How Can We Inspire The Next Generation Of Female Scientists?

17:02 minutes

a young black female biologist writing notes while looking at seedlings in a greenhouse
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The work of pioneering female scientists like Marie Curie and Jane Gooddall have served as an inspiration to many aspiring scientists. But less well-known are the early and mid-career female scientists who are working to answer some of today’s biggest scientific questions. 

A new book from National Geographic offers kids and tweens a look into the day-to-day lives of women working in the fields of volcanology, biology, anthropology, astronomy, and more. A central theme among the profiles is persistence in the face of obstacles.  

Producer Shoshannah Buxbaum talks with Clare Fiesler, conservation biologist, National Geographic explorer, and co-author of “No Boundaries: 25 Women Explorers and Scientists Share Adventures, Inspiration, and Advice.” 

Ready to try some science and engineering activities with a young learner in your life? Try engineering a disaster relief shelter, baking a better cookie, or supercooling strawberries!

Read an excerpt of the book No Boundaries: 25 Women Explorers and Scientists Share Adventures, Inspiration, and Advice.

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Segment Guests

Clare Fieseler

Clare Fieseler is a conservation biologist and co-author of No Boundaries: 25 Women Explorers and Scientists Share Adventures, Inspiration and Advice.

Segment Transcript

JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky. When you think about pioneering female scientists, you may have figures like Marie Curie or Jane Goodall in mind. But what about the female scientists who are working to answer today’s biggest scientific questions?

A new book from National Geographic tells the story of early and mid-career female scientists in many disciplines around the globe. Their stories focus on the ups and downs of what it’s really like to be a scientist today. It’s written for kids and tweens, and it’s called No Boundaries– 25 Women Explorers and Scientists Share Adventures, Inspiration, and Advice.

Joining me now is producer Shoshannah Buxbaum, who had a chance to talk with one of the book’s co-authors, Clare Fiesler, a conservation biologist and a National Geographic Explorer. Hi, Shoshannah.


JOHN DANKOSKY: So what was it about this book that really resonated with you?

SHOSHANNAH BUXBAUM: Yeah, so I’m obviously a big fan of science. After all, I work here at Science Friday. But I can’t say that as a kid I saw myself becoming a scientist, or even a science journalist for that matter. That all came together later. I realized that many of my interests– health, animals, the environment– were all actually, you guessed it, science.

I found it super interesting that many of the female scientists profiled in the book also didn’t originally see themselves as having a career in science. So I was curious about what motivated the book’s co-author Clare Fiesler, to write it. She told me about how it all started when she was reading an issue of National Geographic magazine all the way back in 2013.

CLARE FIESLER: The topic was bringing species back from extinction, kind of using biomedical technology. And I got to a page where it kind of showed a team of scientists working on this topic. And it seemed to be, like, all men.

So I went through, and I decided to count how many male scientists versus female scientists were quoted in this fascinating issue of National Geographic. And I could only find four women quoted out of 35 scientists. And so that’s about 10%. And that’s when I realized, like, oh, this is a problem. You know?

And from there, I just started digging more. I spoke to a couple different of the other kind of younger National Geographic Explorers and grantees about this issue. And I was able to get about a dozen of us to pick up other issues of National Geographic and start counting the number of men versus female scientists quoted and featured and photographed.

And in just the span of a month or two, we, together, read 34 issues of National Geographic, between the October 2012 issue to the July 2015 issue. And what we found is that across all those issues, there were 1,106 experts featured or quoted. And 205 of those were women, so that’s about 19%.

And the numbers were so shocking, that this was not just a problem for one issue, but basically all of the issues, that I asked National Geographic if I could present– do a presentation about this. And they let me. So I did, and I think they were aware of the problem.

And after the presentation, a fellow Explorer came up to me and was like, we should do something about this. And so first we got a grant to make a documentary about female explorers. And then from there, National Geographic kind of thought it was a good idea for us to write a children’s book. And that’s how this book came about.

SHOSHANNAH BUXBAUM: Yeah, I mean, that’s quite a journey getting to this book. So why did you choose to profile living female scientists versus historical figures like Marie Curie? I mean, I think a lot of us tend to look back to the past for inspiration, for heroes. But why is it so important for you to say, like, OK, we’re going to profile people doing the work now?

CLARE FIESLER: I think for us, it was about being able to show a work in progress. And when you look at the careers of Marie Curie and Jane Goodall, they’ve already kind of had their arc to success. And when they do talk about failures, or you read about it in a book, you’re like, OK, but they overcame it. And look, they’re the most famous scientists in history.

And we wanted to really dwell on those issues of obstacles and challenges and how people overcame them. And so interviewing women that were still in the early or middle parts of their careers seemed like the best way to do that, because most of the women we talked to are still working through these issues and had answers, but really were still wrestling with them. And I think that made these women more relatable to me. And I thought they’ll probably make it more relatable to kids, too.

SHOSHANNAH BUXBAUM: I think one of the really special things about the book is the little details that you chose to include. There’s this section in each profile. It’s called “Must-Haves.” And it’s usually a tool or something that the scientists bring out in the field with them.

And I especially loved that the astronomer Munazza Alam, she mentioned that she always brings lip balm and hand cream because when she goes up to these big telescopes, they’re in really dry areas. And so to me, that was just a little detail that I could see myself, as a little kid, really glomming on to. Why did you decide to include these kinds of little mundane details about the things you put in your bag when you’re heading out the door to do science?

CLARE FIESLER: Well, I’ve done quite a bit of fieldwork myself. And these little details about what women think about before they go into the field– yes, they’re thinking about these big questions of, like, is there life on other planets? But they’re also thinking about, how dry will my skin get, and will I be comfortable? How cold will this place get, and will I be comfortable?

And being comfortable in the field, comfortable enough to do the work you need to do, is important. And anyone who says otherwise is lying. Yeah, so I just loved the fact that Munazza Alam, she goes to these telescopes that are high in the deserts of Chile, which it’s very, very dry. And if your skin is cracking and your lips hurt, it’s going to be hard to find out the atmospheres of other exoplanets in our universe, you know?

Maybe some critics would be like, oh, that’s kind of showing women as too feminine or something. But no, these are real stories of women. This is what they would think about.

There’s another woman who studies plesiosaurs, which are kind of like ocean reptiles of the past. And her name is Aubrey Roberts. And she has to sleep in tents in Svalbard, which is an island in the Arctic, for months. And it’s very cold and uncomfortable.

She makes sure she brings a pillow, because she’s going to be cold and wet. But if her head is comfortable, that can be a saving grace. Bringing a pillow into the field, bringing Chapstick into the field, are these little details that humanize them.

You know, Jane Goodall is just so impressive. And she’s almost otherworldly in her impressiveness that maybe she can seem out of reach. We wanted these women to be within reach for young girls, young kids in general.

SHOSHANNAH BUXBAUM: Yeah, yeah. And speaking of primates, there’s a quote from primatologist Patricia Chapple Wright, some advice in the book that stuck with me. And it says, “There will be people who will tell you, don’t do this, or you can’t do that. They’re just trying to be practical. They don’t mean any harm. But sometimes you just have to be insistent about what it is you really want to do.”

I think persistence is definitely a throughline in this book. Why was that something that you felt like was important to thread through much of these stories?

CLARE FIESLER: Persistence is essentially the one-word summary of the entire 160-page book.

SHOSHANNAH BUXBAUM: I’m glad I landed on it, then.

CLARE FIESLER: So thank you for validating my mission. Having spoken and interviewed these 25 women in preparing for this book, that is the common theme in that, much more so than natural talent, much more so than fancy degrees, persistence truly is the secret sauce to all of these women’s achievements. And I think that that is not stressed enough to young girls. I think it’s excellence in math and science and going to college. And all those things are important.

The idea that persistence can take you far I don’t think is really stressed enough to young girls. I think perfectionism is stressed, and that’s, like, the complete opposite message I want to give to young girls trying to get to the place where I am and other women in this book are. Like, who cares about perfectionism? Persistence is where it’s at.

SHOSHANNAH BUXBAUM: Yeah. Yeah. And this throughline of persistence, I think, was really highlighted in Egyptologist Nora Shawki’s story. Can you tell me a little bit about her challenges in getting her research completed? She was faced with a lot of obstacles in terms of getting her research approved and moving forward.

CLARE FIESLER: Nora’s story is a really special story because she is so willing to talk about the importance of persistence in the context of failure. And we included her story in this book specifically because she wanted to talk about that, enthusiastically.

She’s an Egyptologist, so she studies cultures of the past in Egypt. And there’s this one site that she had researched for years that she had her heart set on. And then she couldn’t go there because of just permitting and bureaucracy and red tape. And so she was just like, OK, we’ll go to this other spot. We’ll make it work.

And she just pivoted and made it work. And I don’t think it was perfect. But she completed it, and she made these really fantastic discoveries about jewelry that women were wearing at the time who were not of the noble class. And she was able to make a difference, still, in her field, despite kind of, in a way, failing at the onset.

SHOSHANNAH BUXBAUM: And I mean, I think this book– it’s sort of refreshingly not a girl power message, in a sense. I’m a ’90s kid, and I remember getting a lot of that messaging of girls can do it, too. But this book is obviously encouraging girls to go into science, but it’s very much a, this is exciting stuff that you can do, and this is what it’ll take to do that. Was that a deliberate choice of how you framed these stories and how you put the book together?

CLARE FIESLER: 100%. That was a deliberate choice. We did not want the phrase “girl power” anywhere in our book.

For me, writing this book, the message was not you can do it, too. It was more like, women make a difference, but there are often a lot of hard things that they have to overcome specifically because they’re women. And these are how 25 women are overcoming them. And you’ll find your own way, and we’ll have your back.

SHOSHANNAH BUXBAUM: We have something in common, that we both grew up in New Jersey.

CLARE FIESLER: We did grow both grew up in New Jersey. New Jersey is America’s best-kept secret.

SHOSHANNAH BUXBAUM: Yes. Thank you. I’m glad we have that on the record. But it’s a very inspiring place. There’s plenty of nature– forest, beaches, lakes, wildlife, especially some good birds. So what in your wonderful Jersey childhood sparked your interest in nature and in science, ultimately?

CLARE FIESLER: I think the short answer to that is growing up near the ocean obviously inspired me and made me curious and helped me think of big questions. And I’m now a marine ecologist. I study ocean ecosystems and how climate change is threatening them.

But the longer answer is that I was interested in how these ocean ecosystems changed, because New Jersey is one of the greatest ocean restoration success stories, believe it or not. When I was growing up in the ’80s, there was a lot of pollution, specifically medical waste. There was this specific instance called the syringe tide where, I mean, needles were washing up on the beaches of New Jersey.

And I remember that. I was a kid. I was about three or four years old. And despite us living, you know, right near the beach, we couldn’t even go for two summers.

Fast forward 20 years later, and I was a beach lifeguard in my hometown, and I would be kayaking in the morning with dolphins. I would see humpback whales spouting off the jetty. I would see all sorts of fish. And the marine life had really rebounded.

And that gave me hope, you know? And I think people who don’t observe that change can fall into despair about the state of our planet. But I mean, the formative experience in my life was the opposite, that we can go from absolute ruin to a restored ecosystem.

SHOSHANNAH BUXBAUM: I’m Shoshannah Buxbaum, and I’m talking with National Geographic Explorer Clare Fiesler. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. You didn’t actually originally imagine yourself becoming a scientist, right?

CLARE FIESLER: That’s correct. Yeah, that’s correct.

SHOSHANNAH BUXBAUM: Even though you sort of grew up near the beach, saw this revitalization happen, were interested in marine life. Why didn’t you see yourself becoming a scientist when you got older?

CLARE FIESLER: Well, I think that I had a vision in my mind of what a scientist should be, which is someone in a white lab coat locked in a laboratory, not talking to anybody. And so it was really these kind of stereotypes that I think prevented me from seeing myself in that role. And I remember when I graduated from college, I had even worked in a lab and still couldn’t envision myself doing it as a career.

And so when I graduated, I actually applied for a job at National Geographic. And I end up getting a job in their filmmaking department. And for about two years, I helped take scientists’ stories and turn them into scripts for TV shows.

And I was able to meet so many scientists who were outgoing and were jovial and making jokes and had these big ideas and were not stuck in a lab. And that made me realize, like, oh, OK. I have no idea what it means to be a scientist. And frankly, I can make it my own thing. These people did.

And since then, I’ve skirted between these careers of media and science. And this book was kind of just a way of taking everything I’ve learned from being in the science world and using storytelling to report back out to the real world of what it’s like.

SHOSHANNAH BUXBAUM: And I want to end on this final question of, what would this book meant to you if you had it when you were a kid?

CLARE FIESLER: Ah, very good question. Well, in the introduction of this book, my co-author Gabby Salazar and I write, we wrote this book because it’s a book we wish we had when we were kids. And that’s true.

I don’t know. I don’t know what sort of difference it would have made. I probably would still be here, but I probably would have gotten to this place in my life earlier. I just hope kids enjoy it and they see the message of persistence and representation that I just didn’t. I want that for them.

SHOSHANNAH BUXBAUM: This has been a really wonderful conversation. Thank you so much for taking the time to be on Science Friday.

CLARE FIESLER: Thank you. I’m honored to be on Science Friday, especially with a fellow New Jerseyan. And it was a joy speaking about this book.

SHOSHANNAH BUXBAUM: Clare Fiesler is a conservation biologist, National Geographic Explorer, Smithsonian fellow, and co-author of No Boundaries– 25 Women Explorers and Scientists Share Adventures, Inspiration, and Advice. For Science Friday, I’m Shoshannah Buxbaum.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Thanks so much, Shoshannah. If you want to learn more about scientists profiled in this book, go to sciencefriday.com/noboundaries. You can read mammalogist and outreach scientist Danielle Lee’s profile. She’ll be on the show in the coming weeks.

If you missed any part of this program or you’d like to hear it again, you can subscribe to our podcasts or you can ask your smart speaker to play Science Friday. You know, every day is now Science Friday. Say hi to us on social media– Facebook, Twitter, Instagram– or email us. The address is SciFri@sciencefriday.com.

Send feedback and tell us what you’d like us to cover, too. I’m John Dankosky. Ira Flatow is back next week.

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Meet the Producer

About Shoshannah Buxbaum

Shoshannah Buxbaum is a producer for Science Friday. She’s particularly drawn to stories about health, psychology, and the environment. She’s a proud New Jersey native and will happily share her opinions on why the state is deserving of a little more love.

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