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Women's History Month: Talking with Catherine Foley

March 22, 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 Catherine Foley.

Catherine Foley wears a fleece ear and head band, sunglasses, orange winter foul weather jacket and a personal floatation device while holding a wind measuring instrument in her right hand. Behind her is a large colony of penguins. There are snow-covered mountains in the background and the sky is clouded over. Some of the clouds are low and hide the mountain tops.

Catherine Foley is a fishery biologist for the Northeast Fisheries Science Center’s Ecosystems Surveys Branch. Much of her research focuses on our ecosystem bottom trawl survey and applying novel technologies and methods to survey populations that are otherwise difficult to study. Her home base is at our Woods Hole Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

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

Catherine Foley as a small child wears a purple bathing suit while sitting on a dock. In front of her is a freshly caught fish.
Catherine Foley’s first fish—a smallmouth bass—caught from Sebago Lake, Maine. It’s the fish that started it all. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Suzanne Foley

I grew up in New Hampshire and I always loved being outside swimming, hiking, and skiing. If it was an outdoor activity in New Hampshire, the Granite State, I probably tried it. It wasn’t until a high school summer marine biology program at St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire that I realized I wanted to study the natural world around me. While there, I learned the basics of ocean life and got to design my first experiment looking at the impact of water temperature on Northern rock barnacle feeding!

For my undergraduate degree, I attended Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. I double-majored in biological sciences and psychology. After earning my bachelor’s degree, I took a brief foray into the world of pharmaceuticals, running clinical trial research. It didn’t take very long before I realized my true calling and returned to school for a master’s degree in marine affairs at the University of Rhode Island. It was there I realized my passion for applied marine ecology—the science that’s crucial for environmental decision-making.

I completed my doctoral work at Stony Brook University in the Department of Ecology and Evolution. I studied quantitative marine ecology under Dr. Heather Lynch. My research focused on the impacts of historical harvesting on the population dynamics of king penguins and Antarctic fur seals. Since beginning my doctorate, I’ve spent nine field seasons working in the Antarctic on a variety of projects focused on seabird and seal population dynamics, behavioral and feeding ecology, phenology, and disease pathogens.

Catherine Foley stands at the bow of a skiff at sea. Above her is a drone she is controlling. The water is calm and the sky is blue with a single puffy cloud. In the background on the left is a forested mountain that meets the sea.
Catherine Foley flies a drone to conduct her coral reef structure and coral bleaching surveys in Hawai’i. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Molly Scott

Following several years of chilly graduate work, I shifted focus to warmer climates. I moved to Hawai’i where I completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa’s Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology. While there, I developed a drone-based survey of shallow coral reefs to monitor changes in reef structure and coral bleaching.

Now I’ve returned home to New England, where I mostly focus on quantitative analyses for our bottom trawl survey. On any given day, this may include studying ecological survey designs, developing statistical and computing tools to support survey operations, or analyzing historical survey data for ecological change.

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

Catherine Foley wears glasses, mask, and orange foul weather gear while holding a large flatfish that’s nearly as long as she is tall. She is standing inside a lab on a boat and there is fish sorting gear and other bottom trawl survey staff around her.
Catherine Foley holds an Atlantic halibut caught during our science center’s spring 2021 bottom trawl survey. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Katie Rogers

The real question is: What’s not to love about my job? I have the best combination of time in the field—seeing, experiencing, and exploring the ocean—and at a desk—digging into data, identifying changes, and explaining natural phenomena.

My job is to be curious. I’ve been able to travel to some of the most remote places in the world to study species and explore landscapes that few people have seen. I’ve had countless adventures from the poles to the tropics. I’ve swum with sharks, been covered in whale snot, and pooped on by a penguin. Without a career in science, I’d never experience these things.

But at the very core—the reason why I come to work every day—is that I love feeling like what I’m doing is positively influencing the world.

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

I think the biggest hurdle I faced was learning to accept rejection. The science world is full of it—losing out on a fellowship or grant, having a paper rejected, reading scathing reviews, applying to 5 million jobs before finding the right one. Rejection hurts, but in the science world you need to get used to it and understand that it’s (usually) not a reflection of you or the quality of your work.

In my experience, the more you put yourself out there and risk rejection, the more you learn. And honestly sometimes better things can happen because of it. For example, I had a manuscript I was really excited about. The editors unceremoniously rejected it, saying the research wasn’t suitable for their journal. That hurt. But instead of giving up, I pivoted. I found a journal that was a better match, and some may say more renowned. Not only did they publish it, they made it the issue’s cover! Rejection happens—don’t give up!

Catherine Foley wears a bathing suit, mask, and snorkel while swimming above a shark in open water. The water is a crystal clear blue.
Catherine Foley swimming with sharks off O’ahu, Hawai’i. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Joy Smith

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

I have two pieces of advice: ask for help, and take advantage of opportunities.

I know it can be incredibly difficult and intimidating to ask for help, but do it. Ask for advice and mentorship. And keep asking. There’s nothing more thrilling than knowing someone’s interested in my science and wants to participate. There are lots of us who are willing and excited to help.

Take advantage of opportunities when they arise, even if it’s outside of your comfort zone. Looking back, the coolest things I’ve done were from opportunities that were scary at first. Traveling the world for fieldwork and joining teams outside of my area of expertise all led to a collection of skills and experiences that have helped advance my science.

For more information, please contact Heather Soulen.

Last updated by Northeast Fisheries Science Center on December 19, 2023