Historically, women have faced many challenges in STEM fields, but have persevered and paved the way for future generations. Louella Cable, Rachel Carson and others less well-known paved the way for women in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), and their legacy continues to inspire women in the Service today.
Despite the accomplishments of these pioneering women, studies suggest women continue to face a number of structural and cultural challenges in their pursuit of reaching their career heights in STEM. For example, as women outperform men in both physical and life science undergraduate courses, men continue to be perceived as better students. Despite challenges, there have been quantifiable gains in representation, including in the Service.
Much has changed since the likes of Louella Cable and Rachel Carson were in the Service, but one thing that has not changed is trailblazing women continuing to serve. To help provide a modern perspective, Jennifer Johnson, Lacey Hopper, Paige Moran, and Pam Sponholtz from the Service’s Fish and Aquatic Conservation (FAC) Program shared their insights on what it means to them to be women in science, a space in which women remain underrepresented.
What is your position and where do you work?
Jennifer: I am a fish biologist with the Great Plains Fish & Wildlife Conservation Office, stationed at the Gavins Point National Fish Hatchery.
Lacey: I am the project leader at the Bozeman Fish Health Center in Bozeman, Montana.
Paige: I am a fish biologist at Leadville National Fish Hatchery
Pam: I am the project leader for the Colorado Fish and Wildlife Conservation office and work with partners throughout Colorado, Southern Wyoming, and Kansas.
What are some of your favorite parts of your job?
Jennifer: I enjoy being in the field, especially on a boat. There is something about being on the water that I find soothing.
Lacey: I can honestly say that I have my dream job, I get to work in the combined fields of microbiology, fish biology, genetics, and aquaculture. I enjoy working closely with National Fish Hatcheries and other federal and tribal partners to prevent the spread of aquatic diseases and problem solve to develop solutions to various aquatic animal health concerns or issues. One of the most rewarding things is helping sick or struggling aquatic animals make a full recovery.
I also get to work collaboratively with our state partners in protecting both cultured and wild fish populations and contribute to relevant research that helps promote and enhance aquatic species conservation and recreational opportunity for all.
Paige: I like working outdoors, and spawning season is my favorite time of year. Spawning season occurs in June and typically requires all hands-on deck so it’s a camaraderie building kickoff to the summer. We have an assembly line of FWS staff, volunteers, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and sometimes even the media there to aid in the delicate process of producing greenback cutthroat trout eggs. Any time you get to interact with endangered species is special, but being responsible for creating a new year class adds some pressure. Having to wait several weeks for the eggs to incubate only adds to the excitement and anticipation of how successful the spawn was.
Pam: I believe I have one of the best jobs in the USFWS because I still get to get into the field and get my feet wet, but I also have opportunities to help develop policy and guidelines that have far reaching impacts beyond just our office. Some of my favorite aspects of my job include figuring out ways to accomplish our work when it seems like there are huge walls in our way; this allows our field staff to do what they do best and implement important projects on the ground. My other favorite part of my job is when we finally finish a project and we can step back, watch some fish use a new culvert to reach upstream habitat and really appreciate all the hard work that goes into some of our projects.
What does it mean to you to be a woman in science?
Jennifer: I have been fortunate that the majority of the time I do not feel like a minority in the science field. I choose to believe those who know me well judge me on my ability to do the job and not on my gender.
Lacey: Being a woman in science means being able to pursue my passion in conservation and freely explore the “why” and search for the “how.” I’m given the opportunity every day to think outside the box and contribute to a great community of dedicated fisheries professionals. I work with a fantastic team of female scientists who continue to amaze me with their intelligence and grace.
Paige: A “woman in science” should never be a unicorn. Anyone that has the curiosity and passion for science should pursue their dreams.
Pam: I am proud of what I have accomplished and where I am in my career and am grateful for those who have gone before me and helped make my path easier.
What woman inspires you and why?
Jennifer: Naelyn Pike, Greta Thunberg, and Malala Yousafzai. These young women have incredible passion for their causes. Their courage and bravery to stand up for what they believe in on a global stage is inspiring. On a more personal level, I was lucky to have two female mentors when I started my career with the USFWS as a STEP student in Columbia, MO, nearly 20 years ago. I still admire these women and am glad to call them friends.
Lacey: The woman who inspires me every day is my Mom. She is not a scientist but has always supported every scientific endeavor I set out to conquer. She still listens excitedly as I ramble on about a particular fish, hatchery, virus, or new genetic technique. She taught me to be strong and resilient and to never give up, no matter how difficult life gets. She taught me to work hard, choose kindness and acceptance, and to always be proud of who I am. My Mom guides me to be the best mom I can be for my children, and a better leader and human.
Paige: Genetic genealogist CeCe Moore is fascinating to me. Her genetic sleuthing skill set allows her to have a hand in solving cold case crimes, reuniting lost family members, identifying human remains. She has brought genetic genealogy to the mainstream by being featured in several tv shows. I think her work would be fulfilling by bringing answers and closure to lots of families.
Pam: I really admire Mamie Parker (USFWS, retired). She has the courage to say what we all feel but sometimes can’t share. Her stories of her early years with USFWS are amazing and really put into perspective the struggles and challenges that women often face in this field.
What message would you like to share with young women who are aspiring conservation stewards?
Jennifer: During your career someone will look at you and assume because of your gender you will not be able to back a trailer down a boat ramp without assistance. Prove them wrong.
Lacey: I want to tell young aspiring women to follow your passion, learn all that you can, ask questions, have a strong support system and be open to taking risks. Never doubt that you can make a difference in conservation. Be empowered. Keep pushing forward and help pave the road for the women who will follow you.
Paige: Go for it! Our glass ceiling was broken long ago and our planet is too precious for us to not work together to make it better.
Pam: To never give up even when a door appears to close, another always opens up. Reach out to our community and ask for help!
These four conservation stewards of the Service’s Fish and Aquatic Conservation are only a small number of the women currently working in the Service, but they are shining examples representing the hard work and contributions of women all around the world. We know that sometimes it’s not easy sharing personal stories, but we are lucky to have these four women share theirs to help others understand and relate.
Story by Nick Asfaha, a Public Affairs Specialist in Colorado, and Mikaela Oles, a Public Affairs Specialist in Colorado.