Phoebe Cohen ’02, Ph.D.
Phoebe Cohen ’02 came to Cornell thinking she would major in Biology until she took Oceanography with Professor Chuck Greene.
Cohen was drawn to the Science of Earth Systems major (now called Earth and Atmospheric Sciences) because of its ability to meld her interest in earth science and biology. The diverse course offerings in the major allowed her to take classes in geosciences and in ecology and evolution—empowering her to explore her interest in the intersection of earth and life.
One of the more transformative experiences Cohen had as an undergraduate was participating in the Hawaii summer program, an interdisciplinary earth science-ecology intensive. The program allowed participants to do a wide range of research tasks—students walked to active lava flows, cut down invasive ginger plants, and studied coral reefs. “It was a really incredible experience because it integrated so many aspects of the earth sciences and ecology,” said Cohen.
During her junior year, Professor Lou Derry assisted Cohen in securing a summer research position at Harvard, studying geochemistry which she quickly realized wasn’t for her. However, this experience led her to realize her true passion—studying tiny fossils. Cohen later went on to complete her Ph.D. at Harvard.
Towards the end of her senior year, Cohen knew she wanted to attend graduate school but needed a break before starting. After a conversation with Warren Allmon, Director of The Paleontological Research Institution (PRI) and Professor in EAS, Cohen decided to stay in Ithaca and work for the PRI after graduation.
Warren Allmon was a true mentor and advocate of Cohen—taking her to Geological conferences, introducing her to important people in the field, and even helping her get into graduate school at Harvard. “Over the two years I worked for him [Allmon], I was able to stay connected with the science that I was interested in. I really developed my interest in the area I work in now, which is the fossil record of early life,” said Cohen.
Even after her time at PRI, Allmon continued to be her advocate. In 2012, when Cohen won the Geological Society of America Young Women in Science Award, Allmon was her citationist.
"Very occasionally a young person comes along who truly stands out, who has the right combination of intelligence, creativity, motivation, and enthusiasm to give them extremely high potential to contribute to your field—in my case paleobiology. I have not met many of these in my 20-year career—perhaps 3 or 4. Phoebe Cohen is one of them. She is one of the most extraordinary young people I have ever met, with the potential to rank among the very best in our field,” said Allmon in his citation for the award.
Cohen is now an Associate Professor of Geosciences at Williams College where she nurtures her dual passion for paleontology and education. Cohen is currently working with partners from Syracuse University and the University of California, Santa Barbara on an NSF-funded project that seeks to re-examine long-held beliefs about what early life on Earth was like. Cohen and her colleagues analyze tiny fossils to collect evidence that is informing them about how life interacted with the Earth before the appearance of animals.
Cohen advises current EAS students to take advantage of the small department and make connections with people in different stages of the career path like postdocs, graduate students, and faculty. The small class sizes and dedicated faculty allow students to get one-on-one attention at an enormous university like Cornell.