A woman’s reflections on science and survival in a man’s world

By Katarzyna Nowak, Safina Center Fellow

Some women in science are getting more involved in carving out women-only niches and nooks and dare I say frontiers where women can feel safe and free to learn, test their limits, fulfill their potential, get noticed, heard, and hired. Few things are as self-actualizing as having one’s skills and experience dully recognized, being consulted as an expert, and getting adequately compensated while doing meaningful work.

Request a Woman Scientist” is a growing directory of women in the fields of STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Medicine). It’s a kind of “white pages” established last year in January 2018 by a group of us affiliated with the grassroots organization 500 Women Scientists. The directory will soon comprise 12,000 women scientists from around the world who signed up with the explicit purpose of connecting with people from across society to share and communicate their science. The platform makes women experts easy to find, by region, discipline and keywords as run-of-the-mill as “sustainability” and as unusual as “seasnakes” (one of our favorites).

The directory’s users have mainly been journalists, also educators and conference organizers, and we hope that more policy-makers will use the platform to involve and consult women scientists in decision-making processes. For example, there are at least a dozen women in our directory for whom science diplomacy is central. Science diplomacy uses science to broach and address shared problems and can kindle partnerships between nations and societies even where official relationships are strained.

139 countries and territories are now represented in our directory making it truly international. This year we saw sign-ups from women scientists from several countries not previously represented in the first year (2018) including Armenia, Bhutan, Monaco, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, and Swaziland. Since publishing an openly-accessible paper about year one of the database, the directory has enjoyed media attention from the Boston Globe (April 24, 2019), Nature Middle East (May 9, 2019), Science magazine (June 7, 2019), and even Oprah Magazine (August ’19 issue). We now have a Twitter account.

Graphic: Katarzyna Nowak

Yet, despite outreach and being forward-facing, there are women scientists we might not succeed in reaching and countries that may never come to be represented in our directory. Looking at the list of the at least 35 countries missing from our directory, it is suggestive of the unfortunate fact that where there is political instability, conflict, strife, poverty, insularity, oppression, or a combination of these, science—and women—do not thrive. The countries missing from our directory include Albania, Chad, Burkina Faso, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, Somalia, Turkmenistan, Suriname and Guyana.

I have been paying attention to the challenges women scientists in our directory describe and many of these intersect with gender and include ethnicity and race, being first gen, an immigrant, a mother. There is also an aspect that I have been seeing raised a lot lately. It is “self-care,” the deliberate activities we pursue to nurture our mental, emotional and physical selves. What it exactly means is of course highly personal.

With this in mind, I recently took some days off from work to embark on what a friend and I considered to be self-care in a hectic, rapidly-changing, and increasingly high-risk world. We drove down to the mountains and woods of Virginia to the Mountain Shepherd Adventure School in Catawba. Our version of self-care: 101 survival skills training for women.

The lodge is tucked away between patches of deciduous and coniferous trees overlooking rolling hills and more mountainous slopes. We were met by the unassuming Dina Bennett, trailed by her four dogs. We’d begin early the next day.

Both my friend and I consider ourselves field savvy, with some 20 years each of experience under our belts. My friend worked in Cambodia to collect DNA samples from threatened vultures (nature’s best scavengers) to determine how many remain, she was later involved in the making of a doc film about the endangered Philippine eagle, and these days regularly hikes with her husky-breed dog. I’ve done a variety of field surveys and conservation research on monkeys, elephants, and mountain goats in some pretty challenging terrain including where men with machetes and guns roam to poach wildlife.

I was struck by how few survival skills we had honed and realized how unprepared we have been. Dina, whose knife skills alone are remarkable, proceeded to patiently teach us how to construct a variety of water- and wind-proof shelters, find resinous wood or pitchwood and get a fire going, how to safely approach a potentially wounded person, signal to a plane or helicopter, tie the best knot in a paracord to pull a friend up from a place they’ve fallen. She also shared important knowledge for example to cook any insects larger than your fingernail as they might contain parasites, and to tie bandanas around your calves and walk through a field of tall grass in early morning to collect water.  

Three sizes of kindling. Photo: Yula Kapetanakos 
Dina skillfully shaving pitchwood. Photo: Yula Kapetanakos 
Dina shows me how to get the most out of the resin in pitchwood. Photo: Yula Kapetanakos 
Yula and Dina tie knots in a makeshift shelter. Photo: Katarzyna Nowak

It was eye-opening, also because it made us focus our otherwise over-divided attention on a single task that could, in another context, mean life or death. It also made me ponder the skills and experiences that women in countries not in our scientist directory list could bestow on us women fortunate enough to assert ourselves, pursue science, find time for self-care, and learn survival skills at our leisure and on our own terms with a woman instructor whose overarching goal is to empower women and girls.

The nearly 12,000 women in our directory have overcome hurdles and beaten a wide variety of odds to practice science and get to where they are, and I admire them and am continuously impressed and inspired as I learn about what they are doing. At the same time, I wonder how many of us are missing even basic survival skills or interact with women who have mastered such skills, or consider gender in fieldwork safety? I have become more mindful of the duty of care and self-care.

I also plan to continue to reflect on the women whose daily survival is foremost and whose scientific potential may never even be lit.

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