Aisha Morris smiles while perched in the Alvin submersible.
Aisha Morris in the Alvin submersible in 1999. Credit: Aisha Morris
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Aisha Morris’s interest in geology runs deep. Growing up, she collected and cleaned rocks, and then sold them to the kids around her suburban Minnesota neighborhood. But despite this early financial success, it wasn’t until college that she seriously considered geology as a career path.

Morris was hooked as an undergraduate at Duke University, after Jeff Karson (now at Syracuse University) offered her a research opportunity studying mid-ocean rifts. “It was a challenge, because I was learning how to do research and ask questions,” Morris said, “but it was also very empowering to create knowledge as an undergrad.”

The project culminated in a senior thesis and a chance to dive in the Alvin submersible. With Alvin, she was able to see directly the rift she had been studying, through a porthole instead of on a screen.

Later, as a grad student at the University of Hawai‘i, Morris was wary of work–life imbalances and the lack of diversity in academia. She found a postdoc position with Karson that allowed her to work on both research and broadening participation activities among underrepresented groups.

She quickly learned that the work she was doing to create and support a more diverse scientific community was more fulfilling than the research. So Morris left academia in 2013 to further pursue that community building, first at UNAVCO and then at the National Science Foundation (NSF), where she is now a program director for Education and Human Resources.

Not everyone understood Morris’s decision to leave the academic path. “Sometimes you have to create your own pathway,” she said. “Who knows what kind of path you’re opening up for others in your forging ahead?”

At NSF, Morris is working to bring previously excluded groups into the geosciences through programs like the Improving Undergraduate STEM Education (IUSE) initiative. IUSE funds projects for precollege, undergraduate, and graduate students with a focus on service learning and outreach to historically excluded groups and from nongeoscience degree programs.

Success in the sciences doesn’t look like a tenure-track professorship at an R1 institution for everyone, she said. For Morris, the ultimate success would be to work herself out of a job by creating a community so welcoming it no longer needed the kind of broadening participation initiatives to which she’s dedicated her career.

To keep up with Morris’s work, follow her on Twitter (@volcanogirl17) or the Education and Human Resources portal at NSF’s Division of Earth Sciences.

This profile is part of a special series in our September 2021 issue on science careers.

—Kate Wheeling


Wheeling, K. (2021), Aisha Morris: Opening the door to science, Eos, 102, Published on 24 August 2021.

Text © 2021. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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