Scientist, Author, Educator, Tree Canopy Biologist

How to raise a girl scientist

“Well behaved women rarely make history.” — Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Nature's Secrets by CanopyMegThankfully, things have changed in the world of science since brave and bold Marie Curie was the sole female in many auspicious occasions. But approximately 51 percent of the world’s population is female and far too few women pursue a career in science, including my own field of forest canopy biology.

Sheryl Sandberg recently wrote a best-selling book called “Lean In,” providing advice for women to succeed in the workforce. As a treetop scientist (and definitely without the paycheck of a COO at Facebook!), my parallel title to aspiring field biologists is “Climb Up.”

Instead of offering advice of how to succeed in a man’s world of business, I offer heartfelt advice of how to get a foot — even merely a toe — in the door for my profession of science! Our world is truly disadvantaged to overlook half of the global IQ (i.e., women) in science.

In many countries such as Ethiopia, India, Peru or Cameroon where I conduct research, only a handful of women scientists exist throughout their many millions of population. And even in our own “advanced” America, women are underrepresented in leadership positions throughout most scientific professions.

My own personal story should admittedly be titled “The Misadventures of Meg,” and I hope that the next generation can learn to avoid pitfalls if I and others share our stories. Throughout my college and graduate career, women were a stark minority; oftentimes, I was solo. At Sydney University, the gentlemanly graduate department chair called me in and asked, “Why are youtrying to pursue a Ph.D. when you will only get married and have children?”

My early-career research expeditions in Australia found me as the sole female and definitely the only one carrying my babies in the field like a kangaroo with her joey. There was a joke at the university, “Should Meg take the babies up the tree and risk falling, or leave them at the bottom of the tree with all the poisonous snakes?” (I think you can guess which option I chose.)

Today, most of my work is focused in developing countries because not only do their forests need urgent priority, but their women need mentoring and encouragement to become successful stewards of their environment.

So how can we all help your daughters become scientists?

First and foremost, parents play a critical role. And as a mother of boys, I think these suggestions for parents apply to both genders:

• Take your kids into nature. Family vacations should not be only about Disney World or dodging traffic jams in New York City. What about picnics in a state park? Or taking a walk to look for butterflies? One of my favorite memories is my mom getting up at dawn with me to go bird watching — she did not even own binoculars but she cheerfully let me think it was the coolest thing on the planet. (Thanks, Mom!)

• Let your kids get muddy once in a while. I only became a scientist because my parents kindly let me play in the back yard and tolerated my dried flower collection in our telephone book (in those days, a hefty bound tome of paper). My own kids admittedly ate their fair share of earthworms and dirt!

• Be patient and encourage the use of our five senses. Touch, hear, watch, taste and smell; and teach you kids to observe nature. My parents used to stop the car alongside highways when I wanted to collect a new wildflower. They knew nothing about botany or classification, but they were tolerant of my passion for plants, and patiently waited while I observed, smelled and touched.

Second, to inspire more women scientists, women need to mentor women! On each research trip I take to India, I mentor women where possible. Despite their cultural challenges, these girls are brilliant … and, someday, at least one of them might lead India’s forest conservation. I just returned from a Fulbright Scholarship trip to Ethiopia to mentor women in science at Jimma University. Alas, only a handful worked in the sciences, but I hope our sisterhood empowered them!

This fall, I eagerly await the arrival in America of Tizezew Shiekach Sisay, the first woman from her region of Ethiopia to pursue a master’s degree in Women and the Environment. If I serve as a role model and sponsor for her, she will in turn someday mentor hundreds of Ethiopian women, thereby expanding the sisterhood of science.

As a mother of two boys (both practicing science, I am happy to report), we need to keep both genders inspired to pursue science. The challenges of keeping 7 billion people and up to 100 million species alive on our tiny planet need the best and brightest minds devoted to science. Science equals solutions.

Meg Lowman, a longtime Sarasota-based scientist and educator, is chief of science and sustainability at the California Academy of Sciences.

Originally posted in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.