Women of Discovery: Q&A With Marla Spivak

WINGS WorldQuest will induct six new inspiring women as Fellows during our 2016 Women of Discovery Awards Gala in October. In advance of our gala, we are highlighting the work of each new Awardee. Our second featured honoree in the series is Marla Spivak, who is working to protect and enhance the health of the world’s declining honey bee population, and will receive our Conservation Award. Read the rest of the series here.

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

MS: I read a book about bees in 1974 when I was directionless and somewhat rebellious in my first year at Prescott College in AZ. Prescott was and still is very outdoor- and environmentally-oriented. I asked my advisor if I could get credit for working with a beekeeper and organic gardener, and he found me a family in Bosque Farms, New Mexico that did both. They had a huge organic garden and 2000 hives of bees. I worked for them a semester and was hooked. I finished my BA degree in Biology at Humboldt State University in northern CA in 1978. (I transferred because Prescott College went bankrupt, but is since reaccredited). I took a semester off while at Humboldt to volunteer at the USDA-ARS Bee Research Lab in Tucson, AZ under researcher Steve Taber – a very eccentric and outspoken researcher who taught me to “think like a bee” and to “question everything I read about bees,” which got me interested in research. After my degree I traveled across South America with a friend in search of beekeepers, to learn and experience what we could. When I returned to the U.S., Dr. Orley “Chip” Taylor asked me to be the beekeeper for his research projects in Venezuela on Africanized honey bees. While there watching graduate students set up research projects on bees I realized I could do the same, and started a PhD program at the University of Kansas under Chip in 1981.  

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

MS: I don’t give it much thought, or maybe I refuse to acknowledge barriers. From an early age, I have been fortunate to be blind to the notion that there are occupations and paths not open to women. I have taken risks, particularly in my 20s, and I suffered consequences (stories for another day). Bees are my passion and in many ways my saving grace; bees and beekeepers have always been there for me. Now I’m in a place where I can give back.

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

MS: Women are starting to dominate the life sciences. I see no barriers there. There may be more barriers in STEM sciences that start at an early age. I wish more young women, and everyone, would refuse to acknowledge gender barriers.


MS: Humans distancing ourselves from nature and from the consequences of our actions. 

WWQ: Describe yourself in three words.

MS: Persistent, optimist, open-minded.

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