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Meet Rachel Kasten, Graduate Services Coordinator

Rachel Kasten chats with Rob Scheller and Karl Wegmann

At the desk of Rachel Kasten, you can find answers to burning questions about the Center for Geospatial Analytics, but you can also pick up a free mini can of Play-Doh if you’re feeling stressed. As the center director’s administrative assistant, Rachel helps keeps the center running smoothly, and as the point person for the center’s new doctoral program, she is also an advocate for work-life balance and inclusion. Rachel joined the center last summer after working as a Doctoral Exams Assistant at the University of British Columbia. We caught up with her to tell us more about her role at the center, what drives her and how she helps students succeed.

You wear many hats here at the center! What are your main responsibilities, and what has been your favorite part of the job so far?

Sometimes I think I need more heads! I help organize special events and visitors, manage the center director’s very busy schedule and serve as the administrative arm for all things related to the Ph.D. program and doctoral students. My favorite part is actually a “who,” not a “what”: I love our administrative team! Zac Arcaro (assistant director of operations), Mary Hicks (business service officer) and I all work so well together and complement each other’s strengths.

Helping students navigate the Geospatial Analytics Ph.D. program has included co-writing the program’s grad student handbook. What is the biggest piece of advice you have for incoming students as they start their program?

My advice is: read the handbook!! Other than that, I would tell incoming students: “you are not alone.” The admissions committee picked you because they believed in you. Everyone at the center is invested in your success, so please use all of the resources here. My door is always open (literally), and I have candy!

I have been working with the Graduate School and Counseling Center to incorporate information on self-care and mental well-being into the handbook, as well as exploring how to give students more work-life balance. Did you know that graduate students are much more likely to experience depression and anxiety than the general population? (See this article in Inside Higher Ed.) I am committed to reducing the stigma around mental health and connecting students with the resources they need.

But, seriously…read the handbook.

A great theme in your work here at the center has been equality and inclusion. Tell us more about the creation of the center’s new lactation room for nursing moms and your involvement in the GLBT Advocate Program on campus.

I look at equity and inclusion as an essential part of my job, not just an extracurricular activity. I hope that we can create an environment where people feel comfortable and safe bringing their whole selves to work (and school). The GLBT Advocate Program has helped me leverage my position to further support marginalized students, and I love that it is ongoing as opposed to a single workshop. I also joined the College’s Diversity Committee and co-chaired our very first College of Natural Resources Family Day. It was really fun to have my husband and son socializing with my colleagues and their families.

And yes: we now have a beautiful lactation room! We realized that the closest lactation room to the center was not even in our building, and one student was having difficulty pumping on a consistent schedule due to the inconvenience of bringing everything back and forth. Another student gave birth this spring; she wanted to get back to work but wasn’t ready for her baby to start daycare. She knows that she can bring him anytime, and she even gives lab demonstrations while carrying the baby!

A little birdie told us that you’re producing a play this summer as part of the Women’s Theatre Festival in Carrboro. What is the play about? Have you always been interested in theatre?

I have been involved in theatre as a performer since I was a kid, but this is my first time producing a show of this scale. It won’t be any surprise at this point that I’m passionate about gender equity, and the goal of the Women’s Theatre Festival is to have gender parity in local theatre programming by 2020. I am producing These Shining Lives, which is based on the true story of the Radium Girls. In the 1920s, these young women served as factory workers who handled radium-based paint, which led to almost all of them dying in their 20s and 30s due to radium poisoning. A few of the women came together and sued – they eventually won a landmark case for workers’ rights and occupational health. We have the Radium Girls to thank for things like OSHA!

The play combines feminism, science and some very cool makeup tricks involving blacklights (the Radium Girls’ bones actually glowed in the dark). I hope people will come check it out! We run from July 27th-August 5th at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro. (Tickets available here.)

What else would you like graduate students to know––about you, or the center in general––when they come to you for advice?

Something I often hear from students is that they don’t want to bother me with questions. But that’s my job! So please, bother me, because that’s when I know I’m helping. It’s not really a bother at all. And if you just want to come play with Play-Doh, eat candy and look at the geeky toys on my desk, that’s okay too.