Early start helps CBL students find passion for science


KRISTI MOORE: This is Kristi Moore from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. Each month, we look behind the science to see the world from our scientists point of view and because March is Women’s History Month, we wanted to hear from our female graduate students about their experiences pursuing a career in science. See, the women seeking careers in science today are on the cusp of change. The generations before them didn’t have some of the opportunities considered normal today. They were told they didn’t belong in the lab or were barred from some scientific studies.

The generations behind this one are growing up in classrooms that are embracing the value of science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM learning, and creating programs and lesson plans that introduce those subjects early. This generation gets the benefit of a hard path carved before them, but one that’s not completely paved. Some of our female graduate students at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science were still hearing what they couldn’t do and where they should be instead. They heard things like you can’t excel in a science career and have a family, and even then they have seen women succeed only so much in a career still largely dominated by men.

Nevertheless, they’re persisting.

They find strength in the women before them and are motivated to inspire those rising up behind them. We asked some of these graduate students at UMCES’ Chesapeake Biological Laboratory to weigh in on the rise of STEM learning, share their experiences and thoughts on representation and diversity in the lab, and offer advice for the generations to follow. Here are their stories.

ZORAIDA PÉREZ DELGADO: My name is Zoraida Pérez-Delgado and I started getting interested in science when I was in elementary school. I know that’s a very cliché thing to say, but I had a science teacher who started talking to us about climate change and the melting of the ice caps, and I just honestly got really annoyed that all these problems were happening throughout the world and no one was actually doing anything about it, so that’s one of the reasons that I decided I need to do something, I need to contribute and actually try to make a difference in this world.

HADLEY MCINTOSH: My name is Hadley McIntosh and I decided to pursue science, like Zoraida, when I was in elementary school. We did science fair project in 3rd, 5th, 7th and 9th grades at my school and I still remember my project was looking at what’s in the color red. It was kind of an advanced project probably, but my father’s a physicist and so he provided me the idea and then I got to choose which different things I wanted to see were red, so I looked at Kool Aid, red markers and another thing to see what is actually in the color red.

CHRISTINA GOETHEL: My name is Christina Goethel and I got interested science along similar lines as the other two. For me, it was my aunt and uncle, though my parents were also pretty heavily involved. When I was young I would go out to my aunt and uncle’s house and beachcomb with my aunt who ran, she has her own marine biology program for schools in the New England/New York area and then my uncle was a commercial fisherman. Being the only girl on that side of the family – I have two older male cousins – my grandfather was like what do I do with her and my aunt was like the same things you did with my boys. So I got lugged down to the fish docks and liked the intersection of education and commercial fishing and industry, and also the research and lab components of it. So for me at the age of 5, I just followed my aunt around got lugged down to the fishing docks pretty frequently.

MOORE: So there’s been emphasis, a growing emphasis, particularly on getting young girls interested in pursuing science careers. What do you guys think of that kind of push toward STEM learning?

GOETHEL: I think it’s a great push. After my aunt, I found myself being encouraged by teachers maybe not quite as young as the other two mentioned in elementary school, but when I got to high school I had a chemistry teacher that meant the world to me. She supported us and really pushed, especially the women, to continue pursuing this stuff. I always told her, chemistry, not my strong suit, don’t like chemistry, and she kept telling me if you pursue this, you’re going to find yourself with chemistry in your life. I called her one day and said my master’s thesis has a bunch of chemistry in it and she said I told you so, and to this day that sticks with me, so I think the push, it’s a good push. I mean there’s talent in the young pool and if you get them excited about it young that can carry through. The other thing is I watch my aunt give these outreach presentations to the schools and she’ll use words like echinoderms when referring to a sea star in front of kindergartners and certain people are like, 'You can’t use big words like that,' and she says, 'No, they’re sponges. They soak that stuff up if you teach them young.' It stays with them. It’s like a foreign language, so I think the younger the better.

MOORE: Especially for the two of you, you decided to pursue science based on what you learned in elementary school. Do you feel they need to plant those seeds young, does that make a difference or were you guys kind of an exception?

PÉREZ DELGADO: I was in an extremely small elementary school, so they really, really pushed us into science, but it was mostly my parents. I do not come from a scientific family at all, so my parents would get news articles and all these things and be like, ‘Hey, did you see what happened in Antarctica?,’ ‘Did you see about this?’ 'Ooh, look at the penguins.' So all these little things, they started pushing science into me, getting me interested in science and I feel that yeah, like Christina said, it is very necessary to get us interested in science in a young age. When I was a little kid, and I started looking at science – Christina said about chemistry, mine was math. I started saying, 'Oh my goodness, I cannot do this, math is very complicated, I am not going to do any career that has anything to do with math because I can’t handle it.' And then I got interested in physical oceanography, so [laughs] math is very necessary.

MCINTOSH: So I was just at a conference and I was very impressed by some of the high school students that attended that conference. It’s called Ocean Sciences Meeting and this year, in 2018, it was in Portland, Oregon, and one of the days during the meeting was specifically made for K-12 presenters. I was with a group of seven students from Mississippi that were funded by Mississippi and Alabama Sea Grant to do oyster farming off of their pier at their school, which one, I think it’s amazing that their school has that kind of infrastructure in place, and two, the fact that they’re seniors in high school and they were involved in this really great project for summer. I mean, I don’t know how many of them are going to continue pursuing science but even just the ability to see what’s out there and how you can add science to your everyday life I think was a great experience for them. I hope it’s something that they can take with them for the rest of their lives. So I think making sure high schools across the country, elementary schools across the country, keep adding that, pushing that would be great no matter what field people end up going into. I don’t know, I just thought it was really great when you get them out and actually doing something, and interacting whether it’s in this case measuring oysters and cleaning their cages every week, you actually see the science in progress and then you can graph that up and they saw results. It was this internship that started in June and ended in November and at the end, they had something they could say about what they were doing is really beneficial, so getting out there, doing things, getting your hands dirty is really important for kids.

MOORE: So whether it was at that conference or undergrad, or other conferences you’ve been to, overall have you seen that there is a shift or do you see that there is an underrepresentation of women?

PÉREZ DELGADO: I believe there still is an underrepresentation of women. Mostly, it depends which field you go into in science. If you’re going to be in chemistry or biology, you’re going to see half and half, but if you go into more mathematical fields, you can tell it’s mostly male dominated. It actually surprised me, I went to a climate summer school last summer in California and I prepared myself to be one of the few women there, like I mentally prepared myself and spoke to my adviser can I handle this? Because it’s a mostly male-dominated career. And when I went there, I was extremely surprised that most of the people who went there were actually women. So that to me was completely shocking. It honestly surprised me it was mostly women, and from very ages. We had people from Italy, we had people from California. I’m Puerto Rican, so it was very well mixed, and it’s honestly the first time I’d ever seen more women than men in a male-dominated field. There is still underrepresentation, but it’s slowly changing and I believe that’s a really good thing.

MCINTOSH: So I think there’s actually more women coming into chemical oceanography than there were in the past. I know from a graduate student standpoint, the majority of graduate students I’ve been working with are female, but on the adviser side, or the slightly older generation of women, I would say it’s still slightly more male dominated than female dominated for women within their 40s, 50s, 60s who are part of that first or very early generation of women joining chemical oceanography or environmental chemistry fields, but the women that are there that have been able to maintain programs for 20-plus years I think they are amazingly strong women and a lot of them had to come up against some pretty difficult battles in learning how to navigate work-life balance and how to join this field that was historically majority male and how to do field work and different things that may be challenges for women that aren’t necessarily challenges for men. But all of the women who are in that senior scientist role that I’ve seen are amazing women and have produced great science on top of having some possible challenges in their past.

GOETHEL: So this is kind of cool in that you have physics, chemistry, and I lean more toward biology. I would say kind of along the lines of what Hadley said, I think in biological oceanography and biology in general has been the one that had an earlier shift toward women because I think there’s the animal draw that the stereotype goes with, but it’s really interesting I find the differences for me, I was just thinking about, I do a lot of field work on icebreakers up in Alaska. So it’s not 2-3 day cruises, it’s 2-3-4 week long cruises. It’s interesting because on my first cruise of the season every year, I’m always like, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of women on this boat—on the science side – and I’m like this is cool, this is great.’ On the ship side of things, it’s almost predominantly men, so there’s this interesting dynamic between the science and the boat crew, but what’s interesting and what I was thinking about while Hadley was talking is that the science party is primarily women, but there are 3-4 men and all of them are all PIs (principal investigator). So the students and early career population on that boat—I’ve been on that boat, it’s going to be year five this coming year, and I’ve been with a male student or early career once. It’s interesting; I hadn’t really thought about that because we always joke the three male PIs are outnumbered by all the women, but I never thought about the age thing, so it’s encouraging from my point of view because when I get on this boat the early careers and students are women. And I’d like to second Hadley, the PIs that are women, younger and older generations, are just—all three of us actually have female advisers, and that was one of the big draws for me was she is a strong female persona in science and produces really good science. I was a very shy child, so having that strong female role model that says look we can do this, I think is really encouraging for people at our stage and maybe why perhaps you are starting to see more women enter and stay in the grad school pool.

PÉREZ DELGADO: Adding to what Christina just said, I did a couple of internships when I was an undergrad and surprisingly enough most of the PIs and advisers I had every single summer were women. And I tried to be as broad as possible – I tried microbiology, biological oceanography, and even a little bit of chemistry – they were all women. That actually inspired me to keep on going. Science is not an easy career choice. Science is not something you wake up one day and say I can do this, I can wear a lab coat and just go be in the lab. No, it’s extremely hard and something you need to be passionate about and seeing so many women actually balancing their life, their career, it was very inspiring.

My adviser here for my masters, honestly I find it amazing. She gets to do this amazing research. So I do a little bit of physical oceanography, but what I do is mostly paleoclimatology. I work with really old data from coral records and tree rings and cave deposits. Seeing her do all this amazing work, it motivates me to work that much harder and get that Ph.D.

GOETHEL: Well I think it’s interesting, too. Their advisers are raising young kids, so we have people right here at CBL that work-life balance and still doing really good science is possible. My adviser has a college-aged daughter and is still producing. It’s really neat at CBL, there are a lot of strong female role models for us here.

MOORE: Is that the kind of idea – the more you see it, the more you think you can do it?

MCINTOSH: Yeah, so I think, for me, I come from a slightly unique situation, maybe not unique to grad students, but my father was also in science, he is a physics professor. So I knew sort of going into it what the work-life balance would look like. He’s at a small liberal arts campus, which is mostly undergraduates and there is some summer research that goes on, but it’s a highly undergraduate atmosphere in teaching, whereas here at CBL, it’s very research heavy and I know there’s slightly different pressures. Here, you’re under a lot of pressure to publish, to get grants, and I think sometimes even though I’ve seen my father spend long hours grading, I’ve also seen some of the faculty here, especially female faculty, spending long hours writing proposals and getting papers and all of that stuff pulled together along with having families. I know typically in this day and age the primary household person is the female and they are trying to balance home with here, and sometimes there is some bleed over, but a lot of the time there isn’t. My adviser is gone sometimes to take care of the kids, but that’s fine. She’s still in email contact. I was surprised, she had a daughter a year and a half ago and within a few weeks we were communicating again about my field work that I had just been out doing. She wasn’t able to go on the field work, but she was still really interesting to see how it had gone and hear the stories and how everything was when we were out there.

MOORE: A lot of multi-tasking.

MCINTOSH: A lot of multi-tasking, yes.

GOETHEL: A lot of these stereotypes where the woman is the one that stays home, I see that in life and I would argue that’s probably a reason women tend to not stay, they kind of have this expectation that they’re going to take care of the kids and do all these household things, and some of that biologically you can’t change, but other things you can and that was very much the situation for me growing up. I grew up in a household where my dad was a stay-at-home parent and my mom worked. And my mom worked in a primarily male-dominated field; she was the only woman in three states that did what she did in the South in the 70s. I just have this perspective, Of course it can be done. My dad stayed at home. It was based on some circumstances that were out of their control, but I had people like my aunt and then I watched my mom do stuff. Some of the stories she’s told me as I’ve been an adult of what she dealt with was like, OK, and you’re here and you’re fine and you’ve raised a [laughs] semi-functioning child. I had my chemistry teacher in high school. So I think, going back to your question of having the female role models, for me I would say that’s a big part of it, so I would hope that women would stay, but I do sort of understand why they leave. I think there’s a lot of pressure, I think family is a big pressure that pushes women out. Also, I think a lot of women do probably stray because of the family life stuff and they don’t see themselves represented in the workplace. It’s frustrating to walk in and see all males and be like how do I relate to these people? I would say a lot of women are also driven out because they want to go to an environment where there’s people they can relate to and talk to and have that support.

PÉREZ DELGADO: At least for me, both my parents worked and seeing my mom, so I call her super mom. That woman is amazing; she can balance everything and then she can throw you a party in two days and it’s amazing. Shout out to my mother! Seeing my mom, she would wake up at 5 a.m. every single morning and by the time I went downstairs, she had food ready, she was already dressed looking amazing. She had everything prepared for her job. She would leave me at school and she just balanced every single thing. I grew up mostly on my mom’s side of the family, so all my cousins are male, so I have the experience of being the only female growing up and then I would see my mom in her office, at one point she was the only female working in that office, so it was all males and then just her. Growing up a little bit in that office, seeing her work, seeing her relate to all these men in this male-dominated field to me was inspiring. It shows you can actually do this. Looking at my lab right now where I work, I’m the only woman in the lab. Not including my adviser, the rest of my lab mates are all male. As soon as I got here, I feel like some people, if they don’t have that kind of experience, that kind of role model growing up, or they don’t see this, they would be a little bit intimidated, but coming from my family and seeing my mom manage all this and getting to work hard and accomplish all she wants to do while surrounded by males, it shows you that you can actually do this and you shouldn’t be intimidated just because there’s a difference in genders.

GOETHEL: And I think that ties back to one of your first questions, should we be encouraging this at a young age? Absolutely. All three of us just said, ‘Well it started when…’ I saw at the parent level, or at the teacher level, or the adviser level, it seems to have carried through with us. We’re all sitting here with female advisers. So to go back to that question of younger, absolutely. If we can show young women it is possible and people do it, then it is nice to have those role models that prove what Zoraida was saying.

MCINTOSH: And I think having support whether it’s a significant other, or your family, or your friends, someone in your life that says yes, you can definitely do science and whatever path you choose in science, whether it’s to stay in an academic track and go for those sometimes very long hours that are sporadic and sometimes you go and do field work for months at a time in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, or if you go a different path, into a government position or into industry and there are challenges there that I’m not as aware of, but I think if you have someone at home or over the phone that’s there to support you and help you maintain your work-life balance or whatever it may be to help you succeed, I think that for me has helped me keep doing what I’m doing. I know that my family is very supportive of me continuing my education. It wasn’t something they told me I had to do, but they were super supportive of it and I have someone at home who is very supportive of me going out into the field. So I think as long as you have people in your life that continue to build you up, science is something everyone can do.

MOORE: What difference does having diversity in the field make? Why does diversity matter in science?

GOETHEL: I think for me it’s about perspective. So I work on a foreign vessel, I work on a Canadian boat. We’ve been talking about, and I don’t want to take away from this message of female empowerment and women in science – our male counterparts obviously offer a lot of good input and most of the men I’ve interacted with are very supportive of the students, faculty, and PIs, and so again for me, it’s all about perspective. Being out on the Canadian ship, we have Canadian scientists, we’ve worked with Japanese scientists, we’ve worked with Polish scientists, and everyone approaches the problem differently and I think that helps solve problems better. Out in the field, you can sit and bang your head against the wall because X, Y and Z isn’t working and if I don’t have the skill set or thought process of someone who grew up differently from me, they might have a way to solve X, Y and Z that I would have never gotten to, and I see that all the time. For instance, we have a piece of equipment, which goes down and grabs large chunks of mud and critters and brings it back up. The number of times that that thing has frozen or broken, and it’s gotten fixed because there’s been different processes to solve the same problem. So I think everyone’s background and culture and gender and any other form we want to throw in there brings those different perspectives. Now not to say that doesn’t cause maybe a little more head bumping, but at the end of the day, those perspectives are how we solve the problem. So for me, it’s the perspective piece that brings it all together.

PÉREZ DELGADO: Adding on that, so I think I’ve already mentioned, I’m Puerto Rican, a very proud Puerto Rican. So apart from perspective, I think it’s a matter of inspiration. Not only to see women in the field, be it in the lab or out in the Arctic, but just dealing with so many different cultures, it’s amazing. On this campus, I’m the only Latina graduate student and sometimes that can be a little bit challenging. I had to leave Puerto Rico to actually pursue my science degree, science career, and that was tough, but my adviser actually speaks a little bit of Spanish, so having that cultural interaction and getting people to understand these differences and being accepting is something that’s really good and motivates you to keep on working.

My lab, I think we were talking about this the other day—

GOETHEL: We called them the United Nations.

PÉREZ DELGADO: Yes, [laughter] this building is like the United Nations and my lab as I said they are mostly male. I have one student that’s from India, I have one student that’s from the US and then you have me that’s Puerto Rican. So you put us three in the same office and it’s interesting to see how we all tackle something very different. Not only the male-female perspectives, but the cultural influences are something that’s very, very strong. I think it’s very important to see those type of cultural interactions, it inspires you to keep on working and getting more girls interested in science and more Latinas interested in science would be amazing.

MOORE: Basically the more diversity across all boards makes for better science?


PÉREZ DELGADO: It makes for a better work environment also.

MCINTOSH: It is really important, especially when putting together new ideas for what the new questions are going to be in science and what we need to either fix around the globe or look into a little deeper to better understand our environment. Everyone comes at it with a little bit different idea and by doing that, you can actually answer some of these bigger questions with a whole bunch of different perspectives like Christina said.

GOETHEL: Well and I think it’s interesting, Zoraida pointed this out, we get to learn from each other scientifically and culturally. The other thing that’s really cool is we get to sit and celebrate just how similar we are. We’re all humans, right? So her adviser speaks Spanish a little bit and that’s something they get to share despite coming from a different culture. It’s nice to go out and see the Canadian Coast Guard really isn’t all that different from us. We get to learn and see their ideas, but at the end of the day, we all get to sit down and share a beer after the hard science and just enjoy each other’s company and the things that make us similar.

MOORE: So what would you like to see the future look like?

PÉREZ DELGADO: I think a balance would be good because we want more women to get into science, we want more women to go into male-dominated fields, but we don’t necessarily want to get all the men and throw them away. It is important to still interact with men in the field or the lab. And I would love to see more women in leadership positions. I would love to see more minorities in leadership positions. To me, that would be amazing, it would be inspiring.

MCINTOSH: To me, one thing we have to think about when we think about the future is making sure that the best students or the best person for the job or the best person for a position is the one who gets it. Sometimes that’s hard when you’re dealing with diversity issues and dealing with gender issues because you do want to see that balance or that inspiration or that person who maybe isn’t the most qualified but would bring something to that position that maybe hasn’t been seen before. I don’t know how you tug apart in the future when filling positions, tug apart diversity versus experience and education into some of those roles. I think it would be great if there were more women in leadership roles, or more diversity within those leadership roles, but at the same I think we need to make sure it’s the best person or one of the best people that can be in that position.

GOETHEL: So it’s scary how much on the same page the three of us are. I would agree with everything they said. I would love to see more women and more minorities in those leadership positions, but at the end of the day, I also don’t want the job strictly because I’m a woman. I don’t want to be given something just because someone’s trying to fill a diversity or gender quota and say, ‘You were third or fourth most qualified for this position, but here you go because you’re a female.’ I personally would not want that ever to happen to me just for the fact that I feel like I’ve worked hard and if I’m not the most qualified for that position, then that’s fine there are other positions out there that I would be one of the most qualified applicants for. That being said, Hadley hit a really good point. It’s hard to say at what point do we start opening those doors to the second and third most qualified person without stepping on the toes of people that have worked hard, and I think that circles right back around to when you can get people excited about this. If you can get young people, especially women and minorities, then they’ll pursue opportunities that will make them the most qualified people at the end of the day. White men have had more opportunities than minorities and women, especially minority women, and if you start introducing the opportunities and the information that these are possible career options and possible tracks and show the younger communities where to find these opportunities—I mean, I cobbled together college money by applying to like $500 scholarships here and there. There are opportunities to do it, but if you don’t have that information that those opportunities exist, you’re not going to get there. So I think it goes back to injecting this younger and earlier and getting the people like women and minorities to become the most qualified people for the job and like Zoraida said, balance is the key. We don’t want to kick the men out of science, that goes too far the other direction, but how do you do that without stepping on the toes of other qualified applicants.

MCINTOSH: And I think that comes back to us, as students: showing the fun and the challenges in science to those younger generations and sometimes explaining some of the challenges we’ve faced ourselves and how we’ve overcome them. At least at CBL, we’ve been working on what some of those challenges are and how to break through them. So I think bringing that information down to younger students whether they’re in undergraduate or in high school or elementary school, just so they know. And again, I think Christina’s totally right; showing students where there are opportunities, so internships, chances to go out and like I said, get dirty and get in the mud, or get in the water, or learn how to do coding in elementary school. That would be awesome and then they’ll be able to bring that through the rest of their lives. If it’s something they find really interesting in third, fifth, seventh grade, they’ll go with it and hopefully there are people in their lives that can foster that.

MOORE: That segues into another question I wanted to ask, which is what advice do you have for young girls interested in pursuing science?

PÉREZ DELGADO: This is going to sound really weird, but don’t take no for an answer. At least for me, I got interested in science in the sixth grade. Originally, I wanted to be the climate adviser for the White House – I was like that’s going to be my job. I’m going to be giving out amazing advice when the world is going through all these environmental problems. But at least in my culture, people usually tell you, you need to be a doctor, a lawyer, that’s it, those are the two options. I remember when I told my parents I wanted to be an environmental scientist. This is going to be the career path for me and if that means working even harder, if that means almost having no money, it’s something that I’m willing to do. So I think it’s don’t give up. If it’s something that you’re really passionate about and it’s something you know at the end of the day it’s something you love to do, even if it’s really hard and you want to cry because grad students cry even though they don’t talk about it, just don’t give up. For me, I had a couple struggles and not because of the minority part, but because of the mathematical part. I had someone in high school tell me never go into science because your math is that bad, like you’re not going to accomplish anything. I still remember that. And I might be a stubborn person, but I took that as a challenge and I went and took math courses one summer every single day as soon as I graduated so when I got into undergrad I was ready. I was like I want to get a math minor, I want to actually do this because the career I’m interested in is more mathematical and climate related, so I needed that background. Every single no that you find along the way, take it as a challenge and take it as a way to motivate yourself to work harder, and at the end of the day, you’re going to be happy.

GOETHEL: That’s unbelievably good advice. I’m not sure I have much to add, but I agree. Kids are sponges if you’re 8, 9, 7, 6 years old and you’re interested in something, find someone that’ll listen to you and will help you guide that passion. Coding is a prime example. If you’re interested in math and you’re like ooh coding, and it is becoming more available. R is free software, anyone can use R. So find someone that knows about those resources or go up to a teacher, go up to a parent, go to a friend’s parent—I used one of those to decide where to go to college. Find someone who’s willing to say yes when you ask the crazy questions, so don’t take no and find someone who will say yes. 

PÉREZ DELGADO: At least for me like I said it’s most medical school or lawyer, so when I told my parents I want to do science, they’ve always been extremely supportive. My mom was like whatever you want to do, I’m going to support you, I’m going to help you. To this day, she’s like what do you need, do you need me to help you with this, how are you doing? She’s always motivating me. Like Christina said, find that person, to me, it’s my mom. But I am also still in contact with my undergraduate adviser, who’s also a woman, and have a relationship, actually develop a friendship. When you go into grad school, you don’t just pick a grad school because of the research you’re going to be doing, you need to have a good relationship with your adviser. At least with me, I love going to her office and talking about my day and she inspires me and she motivates me to keep on working. So develop relationships with people, be it your family, undergraduate, or teachers, and don’t take no for answer.


MOORE: Thanks to Zoraida, Hadley and Christina for joining us on this podcast and sharing your stories. If you want to hear more stories like this, be sure to visit