‘The sky is the limit,’ said Andrea Marshall during our interview.
From California to Africa following a dream, studying marine animals and challening social standards for #womeinSTEM. Here is the story of Andrea Marshall, a marine scientist and conservationist that shared her experiences as a professional. Many situations I can absolutely relate to and have made me feel connected to a fellow scientist across the oceans…
‘Since I was about five years old, I wanted to study sharks. Later on, I realized there were many issues with marine conservation, and there were other species like #mantas that were less studied, so I threw myself wholeheartedly to do this.’
Andrea has spent the last couple of decades working in Africa. Although #sharks were her passion since childhood, she broadened her area of study and landed in #Mozambique studying various big marine animals like those who have given her the nickname of ‘the queen of mantas’.
Research and conservation of mantas, whale sharks, and other marine megafauna is what she does. Although she did aim to be a marine biologist, she did not aim for these particular –and amazing- positions of: Cofounder of Marine Megafauna Foundation, Principal Investigator for the MMF Global Manta Ray Program, and a Nat Geo Explorer. TEDtalking her story here.
There are quite a few achievements under Andrea’s belt. But being part of the assessment for mantas in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (#IUCN) since the beginning is one of the things Andrea is most proud of. ‘Being able to use the science to understand the conservation risk that these animals face and figure out how to use it to leverage support, whether it’s research or legislation, it’s pretty much why we do what we do.’
Also helping the next generation of ocean researchers get a start through the work at the Megafauna Foundation has been one of Andrea’s most rewarding tasks. ‘Having so many students doing great research with us, to be able to help individuals grow as researchers through an organization I’ve created is great and I’m proud of what our mission is, the team, who we are and what we do.’
Cool, huh? But there have been quite a few challenges to get to this point.
‘I am obstinate and passionate, I felt I was part of something bigger and quitting wasn’t an option, so I pushed through some of the challenges that almost broke me.’
Living in Africa and doing science there is challenging from many angles. It is logistically and culturally challenging where you have to commit 24/7 to living in Africa. Dealing with natural disasters, weird illnesses, losses, loneliness, and disconnection from peers were some the issues faced by Andrea while trying to be a field biologist in Mozambique. ‘I also felt quite unsafe many times even with my background of martial arts and being a tough lady, I still felt there was a lot of reasons why being a woman here was unsafe.’
Being a female as a field biologist and chief scientist was also challenging and she almost gave up. Respect grows slowly and to be able to connect with communities didn’t happen overnight. All those situations were stumbling blocks along the way but she’s managed to learn, get used to, and find her way around.
Adding my experience to hers, it seems that society pushes girls in other directions and not towards STEM fields which is a tremendous loss. Many girls cave in to peer pressure or eventually lose inspiration and go in a different direction. When asking Andrea about how she managed to stick to this career path, she said, ‘You are going to be made to feel less on occasion, you will encounter not supportive people, you are going to have those moments, it’s unavoidable right now (hopefully not in the future), so push through.’
‘In those times when you feel discouraged, reach out to that community of women and supportive males.’
So, that’s how Andrea sees herself now: not only as a marine biologist but also being that inspiration and voice of encouragement for the girls she meets, so that we don’t lose incredible women along the way.
She mentioned that one of the biggest concerns of women in science seems to be longevity in this field.
Can we succeed in STEM fields and also achieve other personal goals? Do we have to drop out after working so hard to finish a PhD or can we have both? So, what would be the key is to stay in STEM fields?
Andrea’s answer was clear: to have an example to look up to. She remembers having very few female role models in science. It wasn’t enough to have a male role model. Even though her parents and friends supported her, she felt the situation as a female was different and wasn’t sure that she was going to be able to make it. A male role model wasn’t enough, she needed to see other women that had made it too. Inspiring girls with positive stories of women that have achieved this could be a key step to show that it is possible. Andrea has managed to combine her passion for marine science, her dream to have an impact in conservation, and her desire to have a family. I’d say this is certainly a combination that results in an amazing role-model to look up to.
Andrea sees an unlimited future for women in STEM and reaching girls early may be a key.
Some of the actions she believes can eventually make a difference are: give girls the support they need, empower them to have a choice in terms of their decisions about family planning and health, allow girls to think broader and show them there are other things out there, ensure that girls are stimulated in the same way as boys are can help girls to be interested in the STEM field earlier in their life.
‘Be the voice in their heads that tells them that they can do it.’
#womeninSTEM. We can and we rock.