New SWMS chapter makes a splash at University of Rhode Island

Introducing the new URI SWMS chapter!

Introducing the new URI SWMS chapter!

Inspiration Hits at SWMS Annual Symposium

University of Rhode Island (URI) PhD students, Alexa Sterling and Jillian Freese, felt empowered by the vast network of women they met at the 2015 and 2016 SWMS Symposia.

“I heard candid stories from women who broke boundaries in marine science about the sometimes circuitous paths they took from graduate school to their current position,” says Freese, co-president of SWMS at URI. While women in marine science are more abundant than ever at the student and trainee level, lead scientist and professor roles are still overwhelmingly male-dominated.

“I wanted to help build the sort of supportive community I saw at the SWMS symposium here at URI,” says Freese. It didn’t take long for Sterling and Freese to mobilize an ambitious group of women in marine science in their own community.

At the first SWMS meeting held last December at URI, more than 20 women (including graduate students, undergraduates, faculty and staff) shared their ideas and enthusiasm for the future of SWMS. “We are really excited for the momentum the group has picked up so quickly,” says Sterling, co-president of SWMS at URI.

As of today, the group has already established several committees focused on what members are most passionate about: mentoring, outreach, professional development, and science communication.

Not wasting any time, SWMS planned several professional development workshops and outreach events at URI. This month, SWMS will host a panel of five women across government, academia, and science communication career paths to discuss their experience and insights. The outreach committee has designed hands-on activities for the local SMILE (Science and Math Investigative Learning Experiences) Forth Grade Ecology Field Day in April. In hopes to foster an interest in marine science, SWMS will lead activities including bird stomach dissections and plankton identification.

Unique Opportunity for Undergraduate Engagement

In March, SWMS kicked off its undergraduate-graduate mentoring program to foster supportive relationships among members. “I am so grateful for the graduate students who helped me when I was younger – this is our way of paying it forward,” says Sterling.

Both graduate students and undergraduates are looking forward to the social events and professional development opportunities promoted by the mentoring relationship. “At URI, we have the opportunity to actively include undergraduates in this organization,” says Freese. “We hope these mentoring relationships will encourage undergraduates to stay in science.”

Karla Haiat, an undergraduate double majoring in Marine Biology and Ocean Engineering, was thrilled to hear that SWMS was forming at URI. “SWMS has provided an open and safe environment where learning, networking and support between members is encouraged,” says Haiat. “As an undergraduate, there is nothing more valuable than having the support and friendship of more experienced scientists and peers that can understand the challenges of this field.”

URI Faculty Show Support for Women in STEM

Sterling and Freese acknowledge that URI faculty members, Dr. Bethany Jenkins, Dr. Jacqueline Webb, and Dr. David Smith, have played an integral role in the formation of SWMS at URI.

Through her work with RI Girl Scouts, Dr. Jenkins, Professor of Cell and Molecular Biology and Oceanography, has provided a unique platform for SWMS at URI to get involved in more outreach and communication with the broader community. Dr. Jenkins was one of three female URI professors to receive Antarctic cruise funding this season, and is regularly involved in outreach programs engaging young girls in science.

Dr. Webb, Marine Biology Program Coordinator and the George and Barbara Young Chair in Biology, is a mentor for numerous undergraduates in the Marine Biology program at URI. Naturally, Dr. Webb became an advocate for women to stay in scientific fields and she recently led a workshop for SWMS members on creating professional CV’s.

Associate Dean of the Graduate School of Oceanography (GSO) at URI, Dr. David Smith, has not only helped jump start SWMS at URI, but has spoken on panels at the annual SWMS Symposia. Dr. Smith recently spoke to the chapter about the process of applying to graduate school. As a representative of the GSO, Dr. Smith has been key in motivating connectivity between the URI campus and GSO campus.

Faculty and student involvement in SWMS has fostered meaningful connections not only between URI’s main campus and Graduate School of Oceanography at the Narragansett Bay campus, but also throughout the wider community. “With a large group of marine science researchers, I felt that SWMS would allow us to focus on professional development and increase our opportunities for collaboration and public outreach,” says Freese.

Anyone involved in or interested in marine science is welcome to join SWMS – man or woman. Stay tuned for more exciting events coming up this semester at URI and profiles of our members in the near future.

Melissa Hoffman, Master’s Student in Biology & Environmental Science