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CIAA honors women in Alaska science and aquaculture

In celebration of the International Day of Women in Science, CIAA honors women who teach and practice salmon fisheries science in Alaska.

by | February 11, 2024

In 2015, the United Nations declared February 11 an International Day for Women in Science. Around the world, the UN and UNESCO work with national governments, non-governmental organizations, private corporations, and universities. Together, they celebrate the accomplishments of women scientists and promote educational opportunities for women and girls pursuing careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math).

In honor of this special day, the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association invited six Alaska women fishery scientists to share their own experiences and insights.

Amanda Kula

Amanda Kula

Fourth and Fifth Grade Teacher at Machetanz Elementary School

Education studies show that middle school boys and girls have similar interests in science, but at some point, the girls gravitate away. Have you seen this happen in your classes? If so, why do you think it is?

In the grades I teach, I haven’t observed this trend. At this age, curiosity is incredibly strong, and as an educator, I feel it’s vital to nurture and foster their questioning minds so it continues for years to come. I believe that by consistently encouraging and providing opportunities for students to explore their curiosity, I can help maintain their interest in science and create lifelong learners. 

As a female science teacher, have you ever felt similar pressure to pursue something else? If so, what’s an example?

Interestingly, I’ve noticed that while pursuing a career in the field of education, it seems that people often discourage you from choosing this career path in general. Early on in my degree process, I encountered pressure to veer away from my passion.

The old adage that there’s no money in education and teachers are overworked and underappreciated was the main argument made to try and dissuade me. Never once have I considered another career path. Teaching is a noble profession where I have the opportunity to shape young minds and make a difference. I love my job!

How can a teacher help more girls become excited about science and consider it as a career choice?

I believe one way a teacher can get girls excited about science is by providing hands-on activities that relate science to the students’ real-world experiences. Fostering a supportive and inclusive classroom environment where girls feel comfortable asking questions and participating allows them to really dive deep into a topic they might not normally be interested in.

Additionally, highlighting female role models in science can inspire students to see themselves in those roles. This year, I had the pleasure of having Emily Heale from the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association come into my classroom for a presentation on salmon and all that her job entails. After she left, everyone decided they wanted to be a field biologist when they grew up!

That’s the power of introducing positive role models in science, they inspire students to pursue fields they may never have known about otherwise. 

How is aquaculture and/or salmon biology a part of your classes?

National standards in education are often vague and open-ended or have students studying places or animals they will never see in their lifetime. This is where connecting learning to a student’s life while focusing on place-based learning activities elevates students’ interest, especially in science.

So, when it comes to the fourth-grade life science standard that asks students to construct an argument that animals have internal and external structures that function to support survival, growth, behavior, and reproduction, I find there is no better animal to learn about than the salmon.

The wonder that the salmon life cycle provides students the opportunity to practice constructing this argument for every stage of development from egg to spawner. Salmon are such an integral part of life in Alaska students are eager to learn more about them because they can so easily connect them to their lives.

What’s one of your favorite student success stories?

To me, one measure of my success as a teacher is introducing students to professionals in career fields that help shape their future in education. Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of bringing in community members from many fields of science to speak with my students. Bearing witness to students expressing their newfound passion for these science fields is the greatest joy as an educator.

Over the years, several students have shared that they now aspire to become hydrologists, paleontologists, archeologists, geologists, biologists, or oceanographers as a direct result of these encounters. They see no limit to their future and what they can achieve; to me, this is the ultimate success.

Angie Bower

Assistant Professor of Applied Fisheries at the University of Alaska Southeast

What is the typical mix of men and women in your program? Why do you think that is?

We pretty consistently have more women than men in our classes in recent years, probably around 60%.  This is equal to overall college enrollment statistics.  There seem to be more women in our field-based hands-on programs than men, with an even higher percentage of those.  I am not certain why that is, but I am hopeful that it will mean less of a gender gap in fisheries positions in the future.

When you recruit students, how well prepared would you say women are to succeed in your program?

That is what we are here to do.  As a career education-focused workforce development program, our students can come to us completely unprepared.  We treat each student as if they were brand new to everything when they enter our entry-level courses and help them learn to study and be confident on the water and in entry-level fisheries positions. 

Do you see a dynamic at your university that seems to favor men? If so, how do you counterbalance it?

No, I don’t.  I believe this University does a very good job of not favoring one gender over another and focusing on how we can be more inclusive of all people regardless of their gender or race.  

Do the male and female students you work with have different reasons to study science and aquaculture?

No, I think there is a desire for most of our students to find jobs working outside that help the planet and provide food and jobs for people.  Most of them are very interested in fisheries, marine biology and working toward a more sustainable food system that benefits the planet. How would you rate the potential of the women who finish your program as compared to the men?

I am seeing an increase in women working in fisheries, especially in aquaculture and fisheries management roles.  With increased enrollment by underrepresented groups, I am very hopeful that this will mean more diversity in all fisheries jobs.  Compared to even 20 years ago, things look a lot different, and I believe we are still headed in the right direction, but of course, there is still room for improvement.

Kayla Hansch

Kayla Hansch

Fisheries Biologist, Alaska Department of Fish and Game

What interested you in studying Alaska salmon biology?

In 2015, I went on a family fishing trip based out of Port Lions, Kodiak.  I was about to enter my final year of undergrad, pursuing a biology degree, and not entirely certain about what my career would look like after graduation.  During the trip, we had the opportunity to visit a nearby salmon hatchery during a peak salmon run, and I knew then that I would do what I could to see those remarkable fish again.  I got an entry-level position at that hatchery the following fall and began my career! 

As a woman, have you had the same opportunities to succeed in your field as your male counterparts?

I’ve been fortunate to have had some incredible male and female supervisors who have wanted nothing but for me to succeed in my field.  I have worked in environments where my thoughts, ideas, and questions were heard and answered just as equally as my male counterparts. 

I’ve been encouraged to step out of my comfort zone by working on my weaknesses (while having support along the way), have taken courses to further my education, and have been placed in leadership positions where the people I’m leading have trusted and respected me.  I credit these opportunities to former supervisors, peers, and organizations that care about their employees’ success, and I am extremely grateful for them. 

How do you support other women in your profession?

I enjoy helping other women achieve their work goals.  Whether this means acting as a sounding board for someone to bounce ideas off, helping with a project on a day they’re short-staffed, or simply acknowledging the hard work that they’ve been putting in. Once they’ve reached their goals, it’s equally important to recognize and celebrate their achievements. 

I also love being a mentor for any women who want to learn but aren’t sure who to ask or where to begin.  This can vary from skill development through one-on-one training to providing a listening ear for new ideas and ultimately boosting confidence in the workplace. It’s so important for women in science to have each other’s backs and to support each other. 

What advice do you have for young students who are considering a career in science or aquaculture?

Give it a try!  Alaska is a great place to get your foot in the door. There are many different seasonal and full-time opportunities with private, state, and federal agencies available. Try a job out for the summer, and if you don’t enjoy it, it’s okay to bounce around and search for something that might be a better fit.  For my field, I firmly believe that experience trumps education, so don’t be afraid to work for a bit before committing to any degree.

Maggie Harings

UAF post-grad student

What interests you in studying Alaska salmon biology?

Pacific salmon are pretty neat creatures. Not only are they tasty, but they’re also incredibly important to their ecosystems. For instance, did you know that nitrogen they accumulate from the ocean can be found in trees adjacent to the rivers they spawn and die in?! How cool!.

Salmon are also a crucial resource to the culture, economy, and well-being of Alaskans. They serve as a significant food source for many throughout the state, are ingrained in the cultural traditions of many Alaskans, and help support the livelihoods of so many.

However, in more recent years, Pacific salmon have been declining in some rivers throughout the state, leading to fisheries closures and loss of a way of life for so many. In addition, climate change is also impacting fisheries at a rapid rate.

These factors have made it increasingly important to find new, adaptable ways of monitoring and managing salmon runs throughout the state to ensure that salmon remain for generations to come. 

As a woman, have you had the same opportunities to succeed in your field as your male counterparts?

I have been extremely selective in the programs and research projects I’ve chosen to participate in, in addition to carefully vetting office culture before I accept a position. Because of this, I feel I have generally had the same opportunities to succeed as my male counterparts.

However, vetting office culture takes time, and I’ve discovered is not a common task many of my male counterparts have ever had to do. It takes time and energy—though in the long run, it’s worth it!.

That said, it is extremely common for women (myself included) to be excluded from more casual conversations (e.g. fishing, skiing, football etc…, all of which I partake in/watch) that help build camaraderie and rapport with supervisors that, in turn, may set up male counterparts well for being offered additional opportunities.

How do you support other women in your profession?

Unfortunately, the support of other women in fisheries often falls on the shoulders of primarily….women.

I volunteer quite a bit of time each month to serve on committees offering mentorship to young girls in STEM, review applications for female-specific STEM programs, and try to commit to educational opportunities in K-12 schools when time allows as a way to demonstrate to younger students that female scientists are fully capable of being successful.

When working in groups of women, I make sure all voices are heard, as it’s most often the loudest male in the room who receives the most time during professional meetings.

Another way I indirectly support women in my field is by having open conversations with the men I work with about advocating for the women around them while also addressing inappropriate and/or sexist language when it is used. 

I teach female-specific courses in field skills like packraft/boating safety. I’ve found that women are more likely to feel comfortable engaging with fellow students and asking questions when they’re surrounded by other women.

What advice do you have for young students who are considering a career in science or aquaculture?

Try lots of different things, such as field work, lab work, learning to identify plants/animals etc…

The more you explore, you’ll begin to discover what you enjoy and what you don’t. It’s not at all uncommon for students to begin working in one field only to change to another early on!

I also encourage those who are able to connect with local offices to conduct the kind of work they’re interested in. Oftentimes, there are volunteer or job shadowing opportunities that are readily available to students. If you’re unsure of where to start, contact a local agency or organization to see if they have any upcoming outings you might join them on!

Finally, some professional organizations like the American Fisheries Society have paid student internships for students as young as high school. While they’re competitive, they’re also fantastic opportunities to get your foot in the door!

Tina Fairbanks

Tina Fairbanks

Executive Director of the Kodiak Regional Aquaculture Association

What interested you in pursuing a career in Alaska salmon aquaculture? 

I grew up in the Northwest and was familiar with salmon hatcheries, but I never thought I would pursue a career in aquaculture.  I came to Alaska and Alaskan aquaculture with little knowledge of the field but with a desire to be outdoors, to learn and use my degree, and for adventure. 

Once here, I initially fell in love with the work and the remote lifestyle; however, the more I learned, the more important it became to me to be part of a system that supported the economy and sustainability of small towns like the one where I grew up and with people like those I grew up with. 

What we do matters to our communities, and that, as much as the sustained love of the work, the supporting science, and the salmon we contribute has kept me in this field for over 25 years.

As a woman, have you had the same opportunities to succeed in your field as your male counterparts? 

I think I have had the same opportunities to succeed, but I also know I’ve worked hard for them. I have also been very fortunate to have had the support of incredible peers and role models along the way. 

The first hatchery I worked at in Alaska had a female manager, and half the fish culturists were female.  As a young woman, that gave me a sense that there wouldn’t be barriers to my advancement due to gender.  As a result, I came into my career expecting parity and never thought I would receive otherwise.  This is likely not the case for all non-male people in our field, but I believe my experience in Alaskan aquaculture is one that has demonstrated that capability and experience mattered more than my gender. 

How do you support other women in your profession?

In all honesty, I probably don’t do enough and rely on the simple fact that I am a woman in a top position to serve as an example that women can succeed in this field.  In addition, I think this question is a bit difficult because I believe we all want to be recognized for our own achievements first. We want to have the fact that our gender does not matter, and I try to make decisions without gender in mind.

There are times, however, when it does matter, and it definitely matters to have representation of women in all roles in our field.  In those times, I think it’s important to be approachable and to have frank conversations about the subtle and not-so-subtle barriers that can exist due to gender.

In my position, I’m not as connected to the day-to-day science and fish culture as I used to be, so I advocate for all of our female biologists and fish culturists to participate in any mentorship opportunity as well as education and outreach opportunities in our schools and try to make sure they can be available to do that if they chose. What advice do you have for people who are considering a career in science or aquaculture? 

This is the same advice I would give anyone starting out in this field:  work hard and do the hard work, be open to learning and embrace the experience, be humble, but also don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself.  In most cases, the work you do will create opportunities and connections for you. 

People will show you who they are, and if you find they are not your kind of people, there is likely more than one opportunity out there. 

Susan Doherty

Susan Doherty

General Manager at Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association

What interested you in pursuing a career in Alaska salmon aquaculture? I grew up in a small coastal town in Washington state, and fisheries resources for commercial and recreational uses were an important part of the fabric of the community.

As a woman, have you had the same opportunities to succeed in your field as your male counterparts? When I started my career back in the 80’s, there were no women, or very few, in management positions in aquaculture or fisheries positions in the state or federal ranks. In those times, we as women were ecstatic to have the opportunity to participate in a male-dominated field.

The field was expanding rapidly; anyone with initiative and drive could advance pretty quickly, and I believe there were enough opportunities to go around. Did I have to prove myself more than my male counterparts, perhaps? Was it blatant and career hampering? No.

How do you support other women in your profession? I’ve mentored many people in my career, many of whom were women. Creating opportunities for taking on additional responsibilities, including them in the decision-making process, providing additional training opportunities, and sharing knowledge and experience-based processes with them.

There have been a lot of family leave improvements for all working adults, but especially for working women in my tenure. Providing support and flexibility to help young families navigate the balance of work and family, where it used to be you had to choose one or the other. What advice do you have for people who are considering a career in science or aquaculture?

Sometimes, I hear people say that innovative and groundbreaking opportunities are not available, but I disagree. There is so much new technology out there that will enable us to learn so much more, especially ocean sciences and ecology.

It’s a fun and changing field, and there is so much we don’t know about our oceans. The possibilities are only hampered by our own limited imaginations. There are tons of opportunities, and it’s all very rewarding.

How CIAA can help expand your knowledge

CIAA works with local classrooms to help students understand salmon biology across its entire lifecycle. We also work with colleges and universities to offer internships through the Student Conservation Association.

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