Women of Discovery: Q&A With Juliana Machado Ferreira

WINGS WorldQuest will induct six new inspiring women as Fellows during our 2016 Women of Discovery Awards Gala on October 25. In advance of our gala, we are highlighting the work of each new Awardee. Our fourth featured honoree in the series is Juliana Machado Ferreira, who is conserving biodiversity by ending wildlife trafficking. Ferreira will receive our Courage Award. Read the rest of the series here.

WWQ: Tell us your story. How did you get involved in science and exploration?

JMF: Since my earliest years I had a deep love and appreciation for all living beings, as well as a strong sense of justice. I took biology because I wanted to work with nature and animals and because of Jacques Cousteau and Jane Goodall! Towards the end of my undergrad course, I discovered Conservation Genetics and the work developed by Professor João Morgante’s lab – it was love at first sight. Dr João became a mentor and a friend. During the development of my Master’s on Population Genetics of the Subantarctic Fur Seal, I found out about the wildlife forensics work developed at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife National Forensics Lab, where I met three of my life mentors, Ken Goddard, Ed Espinoza and Mary Curtis. I was instantly hooked – and still am today. A year later I found out about the counter wildlife trafficking work the organization SOS Fauna and its president, Marcelo Rocha, were doing in Brazil and learned about the domestic wildlife trafficking in my country. I had found my life’s passion and mission – that mixed pot of biodiversity conservation, field work, scientific tools to support law enforcement and counter wildlife trafficking work. I developed my PhD with Conservation Genetics applied to issues related to wild bird trafficking in Brazil. Later I met Steve Galster, another one of my mentors, and the organization Freeland Foundation, where I found my peers, people with the same views and the same passion I had, developing serious and effective counter wildlife trafficking work. I became a Freelander and here I am today. 

WWQ: What is it like to work as a woman in your field?

JMF: I have battled a lot of prejudice, especially when I was young and better looking (haha). The first time I stepped in the lab to ask for an internship to learn about Conservation Genetics, another girl, who was a PhD candidate at the time, said that I could not be intelligent with that “beach bum” look. She said I would not last a month at the lab but in the end, I stayed for 10 years. And during field work in remote rural areas sometimes local people felt very uncomfortable seeing a woman going into the forest, especially because I did most of my field work alone with a male colleague. Many times we were asked if we were brother and sister or if we were married. Sometimes they made jokes about me going in the brush. I would smile, slowly reach for my machete and say I was in good company. And there was always an unspoken tension about being a woman alone with just one colleague in remote areas, because if we ran into the wrong people, there would be nothing we could do. I also heard several times – many of them from other women – that I was only being granted fellowships and awards for being Brazilian and having the right looks.

But that being said, I found much more support than the other way around. My advisor Dr João, my field work colleagues (Fábio Schunck and Marcos Melo), my husband (Shanty), SOS Fauna, through Marcelo Rocha, law enforcement agents (Sidney and Manzutti), the forensics Lab folks (all, but specially Ed, Ken and Mary), and the majority of the local people during field were incredibly supportive.

WWQ: What are the greatest barriers to having more women work in science?

JMF: With a few sad exceptions, my experience is that women are present, working and are respected. In my field, sometimes women are the majority. In Dr João’s lab we were ten women to one or two poor guys! Some of the most important researchers in my field are women, and I do not see any huge barriers there. 

However, there are two things worth mentioning: the first is the prejudice that women have towards other women, which is unacceptable. The second concerns maternity and being a working mother. I strongly believe that the only way to begin to deal with this issue is through the creation of a longer paternity leave, opening daycares in institutions (companies, universities, etc.) and to implement measures to assure mothers are be able to breastfeed even after their return to work. 

WWQ: What is the largest threat THE WORLD FACES?

JMF: Unaccountability and lack of empathy. If people were able to put themselves in the place of others living beings (humans and nonhumans) and act for the greater good we would be halfway to better times. However, those who act in ways that disrespect others should be held accountable for their actions.

WWQ: Describe yourself in three words. 

JMF: Stubborn as hell!  But in seriousness, I would say nonconformist, passionate and idealistic. 

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