Empowering Women through Environmental Science

This piece was written by our amazing Mermaid on the East Coast, Ana Rapp.


To think it has been almost ten years since graduating from a small town in Eastern Maine and preparing to embark on one of my most challenging adventures yet, is completely surreal. I had no idea what life was going to throw at me, let alone how to deal with it. Fast forward a few years and here I sit as “Program Assistant and Diversity Specialist” in the office of Maine EPSCoR or the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research located at the University of Maine. Quite the mouthful, right?

Essentially, my role is to help keep track of current people and projects based aroundone of our newest projects that focuses on sustainable aquaculture research. It is here that I must also help encourage minorities, especially female minorities, to gain interest and ultimately pursue a degree in a science, technology, engineering and/or mathematics field.

When I think about that, I feel an overwhelming sense of relief wash over me. There are SO many people that I know who find themselves unhappy in their current careers, yet I am lucky enough to have my hand in something that is relevant and true to my original intentions. 

I attended college at the University of Maine in Orono, ME for Marine Science. Not only was I the only female from my high school to NOT pursue a degree in either nursing or education, I was also the only Native American student at the time pursuing a degree in ocean sciences. Because of this, I had the privilege of free tuition for my ENTIRE undergraduate career. With that I felt absolutely blessed and nothing short of a hefty dose of pride. Does that mean it was easy sailing? Heck no. School was hard!

I’ll be honest, I was an average student at best. College was a constant balancing act between heavy science courses and “finding myself” in the process. I was overwhelmed. Confused. Fed up. I felt like I was doomed. There was even a point in which I questioned if I truly fit in with the rest of the marine science population and whether or not I was even cut out for all of that. Bailing out and doing what everyone else was doing seemed like the perfect option - perhaps switching into some medical or dental assistant program would make more sense, clearly they had pretty solid salaries and job security, right?

However, there was always this little voice behind it all asking, “Is this really you? Is this going to be fulfilling enough?” and my answer for that (no matter how many times the pros may have outweighed the cons) was no. every. singletime.

How could I make such a drastic change that I KNOW would only deem to be antagonistic to my inner self?

As I have observed over the years, it has become hard to argue the strong demographics of men vs women in regard to science. According to The National Science Foundation, it is estimated that 4% of today’s professional work force is directly involved in either a science, technology or engineering field. This small group is considered to be one of the most vital components to “economic innovation and productivity”. Even though rapid growth is predicted for these occupations in the coming years, women still currently hold one-quarter or less of the positions within those fieldsSeriously?!

One may wonder why this is so. In recent studies, there is still a strong stereotype that women are “less competent” in a science and/or mathematics field (which is still wildly considered a “masculine” job) and are less liked in the work environment once rightfully earning their place. There are also other components that has an effect on women in science, such as the type of education young women are receiving and how their environment influences them. It has always been amazing to me how much societal beliefs and learning environments influence the outcome of a human being. Of course it goes without saying that the quality of education varies across the country, but in so many of our public education systems there is an almost fixed mindset that still exists where men are considered to be natural achievers in math and science where as women are better suited in humanities or liberal arts. This suggests that unless you are naturally gifted in such topics as science or math, you will never be successful enough. It is because of this mindset that young women are either consciously or subconsciously holding themselves to a higher standard and placing more pressure on themselves if they want to stand out in a predominately “male” field, or their dreams and aspirations are just flat out dashed and subsequently give up due to this age old stereotype.

In my case, I can say that my struggles were most certainly due to environmental factors. I put a substantial amount of pressure on myself, which has proven to besupremely hard to shake off. There was fear of failure, and even fear of exposing my weakness in certain subjects because I did not want to come off as incompetent to my professors. I can’t really give a good reason as to why it was so hard for me to seek help, but simply put, the majority of them were very accomplished male scientists – not only was this terribly intimidating but it was very hard to relate to them. Out of my entire undergraduate career, only three of my instructors were female. Three.

When I think of a famous female role model in science (slim pickins btw, if we are gonna be real here), the first person I can think of is Jane Goodall. This woman is magical. I mean, she defies the odds in my book.

To briefly summarize Jane Goodall, everything started with a deep fascination with animals at an early age. This love was fostered by her family, and persisted for the rest of her life. College was unaffordable, so instead she worked in an office as a secretary. After meeting the right people, she later found herself in Africa working in an anthropology office. The employer, recognizing her stamina, passion and resourcefulness, offered her an opportunity to take part in studying the chimpanzees of Tanzania. Her methods were considered “scientifically unconventional” as she insisted on naming each and every one of her subjects instead of assigning them numbers. This is just the tip of the iceberg, but it was because of her almost motherly attachment and subsequent bond with these animals that she was able to make revolutionary discoveries in chimpanzee behavior. From there the rest is history, but to think that she initially began as a mere secretary without collegiate experience speaks volumes to someone like me.

That means anything, and I mean ANYTHING, is possible.

I come from a family of earthy, organic & environmentally aware parents and, like Jane Goodall, have always been passionate about animals and the environment. Naturally, when I announced at the tender age of five that I wanted to be a “whale doctor”, I can promise you my parents showered me with educational books and resources, not to mention frequent trips to the coast.

There is honestly nothing else that makes me feel more alive or my heart beat faster than the sound of crashing waves on the shore or smelling the salty breezing and feeling it fill up my lungs. It’s the even in the simple things that leaves me with no doubt that the ocean is where I belong. Body & soul.

The ocean possess so much power and life that it’s almost impossible for a simple beach day to not become a spiritual experience. We depend on the ocean for nearly everything. With the unfathomable and exuberant gifts that the ocean provides, it is devastating to me that it has taken so long for our oceans to be a priority, to properly protect and respectfully utilize.

To quote Jane Goodall, “I don’t have any idea of who or what God is. But I do believe in some great spiritual power. I feel it particularly when I am out in nature. It’s just something that’s bigger and stronger than what I am or what anybody is. I feel it. And that’s enough for me.”

For me, it doesn’t get more concise than that. It is in nature, and more specifically the rugged coast of Maine that I truly belong. Despite the struggles, I have never felt more thankful for listening to my heart. Instead of giving up and conforming to what seems like the conventional route a woman should pursue, haven chosen to continue the journey that I set for myself and harness my femininity and how it connects me to the oceanThat is how I will create success.

Will it be a tough road until I make it to my destination? Yes. But if something means enough to you, you WILL endure. No matter how impossible things may seem.

Researchers have suggested that if more of our communities encouraged equality of intellectual skills and emphasized a “growth mindset” (aka viewing intelligence as a constant developmental effort) in the early stages of education to encourage young women, we can finally instill more confidence and start throwing out all the biases and negative opinions of men vs women, strive for increased diversity and bring forth more room for innovation and creativity.

The presence of women in science is growing, and my goal is to be a part of this movement with my toes planted firmly in the sand. No longer will I allow myself or others to doubt my integrity.

Recently, I discovered a small connection from the author Skye Alexander that I thought was sort of interesting. The French word for sea is merwhich stems from the Old English word mere meaning mother. From these two similar words, it almost suggests that the sea is “mother to us all”. How true is that? And we as women, and perhaps also mothers, should embody that energy. Like the sea, we have the profound gift of creating life, and an unavoidable urge to nurture and sacrifice so much of ourselves simply for the betterment of those we love.

believe it is my duty to be an advocate for our ocean mother. To give back. Even though she is a devastatingly raw, fierce & untamable power house, she is also extremely delicate and beautiful. She needs us to listen and to be her voice - temphasize the importance of being stewards, and to remind the masses that we are all connected to her.

More importantly, I want to be a mentor for my daughter and all the other young women of the next generation. To help encourage and embrace the strength of feminine power, to trust your intuition, test boundaries, fight for what you believe in, and to stand up to anyone that doubts your capabilities, even if that person is yourself.

My own mother once told me to “never settle for wooden coins”, and to me that means to give yourself the chance to get exactly what you want. Don’t give up. Be unconventional. Get your hands dirtyAllow yourself to get lost in your passions – you will do something wonderful.

Here is a really great article written by two female oceanographers in Maine whichaddresses specific challenges women in this field experience:http://www.tos.org/oceanography/archive/27-4_supp_orcutt.pdf