When we reflect on women in science, often the focus turns to pioneering scientists from the past. While there is much to be celebrated about the early trailblazers, it's important to also look to the present for inspiration to remind the scientists of the future that it takes all sorts to innovate, explore and analyze our world.
Such inspiration can be found in No Boundaries, an anthology penned by co-authors and National Geographic Explorers Clare Fieseler and Gabby Salazar tracking the incredible life stories of 25 women explorers and scientists.
We caught up with Fieseler and Salazar to find out more about their own experiences in science, and what readers can hope to take away from No Boundaries: 25 Women Explorers and Scientists Share Adventures, Inspiration, and Advice.
What do you do?
Gabby Salazar: I’m a National Geographic Explorer, Conservation Photographer, and Doctoral Candidate at the University of Florida.
Clare Fieseler: I’m also a National Geographic Explorer, as well as an Ecologist, Journalist, and Postdoctoral Fellow at the Smithsonian Institution.
What inspired you to create your new release No Boundaries?
Gabby Salazar: When I was growing up, I was interested in science and exploration, but I knew very little about science careers and about women who were active in science today. Most of the female scientists I knew about were from history. I was inspired to create this book because I want to help expand the field of science and exploration by providing relatable role models and by exposing kids to a broad range of science careers.
Clare Fieseler: For me, the book came from a place of personal frustration. In April 2013, I opened the latest National Geographic magazine, which was an issue dedicated almost entirely to the topic of de-extinction, bringing back extinct species. On one page, the editors had included headshots of all the experts who had been interviewed about this topic – and it just popped out to me: there was just one woman among almost a dozen men.
Over the next few weeks, I poured over numerous issues and started a tally sheet. I was shocked to discover that in that issue and two dozen others from that time, women were featured on average less than 20 percent of the time as experts and explorers. And then I read a report from the Women’s Media Center that showed similar numbers across all news media at the time. This discovery motivated Gabby and me to try to do something to better highlight women scientists for the audience that we thought mattered most: young readers.
Can you give us a personal highlight from the book?
Gabby Salazar: I am very inspired by how Dr Asha de Vos, a Sri Lankan marine biologist, got a spot on a research expedition to study whales near Sri Lanka. When Asha reached out to the expedition, they told her they did not have a spot for her. Rather than taking no for an answer, she wrote to the team every day for three months and eventually convinced them to take her on as a deckhand (not even as a scientist).
They gave her a single day to make it to the Maldives to join the expedition. Amazingly, she made it! She was eventually hired as a science intern and helped make some incredible discoveries about blue whales in the waters near Sri Lanka, which really helped launch her career. Much of her work today focuses on making marine science more inclusive and ensuring that scientists from the regions where research is taking place are active participants in that research.
Clare Fieseler: I’m a new mom. So, at this point in my life, the story that speaks to me the most is Dr Sarah Stewart Johnson’s story. She is an astrobiologist who has worked on multiple Mars rover missions. Her job is trying to develop the best ways to detect the existence of Martian life, past or present. When she decided to have children, Sarah had to miss out on some of the most exciting recent moments of Mars exploration.
On the day that the rover Curiosity landed on Mars in 2012, she was exhausted and bringing her newborn son home from the hospital while all her colleagues were at NASA celebrating. She had serious doubts as to whether she could be a mom and be an astrobiologist. Five years later, when an opportunity came up to travel to Iceland and test extraterrestrial life-detecting instruments, she was determined to make it work. She ended up bringing her son, then five years old, into the field with her. She made him part of the expedition. My favorite picture in the book is one that Sarah took of her son, donned in his snow bib, looking out across his mom’s field site in one of the most remote parts of Iceland.
What do you hope people reading No Boundaries will get from it?
Gabby Salazar: I hope that people will appreciate the many diverse pathways that women can take in their pursuit of science and exploration. There is not a single way to become a scientist or to participate in science and exploration. You can have a formal degree or be a citizen scientist.
You can become interested in science as a second career or participate in science as a photographer or writer. And, you may have to overcome different types of barriers, including societal expectations and a lack of accessible opportunities, in your pursuit of science. But, if you persist, the payoff can be amazing!
Clare Fieseler: Similar to Gabby, I hope readers recognize the persistence in these women’s stories. Some women leaned on mentors to persist. Some found their voice and kept speaking out. Others learned to accept failure over and over. One woman in our book turned back from one of the world’s tallest peaks just days before summiting. Talent is overrated. For women today, persistence really is the secret sauce.
What's the most common misconception about your line of work?
Gabby Salazar: I am a conservation photographer, which means that I use images to tell stories about environmental issues and to help inspire people to engage in pro-environmental actions. The most common misconception is that I spend most of my time traveling to beautiful locations. The reality is that I spend a lot of my time behind the computer, doing research and planning campaigns that use my images.
I also spend a lot of time documenting human impacts on nature and wildlife, which can be disheartening. But, to tell effective stories, we need to document both the issues that are threatening wild places and the beautiful places and species we are trying to protect.
Clare Fieseler: Becoming a scientist is like being dropped into a dark forest with a bunch of people. All the doctors and lawyers are there, like, trying to make compasses and maps. And you’re off to the side with a tape measure just shouting, “Guys, you’ll never guess how big this tree is!” In other words, the scientist’s path is rarely linear, nor is it understood by outsiders.
For me, it’s the eccentricities, long detours, and unplanned diversions that often define the lives of scientists that I most admire. Having the courage to persist and even embrace that part of the journey is something I want for all young scientists.
What’s your most treasured piece of kit?
Gabby Salazar: Sunscreen! I live in Florida and spend most of my time outdoors.
Clare Fieseler: Headlamps. In fact, I think I gave Gabby headlamps as a wedding present!
Gabby Salazar: Yes. Yes, you did. And they were great!
What’s one piece of advice you'd give to someone wanting to embark on the same career?
Gabby Salazar: Follow your curiosity. I do not have a single title or a single career. I worked as a conservation photographer for over a decade before going back to school to pursue a master’s degree. Now I’m in the middle of a PhD program where I study the impact of environmental images on people’s pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors. There was no roadmap that helped me get here – I just kept pursuing projects and opportunities that interested me. I really love what I do.
Clare Fieseler: I have two solid careers. I’m both a scientist and a journalist. But making this dual career “work” took time. Almost twenty years, in fact. My advice is to be patient.
No Boundaries: 25 Women Explorers and Scientists Share Adventures, Inspiration, and Advice is available from February 1, 2022.