This South Dakota Scientist Is Devoted To Making STEM Cool, Especially For Women And Girls

Jeryl Brunner

Science, technology, engineering, and math, otherwise known as STEM, helps foster innovation, growth and discovery. However, despite significant gains since the 1970s, women are still extremely underrepresented in the STEM workforce.

Granted, in 1970 women only composed 8% of STEM workers. As of 2019 that figure grew to 27%. Even today men make up nearly three-quarters of the STEM workforce in the United States.

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Paula Mabee (Photo courtesy National Ecological Observatory Network)

How can we address this imbalance? What can STEM fields do to demonstrate to women and girls that these fields are inclusive, and that they have a future in them? One key to retaining women in STEM is mentorship and representation. When young women and girls have access to female engineers, scientists and mathematicians, it’s much easier to envision themselves in these careers.

Enter Paula Mabee, the Chief Scientist and Observatory Director for the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), a continental-scale ecological observation facility. A Nolop Distinguished Professor in the Department of Biology at the University of South Dakota, Mabee is devoted to being a role model. Mabee has more than 35 years working in academia and government scientific agencies. She just completed her first full year at NEON. “I’m happy to be part of a group that is enabling discovery and still pushing boundaries on never-before-tackled science," she says.

Mabee started her Ph.D. at age 21 in the early 1980s, driven by her passion for aquatics and studying fish (a field known as ichthyology). At the time, it was a very male-dominated field of study, but Mabee followed her interest in the field and continued her research, completing her postdoctoral fellowship at the Smithsonian Institute.

Since then she has published more than 60 research papers, and her grants from the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health total nearly $7 million. Achieving this required her to push past the type of administrative work that, all too often, is left as women’s responsibilities but takes away time and capacity for scientific research in the lab.

“I taught and mentored women for over 25 years at San Diego State University and University of South Dakota,” says Mabee. And this perspective and experience has helped her understand why, now more than ever, women should be encouraged to go into the sciences. 

Jeryl Brunner: Why is it cooler than ever to work in STEM?

Paula Mabee: Did I mention revolutionary technology? We have more—and better—technology than we ever have before. Ecologists use satellites and remote sensing tools to see inside of forest canopies and understand how leaf coverage is changing. We are using machine learning and the latest in data science to analyze more data than in the past, and scientists are making new breakthroughs all the time. NEON makes available 81 data collection sites across the continent, Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico, plus our Airborne Observation Platform. But we also have tools that can be deployed at a small scale—our Mobile Deployment Platforms that act as mini and mobile NEON field sites. So if there is, say, a wildfire or a hurricane, a researcher can request and use our infrastructure to gather data. These are the types of new ideas and fresh breakthroughs that are making STEM cooler than ever.

In addition, working in STEM today means engaging and working with local communities to meet their needs. For example, NEON is partnering with the American Geophysical Union on their Thriving Earth Exchange program, where scientists and community leaders work together to gather data, develop mutually beneficial research projects, and make evidence-based decisions to overcome challenges that a particular community faces. These challenges can be about natural hazards or climate change, or they can be questions about how to manage a community’s natural resources. It involves scientists using their expertise while listening to and participating in projects that make tangible improvements for the communities where people live and work. I think this makes STEM work all the more meaningful.

Jeryl Brunner: How has the industry shifted over the past few years? The sciences are often seen as dry, so why is this field of study so key right now?  

Paula Mabee: Ecology is bringing together more disciplines than ever. Years ago, it used to be that zoologists focused on a particular animal, botanists focused on a certain type of plant, geologists studied rocks and soil, etc. But today, scientists in these fields are partnering and working together in exciting ways to help us understand how and why whole ecosystems are changing.

Most recently, big data and technology are revolutionizing ecology. Our scientists and partners collect vast amounts of data and are researching how we can apply machine learning and neural networks to analyze and learn from that data. This future of technology will enable us to connect in more meaningful ways to both natural and managed landscapes.

Jeryl Brunner: Why is it important to share data for discovery?

Paula Mabee: This is a time of data synthesis and networks of networks. To understand phenomena at continental and global scales, we need connectivity between various scientific disciplines—not just in ecology but in data science as well—to be able to grapple with large-scale questions and challenges. Researchers across STEM are coming together to share knowledge and look beyond the plots or snippets of a landscape where we would do our work. This shift in our thinking and our ways of collaborating allow us to better understand how ecosystems function and what effect humans are having both in land-managed areas and in places considered “natural.”

Jeryl Brunner: How have you seen the landscape of STEM transformed?

Paula Mabee: In addition to more sharing of knowledge and collaboration, another way the STEM landscape has changed is through greater diversity, which we need to encourage and foster. When I began my research in phylogenetics and ichthyology in 1981, it was a male-centric field and there weren’t many other female researchers I would encounter in my work. I was the first woman to win the Joseph S. Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award in Ichthyology. Now, there are more female than male undergraduates altogether across American universities, and science faculty diversity is improving too, albeit more slowly than our student population. It’s wonderful to see more representation of women and traditionally underrepresented populations in STEM, and if we work to value diversity and inclusion, I hope to see this continue to improve over time.

Jeryl Brunner: How are there more opportunities available for women?  What are your observances? In what fields are you seeing women getting involved in?

Paula Mabee: Although there are still barriers to be encountered regarding opportunities for women in ecology, the community has progressed by leaps and bounds in my lifetime. However, retention is key. We still have a long way to go in making scientific fields welcoming places where women stay for their careers. That applies to STEM fields as a whole, since various academic disciplines face a lot of the same hurdles with helping early-career scientists to balance work and family. Women on the academic career path are asked to do so much, such as taking on administrative work in the midst of research, and we need to ensure women have the time and support they need to pursue their research and stay in STEM. In the ecological fields that I’m most familiar with, I’m encouraged to see more women in these disciplines today because the more women are pursuing scientific careers, the more those fields will be equitable and welcoming—it will create a positive feedback loop.


Jeryl Brunner: How are you seeing more variety in careers within the industry?

There are definitely more careers in ecology as various computational and technical fields are becoming fundamental to the analyses. Ecology is a large umbrella of scientific disciplines, so we’re seeing these trends across life sciences and data sciences. Want to become an expert in mosquito lifecycle forecasting? Looking for an early-career field job just out of school? Perhaps you’re an engineer who wants to build and test new data collection methods? It’s become far more than just academia; I could go on. A large reason for this is, again, the technology and big data being brought into this work and it’s enormously valuable to the ecology community. It is easier than ever for someone to dig into the science, find new areas that have opened up to new tools, develop innovative questions, and grow a passion for it.

Jeryl Brunner: What kind of schooling is required to work in the industry

Paula Mabee: It is important for young people to know that there are many pathways to a career in science. There is of course the traditional academic route, which usually involves majoring in biology or chemistry or another earth science field during your undergraduate years, followed by graduate school, a post-doctoral fellowship, and working towards a position as a professor.

But, it’s certainly not the only route. There are all kinds of careers in ecology outside of academia. Plus, you don’t even need to be employed in the industry to do ecology. Citizen scientists participate in data collection projects all the time—it’s not necessary to have a higher degree to do scientific work. This work can involve cataloging when plants grow and flower, or noting when birds are migrating, or what animals are moving into an area each season. All this data can help researchers understand our changing world, and every person’s contribution is important. 


Jeryl Brunner: How can we help our kids get excited to learn about STEM?

Paula Mabee: Most kids are excited about nature, but it’s when they get to the age where ecology gets more in-depth that we need to help them. Can they predict when their favorite plant is going to flower this year? Citizen science projects, like doing environmental studies in their own backyard or local park, are a good place to start. There are resources out there for all age groups.

My expertise is of course in the ecological sciences, but there’s no reason this approach can’t apply to other fields in STEM. Whether it’s chemistry projects, coding challenges or environmental observations, getting kids involved with hands-on experience in these subjects can bring them to life. 



Jeryl Brunner: For women who want to study STEM but feel intimidated or not smart enough, what would you advise? 

Paula Mabee: Just try it! Lean in! Don’t sell yourself short. Find good mentors (you need more than one), talk to them about why you might feel intimidated, and how you can overcome it. Women are more and more accepted in the field, and women can do anything they put their minds to.

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New York based journalist who has written for Forbes, Parade, InStyle, National Geographic Traveler, Travel + Leisure, and The Wall Street Journal. Author of the book "My City, My New York, Famous New Yorkers Share Their Favorite Places" and podcaster, ("When Lightning Strikes"). I cover the arts, theater, entertainment, food, travel and people who are motivated by their joy and passion.

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