Six Questions with SWMS – Sonia Ahrabi-Nejad

“Six Questions with SWMS” is a series of interviews with women across marine science with a wide range of career paths, degrees, and experiences. 

Sonia Ahrabi-Nejad

What is your current job, and how did you end up there?

I work as a School and Youth Programs Educator at Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans, Louisiana. With School Programs I lead and help develop lessons for visiting school groups coming on field trips to the aquarium. These lessons cover a range of topics from frogs, to rainforests, to shark dissections. With different schools visiting each day, I have a new experience each time. I also train and supervise the youth volunteers that come to the aquarium on the weekends. Over the summer, I led a month-long training for a group of 20 middle schoolers to teach them about the aquarium as well as how to talk about climate change and its impact on ocean habitats. During the school year these volunteers interact with visiting guests, passing on their knowledge and climate change solutions.

I went to Northeastern University for my undergraduate degree and participated in their cooperative education program. I knew I wanted to work in informal education when I got my first internship at the Northeastern University Marine Science Center in Nahant, Massachusetts. While there I worked with classes teaching kids to do biological surveys in the intertidal zone. I loved connecting kids to real science methods. Since then I have worked as an educator in the Everglades and at fishing camps, and when I moved to New Orleans I was lucky to continue working as an informal science educator.

What is your favorite thing about marine science, or your research field more specifically?

My graduate research focused on two small tuna species commonly caught by recreational anglers in southeastern Florida. Working with non-scientists, especially children, and helping them understand their connection to the ocean and their impact on it is my favorite thing. Even though I am not currently doing research, I love to translate active science to the general public to foster a better connection between scientists and the community.

What is your greatest professional/educational accomplishment?

All of my accomplishments, including graduating with a bachelor’s in biology and a master’s in marine biology, have gotten me to this point in my life, so collectively those are all my greatest accomplishments. Through all of this I have grown and I am glad for all of my experiences.

What are your goals for the next six years?

I want to continue to grow in my ability as an informal science educator and develop programs that engage audiences about the ocean. It is becoming more important that people not only talk about climate change and its impact on the world, but also about how collectively we can make changes to our lifestyles that will help reduce this impact.

What advice would you give the six-years-ago version of yourself?

Six years ago at this time I was in the fall semester of my senior year of undergrad and working at my Marine Science Center internship. I had just come back from a year-long marine biology program called the Three Seas Program run by Northeastern University. During this year my class traveled and researched marine biology in the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, and Pacific Ocean. I was trying to decide what I should do after graduation and if I should pursue a graduate degree or start applying for jobs. My advice to myself would be to work towards your goals but be flexible in the path you take to get there. Find out what makes the most sense for you, what makes you the happiest, or what gives you the skills you want to develop.  

Our theme for our 4th annual fall symposium is “Swimming in Confidence: Declaring your Scientific Authority.” How do you increase your self-confidence?

I am lucky that I have a strong group of women to whom I can look for guidance and assistance, both professionally and personally. By talking and brainstorming with these women I am able to increase my self-confidence and see my accomplishments through others’ eyes. Sometimes I need to take a step back to appreciate how far I have come.

Gearing up for SWMS 2017

Steering Committee at OCB meeting

By Chrissy Hernandez

For the past few years, the SWMS Steering Committee has been comprised primarily of students and postdocs based at WHOI and MIT. Despite our close geographical locations, we have all of our meetings via Skype. This has made it easy to transition to having Steering Committee members in more far-flung locations. When Femke DeJong was wrapping up her postdoc and spending more time at home in the Netherlands, she continued to participate in our meetings and with website upkeep. And this past year, after Ellie Bors and Sophie Chu defended their theses at WHOI, they moved on to exciting postdoctoral fellowships but have continued to support us back ‘home’ as we work to grow SWMS. Ellie is currently a Knauss fellow in DC, and Sophie is in Seattle, splitting her time between NOAA and the University of Washington.

The 2016 Symposium was  planned entirely over Skype!
The 2016 Symposium was planned entirely over Skype! Annie, Sophie, Femke, Gabi, Ellie, and Chrissy (clockwise from top left) are used to e-meetings, but we are excited to add two new members to our crew. 

As exciting as it is that our experienced Steering Committee members are staying on to help guide our organization through some growing pains, it’s an even bigger deal to bring in some fresh blood! Alexa Sterling and Anna Robuck, students at the URI Graduate School of Oceanography, have generously volunteered to help plan and run the 2017 SWMS Symposium. These ladies are already doing an amazing job with the URI Chapter of SWMS, which you can read about here. Their participation in planning the 2017 Symposium will be invaluable because they add a perspective that is outside of WHOI, and because they’re bringing all kinds of great ideas about what has worked well for SWMS at URI!

I guess that in our highly-connected, social-media-filled society, it shouldn’t seem so weird to meet people and collaborate with them electronically…but it still does! Since Alexa was in Woods Hole last week for the Ocean Carbon Biogeochemistry (OCB) meeting, she and I made plans to meet up in person (for the first time ever!). When I realized that Sophie, Hilary, and Annie were also participating in OCB, I was so excited to have a get together!

Although I wasn’t participating in OCB this year (#fieldwork), I went to the Tuesday evening poster session and had the opportunity to hear about Hilary’s current research. We asked a kind stranger to take some photos of us, because this is the first time we’ve had this many Steering Committee members in one room (outside of the Symposium). After that, the 5 of us went to the Captain Kidd for a lively session of eating, drinking, talking, and being merry! It was a special treat to have Annie out with us for the evening (big thank you to her husband for watching their kids!), to have Sophie back in town, and to meet Alexa face-to-face! Of course, I also had fun hanging out with Hilary, but I get to see her most frequently outside of the group.

Steering Committee at OCB meeting
SWMS Steering Committee members Sophie, Alexa, Annie, Hilary, and Chrissy (L to R) got together at the OCB meeting.

After this brainstorming session, we’re ready to hit the ground running with planning the SWMS 2017 Fall Symposium. Our next priorities are to pick a theme and invite a keynote speaker. We’re also working on setting up registration forms and designing our program. If you have a scientist in mind that you would like to hear speak, on either their awesome science or the specific experience of being a woman in marine science, please email us at!

We are so excited to see you on November 3rd in Woods Hole!

Member Updates: Corals, Parasites, and Graduation

Megan Frenkel: first paper published!

Megan (Meg) Frenkel, a PhD student at Columbia/LDEO, published her first paper! “Quantifying bamboo coral growth rate nonlinearity with the radiocarbon bomb spike: A new model for paleoceanographic chronology development” was published in Deep Sea Research I, and is based on her undergraduate honors thesis at Bowdoin College with Michèle LaVigne

Close up of Meg Frenkel smiling at the camera
Meg Frenkel

Meg’s journey to publication was not exactly smooth: when she was almost ready to submit the paper, her computer crashed and she had to remake all her figures and reprocess part of the data — yikes! She is excited to have her first publication out and is now transitioning to working on dust flux at Lamont. You can read her paper here.

Bamboo coral with calcitic internodes (white) and organic gorgonin nodes (black). Image credit: NOAA
Bamboo coral with calcitic internodes (white) and organic gorgonin nodes (black). Image credit: NOAA

Meg is on Twitter at @megfrenkel.

Jillian Freese: review paper published!

Did you know that there are over 6,000 species of red algae, and that the latest review published about this huge assemblage of species and their parasites was written by a grad student?  Jillian Freese, a PhD student at the University of Rhode Island, recently published an invited review in Molecular and Biochemical Parasitology on parasitism in red algae. Her research in the Biological and Environmental Science department focuses on red algal parasite development. While researching for her paper, Jillian really enjoyed seeing how much each paper built off others from the past, even as far back as the 19th century.  At that point, the most cutting edge research focused on the appearance and shape, or morphology, of red algae specimens.

red algae illustration
This illustration of red algae was published in 1849. Image contributed to the Biodiversity Heritage Library by Museums Victoria.



Red algae
Modern photograph of red algae. Image credit: University of Wisconsin Plant Teaching Collection, used with permission.








The most challenging part of getting the paper out was the actual writing. “There’s something about that blank document and blinking cursor that can be intimidating,” Jillian said. Read her paper here to learn all about the fascinating link between red algae species and their parasite friends.

Jilliane Freese with red algae
Jillian Freese with red algae sample.

You can find Jillian on Twitter @JillianFreese.

Dr. Sophie Chu: graduation!

Model, doctor, or both?!
Model, doctor, or both?!

Sophie Chu defended her thesis back in January, but she finally got to wear a funny hat and walk across the stage this month! Dr. Chu earned her PhD in the MIT-WHOI Joint Program in Oceanography. She traded one joint program for another when she graduated and is now a postdoc with the Joint Institute for the Study of Atmospheres and Oceans (JISAO), where she is part of the NOAA PMEL carbon group.

Sophie and her boyfriend in front of mountains
Sophie and her boyfriend are loving the PNW life!

Sophie is a SWMS steering committee member and is working on starting a Seattle chapter of SWMS.

Written by Gabi Serrato Marks, PhD student in the MIT-WHOI Joint Program and SWMS steering committee member.

Do you have news to share?

The Society for Women in Marine Science would like to start posting about our members’ exciting news and accomplishments to highlight the excellent work being done by women marine scientists.

Is your first (or fiftieth) paper coming out? Are you graduating, or did you get tenure? Did you just get back from a two week cruise? Did you write an article for a public outlet?


We want to hear about it! Nothing is too small to celebrate.

Please fill out this form about your news, and then email us a picture at to go along with it.We plan to write posts with a group of member updates, so look out for those in the future. We can’t wait to hear what you are all up to!


PS: not a member yet? Fill out our membership form here, and then send the link to your friends.

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