Can you tell us about your science journey, your career in science?
My journey to science was not the shortest, but it was the luckiest. I grew up in Taiwan, a small but beautiful island country about 100 miles off the coast of southeastern China. It’s surrounded by spectacular oceans and full of rugged mountains. My dad is an amateur ecologist and my mom is an environmental advocate. It seemed all the cards were lined up for a career in the natural sciences, but nothing particularly inspired me until later.
When I was young, I was lost. I struggled in schools because I couldn’t find anything interesting enough to make me want to study hard, but I went to college anyway. I was a business major at Aletheia University in Taiwan. It was not my choice, but was the only option based on my scores on the test Taiwanese students take to get selected for colleges and majors. During college I went scuba diving, which was part of a swimming coach training. It was love at first sight, my first glimpse into the mystery of the ocean. At the time, I didn’t know what I was looking at, but I knew I loved this different but beautiful world. That’s when I knew I should change my career path.
After barely finishing with a business degree, I decided to go to graduate school. I wasn’t sure if this was the right thing to do because of my poor grades, but it was the best decision I ever made. I applied to the National Taiwan Ocean University’s Institute of Marine Resource Management and was accepted. I lucked out because they were looking for students with a multidisciplinary background.
In graduate school, I was fortunate to have Dr. Kwang-Ming Liu as a mentor. He had lots of patience and helped me start from zero, working on shark stock assessment research. I was awarded thesis of the year and was the first female student to graduate from my mentor’s lab. At this point, I was pretty sure I was on the right career path and that fisheries science was going to be it for me.
Around graduation time, fisheries science professor Dr. Yong Chen from the University of Maine was recruiting for an interdisciplinary Ph.D. student. He offered me a position in his lab to work on research related to American lobster.
Before I graduated, I met science center operations research analyst Dr. Dvora Hart while she was visiting her student at the University of Maine. A bunch of us went out together, and during dinner, she asked me a statistics question. I knew the answer and, according to her, I was the only student she ever asked it of who correctly answered it. Later she offered me a short-term contracting position, estimating sea scallop population size using data collected from a towed underwater camera system, HabCam. I finished my Ph.D. while working full time.
Since then, my work has expanded to multiple scallop-related projects, including data collection, stock assessment, climate change, and artificial intelligence. All of these things influence sea scallop management. I love my work at the science center because fisheries science is what I like. Most importantly, it really excites me that the work I do has a real impact on marine resource management and sustainable fisheries.
Could you share an example of a hurdle or obstacle you experienced during your science journey? How did you overcome it?
Some parts of my job can be done by one person. For example, data analyses—I have data, a computer, a cup of coffee, and I can just go. Other parts of my job require collaboration and input from those inside and outside of NOAA Fisheries. This can be challenging for me because I need to communicate in multiple ways that suit different people. This ensures that the science is done in ways that lead to accurate and precise outcomes. This has worked for me, but not always. Working with people is more like an art than a science to me, which is interesting but challenging. I’m still learning.
Burnout happens in the sciences. How have you and/or your employer, supervisor, or organization helped to prevent it?
Probably the most burnout year I’ve had since I started working for the science center was 2018. It was the sea scallop benchmark assessment year. Dvora and I had to run the assessment models, as well as present and produce detailed documentation about the assessment data, models, and results. There were many all-nighters and working weekends since this used to be a three-person job. Also, our annual sea scallop survey was happening at the same time. I remember working until 10 p.m. in the lab trying to finalize the models and then leaving early the next morning going out to sea for the survey.
I love my job, but I have to admit that there were moments that made me wonder whether it was all worth it. The work was stressful enough. Added to that was the insecurity and anxiety related to working project-to-project as a short-term contractor and being a foreign national with a working visa. If I‘m unemployed, I have to leave the country immediately. Fortunately, shortly after the assessment, I was offered a long-term contracting position with a raise and an award recognizing my efforts. Overcoming these challenges was beyond words and those rewards eased a lot of the pressures and burnout I was experiencing.
What are some new exciting areas in your field or research that you think the next generation of women scientists should pay attention to?
In the past, fisheries science analyses focused more on quantifying patterns or estimating changes of populations over time. Recently, scientists have become more aware of the patterns and changes in both time and space. This is probably because the improvements in technology and data collection allow them to see things in new ways. And as technology improves, advanced computer hardware and software become more available. Using these new technologies to find answers more efficiently and effectively is the next new, exciting area of the work I do.
What advice do you have for the next generation of women scientists about a science career?
There are many fields of science that you can pursue as a career. Find one you love and go for it. If you’re unsure which field is for you, don’t be afraid to try different ones. Take classes in college. Be a volunteer. Do an internship. Or just experience different things in life. At the moment, it might seem like a waste of time or completely unrelated to science as a career. But these experiences might come into play one day, sometimes when you the least expect it. I never thought that my business degree would make me stand out from the crowd and help me get into a Ph.D. program in a completely unrelated field, but it did. And who knows, if I didn’t take that dive trip, I might not have found a career in fisheries science. While searching, I found that it was helpful to keep learning skills and tools like statistics and computer programming. They’re commonly used in many areas of science.
Finally, train yourself to ask questions of others. When I was young, I was often self-doubting and not confident. I tended to do what I was told, especially by authority figures and elders. Part of this comes from my culture, and also from being a woman. But I’ve learned over the years that sometimes what people think is the best, or correct, is not. It doesn’t matter how well respected or how senior they are. Try to trust your instincts, and don’t just follow along if you think something should be done a different way. You might be wrong in the end, but that’s ok because everyone makes mistakes. Keep trying, I think you will become more confident and not afraid of being skeptical. Being skeptical is a very good quality in a scientist.
For more information, please contact Heather Soulen.