‘The world is open to them’

‘The world is open to them’

Working scientists show that smart women can succeed in the field.

A passion for science had its beginning at an early age for two Maine women, driven in part by their surroundings and mothers who sent them outside to play.

“I grew up on Cape Cod. My mom was involved in the natural history museum there. She had us going to events and involved in her work,” said Kristin Wilson, a geoscientist and director of research for the Wells Reserve at Laudholm in Wells. “She also gave us plenty of exploratory outside free time. We lived near the edge of a kettle pond and were always catching different frogs and other critters.”

Anne Christine Brown is a marine biologist, professor and the chairwoman of the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of New England. Like Wilson, she grew up spending many hours playing in and exploring the outside world.

“I always knew I wanted to be in marine biology, since childhood. Every day of every summer, rain or shine, I was on the beach with my babysitter on the Long Island Sound. It was formative in making me who I am,” said Brown, who still enjoys being outdoors kayaking, fishing, cross-country skiing and snow shoeing when she’s not teaching.

For Wilson, inspiration to turn her interests into a career came during high school. She took a research and science experience class that enabled students to go out during the school day to do research in the field.

“Our class focused on vernal pools. I had a great young teacher who was energetic and passionate about the subject. It was my first field experience and finding out what research was,” said Wilson. “I liked that we had to ask questions. We found a rare salamander in our work which was instrumental in stopping a proposed development. It was the first time someone told me I was going to be a scientist.”

Although Brown knew she wanted to go into the sciences from an early age, her interest became more focused when she entered college.

“When I started college, my teachers were all men. That was OK, they were nice guys but when I came back to Bowdoin from Copenhagen (Brown took a leave of absence from Bowdoin College and attended the University of Copenhagen as an undergraduate) I took classes with Patsy Dickinson and then worked for her teaching labs for her classes. She was a fabulous mentor. I still see her regularly. She is still on faculty at Bowdoin. If you’re doing marine science she is a wonderful role model in many ways. She was very instrumental in my path.”

In fact, Brown went to Oregon to study on Dickinson’s recommendation.

“She said I needed to see more than the North Atlantic if I was going to do this,” said Brown.

Brown received a doctorate in biology from the University of Oregon, where she was a graduate teaching fellow, an instructor and did postdoctoral research with the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology. She also acted as a scientist onboard the McArthur, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ship.

While at the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology, Brown worked closely with Robert Terwilliger, a member of the faculty there. Brown said that when he died unexpectedly, Nora Terwilliger, his wife, stepped into the tenure track vacated by her husband. Brown continued her work with Nora.

“She was my co-author on a number of papers and actually signed my dissertation,” said Brown, the mother of a young teenager. “She was such an inspiration – a mom with two kids, stepping in. I was so lucky to find and fall in with great female mentors.”

Brown, whose interest and expertise is in the physiological ecology of marine organisms, is also a Fulbright Scholar. She received the Fulbright award to conduct research on Arctic char (a cold-water fish in the salmon family) at the Institute of Aquatic BioSciences at the Norwegian College of Fishery Science, University of Tromsø in Norway during the fall of 2008 and spring of 2009.

Brown’s research did looked at the ability of char to regulate body salt and fluid levels as they migrate from fresh to ocean water, or remain in fresh water throughout the year.

“What I do is look at the physiology of how animals work – fish, crab, lobsters are the basis of my studies. How does a fish go from the ocean to fresh water and from fresh to the ocean? How do they survive temperature change?” said Brown. “Studying this is the best excuse to be on the coast.”

Brown said she “needs to live coastally. When I went looking for a real job I knew it would be either Oregon or the New Hampshire or Maine coast. I got lucky.”

Brown has been teaching at the University of New England since 1993. She became a full professor in 2006 and chairwoman of the biology department in 2007. She also served as interim dean for a year in 2010. But it is teaching that she loves.

“Fundamentally, I like talking about cool stuff and getting other people excited about the stuff I think is cool, which is biology. That someone can talk about it and you get sucked in, is great,” said Brown. “I am the chair of the department but still teach. I’m an unhappy person when I’m not teaching.”

Wilson’s interests lie with how salt marshes and mangroves react to climate and coastal land-use change. A graduate of Middlebury College, she has a master’s in marine biology and in marine policy, along with a doctorate in ecology and environmental science, all from the University of Maine. She taught in the environmental science department at Allegheny College for several years and spent a year at the University of the Virgin Islands in the school’s marine science programs.

Like Brown, Wilson has spent time traveling around the world to work in her field of interest.

“In college I did a semester abroad in tropical ecology through Duke. It opened my eyes to the ability of biology and ecology to take you all over the world,” said Wilson, who enjoys walks with her dog, Fritz, and going to beach and exploring when she’s not working.

“I worked in Alaska with the U.S. Geological Service in a study on climate change,” she said. “While I was there I realized coastal places are pretty nice and the place you grow up in helps shape your world view. My time in Cape Cod and Hawaii helped me to realize I wanted to focus on coastal environment in response to human, natural and environmental impact and changes.”

And like Brown, Wilson knew she wanted to work on the coast.

“I was looking for an opportunity to come back to New England,” said Wilson. “When Michele Dionne, the former research director (at Wells Reserve) passed away, I had the honor of taking her place. She was amazing. She had been on both my master’s and Ph.D. committees. She took a very strong role to help the next generation of women scientists succeed.”

Wilson, who has been research director for two years, said working at Wells Reserve has been a great experience.

“To become part of the network of estuaries and the partnership with NOAA along with the unique partnership with Laudholm Trust was a wonderful opportunity,” she said. “I see it as a four-legged stool – research, stewardship, education, and municipal training. We get to interface with other worlds.”

The work at Wells Reserve focuses on the health of salt-marsh ecosystems, with research and investigation along Maine’s southwest coast. Wilson and her colleagues’ work includes, among myriad studies, the monitoring of water quality, development of a better understanding of coastal habitats, and biological surveys of plants, insects and animals along the coast.

“The Wells Reserve at Laudholm is really a combination of different departments that are knit closely with communities here,” said Wilson. “We are connected locally, nationally and internationally. We can look in, but we can also look out. It’s what I love about science – there are always new questions to ask and new problems to work on.”

While science has been a male-dominated field of study and employment in years past, both Brown and Wilson see that paradigm changing, and are feeling positive about the future for the next generation of women scientists.

But each has also been aware of barriers that have existed, and still do in some areas for women in STEM fields.

“I know it’s there,” said Brown, who is 52. “But I don’t feel like I’ve been treated differently or can say, here’s a time where a guy intentionally stood in my way and told me no you can’t or you don’t get to do that.”

Brown said she read with great interest an article on one of the first women scientists who had a grant to study onboard a boat in the Antarctic.

“At first they said, ‘Sorry, you can’t come. There are no women’s bathrooms.’ She said, ‘Set aside one bathroom four times a day with a little sign that says women only,’” said Brown. “It’s somewhat generational and there are still pockets of gender bias out there. But I feel I have been judged on my merit and qualifications. But women do fall out of the pipeline along the way. It’s more of a societal construct.”

Wilson, 35, said the issue of barriers and gender bias in science is different for her generation than it was for earlier ones.

“I don’t focus on gender but it’s still there. My first experience with it was when my high school teacher offered to take students to a professional conference but couldn’t find a female chaperone,” said Wilson. “I wasn’t allowed to go. It felt extremely unfair – a missed experience and opportunity. It was a terrible feeling.”

While ecology and geology are still male-dominated fields, according to Wilson, the perception is changing.

“I think you still run across clear cases of bias, but also unconscious bias. I say to young women in the field, and I don’t mean to be cliche?, but, I tell them to be positive and work hard,” said Wilson. “I don’t experience gender issues in my position, but in higher education there’s still a real discrepancy in things like pay equity and the culture for women in science. I read studies and information on this with great interest – how we select people for jobs, how people interact with each other. It’s all very interesting.”

Brown said there are about 670 students in biology across four years at UNE and there are more women than men in the program. But UNE, overall, has more female than male students.

“It is more and more open and there are more and more girls who become women who pursue the sciences,” said Brown. “In general there are more females than males in higher education now.”

Wilson is very optimistic about women in science going forward.

“I see and work with so many talented young women. I’m so impressed with the quality of our interns,” she said. “The generation ahead of me opened the door. I hope mine is doing the same thing for the next generation of bright, talented young women. The world is open to them as long as they have curiosity, are willing to work hard and apply new tools to the work.”

Kristin Wilson is an interdisciplinary geoscientist and research director for the Wells Reserve at Laudholm, a National Estuarine Research Reserve.Anne Christine Brown, or “Stine” as she is known, is a marine biologist, professor and the chairwoman of the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of New England.Photo courtesy of Christine Brown

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