine invertebrates.

I met Dr. Morgan Kelly briefly towards the end of her PhD at UC Davis in 2011, found her years later on Twitter, and then again at the 2016 meeting of the Western Society of Naturalists. The conversation during our brief reunion consisted of women and diversity in academia. Although I came into my conversation with Morgan feeling bleak, I walked away feeling fortified and empowered. But most importantly, I was emboldened by the transformation I had just seen: a female graduate student-turned-professor. Morgan had survived the “leaky pipe”.

Despite a lifelong love of science and majoring in biology in college, Morgan couldn’t initially visualize herself becoming a scientist because she wasn’t “good enough”. Instead of pursuing an academic career in science, she first taught life, physical, and earth sciences to middle school students. Teaching was an enriching experience, but she missed learning science herself and went on to pursue a Master’s degree at the University of Maine, Orono.

Morgan’s Master’s research focused on the genetics of a threatened species of freshwater mussel whose special status prevented her from thoroughly exploring the biology of the mussels and she was drawn to the deductive power of experimental ecology. This brought her to Drs. Rick Grosberg and Eric Sanford for her PhD research at UC Davis, where she studied mating systems and thermal tolerance in intertidal barnacles and copepods. She then worked with Dr. Gretchen Hofmann as a post-doctoral scholar to understand the physiological impacts of climate change on the purple urchin before becoming an Assistant Professor at Louisiana State University (LSU), where she is today.

Morgan’s lab assesses the impacts of climate change on oysters and cold-water corals. Additionally, to expose a diverse group of young scientists to science in real time, Morgan has initiated a program to bring her lab’s ongoing research into undergraduate biology labs. This provides 60 undergraduates the opportunity to genotype copepods to assess their adaptation to heat stress and learn about climate change.

As she pursues tenure, Morgan struggles to balance the mental bandwidth she allots towards advancing her career and being present as a mother for her children. Over time, Morgan has learned to stop comparing herself to her colleagues that are not juggling a family life with their academic goals. This, she hopes, will provide a model for her younger students that it is healthy to have work-life balance. In sharing this with me, she mentioned the imbalance academic parents experience, especially the disproportionately high commitments of mothers in heterosexual couples.

When I asked her if marrying a woman has presented any issues, Morgan said she had experienced very few. When she arrived at LSU in 2014, Marriage Equality was not yet a national policy, so had her wife been unemployed she wouldn’t have been able to obtain insurance through Morgan. To counter this experience, Morgan shared that when they first arrived at LSU and began attending a local church, the priest held a dinner to welcome her family to the open-minded parish they had just joined.

“Our fears push out the motivation and passion behind the science we do.”

Morgan applies credos from each of her mentors to her own work: she upholds Dr. Grosberg’s high standards for conducting science, incorporates Dr. Sanford’s unique capacity for internalizing and conveying natural history, and like Dr. Hofmann, arduously advocates for her students — especially minorities and women in science. To cope with the challenges that underrepresented scientists face, Morgan recommends they first permit themselves to be irritated by micro-aggressions, but to then proactively deal with each issue. And, to holistically address issues, she suggests finding a supportive community where you can share your experiences. As an educator and mentor, Morgan attempts to model this behavior for her own students.

Looking back at her career, Morgan would allow herself to worry less: “our fears push out the motivation and passion behind the science we do.” During those moments of stress, she reminds herself to nurture her curiosity and passion for science, and she encourages other students and scientists to do the same. Perhaps it is this mindfulness that propelled Morgan through the academic pipe and into the role of a scientist that her younger self couldn’t foresee, and that so many other female scientists aspire to be.