Women in ecology, from forests to the sea

These women in science are all about ecosystems and environments
Sep 30, 2016 — 9:45 am EST
Marah Hardt

Marah Hardt wants to make seafood sustainable.

Jo Laughlin, Big Island, Hawaii.

When Science News for Students decided to have a feature story on women in science, technology, engineering and math, we put out a call for women in STEM to send us their images and videos. We wanted to show our readers what scientists are really like.

B. Carney Almroth
Bethanie Carney Almroth hangs out with her largest four-legged friend, Kadmos.
B. Carney Almroth

We ended up with more than 150 responses from 18 countries! And we decided to share them all here on Eureka! Lab.

Today, we celebrate women in STEM studying the seas, investigating insects, fighting pollution and finding out how the living things in our world work together.

Bethanie Carney Almroth

People create a lot of pollution and trash in their day-to-day lives. A lot of it goes into the oceans. What does it do to the animals living there? Carney Almroth wants to find out. She’s an ecotoxicologist at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. An ecotoxicologist is someone who studies the effects of toxic substances on organisms and the ecosystems in which they live. “I study the effects of environmental stressors on marine and aquatic organisms,” she says. “This includes pollution, endocrine disruptors and microplastics.” But Carney Almroth doesn’t just do research. She also works hard to educate the public about where their trash goes and the harms it can have.

Carney Almroth likes to fill her life with living things. Not only does she have three children, she says, but “I also have two dogs, two parakeets, a bearded dragon, cichlids — and I love riding!”

R. Champiny
Ryan Champiny loves ecosystems — from the Caribbean to Wisconsin.
R. Champiny

Ryan Champiny

Champiny is a forestry technician at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. “My interest is in the interactions between human and natural systems,” she says. “My studies have taken me from the reefs of the Caribbean to the volcanoes of the Galápagos and into the north woods of Wisconsin.”

She’s been into science all her life, even when it got her in trouble. “When I was in kindergarten,” she remembers, “I was sent to the principal's office because I dug up the playground in search of dinosaur bones.”

Kendall Conroy

You might be reading this on a high-tech smartphone, but people still rely on trees and their wood for a lot of things. Wood is used in everything from paper to building material. But trees don’t grow very quickly. So Conroy studies how we can use them more efficiently. She’s a student at Oregon State University in Corvallis. There she is studying wood science and engineering.

Kendall Conroy
Kendall Conroy presents a poster on her research efforts to get more women into forestry.
Eric Hansen

But that’s not all. “Over the last two years I have taken time outside of classes to research the impacts of gender diversity in forestry, which is a very male-dominated field,” she says. Conroy doesn’t just want to study the forests, she wants to see more women out there with her.

Marah Hardt

Hardt took her passion for the ocean out of the lab. She’s the research director for Future of Fish. This is a group dedicated to creating a seafood industry that’s sustainable — providing people with fish while keeping fish populations stable. She also wrote a book, Sex in the Sea, about the different ways ocean organisms mate. “I like to think of myself as a hybrid thinker,” she says. “Combining my science brain with a bit of wild imagination to solve the problems threatening oceans and the people that depend on them.”

Hardt loves science so much, she says, she skipped her high school prom to track sharks. She still says it’s the best decision she ever made.

Brittany Huhmann
Brittany Huhmann takes a soil sample in Bangladesh.
David Funkhouser

Brittany Huhmann

In Bangladesh, much of the groundwater is tainted with arsenic, a poisonous metal. That water gets used to irrigate rice fields. Huhmann is a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. She is working in Bangladesh to try to understand how that tainted water affects rice. She also works with politicians to find better ways of testing for arsenic and keeping this contaminant away from people.

Outside of work, Huhmann loves solving dance puzzles. “I have a really obscure, geeky and super fun hobby: challenge-level square dancing,” she says. “The caller calls fast, complicated sequences built from the 1,000 [or more] calls that the dancers know and combining those calls with challenging concepts, including the use of ‘phantom’ dancers. The dancers work together to follow the caller's instructions without allowing the square to break down.”

Listen to Huhmann describe her work in the audio clip below.

Ambika Kamath
Ambika Kamath carefully places a tiny tag on a wild lizard.
Claire Dufour

Ambika Kamath

“I'm a biologist — a behavioral ecologist to be precise — and I study movement patterns and social interactions in lizards,” Kanath explains. She’s in graduate school at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. When she goes into the field to study her species, she tags each tiny lizard with three colored beads, so that she can identify them later.

Kanath loves science so much she’s put it on her skin “I have five tattoos — only 2.5 are biology-themed,” she says. “But my first tattoo was of my first study organism.” That would be the larva of an insect called an antlion.

Deborah Lichti
Deborah Lichti studies aquatic food webs. That means a lot of time in a boat.
Steven Lichti

Deborah Lichti

All animals need to eat, even the ones in the ocean. Lichti is a graduate student at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C. She studies marine food webs. She’s also looking into how nutrients that human activities can send into them might change who’s eating what. Those polluting nutrients include the nitrogen that might run off of farm fields following storms.

Outside of the lab, she says, “I love the arts, especially musical theater, painting and ballroom dance.”

C. Maloney
Caitlin Maloney at work in the woods.
C. Maloney

Caitlin Maloney

Did you know that bugs like salty foods? Maloney does! She’s a graduate student at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. And she’s all about insects. “My work focuses on how bugs in the soil of forests in northern Michigan are affected by nutrients such as calcium and sodium,” she says. “Believe it or not, they like salty foods just as much as we do.”

Before she got into ecology, Maloney spent some time with other animals — serving them up for dinner. “I grew up in Maine and spent three years selling lobsters,” she says. “If you ever visited a lobster pound near Acadia National Park, I might have served you a lobster.”

Audrey Maran
Audrey Maran displays what a scientist looks like surrounded by dying bugs.
Paul Best

Audrey Maran

"This is what a scientist looks like...while collecting several gallon bags of dying mayflies,” says Maran of the image she sent us. This graduate student at Bowling Green State University wants to make mayflies useful.

“Mayflies spend most of their life in the water but emerge as adults to spend one wild night mating before they die,” she says. “Once they die, people view them as a nuisance because they die in large numbers." Their carcasses form piles that smell and make roads slippery. "I am studying how we could use these dead mayflies as a supplemental fertilizer source on farm fields,” she says.

Chandreyee Mitra

Science takes researchers to unexpected places. It’s taken Mitra, a biologist at North Central College in Naperville, Ill., to a cemetery. She doesn’t study the dead. Instead, Mitra studies how crickets and butterflies mate and move. But collecting her insects means Mitra has ended up in a spooky space. “My current major specimen collection site is a cemetery, where my students and I work late into the night,” she says. So far, no one’s been too haunted.

Chandreyee Mitra
Chandreyee Mitra (center) helps kids release butterflies at the annual Arizona Insect Festival.
Daniel Papaj

Karen Munroe

Munroe’s work involves stuffing (live) squirrels into bags. Don’t worry, she’s only weighing them. “Actually, they don’t mind it that much,” she says. Munroe is an ecologist at Baldwin Wallace University in Berea, Ohio. “I study the social behaviors and mating systems of tree squirrels,” she explains. Weighing them is part of that research. But Munroe also has an artistic past. She studied ballet for 12 years.

Karen Munroe
Yes, there's a squirrel in Karen Munroe's bag.
Karen Munroe







Cari Ritzenthaler

Dead things don’t stay around forever, and decomposing insects are part of the reason why. They eat and break down dead material. Ritzenthaler studies these insects as a graduate student at Bowling Green State University. She studies how nutrient availability in soil and leaf litter can affect the abundance and activity of the bugs that take care of the world’s trash.

“I had the opportunity to conduct my research in Hawaii,” she says. In addition to doing a lot of research there, “I visited my first national park, snorkeled with giant manta rays and saw active lava flowing into the ocean!”

Cari Ritzenthaler takes a lunch break in the field.
Cari Ritzenthaler takes a lunch break in the field.
C. Ritzenthaler


Cheree Smith

Do you know where the fish you buy comes from? Smith does. She’s a fishing observer — someone who monitors fishing boats to keep track of what they catch. This can help to make sure that populations of fish don’t fall too low. Or it can check that fishing boats are not accidentally catching endangered species.

Smith’s work has taken her from sea to shining sea. “I started as an observer on tuna boats in Hawaii and Louisiana, then shrimp and reef-fish boats in the Gulf of Mexico,” she says. “I worked as the protected-species trainer for the Pacific Island Observer Program, a marine-mammal observer in Alaska monitoring the salmon-driftnet fisheries.” Now she works as the port coordinator for the Hawaii Observer Program. The program inspects fishing vessels to ensure they are safe for the observers to work from so that they can keep monitoring the fish.

Cheree Smith catches a big one.
Cheree Smith holds up a big one.
C. Smith

Amanda Winters

Animals in forests live both on the ground and in the trees — and those tree-living species can affect the ground even if they never touch it. Winters, an ecologist at Bowling Green State University, studies how tree-dweller affect the floor far below. “I study bugs,” she says. She’s looking into how herbivores and predators in canopies affect what drops to the forest floor. This material is called “litterfall.” Winters wants to know how it might affect rates of decomposition.

Winters loves bugs so much that she even uses them in art. “My current project is a wedding present for a friend who also really likes bugs,” she says. “I make mutant insects out of different bug parts and put insects in different scenes, like at a party.” She also makes stencils of the bugs she finds beautiful.

Amanda Winters
Amanda Winters’ stencil of a cicada.
Amanda Winters

If you enjoyed this post, we’ve got more in the series. Make sure to check out our posts on women in astronomy, biology, chemistry and medicine! And make sure to keep an eye out as we show off women in technology, paleontology, neuroscience and more.

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Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

aquatic     An adjective that refers to water.

arsenic     A highly poisonous metallic element. It occurs in three chemically different forms, which also vary by color (yellow, black and gray). The brittle, crystalline (gray) form is the most common. Some manufacturers tap its toxicity by adding it to insecticides.

astronomy     The area of science that deals with celestial objects, space and the physical universe. People who work in this field are called astronomers.

behavior     The way a person or other organism acts towards others, or conducts itself.

behavioral ecologist     A scientist who studies how animal behavior relates to where animals live.

biology     The study of living things. The scientists who study them are known as biologists.

bug     The slang term for an insect. Sometimes it’s even used to refer to a germ.

calcium     A chemical element which is common in minerals of the Earth’s crust and in sea salt. It is also found in bone mineral and teeth, and can play a role in the movement of certain substances into and out of cells.

chemistry     The field of science that deals with the composition, structure and properties of substances and how they interact with one another. Chemists use this knowledge to study unfamiliar substances, to reproduce large quantities of useful substances or to design and create new and useful substances. (about compounds) The term is used to refer to the recipe of a compound, the way it’s produced or some of its properties.

cichlids     A freshwater fish that has become popular in the aquarium trade. This animal’s family is large and diverse. It includes at least 1,650 species, many of which are eaten. Although found all over the world, they are most diverse in Africa and South America.

decomposition     The process by which compounds in once-living things are broken down and returned to the environment; the process by which something decays or rots.

ecology     A branch of biology that deals with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings. A scientist who works in this field is called an ecologist.

ecosystem     A group of interacting living organisms — including microorganisms, plants and animals — and their physical environment within a particular climate. Examples include tropical reefs, rainforests, alpine meadows and polar tundra.

endangered     An adjective used to describe species at risk of going extinct.

endocrine disruptor     A substance that mimics the action (sometimes well, sometimes poorly) of one of the body’s natural hormones. By doing this, the fake hormone can inappropriately turn on, speed up or shut down important cellular processes.

engineering     The field of research that uses math and science to solve practical problems.

fertilizer     Nitrogen, phosphorus and other plant nutrients added to soil, water or foliage to boost crop growth or to replenish nutrients that removed earlier by plant roots or leaves.

field     An area of study, as in: Her field of research was biology. Also a term to describe a real-world environment in which some research is conducted, such as at sea, in a forest, on a mountaintop or on a city street. It is the opposite of an artificial setting, such as a research laboratory. (in physics) A region in space where certain physical effects operate, such as magnetism (created by a magnetic field), gravity (by a gravitational field) or mass (by a Higgs field).

food web     (also known as a food chain ) The network of relationships among organisms sharing an ecosystem. M ember organisms depend on others within this network as a source of food.

forest     An area of land covered mostly with trees and other woody plants.

Galápagos     Islands in the Pacific Ocean that belong to Ecuador and are located some 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) west of the South American mainland. Charles Darwin’s visit to the islands in 1835 and his observation of unusual animals on them inspired his theory of evolution.

graduate school     A university program that offers advanced degrees, such as a Master’s or PhD degree. It’s called graduate school because it is started only after someone has already graduated from college (usually with a four-year degree).

graduate student     Someone working toward an advanced degree by taking classes and performing research. This work is done after the student has already graduated from college (usually with a four-year degree).

groundwater     Water that is held underground in the soil or in pores and crevices in rock.

herbivore     A creature that either exclusively or primarily eats plants.

hybrid     An organism produced by interbreeding of two animals or plants of different species or of genetically distinct populations within a species. Such offspring often possess genes passed on by each parent, yielding a combination of traits not known in previous generations.

insect     A type of arthropod that as an adult will have six segmented legs and three body parts: a head, thorax and abdomen. There are hundreds of thousands of insects, which include bees, beetles, flies and moths.

larva     (plural: larvae) An immature life stage of an insect, which often has a distinctly different form as an adult. (Sometimes used to describe such a stage in the development of fish, frogs and other animals.)

lava     Molten rock that comes up from the mantle, through Earth’s crust, and out of a volcano.

litter     (in biology) Decaying leaves and other plant matter on the surface of a forest floor.

lizard     A type of reptile that typically walks on four legs, has a scaly body and a long tapering tail. Unlike most reptiles, lizards also typically have movable eyelids. Examples of lizards include the tuatara, chameleons, Komodo dragon, and Gila monster.

major     (in education) A subject that a student chooses as his or her area of focus in college, such as: chemistry, English literature, German, journalism, pre-medicine, electrical engineering or elementary education.

mammal     A warm-blooded animal distinguished by the possession of hair or fur, the secretion of milk by females for feeding the young, and (typically) the bearing of live young.

marine     Having to do with the ocean world or environment.

microplastic     A small piece of plastic, 5 millimeters (0.2 inch) or smaller in size. Microplastics may have been produced at that small size, or their size may be the result of the breakdown of water bottles, plastic bags or other things that started out larger.

monitor     To test, sample or watch something, especially on a regular or ongoing basis.

neuroscience     Science that deals with the structure or function of the brain and other parts of the nervous system. Researchers in this field are known as neuroscientists.

nitrogen    A colorless, odorless and nonreactive gaseous element that forms about 78 percent of Earth's atmosphere. Its scientific symbol is N. Nitrogen is released in the form of nitrogen oxides as fossil fuels burn.

nutrient     A vitamin, mineral, fat, carbohydrate or protein that a plant, animal or other organism requires as part of its food in order to survive.

organism     Any living thing, from elephants and plants to bacteria and other types of single-celled life.

Pacific     The largest of the world’s five oceans. It separates Asia and Australia to the west from North and South America to the east.

paleontology     The branch of science concerned with ancient, fossilized animals and plants. The scientists who study them are known as paleontologists .

population     (in biology) A group of individuals from the same species that lives in the same area.

predator     (adjective: predatory) A creature that preys on other animals for most or all of its food.

rays     (in biology) Members of the shark family, these kite-shaped fish species resemble a flattened shark with wide fins that resemble wings.

reef     A ridge of rock, coral or sand. It rises up from the seafloor and may come to just above or just under the water’s surface.

sea     An ocean (or region that is part of an ocean). Unlike lakes and streams, seawater — or ocean water — is salty.

shark     A type of predatory fish that has survived in one form or another for hundreds of millions of years. Cartilage, not bone, gives its body structure.

sharks     A family of primitive fishes that rely on skeletons formed of cartilage, not bone. Like skates and rays, they belong to a group known as elasmobranchs. Then tend to grow and mature slowly and have few young. Some lay eggs, others give birth to live young.

smartphone     A cell (or mobile) phone that can perform a host of functions, including search for information on the Internet.

social     (adj.) Relating to gatherings of people; a term for animals (or people) that prefer to exist in groups. (noun) A gathering of people, for instance those who belong to a club or other organization, for the purpose of enjoying each other’s company.

sodium     A soft, silvery metallic element that will interact explosively when added to water. It is also a basic building block of table salt (a molecule of which consists of one atom of sodium and one atom of chlorine: NaCl). It is also found in sea salt.

species     A group of similar organisms capable of producing offspring that can survive and reproduce.

STEM     An acronym (abbreviation made using the first letters of a term) for science, technology, engineering and math.

stencil     A picture or pattern that is created by temporarily holding a shape or cutout against a surface and then applying some paint or pigment along the internal or external edges of that shape or cutout. If paint is applied along the outside edges, the surface will depict the unpainted shape of the object, with sharply defined, clean internal edges. If a cutout is used, the painted shape will depict the pattern of the cutout, with sharply defined, clean external edges.

technology     The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry — or the devices, processes and systems that result from those efforts.

toxic     Poisonous or able to harm or kill cells, tissues or whole organisms. The measure of risk posed by such a poison is its toxicity.

wood     A porous and fibrous structural tissue found in the stems and roots of trees, shrubs and other woody plants.