AMSS 2019: Badass women of science

I was asked to write a post from AMSS – to share something that stuck with me from the many wonderful talks, presentations, and people at the meeting in Anchorage this week.

Today’s focus was on the Arctic, the northernmost region represented at the conference and the portion of Alaska that encompasses some of the most extreme conditions on the planet. Survival in the Arctic – for any living thing – requires remarkable resilience and a truly indomitable spirit. As I left Anchorage to head back to my home base in Santa Cruz, it struck me once again how the Arctic, and Alaska in general, instills and inspires great strength in those that call it home.

Sea ice on the Chukchi Sea in the Arctic.

In hindsight, I think my biggest impression from last few weeks spent working in Alaska and attending AMSS has been the incredible strength of the women in science that I am fortunate to know. My graduate student from the University of California Santa Cruz, Holly Hermann-Sorensen, pointed this out me throughout our trip. Holly’s shorthand comments became a single word dropped frequently throughout the trip. Dr. Kathy Woodie and Dr. Carrie Goertz from ASLC and the powerhouse veterinary team of Natalie Rouse and Jane Belovarac: badasses. The team of women mammalogists that care for our ice seals at ASLC 365 days a year: badasses. The women of the ASLC science department, including Amy Bishop (who manages to do great science while organizing this blog and a million other things): badasses. 

Team PHOCAS–badass women of science.

At AMSS, I had some time to connect with colleagues at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) to talk about my favorite subject: ice-dependent seals. Once again, it struck me how the hard work of many women has fundamentally changed our understanding of these marine mammal species. The ADFG ice seal team led by Lori Quakenbush produces a ton of data that contributes to the conservation of spotted, ringed, bearded and ribbon seals in Alaska. This small team, comprised of a handful of biologists (half of which are extremely badass women) conducts scientific studies of ice seals throughout their extensive range in Alaska, while also managing to cover walruses as well as whales. The research they produce (some of which was highlighted at AMSS) is first rate. Their marine mammal division at ADFG, incidentally, is now led by Lori Polasek (formerly of ASLC) – yet another incredibly strong woman who always makes time to advise and encourage other badass scientists (like me).

Image result for bearded seal ADFG
One of the four ice-dependent seals in Alaska: the bearded seal.
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So in thinking of all these strong women in science, it is only fitting that AMSS led off with a tribute to the biggest badass of all, Kathy Frost. Kathy was awarded the ASLC Ocean Leadership Award for Marine Research at the conference this year, shared with her (often) research and (always) life partner, Llyod Lowry. Kathy was one of the first women to ever study marine mammals professionally, and she did it in some of the harshest conditions imaginable. She told me at the conference that she arrived in Fairbanks in 1975 during one of the coldest years on record – it was close to -40°F. As one of the world’s foremost expert in seals, Kathy conducted groundbreaking (or ice-breaking, as the case may be) research into what these animals ate, where they went, what they did, and how they did it. She often worked with partners in subsistence communities and built a program at ADFG spanning more than four decades whose legacy is obviously thriving. Kathy is simply tough as nails, while also being kind, compassionate, and extraordinarily smart and capable.

For me, Kathy is a personal hero, a trailblazer, and yet another reminder that I am stronger than I sometimes feel. When I forget that, I have only to return north to Alaska to be reminded of what is possible.

Kathy Frost and Lloyd Lowry

Written by: Dr. Colleen Reichmuth,  Associate Research Scientist, Institute of Marine Sciences, University of California Santa Cruz and Affiliate Scientist, Alaska SeaLife Center

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