Women Scientists Who Are Saving the Planet
We’re celebrating great women in science, so let’s start by highlighting wonderful women doing impressive work in conservation science.
Why? To show all aspiring young girls that you, too, can do great good in the world through science. That without these women, the world would be a poorer place. And that with more women in science, there is more opportunity for creativity, invention, and progress.
Sylvia Earle is an American oceanographer and explorer on the level of Jacques Cousteau. She is known for her research on marine algae, as a pioneer of the use of SCUBA gear, and as a life-long conservation leader, who also happened to hold the world record for the deepest untethered dive.
Sylvia was born in 1935 and grew up on the western coast of Florida, where her love for the outdoors and interest in the natural world began. In 1966 she earned a doctorate of phycology (a branch of botany concerned with seaweeds and other algae) from Duke University.
While Earle led many undersea explorations during her career, one of her most important for women in science was the Tektite II experiment. In 1970 she led the first all-female team of aquanauts as part of the experiment, a project designed to explore the viability of deepwater habitats and the health effects of prolonged underwater living. During the two-week experiment, she observed the effects of pollution on coral reefs first hand. Occurring during a time when American women were just beginning to enter fields traditionally staffed by men, the Tektite II project captured the public and scientific imagination, proving all-women teams were easily as capable as men’s.
Sylvia was the first female to hold the position of Chief Scientist at NOAA, founded Mission Blue (a non-profit for protecting and exploring the Earth’s oceans), and won the prestigious Rachel Carson Award. She remains passionate about protecting our oceans and continues to change the world by promoting the importance of our ocean to all living creatures.
Although Deni grew up in land-locked Mexico City, her favorite childhood memories are those of diving in Cozumel and camping on the Pacific coast with her family. She was only 6 years old when she decided she would be a marine scientist.
After 20 years of focusing her schooling and career on marine wildlife, she is one of the few experts on whale shark genetics in the world.
“I have faced a lot of challenges, so I have had to develop new ideas and ways to overcome them. When I decided to study genetics everyone told me I was crazy.”
“How are you going to collect the tissue samples, they asked. So I developed the technology to collect the tissue samples. Then I placed GoPro cameras on their dorsal fins to record their behavior because most research on whale sharks had only been performed on dead ones. And now one of my goals is to complete an ultrasound on a pregnant female to see how the embryo develops, and I am sure I will accomplish it!”
Deni is also the director of Whale Shark Mexico in La Paz, Mexico, an organization dedicated to using science to inform conservation policy and engaging the public in whale shark research. Her ten years of data and her guidance helped the government to develop management plans for whale shark tourism and conservation. Whale shark populations have grown in La Paz Bay thanks to Deni and her work with local communities and governments.
As an EPI science partner, she inspires our students through hands-on data collection and is a fantastic example of a female scientist can accomplish.
Arguably the most famous conservationist on Earth, Jane Goodall has spent decades studying chimpanzees in the wild and fighting for environmental conservation and animal welfare. Her field research on primates changed the way humans thought of themselves and their relationship to animals by showing that, like humans, chimpanzees used tools and had personalities capable of emotions like joy and sorrow.
At eighteen, Goodall followed her interests in Africa and animals to Kenya where she found work as a secretary for Louis Leakey, a notable Kenyan archaeologist and paleontologist. Leakey helped Goodall study primate behavior, obtain a Ph.D. (without a BA), and travel to Bombe Stream National Park, where Goodall began her famous 55-year study of chimpanzee social and family life.
During her research career, Goodall bucked traditional conventions. She named her research subjects instead of assigning a number to each individual, using names like David Greybeard, Mike, and Flo. She is also the only person ever to be accepted into chimpanzee society, holding the station of lowest ranking member of the troop for 22 months.
Not only has Goodall secured a number of firsts and international awards, she is a global leader in conservation and animal welfare, supporting research, youth programs, and community-centered conservation programs in Africa through her conservation organization the Jane Goodall Institute. Jane Goodall’s impact on primate research and on the health of our planet are practically incalculable.
“When I was old enough to hold a job, I worked in a laboratory with scientists who were working on genetics projects. I picked their brains until they got sick of answering my questions. Little did they know they were my greatest role models.”
Kerri Fay has loved science her entire life and studied hard to get where she is today. After earning a degree in biology and botany and a certificate in GIS, she trained with two botanists, following them into very remote places in Hawai’i to learn about native plants and threats to their habitats.
About 17 years ago, Kerri started inspiring others to love science when she worked in the mountains of Kaua’i. Volunteers helped her remove weeds from native forest and collect data on invasive species, and she taught them how invasives affected their watersheds and native plant communities. The experience was a win for her and the community.
Today, Kerri is a GIS Specialist for The Nature Conservancy Maui Field Office and an EPI science partner. Her work with local Hawaii youth on invasive tree plotting creates an engaged community of future leaders who will take up her mantle and protect Maui’s special ecosystems for generations to come.