That would have been hard to do as an academic scientist, she said. "It's rare that a scientist at an academic research institution gets to really see the fruits of their labor put into practice in a significant way in their lifetime," said Luers, climate change director for the Skoll Global Threats Fund, a San Francisco-based non-profit.
There are also societal pressures. In 2008 Nicole Heller was an expectant mother with a job offer in hand from New York's Eugene Lang College. It was, in some respects, a dream offer: A tenure track position teaching environmental science.
But Heller, who studies how ecosystems respond to climate change, turned it down. Maternity leave was an issue. Her husband was in graduate school, and her family was in California. And she was eager to make a big impact with her work in terms of advancing human understanding of environmental problems.
Instead, she accepted a new position as a California-based scientist with Climate Central, a startup non-profit focused on communicating the science and effects of climate change to policymakers and the public.
"I wanted to see the impacts right away, to communicate really directly about the science that I felt really passionate about. I thought I might be better able to do that outside the university," she said.
Heller wasn't done with the university, it turns out. But work-family balance may be one of the most obvious barriers to women's pursuit of academic science careers. Young scientists trying to become established in their fields face tremendous pressure, according to Julie Brigham-Grette, a paleoclimate scientist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.