Sloan Mentor Spotlight

Dr. Amelia Shevenell is an Associate Professor of Geological Oceanography at the College of Marine Science. Her research focus in Paleoceanography generates geochemical, and micropaleontologic records from marine sediments to understand Earth’s high latitude climate evolution. Specifically, she contributes toward a greater understanding of ocean-ice sheet interactions in the context of ongoing climate change. Dr. Shevenell’s research is supported by the National Science Foundation, Royal Society of New Zealand Marsden Fund, U.S. Science Support Program (USSP) and other agencies. In 2019, she was a recipient of an USF Faculty Outstanding Research Achievement Award.  Her other awards included: Sigma XI Honor Society, Elected Full Member (2019); AGU Outstanding Reviewer (2016); and IODP Distinguished Lecturer (2014-2015).

Amelia Shevenell

Dr. Shevenell has served in leadership roles (Co-Chief Scientist, Lead Shipboard Sedimentologist, and PI/Watch Chief) on four of her nine research expeditions to Antarctica, where she has involved her graduate students and undergraduates. Since her faculty appointment in 2011, Dr. Shevenell has used public lectures, news interviews, science blogging, and social media to communicate her research and inform the public of global climate change. Throughout her career, she has mentored postdoctoral researchers, graduate students, and undergraduates. Recently, Dr. Shevenell responded to questions regarding her research program, career journey, and mentoring philosophy from Michelle Henderson, President of the UCEM Student Leadership Council. 

1. How would you describe your research including its broader impact?

The research in my lab contributes to our understanding of Earth’s climate evolution over the last ~50 million years. We generate ocean temperature and ice volume records from the chemistry of microscopic fossils and lipid membranes of marine archaea preserved in mud deposited on the ocean floor. Such records are important for understanding the role that ocean temperature plays in ice sheet behavior through time. Our research is relevant to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concerns that ongoing climate changes are accelerating polar ice cap melting and global sea level rise. Understand what causes ice sheets to melt and how fast ice sheets have melted and reformed in the past is critical for improving climate models, which inform scientists and policy makers globally (at the national and local level), how much and how fast sea levels will rise with continued warming.

2. Can you discuss your journey as a researcher and current position at USF?

I am lucky to have grown up in a family of high achieving women. One of them was my "Great Aunt Mary from Woods Hole”; who gave me book every Thanksgiving about children having great adventures. She inscribed each book with a message encouraging me to seek out adventures and follow my passions. As a child, I didn't know that Aunt Mary was Mary Sears, an oceanographer described in 1985 by the then editors of Deep-Sea Research (a journal that she founded and edited) as someone who "has probably played a greater role in the advancement of oceanographic studies than any other woman.” Aunt Mary was a tiny woman, but her shoes are impossible to fill.

Given this legacy, my route to oceanography was circuitous, but I finally found my niche in paleoceanography. During my junior year at Hamilton College in upstate New York, I participated in my first research cruise aboard the RV/IB Nathanial B Palmer and fell in love with Antarctica, scientific discovery, and research. After two years of adventure in Alaska working as an environmental consultant and analytical chemist, I applied to graduate school. I was accepted to the University of California, Santa Barbara, where I studied the evolution of Antarctica’s ice sheets during a period of time 17 to 13 million years ago, where we think the ice sheets transitioned from glacier systems similar to what we see today in Alaska, to the large ice sheets that now cover the Antarctic continent. After graduating with my PhD, I was a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Program on Climate Change at the University of Washington. My next big adventure, as a new mom, was to England, where I was an Assistant Professor at University College London. After four years, my family returned to the United States and I began my current job, as an Assistant (now Associate) Professor in the University of South Florida College of Marine Science.

3. What do you find most rewarding about your work as a professor? What makes this work meaningful and interesting to you?

This sounds cliché, but working with students is the most rewarding part of my job. I live for the lightbulb moments, when students finally solve a puzzle, or understand a component of their research. I love seeing the excitement and joy of discovery. The COVID-19 pandemic has taught me that much of my sense of purpose, joy, and creativity comes from my face-to-face interactions with my students. I can’t wait to get back into the lab and the classroom. I can’t wait to learn from them and continue to make discoveries about the evolution of our planet and climate system.

4. Did you have mentors early in your career who inspired you?

I took my first undergraduate geology class from a temporary lecturer who was brought in to fill in for a professor on leave. He was a dynamic engaging lecturer who made learning about the Earth fun! His excitement was contagious. He is now a professor at a large state University in the Southeast and studies volcanoes. A few years ago, I was giving a seminar in his department and he walked in, late. I did something that I cringe thinking about now, but was impulsive and truthful. I stopped my lecture and said Hi (he had no clue who I was). And then I proceeded to tell the audience that this professor was the reason that I became a Geology major. I am pretty sure that I totally embarrassed him, but we went for drinks after my seminar and he confessed to the group that I had made his day. We all agreed that isn’t very often that we hear about our impact on a student, so when it happens, it is incredible.

5. What have been the most important qualities in the mentors that you’ve had?  Also, can you discuss your own approach to mentoring?

I’ve had really great mentors, and really terrible ones. I tend to work best with people who give me the space I need to figure things out, but who are available to help when I ask. I ask for help/opinions when I’ve exhausted all of my resources. In that sense, I have been told that I am a rewarding mentee, because I take my mentors advice seriously and follow their suggested path. I guess I also provide them with useful feedback about why their suggestion worked or didn't work for a given scenario. I imagine I am very frustrating to micromanagers.

One of the hardest lessons I have had to learn as a mentor is that my students are not me. They don't have my life experiences, they don't have the same set of formal classes, and their brains are not wired like mine. This doesn't make them less than me, it just means that we are all different. I have learned, and continue to learn, how to adjust my mentoring style to the needs of that particular student. Sometimes we find the balance early on, other times we lock horns and work through things. Both paths are ok with me. Clear and frequent communication is key to any mentor/mentee relationship. The one thing I haven’t been able to adapt, and the one thing that all of my students will say about me, is that I have very high expectations of everyone, but especially of myself. Students who I tend to work best with either set incredibly high standards for themselves, or are driven to do their best work by someone who believes whole heartedly that they can. Yes, I have tried to lower my expectations; usually, it ends badly. Here is a great story about lowering expectations. I am a pretty direct reviewer and not afraid to tell someone how they can improve their manuscript. One time I decided that I should be less critical and was pressed for time, so I wrote a fairly uncritical sunshine and rainbows review of a paper that I thought was horrendous. The editor immediately sent my review back, asked me if Amelia had been held hostage, and requested that I rewrite the review. In this example, I disappointed the editor AND ended up spending more time on the task. So, adjusting my expectations is and will continue to be a challenge for me as a mentor and leader.

6.  What are the attributes or skills that you believe are important to have as a professor?  Also, why would you encourage students to consider careers in academia?

Empathy, flexibility, and the ability to communicate clearly. As a society, we seem to have forgotten that empathy is critical in our daily discourse. As a teacher and a graduate advisor, I try to remind myself daily of a few things: 1. that in any group, while we may be trying to get to the same destination (e.g., classroom learning outcomes, published paper), we are all sailing in different boats on different tacks, 2. that nothing ever goes according to plan, and 3. That I need to communicate clearly and without jargon. To do this well, I need to start at the beginning of the story, process, etc. If someone is confused, then somehow, I have not done my job. I’ve learned that confusion results from me starting an explanation or a story somewhere in the middle. I have (inadvertently) made an assumption that the student I am speaking to has the same background knowledge that I have. That is always a terrible assumption. Along these lines, I think that it is important to have humility, especially as a Principal Investigator/Leader. If I haven’t explained something well, then I need to recognize that I screwed up, and admit it. I do a lot of admitting I am wrong at work, which always entertains my husband (I am always right at home). Ultimately, the one thing that really helps in this career is to have the ability to laugh at yourself, publicly and often.

For me, academia was the ideal combination of things that worked well with my personality. I love learning and solving problems/puzzles, am independent, terrible with deadlines, and pretty resilient in the face of criticism (don't worry, I do my share of pouting about rejections). Mostly, I am incredibly stubborn, so I stick with things after every other person would have given up and gone home. I encourage students to follow their own career paths. That being said, I do notice when someone is really good at solving puzzles, is comfortable with trial and error, comfortable with criticism, persistent, and shows an aptitude for teaching in peer interactions. In professional development conversations with these students, I ask if they have considered a career in research. I listen to their answers. If they ask for my opinion, I explain why academia may be a good choice for them. Often, students who are really interested in research don't immediately see that they are actually really great at explaining their research, so they don't often think about the teaching and mentoring aspects of academia.

7.  How do you like to spend your time outside of research and maintain a work/life balance?

I’m not sure that I maintain a great work life balance, but I try. Why? Because I love to solve puzzles, so research doesn't feel like work to me. It feels like a puzzle I want to solve. But never fear, I have a husband (USF CMS Research Engineer), 13-year-old daughter, and 7-year-old black Labrador who make sure that I don't work 24/7. I have a ton of hobbies (probably too many), including paddle boarding, Pilates (all exercise, really), pottery, knitting, gardening, baking bread, reading, hanging out with friends, and travelling. I love to create, and I love to share my creations with family, friends, and neighbors. I’ve recently gotten into showing Labradors, and want to start a breeding program, because it is pretty clear that one Labrador is not enough.

8. Why do you believe increased diversity and inclusion in your discipline and overall in STEM is important?

A landmark study published in Nature Geoscience found that diversity and inclusion in Geosciences has not changed in 40 years. To me this is both unsurprising and soul crushing. We need a diverse community of geoscientists to solve our most complex scientific problems. Without a diversity of perspectives and experiences, we are less likely to develop innovative solutions to problems as all-encompassing as climate change. Without a diverse group of researchers and students, we are less likely to attract and retain exceptional talent and more likely to get trapped in existing ways of thinking. My hope is that we can grow and foster a diverse and inclusive community of Marine Scientists at USF.

To learn more about Dr. Shevenell's research and career journey, please visit:

Faculty Page 
Expedition Antarctica 
Women in Antarctica Panel Discussion