Can you tell us about your science journey, your career in science?
My interest in a marine science career really started when I was 9 years old. My siblings and I were playing in the waves at our favorite place in the world—Island Beach State Park, New Jersey. The lifeguards started whistling, making everyone get out of the water. It turned out garbage, including syringes, was washing up on beaches nearby. I was furious! No one messes with my ocean, and no one makes me get out of the water except hunger or my mom. This seemingly small event inspired my fascination with how people use the sea and how things move around in it. Whether it’s garbage washing up on beaches from a barge offshore, or it’s fish larvae moving from a spawning site to juvenile habitat.
I went to college and grad school, working with some amazing men and women in the vast marine biology field. I earned my Bachelor of Science in marine biology from the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. While there, I narrowed my interests while participating in undergraduate honors research studying the movement of fish larvae through Beaufort Inlet in North Carolina. Fish larvae are so diverse in how they look and how they function in their environment. I was hooked—enjoy the pun!
After college, I earned a Master of Science at East Carolina University studying larval fish communities in and around Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Georgia. I then took on a series of research positions, including my current position where I've learned more about the amazing early life history of fish.
Now, I’m a contractor working with the talented and dedicated researchers of the science center’s Oceans and Climate Branch. We collect and analyze plankton and hydrographic data to inform how we understand and manage fisheries and protected species. All these years later, I’m still connecting my long-held fascinations with how people use the ocean and how fish larvae move through it.
Could you share an example of a hurdle or obstacle you experienced during your science journey? How did you overcome it?
I wish my biggest hurdle was something externally directed, or that made me sound strong or super intelligent. But the thing I fight most is my own self doubt, also known as imposter syndrome. My mother was strong. She decided to renovate our 200-year-old house by herself. When the guys at the hardware store laughed and told her she needed “him” to do the work, she defiantly said, “want to bet?” I remembered this throughout my life. When teachers and colleagues would tell me I didn’t have what it takes to survive in science—that women rarely do, that I’m too emotional, that I didn’t have enough fight—I’d simply say “Want to bet?” and push on. But those voices and concerns embedded themselves in the back of my mind. They didn’t necessarily create the doubt, but they certainly validated it, and continue to validate my doubts when things get challenging. Thankfully, the voice of my defiantly stubborn mom is also in there. While I’m far from having overcome my doubts, I’m slowly making progress. I’ve learned that I need to take risks. I don’t have to be the perfect candidate, I just have to be willing. I’ve also learned that I can't overcome doubt alone—I need friends and colleagues who are willing to give compliments. And, I need to be that friend and colleague for others. Our words and actions toward those around us, even the small actions, make a difference. So, for anyone out there being told they can’t do something, listen to my voice and those of all the amazing women in science, and tell them, “Want to bet?”
Burnout happens in the sciences. How have you and/or your employer, supervisor, or organization helped to prevent it?
The tide is changing on burnout being the sole responsibility of the employee. Increasingly, employers are making efforts to create an encouraging work environment. My contracting company provides employees with annual continuing education funds. A few years ago, I was approved to start work on my certificate in natural science illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design through these funds. I have found it hugely rewarding, both personally and professionally. Some of my larval fish illustrations were published for the first time in this month’s issue of Copeia—a peer-reviewed science journal!
These small investments in employees can have a profound impact on morale. However, relying on the employer to take the initiative is not always possible. I’ve learned over the years that there are activities that help me clear my head and re-evaluate what’s important. I've also learned to make time for those activities even in the busiest seasons. I know I need to break away from the hustle of everyday—sometimes for minutes, sometimes for days. Being in nature and hiking with my family is one of those activities that helps me clear my head and reminds me what’s important. We talk. We hold hands. We silently take it all in while leaving some of the worry behind.
What are some new exciting areas in your field or research that you think the next generation of women scientists should pay attention to?
The growing need to communicate science better is pretty exciting to me. Professional communicators and journalists are needed now more than ever, but we scientists need to be communicating directly as part of the package. This is a great opportunity to show our artistic sides. Science has inspired art for centuries, and art explains science in such a universal way. There is demand for authentic and diverse voices of scientists communicating directly with the world. Those voices should take many forms: writing, speaking, drawing, sculpture, poetry, movies, song, etc. We need the public to understand what we do and why we do it. They need to see our enthusiasm if we hope for them to have any. All scientists should develop a communication style independent of peer-reviewed publications, and share it with the world.
What advice do you have for the next generation of women scientists about a science career?
Anyone, but particularly women, entering a science field should know that they can have a huge influence over how their career develops. Forget the analogy to a “leaky pipeline” with its overly rigid definition of success. Define success for yourself, and re-evaluate it periodically. Seek out and take opportunities that help you get there and feel okay about saying no to opportunities that don’t. But, don’t limit yourself too much in the early part of your career. You never know where that opportunity might take you.
Be a trailblazer. I’ve seen my contemporaries—successful and inspiring women—make unconventional career decisions and take unique paths. I’ve seen women earn a Ph.D. and start their own business. I’ve seen them turn down tenure-track positions, become lecturers at community colleges and teachers at high schools. I’ve seen them accept prestigious post-doc opportunities while unabashedly pregnant. These career decisions and paths have become fairly common because of these women. We’ve been able to push science as a career and as a field forward. So dream, plan, make a career you’ll be proud of, and let the current normal be a rough guideline rather than a box to fit in.
For more information, please contact Heather Soulen.