March is Women’s History Month. The NOAA Northeast Fisheries Science Center asked five women scientists to share a little about their science journey, what hurdles or obstacles they’ve experienced during their journey, how they overcame them, and what advice they might have for the next generation of women scientists.
Can you tell us about your science journey, your career in science?
I decided I wanted to be a marine scientist when I was in 5th grade. I grew up surrounded by lakes and rivers in Minnesota, so I always loved the water. My 5th grade science teacher had an aquarium of tropical fish in her classroom and those fish looked nothing like the freshwater fish we caught in the Minnesota lake near our cabin. This made me curious, prompting me to learn more and with the help of my mom and dad, I did. My mom, also a teacher, gave me marine-related books and films and my dad took me with him on a work trip to Florida where we drove across the peninsula so I could collect seawater samples for a science fair project looking at the difference between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. One year my parents gave me a coffee table book about marine biologists and clams and in it I learned that clams produced chemicals that protected them from getting sunburned. I remember wanting to figure out how to replicate that for people.
As I went through school, I decided becoming a medical doctor was more practical until my senior year of college at Pacific Lutheran University when I took an ecology and evolution course in Ecuador and realized how much I really loved doing research. Returning to my original dream of marine science, I pursued a Master of Science in Marine Biology at the College of Charleston and started my career in basic research looking at the ecology and evolution of marine intertidal communities from Massachusetts to Florida. What I loved most about my research was approaching scientific questions from multiple angles using field surveys, feeding assays, genetics, biochemistry, taxonomy, and historic environmental data.
While I loved doing research, I felt like I wasn’t making an impact on real-world problems. I learned about the NOAA Sea Grant Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship from a poster hanging in one of the college hallways. This fellowship brings current and recent graduate students who have an interest in ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes resources and national policy to Washington D.C. for a unique educational and professional experience related to the decision-making processes affecting those resources. I was fortunate to be selected as a fellow and placed with the United States Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. I went from studying seaweed and invertebrates to working with a team of legislative assistants supporting senators in overseeing the work of NOAA and half of the Coast Guard. It was overwhelming, and I loved it.
It was at this time that I finally felt like I was making science matter and decided I was okay with it being other people’s science and not my own. I refocused my career toward working at the interface of science, policy, and decision-making and became a federal employee as a program manager in NOAA’s Climate Program Office, then as executive director of NOAA’s Climate Board, and assistant director and deputy director of the National Sea Grant Office, and now as the Fishery Monitoring and Research Division Chief at our Science Center. In all of these positions, I have worked to bring in the technical expertise of scientists at NOAA, other federal agencies, and our partners in academia and other research organizations to inform important decisions about environmental issues.
Could you share an example of a hurdle or obstacle you experienced during your science journey? How did you overcome it?
One of the hardest parts of my career has been embracing the role of an intermediary between science and policy and only sort of belonging to each community. My policy colleagues often refer to me as a scientist. I am trained as a scientist and was an active scientist for awhile, but I’m not an actively-practicing scientist, so I always feel a little uncomfortable with that title since I know how much work it is to stay up to date in one’s scientific field. That being said, I am not a legislator, regulator, planner, or business owner, so I am not fully a policy-maker either. In the end, I just gave up on trying to wedge myself into a particular discipline or label and embrace the grey area that comes with the role I play. I believe we need more people who are willing to work to bridge this space. One thing I am careful about is to be true to the science. While I make decisions or participate in decision-making processes that take into account perspectives beyond what the science says, I am always careful to communicate what the science says, acknowledge the other perspectives, and then clarify how the decision incorporates multiple perspectives.
Tell us about a time in your career when you or your mentor, colleague, or coworker supported you or other women scientists by recognizing, nominating, or rewarding them, or was a champion of change and an ally, or amplified the voices of women when they weren’t being heard?
I am constantly lifted up by a number of amazing women, and I try to return the favor. I have a group of professional women who work in scientific fields and serve as my unofficial Advisory Board. Some have decades more experience and help me navigate paths they’ve already taken and have propelled my career forward by pushing me to take on new responsibilities, introducing me to other brilliant people, and helping me think holistically and about my career and my life. Others are at similar points in their careers and we work through issues that we’re experiencing at the same time. Others are newer to the field and provide me with a fresh perspective and remind me why I started out in this field. All of them serve as sounding boards, help me build my network, advocate on my behalf, call me out when I am being ridiculous, and push me through tough times.
What advice do you have for the next generation of women scientists about a science career?
First, there are real barriers to being a woman in science. Acknowledge that, but don’t let it stop you. Find good mentors who guide you around barriers — champions who can help you get your foot in the door — and don’t let someone who tells you “no” change your perspective on what you’re capable of and the value you can add to the scientific community. Reach out to those who do something you’re interested in and ask them to talk with you. Be sure to have some good questions prepared — you would be amazed at how many people are willing to give their time to help you out.
Second, scientific questions are becoming increasingly complex and interdisciplinary. I recommend having depth in your field of expertise while also knowing a little about a lot of different scientific fields, including things that are tangential to your field and things that are completely unrelated. My liberal arts undergraduate education and continuous learning (e.g., formal training, reading, podcasts, seminars, mentoring sessions) really help me think about problems from multiple angles and come up with creative solutions. I think you can set yourself apart and make your science more relevant and innovative by knowing about more than just your field of expertise.