SWMS members tell what it is like to work with a supportive network of female researchers
Illustration by Caia Colla.
As frequent readers of the blog may already realize, being a scientist is not easy. But what complicates the job even more is to work in a society that values science less and less and where “machismo” is normalized. To be able to advance in research in sometimes inhospitable working conditions, many women seek the support of family members, colleagues, teachers, and mentors for the emotional support they need in the most difficult moments.
To understand the importance of this support, we interviewed Ana Paula de Martini de Souza and Bruna Fernanda Sobrinho, members of the Society for Women in Marine Science (SWMS) in Brazil. SWMS brings together scientists from all career levels to discuss women's experiences in marine science and to promote the visibility of women and their work in the academic community. Founded in the United States (USA) in 2014 by a group of women from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI), SWMS has become an internationally-recognized group, with Brazil starting a chapter in September 2019*.
The following is an interview with Ana and Bruna about how they began their research in paleomagnetism and toxic algae, respectively, and how their paths met in the quest for greater recognition of women in science.
How did you become marine scientists?
(ANA) Ever since I was a little girl visiting the beach, I have been intrigued by the sea. I wanted to know everything that was hidden within those mysterious waters. But I never imagined that I could turn this into a profession, until one day I read in a magazine about the profession of oceanographer and decided that this was what I was going to do. In 2011, I entered the Federal University of Paraná (UFPR), imagining that I would work with marine fauna, until I discovered the field of geological oceanography. Enchanted with the geological processes that shape the planet I started an internship at the Geological Oceanography Laboratory, working with coastal morphodynamics processes.
I often joke that the big turning point that made me migrate from biological to geological oceanography was the contamination of my copepod culture and the consequent death of the entire population. So I decided to work with something non-living, like minerals, rocks, and fossils. Pure curiosity brought me to the field of paleomagnetism. Ever since I was a little girl I wanted to know the why of things: how planet Earth evolved over time, why oceans open and close, how and when ocean currents came about and how they evolved over time, and don't even get me started on climate variations! Using rocks as reference material to see into the past, I saw paleomagnetism and paleoenvironmental reconstructions as my opportunity to understand the evolution of our planet.
(BRUNA) I don't remember exactly when I chose Oceanography, I think it was around the age of 13. Just imagine: a girl from the countryside of Paraná, more than 700 km (435 miles) from the coast, saying that she wanted to become an oceanographer. Many people didn't understand what I would do or why I chose to do it, and I think that even today some people still don't. At first, I didn't pass the entrance exam for the UFPR, but I passed in the Language course at UNIOESTE and decided to go to college. During my first months in the program, I worked as a Portuguese and English tutor at the school where I studied in high school. Although I loved the work, my eye was not on grammar or literature. I dropped out of that program and went to a preparatory school. I took the entrance exams for both Oceanography and Biology in 2010, and when I passed both, I had no doubts about which one to choose. It was not easy to leave my parents' house at the age of 18, but I guess it is not easy for anyone. I never had any doubts that I wanted to study Oceanography and this certainty was only confirmed during college. Although we oceanographers still have little recognition and few job opportunities, I am very happy with my choice.
Completely by chance I started to work in my current research area. I knocked on my current advisor's door, dying of embarrassment, and asked him if he knew anyone who worked with biofuel production. I don't remember why I wanted to work with biofuels at the time. My advisor didn't, but he referred me to someone in another city and said he could help me. I asked to work in the lab to get used to the research routine. And I have been working in his lab for 7 years now! I fell in love with microalgae when a colleague mentioned that "they can produce toxins, but it is not clear why." I really enjoy working with toxic algae and love talking about harmful algal blooms. Just hang out with me for a while and you will get sick of hearing about it. In these 7 years I have done experiments testing growth and toxin production under different environmental conditions, and there are still many questions remaining that I want to answer. The more I know, the more curious I become! And this is the natural cycle in science: the more answers you have, the more questions you have.
Have you ever suffered any kind of harassment in the academic environment for being a woman?
(ANA) Fortunately I have not suffered harassment in academia for being a woman. But this is just my experience and unfortunately it does not match the reality of many fellow scientists. I have seen and received reports of classmates in situations of harassment for being women, I have seen friends left feeling desolate and wanting to give up their careers because of harassment. I have witnessed professors and administrators stifle accusations of harassment with the justification that pursuing the accusations would only hurt the victims, discouraging them from pursuing their cases. In view of these issues, and acknowledging the varying experiences of other female researchers, we decided to bring SWMS to Brazil. We want to create an open communication channel between women scientists, supporting and encouraging one another in the face of many obstacles.
(BRUNA) I personally have never experienced harassment in academia, but I know colleagues who have. I believe that every time a woman is harassed or goes through any embarrassing or uncomfortable situation just for being a woman, somehow all of us are affected too. We know the reality of women inside Brazilian universities: we are still the minority among professors and in administrative positions. And this is just one of the reasons that motivated us to bring SWMS to Brazil. We want to promote greater recognition of our female scientists and unite them more and more!
What makes a career as a researcher even more difficult?
(ANA) The challenge of making space for ourselves in science. Sometimes it seems that we are like the plankton that cannot win against the current. We have to prove our worth every day. Our voices are not heard, they are muffled. We are discredited not because of our research, but because we are women. We face sexual harassment and bullying, and we are constantly discouraged from pursuing a scientific career. Even more discouraged when we become mothers and need to prove time and time again that motherhood does not make us less capable.
(BRUNA) If you are a woman, in addition to the normal difficulties faced by male counterparts, your physical and emotional stability will be questioned and tested with a relatively high frequency. I think that the lack of visibility, the low representation in teaching and administrative positions, and the “machismo” that still exists inside the institutions are just some examples of our difficulties. Women are still the minority among CNPq's productivity fellows, but why? Also, if you are a woman, trivial issues like worrying about wearing too short, too tight or too low-cut clothes on board cruises, or even in everyday life, will be commonplace in your life. If you want to become a mother during your training process, you will have more difficulty ahead of you than an expectant father. And these are just two examples of things that our male colleagues don't have to worry about. Doing science in Brazil, in itself, is already a challenge. It takes love for what you do and a lot of strength and support not to be intimidated by this scenario, which is often hostile.
In your career, what has been the greatest difficulty you have faced?
(ANA) The biggest struggles in academia in Brazil are related to the country’s continuing detachment to science. The constant cuts in science and education make it very difficult for me and my colleagues to do our research. There is very little money for field trips, laboratories lack materials, there are structural problems in the university buildings, and many times we have to invest our own resources to continue conducting research. I believe that many of us have experienced the problems associated with a lack of funding and investment in research, but we keep going because we believe in the importance of science in society and because we love what we do.
(BRUNA) I believe that I am currently facing my biggest challenge yet, and I am still learning how to deal with it. I'm doing my Master's in Botany, which is a different area from my background, and since getting through the selection process until the present moment has been a pure challenge. I asked for a two-month extension of my deadline to defend and I am in the final stages of writing. This is the most tiring part of the job. Although I have been working with microalgae for a while, my project was new to me: I am describing an anomalous bloom of a harmful species that hit the southern coast of Brazil. Although the topic is very interesting and motivates me, it is also very challenging. I have two advisors that help me and spare no effort in revising the work, to make it credible and publishable in a high impact journal. But the result of so many corrections is that I am already exhausted and still have a long way to go. There are days when I produce a lot and days when I can't write a single sentence. On these more difficult days, I try to remember that this is a phase that is ending and I try to make the most of this time to do other things that are not related to my thesis. Whenever necessary I remind myself that my physical and psychological health is much more important than any title – it is very easy to forget this during the process.
How does integrating SWMS influence you?
(ANA) I was raised and taught by strong and amazing women. Today I am surrounded by exceptional fellow female scientists, but there are still barriers that we need to overcome together to gain our due recognition and, above all, respect. The society itself is a special organization, where we have the opportunity to talk about and learn about the difficulties that other women scientists face around the world, and how they overcome these adversities. It is also a place of support among women who are willing to listen, to welcome, and to help. In Brazil, this SWMS chapter is just starting, but we have the support of the founders of the organization, who are very enthusiastic, and we know that together we can go far.
(BRUNA) Although our society chapter has only recently started, being part of this movement has already introduced me to people I didn't know before and brought me closer to some friends. Besides the contact with scientists from different universities in Brazil, we are getting to know scientists from other chapters of the society that are spread across several universities in the USA and Nigeria. Despite the differences we have, we live similar realities, namely, the lack of recognition of women within academia. We are just starting out, but we have great ideas and this is very motivating, both professionally and personally. I feel inspired to know that there are so many of us working towards the same goal: to seek greater visibility for women within the marine sciences.
What are your greatest inspirations in science?
(ANA) I cite Sylvia Earle and Lisa Tauxe immediately. Sylvia, primarily for her conservation actions around the world, for being the woman in the spotlight when it comes to the health of our oceans, and for her passion and devotion to conservation. Lisa Tauxe for being the great academic reference in my area of research, for being an award-winning and accessible scientist. But most of all, every day I am inspired by female scientist friends who are overcoming obstacles, achieving more and more space in the scientific environment, and above all, supporting other women (like me) to help achieve their goals.
(BRUNA) I have a group of fellow scientists, each one inspires me in her own way. Seeing my friends in their daily struggles, with a lot of good humor (sometimes [lol]), knowing that we always find the time to listen to each other, and that we will be there, even if it is to complain together and share a beer (even if at a distance). This really motivates me to "go with the flow" and keep going, because I know I won't be alone. I also had some professors during graduation who always motivated us to "speak up" and always left the door open so that I could go there to tell them any ideas or to have a coffee. When we had the idea of bringing the Society to Brazil, I ran to their room at the Center for Sea Studies (CEM-UFPR) to find out what they thought and if they wanted to join us. They are the kind of teacher I want to be. I could also name a number of other scientists that have done great work or who have had a long career with amazing stories of overcoming adversity, which serve as an inspiration to all. But, on a day-to-day basis, when I feel like throwing in the towel, the ones who inspire and motivate me the most are the ones who walk with me.
If you could give advice to Ana and Bruna from ten years ago, what would you say?
(ANA) Oh my goodness!!! I get emotional just thinking about it... I would tell her not to be so hard on herself and to learn to rely on her friends and to feel the love of the people around her. I would tell her that stormy seas are on the horizon, but that little by little she will learn to navigate them. I would tell her not to be overwhelmed by the opinions of others, because it has more to do with their problems than with herself. I wish I could help her defend herself in the face of bullying within the academic environment. I wish I could hug her during her anxiety attacks and depression, tell her that she is stronger than she thinks and that better days will come.
(BRUNA) The Bruna of ten years ago was 16 years old and preparing to take the entrance exam for Oceanography. I would say to her: "It's OK that you want to be a scientist and take a course that nobody has ever heard of. It won't be easy, but it will be the best choice you could have made. You will meet great people and learn a lot from them. In some way, you will never again be the Bruna you were, and this will make you very happy. So, don't be discouraged and persevere! "And I'll take this opportunity and give a piece of advice for the Bruna of 10 years from now: "Don't forget that at 26 you wanted to make a difference in the reality you were living in and fought for the things you believe in. So don't be complacent in your life and in your own achievements, you still have a lot you can do to contribute." You never know when I will need to go back and read that motivational quote to myself [lol]!
Do you want to follow SWMS Brasil initiatives? Follow the profile @swmsbrasil on Instagram and subscribe to the newsletter! For more information, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org .
*Due to the pandemic, activities within the Brazilian chapter of SWMS they founded have been put on hold.
About the interviewees:
Ana Paula de Martini de Souza has been part of SWMS since the beginning! "Actually Bruna Fernanda came to me when the Brazilian chapter was just an idea and we started gathering women who we knew would support the movement." She graduated in Oceanography from UFPR, with a dual degree in San Diego from the University of California (UCSD). She completed her Master's in 2020 and began a Doctorate degree, both at inOceanography at the University of São Paulo (USP) .
Bruna Fernanda Sobrinho is one of the founders of SWMS Brasil. "We will become an official SWMS chapter in May 2019, but we have already been organizing since September 2018." She has a degree in Oceanography from UFPR and is a Master's student in the Postgraduate Program in Botany - UFPR.