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Making Waves: 6 Women in Hawai‘i with Careers in STEM Share Their Stories

Only a quarter of STEM jobs in the U.S. are filled by women. Here are six making a difference in Hawai‘i.


Published:

Ka‘iulani Murphy

Ka‘iulani Murphy aboard Hōkūle‘a.
photo: aaron k. yoshino

 

Hawai‘i’s volcanic origin and isolation in the middle of the largest ocean on Earth naturally lends itself to careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM—from ocean depths to outer space and everything in between. Many of these fast-growing careers require the very skills taught in science and math classes.

 

Yet according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, while women filled 47 percent of total jobs in the U.S. in 2015, they only filled 24 percent of STEM jobs. And according to a report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine published earlier this year and two years in the making—well before the #MeToo movement—sexual harassment in academia continues to be a deterrent to women in STEM, along with gender bias and stereotypes.

 

Nevertheless, some women have persisted; here are six in Hawai‘i who are excelling in their fields.

 


Murphy

Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino

 

Ka‘iulani Murphy

Hawaiian Studies (Voyaging) instructor, Honolulu Community College

39 years old

 

EDUCATION

Bachelor of Arts in Hawaiian Studies
Navigator with Hōkūle‘a

 

KNOWN FOR

Navigating Hōkūle‘a. “I’m stoked to have been part of an awesome team of wāhine who guided Hōkūle‘a home from Tahiti last summer on the last leg of the worldwide voyage. Pomai Bertelmann was our captain, and our navigation team included Haunani Kane, Pua Maielua-Lincoln and Kala Tanaka.”

 

What specific challenges have you run into as a woman in your field?

“One of my biggest ‘wahine challenges’ is dealing with monthly cycles while voyaging, if you know what I mean. Also, leaving your ‘ohana back home is never easy, but for voyagers who are mothers, I think it’s even more of a challenge to be away from their keiki."

 

What advice do you have for women considering a career in your field?

“Enjoy the learning process, study hard and make our ancestors proud!”

 

What’s next for you?

“I’m excited about the growth of our ‘ohana wa‘a, from recently launched voyaging canoes on Kaua‘i and Maui to smaller sailing wa‘a, which are great for learning sailing skills, as well as what’s beneath the surface of the sea that is so vital to the health of our island home.”

 


Leslie Au

PHOTO: AARON K. YOSHINO

 

Leslie Au

Senior biomedical engineer, Oceanit

36 years old

 

EDUCATION

Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering
Master of Science in Chemistry
Bachelor of Science in Biology, Chemistry and Biochemistry

 

Known for

Developing a medical device to stop intracranial hemorrhage, or bleeding in the skull. “Working along with fellow scientists, engineers and medical professionals, we demonstrated that laser energy can be [used] to stop the bleeding without affecting the background tissues. This is a minimally invasive procedure that can work at the point of injury, which would reduce mortality and neurological injury.”

 

What specific challenges have you run into as a woman in your field?

“More women are entering into STEM fields, but there are still too few women in leadership and executive positions. To change the culture of our workplaces that will lead to greater innovation in science and tech, we need a greater diversity within our leadership positions, which must include women.”

 

What advice do you have for women considering a career in your field?

“As women not just in tech, but in the workplace, we have to fight for our voices to be heard. I would tell women not to discount their own voices and ideas and to fight for their good ideas. Technology is a field still dominated by men, and it’s easy to get discouraged and feel diminished, but the culture is changing as well. We need women to be out front and courageous to help continue moving the culture.”

 

What’s next for you?

“Raising a baby is definitely what will be exciting for me for the next 18-plus years. Professionally, we are scaling up the production of metallic nanostructures for obscurant testing with the Army.”

 


Young

Photos of Lindsay Young: courtesy of heather eijzenga

 

Lindsay Young

Executive director, Pacific Rim Conservation

39 years old

 

EDUCATION

Ph.D. in Zoology
Master of Science in Zoology
Bachelor of Science in Biology

 

Known for

Seabird relocation program at James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge. “We have translocated four species of seabirds from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands whose nesting habitat is being lost to sea level rise, and are creating a new colony here on O‘ahu where the birds will not only be safe in the future, but the people of Hawai‘i will be able to visit in person.”

 

Young

 

What specific challenges have you run into as a woman in your field?

“In my field specifically, we spend a lot of time outside doing physically demanding work in remote locations, which can be challenging. I convinced myself that pregnancy and having kids would be no different, but couldn’t just pretend it wasn’t happening, as I couldn’t physically keep up with my male co-workers. So I normalized motherhood by talking about it. My male co-workers got used to taking [breast] pumping breaks while I was in the field and talking about the challenges of trying to breastfeed my kids. Without batting an eyelash, they even helped me snorkel to find a part of my breast pump that had fallen into the ocean. We should never be embarrassed about our biology; having (or not having!) kids is perfectly normal.”

 

What advice do you have for women considering a career in your field?

“Don’t overthink it, just do it. My job, while challenging, is incredibly rewarding. It has a clear sense of purpose and requires me to constantly adapt to new scenarios. Every individual, man, woman, introvert, extrovert, etc., brings something unique to the table, and we come up with our most creative ideas when we are challenged to do so. For me, this often means being around people who think differently from I do—regardless of their gender.”

 

What’s next for you?

“Personally, I’m beyond excited to be teaching for Semester at Sea (a study abroad program aboard a ship, sponsored by Colorado State University) while simultaneously learning about conservation practices in vastly different countries and regions than our own. In terms of Pacific Rim Conservation pro-jects, we are looking to scale up what we are doing on O‘ahu and bring that to other islands in Hawai‘i—i.e., replicate the James Campbell project at other sites while simultaneously doing a solid review of the science used in the project. We also plan to attempt translocations with some more uncommon species in the coming years, so stay tuned.”

 


Barbieri

Photos of Michelle Barbieri: courtesy of national oceanic and atmospheric administration

 

Michelle Barbieri

Wildlife veterinarian, NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center

37 years old

 

EDUCATION

Doctor of Veterinary Medicine
Master of Science in Marine Biology
Bachelor of Science in Marine Biology

 

Known for

Creating a vaccination program to prevent distemper virus in wild endangered Hawaiian monk seals. “What’s so exciting about the monk seal vaccination effort is that no other marine mammal in the world is proactively vaccinated at this level. So we’re not only protecting seals from a disease threat that has the potential to decimate the species, we’re also raising the bar in what’s possible for other marine mammal populations.”

 

Barbieri

 

What specific challenges have you run into as a woman in your field?

“I am about to give birth to my first child (a girl!). I am already acutely aware of the assumptions by others, male or female, that I will alter my commitment to my career once I become a mother. This may be the case for some moms and dads out there, and that is their choice and not to be faulted. Yet it is difficult to hear these assumptions directed at my future because it fails to recognize my individuality, irrespective of my gender. It is one perception that I fully expect to prove wrong. In a world where I’m often working with animals several times my body weight—and gear that nears it—it’s common to be underestimated in terms of strength and physical ability. The difference is that we women often have to prove ourselves worthy of that physical ability whereas men are assumed to be physically capable right at the start. I’m also very conscious of the fact that there is a difference in perception between males and females as leaders: An assertive male is generally considered strong and is highly respected for it, yet an assertive female has to work extra hard not to be perceived as bossy, mean or ill-natured but still get her point across effectively.”

 

What advice do you have for women considering a career in your field?

“This job is high pressure … and requires a great deal of resilience. Developing the skills to be able to cope with these pressures is more important than strong academics or clinical skills. Treat yourself and your fellow humans with the same compassion you have for the animals. Celebrate and share the successes, as the rewards of the job are also high. Find supportive mentors, friends and colleagues, and cultivate those relationships with love and positive energy. Be proactive in supporting your colleagues and in seeking support. And always, always follow your heart.”

 

What’s next for you?

“Personally, I am excited to raise my daughter to be a strong, sensitive, open-minded individual with the potential to advance the role of women in whatever pursuit she chooses. Professionally, I am developing a program to mentor and support the next generation of wildlife veterinarians and scientists in the way that my mentors have done for me.”

 


Ragone

Diane Ragone, Director of the Breadfruit Institute of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, has had to overcome many challenges as a woman in STEM. 
Photos of Diane Ragone: Jim Wiseman

 

Diane Ragone​

Director, Breadfruit Institute of the National Tropical Botanical Garden

64 years old

 

EDUCATION

Ph.D. in Horticulture
Master of Science in Horticulture

 

Known for

Establishing the world’s largest breadfruit germ-plasm repository, or bank of breadfruit cells that can be used to grow new plants, at the National Tropical Botanical Garden. “Extensive research made it possible to distribute more than 100,000 breadfruit trees to 45 countries for food security, regenerative agriculture and economic development.”

 

Ragone

 

What specific challenges have you run into as a woman in your field?

“Too many of the ‘challenges’ I’ve had to deal with, especially while doing field work alone, are not fit for publication in this magazine! When I started college in the 1970s, horticulture in academia and industry was very male dominated. There were no female professors. Even though there were many undergraduate women, few went on to do graduate work. I have to say that the sole woman professor—and most of the male faculty and graduate students in the horticulture department at UH—were very supportive of the handful of women in the graduate program. However, as in many disciplines and industries, there are people who have a very dismissive attitude and are even obstructionist. I was once directly accused of ‘being ambitious.’ I took that as a great compliment!”

 

What advice do you have for women considering a career in your field?

"Do it! It’s an exciting, fulfilling and diverse field with so many amazing people engaged in meaningful and interesting endeavors. Be strong, focused and kind, but just ignore people who don’t take you seriously.”

 

What’s next for you?

“The definitive book on breadfruit.”

 


Hagedorn

Photos of Mary Hagedorn: Courtesy of Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute

 

Mary Hagedorn

Adjunct professor, Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology & Research scientist, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute

63 years old

 

Hagedorn

 

EDUCATION

Ph.D. in Marine Biology    
Master of Science in Biology  
Bachelor of Science in Biology

 

Known for

Creating the field of coral cryobiology (studying the effects of low temperatures on corals) and helping form the first genome repository for coral sperm. “We have conserved 20 species of coral in this bank worldwide to date.”

 

Hagedorn

 

What specific challenges have you run into as a woman in your field?

“Women are still not treated equally in the sciences in terms of pay and advancement. There is still much to be done until we have gender balance and pay in the sciences.”

 

What advice do you have for women considering a career in your field?

“Take as many science classes as you can. Take as many STEM enrichment classes during the summer to see what a career in science would mean. Take leadership classes that enhance verbal and written skills. Learn to work in a team, too!”

 

What’s next for you?

“This summer we are doing an amazing experiment to show that frozen sperm from around the Caribbean (some we froze 10 years ago) can create new coral that can grow into mature coral colonies. We will be making genetic crosses that would never occur naturally. They will be raised in captivity for several years and will be tested to see if they are better adapted to the changing oceans. Several partner institutes are working across the world to make this experiment a success.”

 

 

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