International Women’s Day

I always find it a little ironic when by decree we ask ourselves to pay just a little more attention and honor some fundamental aspect of our species on just one day of the year. National Bioacoustician’ s Day makes sense to me; but pausing for just a moment to honor Mothers, Fathers, or Women seems a bit anemic by my estimation. Nonetheless we do this, and by way of these special days our relationship with those we honor slowly comes into focus over time.

When I first stood up and spoke about ocean noise pollution in a public hearing it was 1992. While there were plenty of women taking their turns at the podium, the only female scientist at the event was Dr. Lindy Weilgart from Dalhousie University (Lindy remains a stalwart spokesperson on behalf of the whales and other marine life). Shortly after that first hearing I began attending the scientific and engineering conferences where physical oceanography and marine biology intersected. Most of the attendees at these conferences were pencil-pocket guys like me whose pant cuffs were a bit too high to be fashionable, and there was a remarkable paucity of women.

But there were a few notable exceptions: Dr. Mardi Hastings immediately comes to mind. Her field of study is engineering, but she has really made a huge contribution to our understanding of how fish hear, and has dove deeply into the impacts of noise on fish and other marine life. I was also really impressed with the work of Dr. Sheryl Coombs whose work on non-visual sensory biology opened up a whole discussion about how fish sense and synthesize acoustic and hydrodynamic particle motion.[i]

WHOI Computerized Scanning and Imaging Department

Dr. Darlene Ketten was also around the ocean noise issue early on. Darlene is a larger-than-life force in a small package who has done amazing work in functional anatomy and imaging of marine (and other) animals auditory systems – helping us understand how whales and dolphins hear, and what happens when their hearing systems get compromised by excessive exposure to pressure gradients. When the Office of Naval Research wanted to know about the impacts of blast trauma on porpoises and dolphins they chose Darlene, provided her with a test pond, some explosives,  a lot of carcasses, and let her do her work.

Around the turn of the century more women started showing up around marine mammals – due to the public – and thus funding interests in the interactions of human noise and these sentient and charismatic animals. But I suspect this was also due to the growing acceptance of women in the sciences. Major strides are being made by this “second wave” of women: Susan Parks, Colleen Reichmuth, Sharon Nieukirk, Marie Roch, Susanna Blackwell, Jennifer Miksis-Olds, and Christine Erbe (among others) who are in turn mentoring the next crop of women in bioacoustics.

While I am writing this on International Women’s Day, you will be receiving it a few days later (Gwynn is off today so the whole place shuts down). But it is never the wrong day to honor women ­– particularly women in bioacoustics.

[1] While her presence and contributions are too broad to include in this brief narrative I also want to bring attention to Dr. Ann Bowles Senior Scientists at Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute as being among the vanguard of women in marine bioacoustics whose intellect and inquiry really advanced the field in helpful ways.

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