Women of Discovery: Q&A With Kristen Marhaver

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 sixth and fInal honoree in the series is Kristen Marhaver, who is working to restore the essential marine habitats that reef corals need to survive. She will receive our Sea Award. Read the rest of the series here.

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

KM: Spycraft gets some credit! As a kid in Minnesota, I had a neighbor who wanted to learn to scuba dive so he could be like James Bond. Those neighbors told my dad about diving, and he and I took dive lessons a few years later when we lived in Kansas, just after my 15th birthday. Dive trips were such a great father-daughter bonding activity – gadgets, boats, adventure, animals, and the Caribbean sun. There were also plenty of crazy-angry seas and freezing cold boat rides! As a freshman in college, I learned about a lab on campus that studied corals and I lobbied my way in – despite the fact that this was not really done at the time. Three years later, I was applying to Ph.D. programs in marine biology… and my undergrad lab was recruiting new freshmen! When I started studying coral spawning, I fell in love with the spooky craziness and suspense of night diving. You can be only a few miles from home, but once you’re underwater in the dark at midnight, you’re on an adventure.

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

KM: Women are pretty well represented in marine biology and conservation by now, at least up to the postdoc level – and we even have advantages underwater, like our tendency to breathe down a scuba tank less quickly. There is still a fair share of machismo in field research, especially at sea. And it is difficult to protect one’s modesty, professionalism, and privacy when everyone is in close quarters, in speedos and bikinis.  – I won’t even go into the subject of ‘tropical beauty disasters’! – But in general, I’ve experienced much more harassment and discrimination outside of science than within. I have many strong ‘science uncles’ and ‘science brothers’ to thank for being good allies and upholding a respectful culture. Fieldwork can be ridiculously funny and salty without anyone getting hurt.

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

KM: I’m often frustrated that ‘diversity’ in academia means a group of people who look different on the outside, but who are all healthy, wealthy, workaholics. Companies are scrambling to offer part-time, flex-time, disability-friendly work arrangements, but in science we still expect someone’s CV to reflect an unwavering full-time-plus-overtime schedule, from Bachelor’s degree to tenure. The tragedy is that we end up rejecting all the brilliant and creative people with amazing hobbies, intensive family commitments, tricky or private health issues, a passion for outreach, or just a second job that they love or need to do. Scientists are such nuanced thinkers, but we still act like science must be done on an 1800s steel mill schedule.

WWQ: What is the most serious threat the world faces?

KM: We’re tragically short-minded as a species. It makes sense that evolution only prepared us to think about space and time on human scales – bathtubs and minutes we can handle, but not oceans or centuries. But we will always hurt ourselves as individuals and as a species when we don’t save nature, food, and clean water for the future.

WWQ: Describe yourself in three words.

KM: Because I’m sitting in my mosquitoey garden in Curacao: inquisitive, independent… and itchy!

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