ocean waves

An Irrepressible Wave

A Timeline of the History of Women in Ocean Science

Introduction

How Women in Ocean Science Transitioned from Unpaid Volunteers to Chairs of Departments and Directors of Research Institutes

The ocean sciences have been an important research priority at the Smithsonian from the beginning, and central to those scientific discoveries are a group of determined individuals—women. Early on in the history of the Smithsonian’s National Museum (the predecessor to the National Museum of Natural History) women contributed to ocean science behind-the-scenes as unpaid volunteers, though often they carried out roles and positions that would be considered full-time-jobs by today’s standards. Many earned their positions through their relationship with brothers, fathers, or spouses—a foot in the door that allowed them to prove their worth. As time progressed (and the National Museum evolved into the National Museum of Natural History), a transition in the perception of women in the workforce meant women were hired for their scientific merit and many obtained positions in leadership roles. The transitions over time reflected many aspects of work life--from how women were hired, to how they were paid, and how they were perceived by society and male colleagues.

by Elizabeth Marino

ocean waves
ocean waves

Developing the Smithsonian

c. 1840-1880
1846

The Smithsonian Institution is Established

James Smithson wills his estate to the US to found an “establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” How this will manifest is up for debate in Congress, but the Institution originates as a place to perform and exhibit scientific research. 

a black and white photo of a man from the 1800s

James Smithson in 1816. He donates the seed money that funds the Smithsonian Institution. (Smithsonian Archives)

a document in calligraphy

The "Act to Establish the 'Smithsonian Institution,' for the Increase and Diffusion of Knowledge among Men," which is passed by Congress in 1846 after 8 years of debate. It is subsequently signed into law by President James K. Polk. (Smithsonian Archives)

1850

There is one male curator and there are zero female curators at the Smithsonian

The number of curators steadily increases over time. The percentage of curators that are female also increases.

Every 50 years, we can see a notable uptick in the percentage of women curators across all Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo.

1871

The US Commission of Fish and Fisheries is established

Spencer Fullerton Baird, the Smithsonian’s first curator from 1850-1878 who goes on to be Smithsonian Secretary from 1878-1887, creates the US Commission of Fish and Fisheries to investigate the causes for the decrease of commercial fish, to recommend remedies, and to oversee restoration efforts.  

portrait of a man

Spencer Fullerton Baird in 1867. (Smithsonian Archives)

ocean waves
ocean waves

Blazing Trails

c. 1880-1930
Pioneering in Petticoats

The women at this time are pioneers. It is uncommon for women to be in the workforce at all, let alone in science.

This is a time when blatant sexism is common and fairly universal, which is seen through newspaper clippings discussing some of these women’s achievements. These women often begin or spend their whole careers with the Smithsonian as volunteers. When paid, it is not much. Many also begin work at the Smithsonian because of their relationship to a man – like a brother or husband who works there – rather than due to actual achievements; there is no other way to break into the field otherwise.

Despite these difficulties, these women all make significant impacts to their respective fields throughout their careers. 

1886

Mary Jane Rathbun joins the Smithsonian in the Department of Marine Invertebrates

Rathbun begins her scientific career volunteering for her brother, Richard Rathbun (Curator of Marine Invertebrates), in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where she sorts, labels, and records specimens from 1881 to 1884. After this stint, Spencer Fullerton Baird, then Smithsonian Secretary and Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries, grants her a clerkship in the Department of Marine Invertebrates.

As a volunteer, her career begins unpaid. Once a clerk, she is paid, albeit modestly. 

Three women on a pier

Rathbun (left) in Woods Hole in the 1890s. (Smithsonian Archives)

A woman looking at specimens at her desk

Rathbun at her desk in 1894. (Smithsonian Archives)

1896

Harriet Richardson joins the Smithsonian in the Department of Marine Invertebrates

Richardson is the second female carcinologist (someone who studies crustaceans) after Rathbun. She studies isopods, a kind of crustacean, and publishes an authoritative and notable 800-page monograph in 1905, which includes descriptions of all known isopods in North America at the time, which is still referred to today. 

After a series of deaths of the leading scientists studying isopods, there is a vacuum of research being done on these small creatures. Richardson fills that vacuum.

The entirety of her career at the Smithsonian is unpaid.

A portrait of a woman

Harriet Richardson’s college graduation photograph in 1896. (Smithsonian Archives)

Drawings of crustacean parts

An illustration from Richardson’s 1905 monograph, depicting different parts of a specific isopod, Leptognathia longiremis (page 20). (A monograph on the isopods of North America, 1905)

1900

There are 27 male curators and 1 female curator at the Smithsonian

Only 3.7% of the curators at this time are female.

a group of men standing and two women sitting in front of the National Museum building

The Department of Anthropology in 1904. The two women seated are Miss Malone and Miss Louisa A. Rosenbusch. (Smithsonian Archives)

1905

A Washington Post story about women scientists at the Smithsonian publishes

This article illustrates commonly held attitudes towards professional women at the time – like a focus on her physical attributes and marital status. Richardson is characterized in the following quote from the article: “Miss Richardson’s formidable title of ‘doctor’—and she is called Dr. Richardson by all her associates at the Smithsonian—utterly unprepares one for the glowing young woman found in the gloomy museum library. Miss Richardson is an emphatic refutation of the tradition that a scholarly woman must necessarily be a prosy bluestocking and a spectacled grind. She is splendidly built, with merry eyes and sunny, abundant hair, daintly gowned and quite as familiar with the ways of the social as of the insect world. She is charming to meet, modest over her achievements, and is altogether a woman of womanly and scientific attainment.”  

Newspaper page

The newspaper article in question. Richardson is on the left. (via Newspapers.com

1907

Mary Jane Rathbun achieves her highest position of Assistant Curator of the Division of Marine Invertebrates, and “retires” from the Smithsonian

Rathbun requires an assistant in order to complete her first monograph about crabs, but the department cannot (or will not) fund another person’s salary. She resigns as full assistant curator, with the understanding that her salary will be given to her new assistant. She continues to work at the Smithsonian, unpaid, until 1940. 

Mary Jane Rathbun is notable as the first female carcinologist, and one of the first women in science at the Smithsonian. She reaches a fairly high position at the museum, even by today’s standards.

The work she does describing and naming over 1,000 species during the course of her career lays the groundwork for the record systems still in use. Over the course of her career, Rathbun writes four monographic handbooks describing and naming different species of crabs. 

An illustration of a crab

An illustration of a crab from Rathbun’s work, “Brachyura and Macrura of Porto Rico,” 1902. (via SciHi Blog)

1910

Smithsonian research begins in Panama

Research here begins with an expedition cataloging flora and fauna in the lowland forests of Panama.

men walking in the jungle

Smithsonian researchers in Panama in 1911. (Smithsonian Archives)

1911

The National Museum of Natural History finishes moving into its current building on the National Mall

The museum was originally housed in the Smithsonian Castle, until 1881. It then briefly moved to the Arts and Industries Building until 1910, when it finally moves into its current home. 

Neoclassical building with dome

The main entrance and rotunda of the Natural Museum of Natural History. (Smithsonian Archives)

1913

Harriet Richardson retires from the Smithsonian

Richardson marries William Searle and has a disabled child, who becomes her new focus. She does not publish much after this (only around 5 papers), despite having published around 75 previously during her career. As can still happen today, the demands of childcare competed with Richardson’s career ambitions and success.

1913

Pearl Lee Boone joins the Smithsonian

Boone, like Rathbun and Richardson before her, is a carcinologist. She is the first to be hired entirely based on her scientific ability and not because of her connections to a man already working there, and the first to be paid from the start. 

Here is a photograph of Pearl Lee Boone during her time at the Smithsonian. Part of the caption reads, “That she does not confine her attention to cephalopods is evident from the cut, where altho an octopus and a squid appear as cephalopodous objects for her study and investigation, the bunch of lilies in the background shows that she has not lost the sense of beauty, so strong in her sex, and has at least an aesthetic feeling for botany.”

Much like the article about Richardson, despite her success as a scientist and researcher, the fact of her gender had to be a comment or caveat when discussing her work. 

Woman at desk with octopus specimen

(via "Dendrites," Blogspot)

1922

Lee Boone leaves the Smithsonian

Boone is accused of incompetence by Waldo Schmitt, who has her fired, and whom she, in turn, accuses of harassment. The story of her last day at the Smithsonian continues to float around the National Museum of Natural History: Waldo Schmitt ostensibly comes into the lab next to his office to find Boone smashing empty specimen bottles on the floor, the two get into a kerfuffle where he physically restrains her and she whacks him with an umbrella. Rathbun enters from another lab and throws a bucket of water on Boone, who is then escorted out by security guards. This is, at least, Schmitt’s perspective, who writes a memo to the museum’s Director describing the incident. It is unclear if implicit claims of “female hysteria” helped him embellish the story. Regardless of this story’s legitimacy, Boone’s tumultuous exit from the Smithsonian and Schmitt’s claim of her incompetence haunt her career.  

After leaving the Smithsonian to work for the US Department of Agriculture, she begins publishing under the name “Lee Boone” – implying she is a man. She uses the male name to claim needing access to a collection for research, which is unfortunately denied when they realize who she was.

Illustration of a lobster

Boone's biggest scientific accomplishment is the discovery and cataloguing of a specific species of lobster considered a potential food source. Her work on it appears in the “Food and Agriculture Organization Species Catalogue.” This is her illustration of the lobster in the original bulletin in which it appeared. (via "Dendrites," Blogspot)

1923

Biological reserve is started in Panama

It is known as the Canal Zone Biological Area, or CZBA. This is the beginning formal Smithsonian research in Panama.

Men standing in front of a building

Smithsonian researchers at the newly formed biological reserve in Panama. (Smithsonian Archives)

ocean waves
ocean waves

Testing Obstacles

c. 1930-1960
Midcentury "Modern"

These women work through the context of World War II. They are more modern than their previous counterparts in some ways – like pushing to keep their research resources in new locations or starting their own oceanographical school – but there is still a long way to go to reach equality. 

1938

Mildred Stratton Wilson joins the Smithsonian

Another woman carcinologist, Mildred Stratton Wilson joins her husband at the Smithsonian working as a volunteer identifying freshwater copepods – a small kind of crustacean.

Portrait of a woman

Mildred Stratton Wilson. (Smithsonian Archives)

1943

Mary Jane Rathbun dies

Rathbun retired on paper in 1907, but continued doing research until her death in 1943. She worked at the Smithsonian for a total of 57 years, most of them unpaid.

Portrait of a woman

Rathbun in 1927. (Smithsonian Archives)

1944

Mildred Stratton Wilson achieves her highest position of Assistant Curator of Marine Invertebrate Zoology

She holds the position until 1946. She is known for her organization, noted for leaving the department in “much better order than it otherwise would have been.” 

In 1947, she gains the title of Collaborator of Marine Invertebrate Zoology, and relocates to Alaska with her husband. In order to keep researching, she gets permission to have the relevant monographs and equipment sent to her. There, she continues collecting, describing, and identifying species of copepods.

She hopes to publish a monograph of all North American species of the genus of Diaptomus of copepods. She realizes there are too many for her to complete the project, and instead revises a handbook on freshwater biology. 

In 1955, she is the first woman to be awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for her work on copepods.

a copepod

A freshwater copepod. (via Encyclopedia of Life)

1944

Marie “Bobbie” Poland Fish joins the Smithsonian as a Scientific Aid in the Division of Fishes

In 1936, she and her husband founded the Narragansett Marine Laboratory, which is now the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island. There, she established herself as Rhode Island’s state ichthyologist – someone who studies bony fish – and eventually is hired by the Smithsonian to classify fish.

After her brief time at the Smithsonian of only two years, she returns to the Narragansett Marine Lab to do research on the sounds marine animals make, after reading about mysterious cacophonies sailors were hearing while on the open sea. In doing so, she founds the discipline of bioacoustics, demonstrating that the ocean we tend to think of as silent can actually reach volumes of 114 decibels due to fish “talking.” She eventually works with the US Navy to help identify the difference between fish and enemy vessels based on the underwater sounds being picked up. In 1966, she is granted the Navy’s Distinguished Public Servant Award, its highest civilian honor, for outstanding service of substantial and long-term benefit to the Navy.

Newspaper reports continue their sexist traditions, belittling but celebrating her as the “affable redhead” with a “sparkling sense of humor” who researches sea sounds. 

A woman on a ship helping with the nets

Fish breaks barriers by partaking in an ocean expedition very early on, in 1925, long before women are generally allowed on research vessels. She attends with her husband, who is also an ocean scientist, implying her savvy utilization of her resources – a husband who works in science – to achieve in her field. (via ResearchGate)

A young woman holding seaweed

A young Fish sifting through some seaweed samples on a research vessel c. 1925. (via Wildlife Conservation Society)

a woman with clipboard and two male assistants
Marie Poland Fish in a lab at University of Rhode Island c. 1960s. (via ResearchGate)
1946

The research facilities in Panama, the CZBA, officially becomes part of the Smithsonian

A forested hilltop with buildings and a dock

An aerial view of the Barro Coloardo Island Laboratory at the CZBA in the 1950s, shortly after the CZBA is incorporated by the Smithsonian. (Smithsonian Archives)

a lake with a ship and some nearby hills with trees

The view from the Barro Colorado Island Laboratory, of Gatun Lake, in 1953. (Smithsonian Archives)

a small boat under a covered dock

The docked U.S. Snook, which ferries staff and supplies between Barro Colorado Island in Gatun Lake, and mainland Panama, c. 1950s. (Smithsonian Archives)

1950

There are 56 male curators and 7 female curators at the Smithsonian

Since 1900, the percentage of female curators rises from 3.7% to 12.5%.

a woman holding a snake

Doris Cochran in 1954, one of the few female curators at the National Museum of Natural History in the 1950s. She is appointed curator in the Division of Reptiles and Amphibians in 1956. (Smithsonian Archives)

1960

Mildred Stratton Wilson is appointed Research Associate in the Division of Crustacea.

Wilson continues researching copepods in Alaska, and holds this role until her death in 1973.

a man and a woman sitting on a pier amid mountains

Wilson and her husband, Charlie, in Alaska in the 1960s. (via Sleeper Family Papers, Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage)

ocean waves
ocean waves

Breaking Barriers

c. 1960-1980
These Boots are Made for Fieldwork

By this time, women are being hired based solely on their scientific merit, and are paid throughout the entirety of their careers. These women stay at the Smithsonian for a long time, and have impactful careers there after reaching higher levels within the organization.

Many of the over barriers women face are eliminated by this time. One such barrier is women’s exclusion from research vessels. Due to folklore claiming women on ships were bad luck, women were generally not able to join research voyages. By the 1960s, though, this barrier is broken down, opening up a world of possibility for women researchers, who are now able to do field research.

The women in this era seem much more modern than the previous ones, coming closer to attaining equality with men. This is the first time we see women reaching the rank of curator of their departments.

These women were real leaders in their fields.

1963

Marian Hope Pettibone joins the Smithsonian as Associate Curator in the Division of Crustacea

Pettibone becomes the leading authority on polychaetes, and helps spearhead the polychaete department at the Smithsonian as its first curator. She organizes the entire collection of worms that had accumulated throughout the prior hundred years, helping to arrange one of the world’s largest polychaete collections.

a polychaete

(© Alexander Semenov)

a polychaete

Some polychaete species, Cirraturlid (left) and Syllidae (right). Polychaetes are also known as bristle worms due to their many appendages that help them scoop up prey. (Courtesy of Karen Osborn)

1966

STRI is established

The CZBA is renamed Smithsonian Tropical Resarch Institute, or STRI, to reflect its broader research scope.

an office

STRI's administrative office in Panama City, in 1965. This office is about 25 miles from Barro Colorado Island, where the main research facilities are. (Smithsonian Archives)

1966

Mary Rice joins the Smithsonian as Curator and Research Zoologist in the Department of Invertebrate Zoology

Like Pettibone, Rice studies marine worms, specifically sipunculans, a group descended from the polychaetes that Pettibone studies. In 1972 she relocates to Florida to do fieldwork.  

Woman on rock near ocean

Mary Rice performing fieldwork in Florida in 1975. (Smithsonian Archives)

1970

Sheila Minor Huff is hired as an animal technician

She works for the US Fish and Wildlife Service's Mammal Division at the National Museum of Natural History as a biological specimen analyst. After two years she is hired by SERC where she conducts research on small-mammal populations, located on The Poplar Islands. She is the first Black person hired at SERC.

 

a black and white photo of a group of men and one black woman

Huff was the only woman presenting at the 1971 International Conference on the Biology of Whales. She was the only person not named in the photograph. The discovery of this photograph in 2018 led to a viral, online search for her identity, which led to her eventual naming. 

1972

Joan Murrell Owens begins a museum technician position at NMNH

As a geology student at George Washington University Owens takes on a museum technician position at the National Museum of Natural History to earn money while in school. Later, once she becomes a professor at Howard University, she uses her ties to the museum to continue research using the museum's collections. Fascinated by the marine world, Owen's is unable to dive due to sickle-cell anemia, a hereditary condition that limits the amount of oxygen carried by blood cells. Undeterred, she bases her research on collections housed in the museum.

1973

Mildred Stratton Wilson dies

Wilson had been researching copepods as a Research Associate with the Smithsonian since 1960. She continued this work until her death.  

1978

Marian Pettibone formally retires from the Smithsonian

Pettibone stays on as a Curator Emerita and continues to do research until 1997.

Woman smiling

Pettibone at her retirement celebration. The glass she is holding depicts a polychaete etched into the side. (Smithsonian Archives)

1981

The Smithsonian Marine Station, or the SMS, is founded

Originally founded by Mary Rice in Link Port, Florida, the Marine Station is created to research Floridian marine ecosystems and life forms, specifically in the Indian River Lagoon off the eastern coast of central Florida. In 1999, the Marine Station expands and relocates to Fort Pierce, Florida. 

an aerial shot of a marine station with several buildings, cars, palm tree, and a square boat.

An aerial photo of the marine station in 1995. The SMS is housed in the white barge. (Smithsonian Archives)

1981

Mary Rice becomes Director of the Smithsonian Marine Station

Founding and developing the Smithsonian Marine Station is no small feat. Rice has to get approvals and funding from both the Smithsonian and outside research organizations. She works on founding a marine station beginning in 1971, which comes to fruition 10 years later in 1981. The station is eventually relocated in 1999.

Rice is proud of the work and feels as though she is providing a service to other scientists who can come use their resources and location for research.

Woman standing in front of small building

Rice in front of the first iteration of the SMS, housed in a floating barge at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, in 1984. In 1999 the Marine Station opens its doors in a new building and location in Fort Pierce, Florida, where it still operates today. (Smithsonian Archives)

ocean waves
ocean waves

Defining Modernity

c. 1980-today
A Sea of Successes

These women are all part of the modern wave of female ocean scientists. Over the course of this time period we see multiple women achieve the highest scientific role at the museum, chair of their respective departments. Women are also routinely curators and directors of various institutions.

Some of these more modern women speak of their experience as a woman in this field, and their different struggles and successes throughout their careers.

There is still work to be done in the field of ocean science, but the progress these women have made toward equality is remarkable. 

1984

Nancy Knowlton joins the Smithsonian at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama

At STRI she conducts notable research projects. Namely, she continues the tradition of studying marine evolution on either side of the Panamanian isthmus, focusing on snapping shrimp. She also conducts important research on the microalgae that live in coral, the Symbiodiniaceae, demonstrating that different kinds of algae are sensitive to different temperatures. Her work helps explain why so many corals are dying in the wake of climate change. This creates a new field within coral research focusing on the impact of climate change.

Woman, man, and aquarium

Nancy Knowlton filming an aquarium at STRI in 1989. (Smithsonian Archives)

A snapping shrimp

A snapping shrimp from STRI, a specimen that Knowlton collects in 1990. (Smithsonian Archives)

1986

Joan Murell Owens discovers a new genus of coral

Using the Smithsonian's Albatross collection from 1880, Owens discovers a new genus of deep sea button corals called Rhombopsammia. She eventually discovers three species from this genus, including one she names after her husband.

a button coral

Letepsammia franki, the Smithsonian coral specimen used to describe the new species of button coral.

a woman with a beaded necklace and floral dress stands by her microscope and a coral specimen in hand

Joan Murrell Owens poses with one of her coral specimens.  (Digital Howard @ Howard University)

1990

Lynne Parenti joins the Smithsonian as Curator of Fishes in the Department of Vertebrate Zoology

Like Marie Poland Fish, Lynne Parenti is an ichthyologist. She studies bony fishes that live in tropical freshwater and coastal marine habitats. She focuses on systematics – the classification of organisms to understand evolutionary relationships – and biogeography – where different species have been located in space and over time.

At the Smithsonian, she identifies and discovers many taxa of fishes, and discovers new morphological characters – or characteristics-- to identify taxa

A woman wading with a net

Parenti collecting specimens at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology in 2013. (Courtesy of Lynne Parenti, photo by Zeehan Jafaar)

Credit: In conversation with the author

Parenti comments on how the high-achieving women in this field are truly exceptional – and maybe have to be better than their male counterparts at what they do so they can be as high-achieving.

1992

Carole Baldwin joins the Smithsonian as Curator of Fishes and Research Zoologist

Baldwin studies biodiversity in the midwater and deep-sea, specifically focusing on the diversity, evolution, and life cycle development of tropical fishes. She discovers and describes over 50 species of fish new to science (and counting), and identifies a new faunal zone known as the Rariphotic Zone.  

Baldwin values public outreach, and sharing her knowledge and love of science with the public. Some of the outreach projects she's worked on includeGalapagos, an IMAX movie about Baldwin’s research expedition to the Galapagos islands, and a cookbook called One Fish, Two Fish, Crawfish, Bluefish – The Smithsonian Sustainable Seafood Cookbook.

a female scientist with brown hair sits suspended on the back of the boat in a full wetsuit and scuba gear

Baldwin in full scuba gear. (Smithsonian Institution)

a young female researcher holds a fish

Baldwin as a young scientist. (Smithsonian Institution)

1997

Marian Hope Pettibone stops working at the Smithsonian

She had retired in 1978, but continued researching as a Curator Emerita. Thirty-three species and 3 genera are named in her honor.

1998

Nancy Knowlton leaves STRI and begins teaching at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at University of California San Diego

At Scripps, she founds the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation in 2001. The first of its kind, the Center is intended to train graduate students in interdisciplinary approaches to solving problems the ocean faces by protecting ocean ecosystems in the face of climate change. 

a beach and a long pier

An aerial view of the beach and pier at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation is housed. (via Scripps Institution of Oceanography)

1999

Lynne Parenti is appointed Chair of Department of Vertebrate Zoology

She is the first woman to be appointed to this position, and feels that her achievements are appropriately recognized and rewarded in this role. Parenti feels that working for the federal government is beneficial in that it's a level playing field for men and women.

Parenti is an avid writer, and has published a handful of books, including Cladistic Biogeography: Interpreting Patterns of Plant and Animal Distributions (1986 with a 1999 second edition), Interrelationships of Fishes (1996), Ecology of the Marine Fishes of Cuba (2002), Ichthyo: The Architecture of Fish (2008), Comparative Biogeography: Discovering and Classifying Biogeographical Patterns of a Dynamic Earth (2009), and Assumptions Inhibiting Progress in Comparative Biology (2017).

This is the cover of the second edition of her first published book and most-cited work, Cladistic Biogeography: Interpreting Patterns of Plant and Animal Distributions. Parenti values being able to communicate her findings through writing.

the cover of Cladistic Biogeography: Interpreting Patterns of Plant and Animal Distributions

(via Amazon)

Credit: In conversation with the author

Parenti says that the biggest obstacles she faced as a woman in the field were microaggressions that she couldn’t control – like potentially not being able to join the men at the bar after work or comments about her becoming the first woman ichthyologist president of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists.

2000

There are 174 male curators and 65 female curators at the Smithsonian

Since 1950, the percentage of female curators at NMNH increases from 12.5% to 37.4%.

a posed photo of botany staff

The botany staff in 2010. (Smithsonian Archives)

2002

Mary Rice is named Senior Research Scientist Emeritus and retires from directing the SMS

Rice studies Sipuncula, a kind of seaworm. In the 1990s when evolutionary developmental biology was maturing into “evo-devo” with the development of molecular genetics, Rice spearheads bringing these research practices to the study of sipunculans. In 2019, she is awarded the A.O. Kovalesky Medal to honor her extraordinary achievements in evolutionary developmental biology. 

She continues doing research and fieldwork at the SMS until she passes away in 2021.

Woman with seaworm

Rice with a sipunculan in 2006. (Smithsonian Archives)

2002

Valerie Paul joins the Smithsonian as the Director of the Smithsonian Marine Station

Paul studies the chemical interactions between organisms and their environment, mainly focusing on how organisms protect themselves using chemicals and toxins – instead of, say, exoskeletons or spines.  In doing this work, she helps launch the field of marine chemical ecology, combining marine ecology and chemistry.

A group of scientists

Paul (at left in blue) at the Carrie Bow Cay field station in Belize in 2014 when Smithsonian Secretary Clough (at center right in floral shirt) visits.  (Courtesy of Valerie Paul)

A woman scuba diving among seaweeds

Paul collecting specimens in the Florida Keys. Paul has done significant research into the various kinds of bacteria that live on corals, and has identified different ways bacteria and probiotics can both help and harm corals. (Photo by Lindsay Spiers)

A woman scuba diving

Paul diving in Guam. (Photo by Lindsay Spiers)

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Smithsonian Marine Station

Research conducted by Paul and other SMS scientists.

Credit: In conversation with the author

Paul explains that the Smithsonian has been supportive of women throughout her career, but that there is still room for improvement in the top science positions at the Institution.

2004

Ellen Strong joins the Smithsonian as Curator of Mollusks and Research Zoologist

Strong studies the biodiversity and evolutionary relationships of freshwater snails, cataloging species. Many snail species are becoming extinct so her work is integral in preserving as many as possible before the information is lost forever.

a woman holding snails

Strong in the field, collecting mollusk specimens. (Photo by Heather Bennet)

2007

Nancy Knowlton returns to the Smithsonian as the Sant Chair for Marine Science, her highest position

During her tenure, she founds the Earth Optimism movement, which seeks to encourage people to engage in conservation by celebrating its success stories. She also publishes Citizens of the Sea, a book about marine life to celebrate the completion of the Census of Marine Life, which she worked on.

In 2013 she is elected to the National Academy of Sciences, one of the highest honors a scientist can achieve.

In 2020, she is awarded the Darwin Medal by the International Coral Reef Society, which is given every four years to globally recognize a scientist for major scientific contributions throughout their career.

She holds this role until her retirement in 2020.

A scuba diver near an ARMS atop a coral reef

Knowlton diving in the Red Sea to retrieve an autonomous reef monitoring structure, or ARMS, as part of her work with the Census of Marine Life. She helped develop ARMS as a standardized way to gather specimens living near and on reefs. (Courtesy of Nancy Knowlton, photo by Michael Berumen)

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PBS NewsHour

Knowlton on PBS NewsHour in 2012 discussing the impact climate change has taken on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. 

Credit: In conversation with the author

Knowlton reflects that the biggest obstacles she faced throughout her career as a woman in science were covert issues like not being treated fairly. She feels fortunate that the overt obstacles that older women faced were gone by the time she started her doctorate in 1972.

2008

The Sant Ocean Hall opens

The new Sant Ocean Hall exhibit opens at the National Museum of Natural History, for which Baldwin is head curator.

an above view of a busy museum hall with a hanging right whale and massive jellyfish replica

The Sant Ocean Hall is the National Museum of Natural History's largest exhibit, providing visitors with a unique and breathtaking introduction to the majesty of the ocean.

2011

The Deep Reef Observation Project, or DROP, is founded

In 2011, Baldwin founds and begins directing the Deep Reef Observation Project. DROP is a research program that explores marine life and monitors changes in deep sea reefs in the southern Caribbean, which are around 1000 feet deep. The project works with scientists from NMNH, STRI, and the SMS.

a submersible and a lion fish

Carole Baldwin inside of a submersible in Curacao, noticing a lionfish as part of research for DROP. (Courtesy of Carole Baldwin)

a woman scuba diving

Baldwin “lionfish hunting." (Courtesy of Carole Baldwin)

A woman holding a lionfish

A beaming Baldwin with her successful catch that can now be cataloged and used for scientific research. (Courtesy of Carole Baldwin)

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Smithsonian Institution

An inside look at the work Carole Baldwin does at DROP.

2011

Karen Osborn joins the Smithsonian as an Associate Curator of Invertebrate Zoology and Research Zoologist

Osborn researches the biodiversity found in the midwater and deep-sea, and helps draw attention to these fauna zones.  

Credit: In conversation with the author

Osborn cites one of the biggest issues she faces as a woman in her field as the high service load of being the woman in the room. She founded the Inclusive Science Initiative to help combat workplace cultural problems like these.

A woman with backpack

Karen Osborn on an expedition to western Australia where she performed some fieldwork. (Courtesy of Karen Osborn)

A Pacific Blackdragon

A specimen of an ultra-black deep-sea fish, the Pacific blackdragon or Idiacanthus astrostomus, one of the blackest fish species ever recorded. Osborn and a team discovered how the skin of fish like these are covered in highly-pigmented granules that absorb up to 99.95% of all light that hits them. Osborn says imitating this strategy could help scientists develop more efficient ultra-black materials needed for things like cameras and camouflage. (Courtesy of Karen Osborn)

a mosaic of sea life

Osborn helped curate the exhibit “Life in One Cubic Foot” which opened at the National Museum of Natural History in 2016. Here are some of the organisms found in one cubic foot of midwater off California. (via Time)

2017

Carol Baldwin becomes Department Chair of Vertebrate Zoology

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Luc Hardy

In line with her interest in communication, in 2020, Baldwin is featured in a short film called At the Edge of Light, which focuses on some of the research she's done in Curaçao with DROP.

Credit: In conversation with the author

Baldwin feels fortunate that she hasn’t faced any hurdles throughout her career that were directed specifically at her because of her gender. The most difficult obstacle she faced because of her gender, though, was deciding if or when to have a family.

2018

Ellen Strong achieves her highest position of Chair of the Department of Invertebrate Zoology

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National Museum of Natural History

Strong discusses some of the research she focuses on as part of Smithsonian Science How.

A corridor with drawers full of mollusks

Ellen Strong (center) with some of the mollusk collection. (via Colossal)

a woman holding a snail

Strong with a specimen of Campanile symbolicum, or a "giant creeper" snail. Strong cites the specimen as one of her favorites among the collection. (Smithsonian Magazine)

2020

There are 158 male curators and 85 female curators at the Smithsonian

Since 2000, the percentage of female curators increases from 37.4% to 53.8%.

a group photo of many women in the rotunda with a stuffed bull elephant

The women staff at Natural History in 2018. (Lucia RM Martino and Kate D. Sherwood, Smithsonian Institution)

2021

Mary Rice passes away

She had retired from directing the SMS in 2002, but continued her research at the SMS as Senior Research Scientist Emeritus.

She published nearly 20 papers since her retirement. 

ocean waves
ocean waves

Looking Ahead

Today Forward
Modern Optimism

The scientists discuss their experiences as women in the male-dominated fields of the ocean sciences

While women in science still face challenges, they continue to make significant strides, even since 2000.

The scientists talk of the crucial problems they think will continue to challenge women – like sexual harassment, microaggressions because of their gender, or if, and subsequently how, they will manage having a family. Also, most women in the marine sciences continue to be white, and so the next frontier will be to continue the fight for equality for women of all backgrounds. 

Despite these issues, though, they are optimistic about the future: things are only getting better as time goes on and more barriers get broken.

a woman holding a fish specimen
Carole Baldwin with a sea toad specimen in 2014.(via WESM)
Credit: In conversation with the author

Baldwin explains her belief that as time continues to pass, women will only see improvements in how they’re treated. 

3 people posing with a large fish
Parenti (left), along with Harry Grier, Susan Jewett, and Jeffrey Clayton, with a coelacanth, a fish formerly believed to be extinct.(via Restricted Waters)
Credit: In conversation with the author

Parenti comments on the benefit of the different perspectives women bring to the table as more women achieve in science fields.

a woman holding a coral specimen
Knowlton in the coral collections. (Courtesy of Nancy Knowlton)
Credit: In conversation with the author

Knowlton says that there is a notable cultural shift in that women now know better than to put up with harassment. In light of the positive change she’s seen over her career, the problem has now shifted to include striving for equity for all identities, whether they are gender-based, race-based, religion-based, or otherwise. 

For the Future Generation

The scientists offer advice to the young generation

First, follow your passions. Do what you love.

Second, be thoughtful about your career path. There is no formula for success – but be sure to put yourself in places that support you.

Third, you can do anything you want. And if you want to do science, it can be a ton of fun.

a woman looking at specimens through a camera
Osborn examining specimens through a camera in 2018. (via Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute)
Credit: In conversation with the author

Osborn says to focus on what you’re passionate about and to find something that will excite you enough to get you out of bed with energy. If you love what you do, work won’t feel like work.

a woman in a boat
Lynne Parenti on the Corantijn River, Suriname, in 1980.(via ResearchGate)
Credit: In conversation with the author

Parenti encourages young women to keep at it, and that there’s no one right way to achieve.

Knowlton loving her work as a graduate student in Discovery Bay, Jamaica in 1974. (via Restricted Waters)

Credit: In conversation with the author

Knowlton tells young women that they should be strategic about where they put their energy.

a woman in snorkel gear

(Courtesy of Nancy Knowlton, photo by Bill Sacco)

a woman holding up algal specimens
Paul with some of her algal specimens.(via St. Lucie County Economic Development Council)
Credit: In conversation with the author

Paul tells young women not to let anyone tell them that they can’t achieve what they want to, and that being a scientist can be incredibly rewarding – you are driven by curiosity all the time. 

a woman getting in a submersible giving thumbs up
Baldwin excitedly climbing into a submersible. (Courtesy of Carole Baldwin)
Credit: In conversation with the author

Baldwin encourages young women to get involved in science because it can be incredibly fun – it means being a treasure hunter! And, you can do anything you set your mind to.