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Women's History Month: Talking with Ann Petersen

March 15, 2023

To celebrate Women’s History Month, we asked a few of our women scientists to talk about their science journey, what they love most about their job or career, what advice they have for the next generation of women scientists, and more.
Let's meet Ann Petersen.

Ann Petersen wears heavy duty work gloves and holds a clipboard in her hand while standing on a docked boat. In front of her is a wood table that has some rope piled on it and to her right are two stacked plastic buckets. Behind her is a dock leading to a building built above the water on pilings.

Ann Petersen is a fisheries biologist for the Northeast Fisheries Science Center’s Fisheries Ecology Branch. She studies the effects of climate change, pollution, and habitat loss on the health of fish and fish populations. Her home base is at our James J. Howard Marine Sciences Lab in Highlands, New Jersey.

Can you tell us a little about yourself—where you grew up, how you got interested in science, where you went to college?

A chicken coop sits in the middle of a field covered with a dusting of snow. In the background is a rustic home at the base of a forested mountain. The trees have no leaves.
The rustic Shenandoah Valley home of Ann Petersen’s uncle. Credit: Photo courtesy of Ann Petersen

I was raised inside the Beltway of Washington D.C. by two government workers. My dad was in the State Department and my mom worked in marine policy at the Library of Congress. So bureaucracy has always been in my blood.

My uncle had a rustic house in the Shenandoah Valley near Old Rag Mountain in Virginia. My family would often spend weekends there. Being there really ingrained my life-long obsession with the outdoors. Salamanders sometimes came out of the kitchen sink faucet. There were all manner of spiders and snakes in the chicken coop. There were raptors and owls everywhere, and lots of minnows in the creek. To a Beltway kid it was exotic and magical.

I wanted to go to college out West to see more wilderness. I attended the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona, majoring in biology. I enjoyed learning about the desert, mountains, and forests there. However, everything changed the first time I went scuba diving.

My first recreational dive was in the Sea of Cortez—also called the Gulf of California. It’s about 8 hours south of Tucson and separates the Baja California Peninsula from the Mexican mainland. When I surfaced from that dive, I knew what I wanted to do with my life. Within 6 months I transferred to Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida. They had a strong marine science program.

Ann Peterson wears a long-sleeved shirt and shorts and stands surrounded by various kinds of cacti and other desert plants. In the background are mountains.
Ann Petersen stands among cacti and other desert plants in Arizona as a freshman biology student at the University of Arizona. Credit: Photo courtesy of Ann Petersen

I then landed a summer internship at Virginia Institute of Marine Science. My intern mentor was the late, great John Olney. He taught me about larval fish, microscopy, and Chesapeake Bay ecology. I really credit him with starting me on my path.

I ended up earning a doctorate degree in animal and human physiology at Colorado University in Boulder, Colorado. I studied how frogs, fish, and lizards can be active when it’s freezing or hot in their environment. Eventually, I became fascinated with how human impacts on the environment, like climate change and pollution, can affect animal health and reproduction.

During my career, I’ve been a scientist with a state agency and a student, researcher, and instructor in academia for 20 years. For the last 3 years, I’ve been a contractor with NOAA Fisheries.

I’m so grateful that I experienced the Sea of Cortez when I was an impressionable 19 year old and have been able to study fish ever since.

What do you love most about your job or your career?

Generally, I love being an experimental biologist because every day I get to be creative, imaginative, quantitative, a writer, a problem solver, a communicator, and a mentor. At the science center, I get to work with an interdisciplinary team on a common goal. In my academic experience, individual labs were run as independent small businesses. While they were all within the same department, there wasn’t necessarily a shared goal. But here, I feel like a member of a team working together on very applied science. The staff I’ve met at NOAA and our science center are very dedicated and really believe in NOAA’s mission. I also work closely with NOAA’s National Ocean Service staff. Although everyone has different backgrounds and specialties, we’re one big team trying to accomplish a shared goal. I really enjoy that.

Ann Petersen and Ehren Habeck wear puffy winter suits, hats, and masks while standing on the deck of a boat surrounded by water. Ann is sitting and has a pen in one hand and a clipboard with paper on it in the other hand. Ehren is standing in front of a sediment collection device. Ehren wears protective gloves as he scoops a sample from the device. He holds a sample container in his left hand.
Ann Petersen and Ehren Habeck collect and process sediment samples from a New Jersey river in December 2022. Credit: Photo courtesy of Stockton Field Station Staff

I also enjoy the science center’s culture. We’re encouraged to engage with other scientists from around the center and across divisions. I recently spoke with several different specialists about a research topic. Everyone agreed to meet with me, talk about my questions, and provide their time and expertise. That is truly interdisciplinary cooperation.

Could you share an example of a hurdle or obstacle you experienced during your science journey? How did you overcome it?

In our first field season collecting fish during the spawning season, we were having difficulty collecting enough fish for our experiment. The spawning season was close to ending and we needed more. I reached out to our collaborators from other agencies who were working on the river at different places and times of day and night. I told them that if they caught extra fish, I’d pick them up—day or night. As luck would have it, one group called me at 10 p.m. on a Saturday. What happened next is a long story—I’ll just say that I ended up on the bank of an industrialized river in Newark, New Jersey, at midnight. Two men in a skiff met me at the river bank and handed me a cooler. I placed it in my car as they floated away. The whole scene looked pretty suspicious. I’m sure if law enforcement had witnessed this there would have been some serious inquiries. I got the fish back to the lab around 1:30 a.m. The night ranger at Sandy Hook did have some pretty pointed questions! Bottom line is: by connecting with our network of collaborators, we got the fish we needed to run our experiment.

What advice do you have for the next generation of women scientists about a career in fisheries and/or marine science?

Be persistent. Be yourself. Accept questions and constructive criticisms of your work as a form of support and guidance.

Don’t be afraid to speak up if anyone around you—peers, trainees, supervisors—say sexist things. In my experience, academia and science agencies are striving to create inclusive spaces to do our work. I don’t sense that there is a glass ceiling for women’s promotions in NOAA. In my division and at the science center, I’m surrounded by women in leadership positions. They’re great role models and make themselves available to give advice and guidance.

I’ve found pursuing a career in science extremely rewarding. It’s given me a healthy work-life balance and a liveable wage. I’ve seen my graduate school women friends become leaders in their fields while raising families.

If you are interested in being a professional scientist—absolutely go for it!

For more information, please contact Heather Soulen.

Last updated by Northeast Fisheries Science Center on February 22, 2024