Mike Schiltz

See Yourself in STEM - Mike Schiltz

Tell us a little bit about you:

Hello! My name is Mike. I am a half-American, half-Finnish guy from Wisconsin who gets stoked about rocks. When I am not being a geoengineer you can find me running around the hills and rock climbing. I am also a secret anime nerd and I enjoy drawing on my down time. One of my favourite foods is ramen. If this was a Myspace profile you would probably be listening to a song by Cage the Elephant.

What is your area of research and what project(s) are you working on now?

I am a geoengineer in the Civil and Environmental Department at the University of Strathclyde. I study how rocks break to see how fluids move through those cracks underground. My research has the potential to help fight climate change by improving renewable geothermal energy development, storing greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide, and create safe underground waste management solutions.

When was your interest in STEM/your field first sparked and why?

When was your interest in STEM/your field first sparked and why? When I was 11 or 12, I was cycling along a local bike path and I stopped by a small stream. While I was exploring the stream bank, I found a tiny fossil of a shell. I was so excited by the prospect of finding more fossils that I scoured the area with my face to the ground. When I finally looked up from the rocks, I realized my bike had been stolen! At the time I was devastated but in hindsight not realizing my bike was stolen because I was too interested in rocks was the universe giving me a sign.

Who or what inspired you to stick with STEM when you were younger?

One of the first stories to come to mind when I was first inspired to stick with STEM was when I was in middle school. My class was offered a chance to go on this week-long outdoor natural science field trip called Trees For Tomorrow.

Unfortunately, it was an opportunity only available for the ‘excelling’ students and I need to be frank with everyone here, I was not the ideal student when I was young. I lacked focus and found school very challenging. Needless to say, I was not an excelling student. Luckily, it was the middle of winter and no one wanted to go because it was so cold outside. To fill the empty bus seats, they put the interested underperformers into a raffle, and I was lucky enough to get picked to go.

During that trip we did so many cool science things outside. We imitated how wolves use their sense of smell by spraying colourful, mint-smelling ‘scent trails’ in the snow to find hidden groups of students. We also went snowshoeing through old forests and learned about Wisconsin’s native forestry history (which continues to be highlighted as most sustainable ongoing forestry practices today). It was a moment that breathed life into learning because I was experiencing it outside, not in the classroom.

What challenges do you think STEM disciplines face with regards to issues of diversity and inclusion and what should a supportive, inclusive STEM community look like?

Oh my gosh, there is so many challenges in STEM. Sexism, racism, classism, ableism, you name it, and it’s there. I am not even talking about the discrete types of these -isms, I am talking about sexism with a capitol S and racism with a capitol R, etcetera, and they are present at all levels of academia. More commonly though people just don’t care because they think it takes too much energy away from their research. The general consensus is that we should just look at the science and not the scientist. Several scientists don’t understand that the academic institutions they work in have complicated systems that actively work against building equality, diversity and inclusion. Fortunately, people are slowly learning about how to dismantle those systems to create a more supportive research environment.

My idea of an inclusive STEM community looks a lot like a bubbler/water cooler scene in an office space. People are chatting around a common area and those people are dressed differently, have different skin tones, are different genders, have different bodies, different personalities. These differences are valued because they bring a different perspective to the scientific process. And the science is always amazing, has high impact, is fiercely collaborative, and whenever a paper is written it sparkles as it gets sent in for review.

In your career, what are the moments that have made you proudest so far?

When I turned in my undergrad thesis my supervisor reminded me that my research contributed to an area of knowledge that hadn’t been known before. I felt my body shudder when she said that because it was in that moment I had understood the impact of my research could have on the world and it was powerful.

Since STEM career paths are rarely easy to navigate, what challenges have you faced along the way?

One of my biggest challenges is imposter syndrome. I am a first-generation PhD student, and I was raised with this idea of how a STEM person looks, acts and performs, and I believed I was not that person. By extension I felt I didn’t belong in academia, like I could never live up to that identity of an academic. Part of becoming a PhD student has helped me realize a STEM person is a human being, not some robot. It is someone who is pushing the boundaries of knowledge, and an essential part of that process is making mistakes and going back to the drawing board. We are a people who learn by doing something wrong until we get it right. That’s how we push the research frontier and invent new technologies.

Where do you find support to sustain you in your current career?

My family is a never-ending source of support for me. My sister jokes that I will be a rock doctor someday (much like the B-52’s song, Rock Lobster). On a serious note, my parents and my sister have each individually come to me and said how proud they are of for me to at various times through this process. It means a lot to hear that from the people I love that they believe in me even if I don’t.

What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in STEM?

Climate change is going to be one of the most formidable problems that defines the 21st century. Humanity and the environment need you, and it doesn’t just need a select few of you. It needs each and every single one of you to work together to help fix it.

To do this you can be a person in STEM and you can also be an artist, writer, social media influencer, musician, athlete, drag queen. Make your education work for you, don’t let you work for education. Ask for help if you don’t know how to start, make mistakes, try something new, realize you hate it and do something different; but never let fear stop you from making a move. You all deserve to be in STEM! Let your curiosity guide you to what that looks like.

Fun question: Tell us two truths and a lie about you.

a) One summer I worked as a Dungeness crab fisher off the coast of Kodiak Island, Alaska. b) I have hiked from Glasgow to John O’Groats all in a single journey. c) I have a published book of poetry on the experience of wandering, illustrated with miscellaneous 35mm film photos I have taken outdoors.