A Conversation with Bio Station NASA Intern and Miss Flathead Lake Montana Baleigh Doyle
Bio Station NASA intern and Miss Flathead Lake Montana Baleigh Doyle doesn’t have time for stereotypes. The University of Montana-Western graduate and University of Montana Applied Statistics PhD candidate is far too busy spending her summer conducting environmental sensor field tests with FLBS Technologist Cody Youngbull in the SensorSpace Lab, or collecting lake samples with FLBS Researcher Phil Matson, or connecting with Western Montana communities as an advocate of Flathead Lake, to be concerned with anyone’s predetermined expectations about who or what she should be.
For Doyle, time and effort is far better spent carving her own path through life. She has a passion for seeking out complex problems and working with others to solve them, and ultimately plans to use her platform in pageantry to raise awareness for environmental issues and emphasize the opportunities STEM-related fields can provide to young minds with bright ideas.
Recently, FLBS Media and Information Specialist Ian Withrow had the opportunity to sit down with Doyle for a candid interview, in which they covered everything from her time growing up in Colorado, to the importance of perseverance, to the exposure of a national conspiracy involving Baskin Robbins ice cream. The most amazing revelation of all, however, came in Doyle's telling of a special encounter she had in a mountain ski lodge one snowy afternoon...
Bio Station NASA intern and Miss Flathead Lake Montana Baleigh Doyle.
Alright, so we have NASA intern and Miss Flathead Lake Montana Baleigh Doyle here today. Baleigh, thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us.
No problem at all. I’m excited to do it.
So let’s start out with an easy question: Where did you grow up?
I was born on the east coast, but I grew up in Colorado. It’s funny. I always thought I’d grown up in such a small town, which, Parker, Colorado is relatively small compared to other cities in Colorado. Then I came to Montana to do my undergrad and learned what real small towns were all about. But growing up in Colorado was awesome. It was a lot of fun. I just fell in love with the mountains. Ever since then, I’ve always looked to the mountains as a guide. I think that’s probably how I came to end up in Montana, which I’m super happy about.
And is this your first time in Big Sky Country?
No, I actually have several family ties around Montana. My great grandparents owned a property on Flathead Lake in Polson so as a child I spent a lot of time on the lake. My family also donated property to the University of Montana-Western (UMW), including the Roe House, which is now home to the administrative offices on campus. I didn’t realize this until I toured UMW with my grandpa and dad. That tour ultimately led to my decision to attend UMW as an undergrad.
This summer you’re working on remote environmental sensors with FLBS professor Cody Youngbull in the SensorSpace Lab. How did that come about?
I had the opportunity to go to this year’s Montana Lakes Conference up in Whitefish with Daniel Pendergraph, another graduate student from UM. Dan is working with Tom DeLuca and Alex Metcalf on anthropogenic contamination of wilderness lakes. We attended the conference to watch as many presentations as possible, but Dan was really excited to talk with Cody about his work in environmental DNA. I heard of Cody’s work through an internship opportunity with the Montana Space Grant Consortium (MSGC). It was through this other student and MSGC that I was able to connect with Cody, and now I’m spending the summer at the Bio Station helping out with his work as an intern with NASA.
A summer at Flathead Lake is never a bad way to spend a summer. But you’re also pursuing an advanced degree in mathematical sciences at the University of Montana, correct?
Yes. I just finished my first semester in the PhD program for Applied Statistics at the University of Montana, which is my long-term goal. To finish that PhD. I’m also working on a master’s in Applied Statistics along the way, just to cover the bases. My research is focused on the use of technology in environmental sciences—satellites, drones, stuff like that—and I’m also teaching a few math classes to undergraduates at UM.
It must be a little strange being a teacher at the University of Montana while being essentially the same age as your students…
It’s been really interesting. I remember on the first day, I was sitting and chatting with the students before class, and when it was time to start I went up to the front of the room and started writing on the board. And one of my students was like, “Wait, you’re the teacher? You look like you should be a student!” And I was like, “Yep, hi, my name is Baleigh. I realize I’m probably younger than most of you, if not the same age, so let’s just get this out of the way: I’m at the front of the classroom to teach, you all are here to learn. If you have an issue with that, then there’s the door.”
Did they respond to that?
Absolutely. I mean it was definitely important within those first couple weeks for me to clearly define roles and responsibilities and respect, otherwise it would’ve been really easy for them to completely unplug or take over the class. But they were awesome. I actually had two of the biggest classes for that particular course, but they were great. I just tried to be really straight forward and transparent with them. I told them, “There will be times when both of us are struggling and probably wanting to throw this textbook across the class. But that’ll be okay because we’re going to struggle together.” I told them there would be times that I would make mistakes, and times that they would make mistakes, but as long as we kept the class a safe environment to learn together then we were all going to get through this just fine.
Doyle and fellow Bio Station intern Whit Mercer represented the Bio Station at the 2019 University of Montana Alumni Event at Flathead Lake.
When did you first decide you wanted to pursue an advanced degree in math?
Honestly, early on in school I hated math. I struggled with it. My times tables, my multiplication homework. I mean I could get it, it would just take me a little while. But I was fortunate to have some really awesome teachers. They really pushed me. Once Algebra came into the picture, all the dots connected and the wheels really started turning in my mind. By the end of middle school, I was in the higher end math courses. By my senior year of high school I was sort of a teacher’s assistant in the Calculus class. I would go around and help other students with their homework, answer their questions. I never would have reached that point if it wasn’t for the teachers I had along the way. They are so many opportunities for students to give up when they’re struggling. My teachers were always there, telling me, “Yeah, this is really hard, but I know you can do it. Just work the problem and we’ll get through it together.”
Most people who start their academic careers hating math—or really just most people in general—don’t end up interning for NASA, and yet here you are. How did that come about?
Yeah, so this is actually a funny story. I love telling this story. My advisor at University of Montana-Western was Eric Dyreson, who also happened to be the MSGC representative for the school. When I came in my freshman year, he was really good about helping me trying to find scholarships and different internship opportunities. And one day he suggested I apply for the Montana Space Grant Consortium scholarship. I agreed without really thinking it through. I mean, when you’re in school you take what money you can get. But when I sat down to write the essay for the application, I was like, what am I doing? I’m here to be a high school math teacher. I don’t want to do engineering. I don’t even like space.
I reached out to my cousin, who works for an aerospace government contracting company. I asked him as an employer, what would he be looking for in an application. He talked a lot about problem solving, and once I heard that the scholarship application became infinitely easier. Because I love problem solving. I love getting into a problem, figuring how to take it apart, and then bringing it all back together and finding a solution. I found out later on that this process is essentially system engineering. I may not have had the biggest passion for aerospace and everything at that time, but I loved problem solving. And that turned out to be a good thing. I was fortunate enough to receive the consortium scholarship, and I think it wasn’t too long after that that my advisor suggested I look into doing an internship at NASA over the summer.
And of course, you said…?
Thanks but no thanks. I still wasn’t that into space, remember, so instead I went back home and worked for Baskin Robbins for the summer.
Oh, sweet goodness. I love Baskin Robbins.
Yeah, it’s great.
Thirty-one flavors of great.
Yeah. Well actually, they have more than thirty-one flavors.
I remember this one time, I had them put all thirty-one flavors in the same bowl, and they were like, “No way can anyone eat that!” And I said, “Looks like you’re about to see something special.” And then they...Excuse me, what?
I mean they always have the consistent thirty-one flavors, but then they have a flavor of the month, which is in addition to the regular flavors.
…Flavor of the…?
So they really have thirty-two flavors.
But the advertising always says…
Sorry, it’s just…I wasn’t mentally prepared for this.
It can be a lot to take in.
They really have more than thirty-one flavors?
They really have more than thirty-one flavors.
All this time, I’ve been living a lie.
I mean they do kind of hide it in their logo. I guess you’ll have to go to a Baskin Robbins and place another order.
Oh, you can count on that. Right after I write some strongly-worded emails. But anyway, sorry. Got a little derailed there. So you spent the summer working at Baskin Robbins…
Any lingering thoughts about NASA?
Well when I went back to school the following fall, my advisor was like, “So…NASA internships…?”
And still I was like, no. I didn’t think I was smart enough to intern at NASA. Plus, space has always freaked me out a little. But then I just so happened to watch that movie, Hidden Figures. And it talked about all the gender and racial issues in math and science fields during that time at NASA, and I watched these super inspiring women, and I was like, “Wow. I want to be just like them.” So I pulled out my laptop and started looking up opportunities at NASA. And I was like, “These are so cool! Why didn’t I ever actually look at these before?”
The next day I went into my advisor’s office, and was like, “So…I think I want to do a NASA internship…” And he was like, “Finally!” And that began my work with NASA.
Doyle doesn't limit her outreach efforts to the Flathead area. Recently, she took a trip to Missoula to cheer on the Missoula Osprey as a Bio Station representative during the Missoula Osprey Conservation and the Environment minor league baseball game.
The entire time you were advancing your academic career, you were also competing in pageants. Can you take us through that journey?
Well, I did my first Miss Teen USA pageant back in Colorado. I remember getting the letter inviting me to participate, and I was talking to my mom about it. I was like, “I’m not pretty enough to do this. I’m not smart enough to do this.” That kind of thing. And my family was like, “We’re not going to tell you what to do, but if you’re interested in giving this a shot, we know you can do it.”
And things just took off from there?
Yeah, pretty much. So there’s two different organizations that oversee the major pageants: Miss USA and Miss America. And I’ve competed in both. I went from Miss Teen USA to Miss Colorado USA, then I competed for Miss Teen Colorado America. When I came to Dillon, I was awarded Miss Dillon USA 2018 and I competed for Miss Montana USA 2019.
And now, in the midst of all your research and work with environmental sensors, you’re representing Flathead Lake as Miss Flathead Lake Montana.
And now I’m Miss Flathead Lake Montana, which is part of the Mrs. America and Mrs. World organization and will allow me to compete for Miss Montana for America in the fall of 2020. It’s kind of funny. Every competition I tell myself I’m never doing this again, but in the end I always see pageantry as such a unique opportunity for me. I know it’s not defined as a sport and will never be viewed as a sport. But in some ways it translates. You start out not really knowing what you’re doing, but with each event you learn a little bit more and you refine your skills. I don’t want to just be another number doing something like this just to do it. I want it to be fun, and I want to be able to stand up on my platform and promote the things that I’m passionate about, like the importance of environmental issues and the incredible experiences I’ve had in the fields of science and math.
What have your experiences been like as a woman working in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) in the 21st Century?
I mean, in some ways, it’s awesome to look back 50 years, or 10 years, or even one year, and see the growth that’s happened for women in STEM. In other ways, we have a long way to go. You really see the disparity in the management positions, I think. Going through school, it was just something you learned—that management and supervisory positions in the STEM fields are predominantly male. Nobody was ever saying a woman couldn’t hold one of those positions. It was just accepted that they were held by men. I think finally we’re starting to see a change in that perception, and I hope in my day it will become an equal playing field.
What do you think we should be doing as a society to change things?
It’s always tough, because someone has to take the first step. Someone has to break through the mold, and there will be a ton of backlash because things have worked a certain way for X amount of years. Having something new come into play is sometimes scary for people, because it’s the unknown. I think the most important thing we need to remember is mutual respect. I’m not saying that it doesn’t exist already, because there are times and places where it does. But it’s important to always keep that in mind, because everyone is coming from a different place, and everyone thinks in a different way, and you need that diversity to solve complex problems. It’s so important if you really want to get anything done.
In addition to her work as a Bio Station NASA intern, Doyle also represents the Bio Station as Miss Flathead Lake MT at many western Montana events, including the Fourth of July Parade in Bigfork.
I’ve noticed a pattern that seems to come up a lot in your story today. When you were little, you told yourself, “I can't do math.” Now you’re a PhD student and NASA intern. When you started participating in pageants, you said, “I’m not pretty enough or smart enough.” Now, you’re Miss Flathead Lake Montana. What would be your advice to a girl who is looking at school work or some other challenge and thinking, I can't do this?
This question…it always makes me emotional. And in like the best way possible, because it reminds me of an experience I had a few years ago. I’m a huge snowboarder, and I was up at Maverick Mountain, which is a ski resort close to UMW in Polaris, MT. And I had on this NASA beanie, which was my favorite beanie—I wore it all the time. So I’m sitting in the lodge and there was this little girl sitting nearby with her dad. And I started talking with her, and at some point I asked her what her favorite class was. Of course, I assumed she would say recess or something like that. But she didn’t. She said it was math.
And I was like, “That’s so cool!” And we kept talking for a while, and she even invited me to her birthday. But I noticed that she didn’t have a hat on, so I asked her, “Do you like my hat?” And she was like, “Yeah!” And so I took it off and gave it to her, and I said, “You can have this, but you have to promise me to never forget how awesome you are. You always need to be your number one fan and number one advocate, okay? And if you ever forget that just look at this hat.” Then I told her she could keep the hat as long as she wanted, but that she should always be on the lookout for someone else who might be in need of a special hat to remind them how important and special they were.
And then the dad started crying, and he went and bought me this incredible sweatshirt, and then I started crying.
And now I’m crying...
It was just a really special moment, you know? That sweatshirt will always mean so much to me.
I can definitely see why.
I’m just so thankful for all the opportunities I’ve had in my life so far, and that sweatshirt is a reminder of the kind of impact you can have on people, simply by encouraging them to believe in themselves. And to answer your question, I’d probably say that would be my first piece of advice: You have to believe in yourself. You have to be your number one advocate and stay true to who you are.
And your second piece of advice?
Find yourself a great support team. Friends, family, coworkers, whoever it happens to be. I have the best support team. There’s no way I would be where I am today if it wasn’t for all those amazing people who helped me out along the way.