DFO scientists tell girls to follow their dreams
Department highlights female researchers on International Day of Women and Girls in Science
Marine biologist Vonda Wareham still remembers when her science teacher told her in Grade 10, “science is not for you.”
But those discouraging words never stopped her from following her passion. A few decades later, Wareham’s research on corals and sponges is an important part of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s mandate to protect and manage ocean ecosystems.
“I feel like tracking him down and showing him my master’s certificate, and saying, ‘ It wasn’t me. It was you all along,’” said Wareham, who has been with DFO for 12 years.
Though Wareham found science intimidating back in Bishops College in the 1980s, she always had a passion for conservation — “when recycling wasn’t cool, and no one cared about saving the whales or saving the birds, and I wanted to save everything.”
She moved to British Columbia, where she felt conservation was more of a priority, and eventually went back to school as a mature student. After getting her bachelor of science degree, she came back to Newfoundland to work on her master’s degree in environmental science.
Now, some of her work is on display at the GEO Centre in a popular exhibit of coral and sponge samples called “Gardens of the Deep.” “It shows some of the nicer specimens that we’ve collected over the years, and it talks about where they’re found and mimics the environment they would be found in and the communities they would create. It’s a mixture of video, physical samples, some text just to promote and educate people about corals and the importance of conserving and protecting them,” she said.
Wareham said they’re now using data to highlight important areas in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean with high concentrations of corals and sponges — areas they hope can be protected either by fishery closures or other conservation regulations.
Highlighting women in science
Wareham is one of several of DFO’s female scientists the department is proudly featuring to coincide with the United Nations International Day of Women and Girls in Science.
The UN says: “Unfortunately, women and girls continued to be excluded from participating fully in science.”
Wareham said she thinks things are changing, but she can see where the statement originates. She said girls tend to be told they’re better at languages and art, while boys are said to be better at science and math.
“I have a daughter who’s 11 years old, and she keeps say- ing that ‘I’m never going to be good at math,’ or ‘ I don’t like science. I’m not very good at it.’ And she’s better in French and English than she is in these other subjects. And it just makes me mad that that stigma starts at a very
young age. And I don’t even know where she got it from, but I‘ve been trying to explain to her the importance of sci-
“I have a daughter who’s 11 years old, and she keeps saying that ‘I’m never going to be good at math,’ or ‘I don’t like science. I’m not very good at it.’ And she’s better in French and English than she is in these other subjects. And it just makes me mad that that stigma starts at a very young age. Marine biologist Vonda Wareham
ence and math and all subjects,” she said. A teacher’s role Cynthia McKenzie, a fellow research scientist with DFO, said teachers can play a pivotal role in a person’s career path.
“A lot of it depends on who wants to spend the time promoting science in the classroom, and taking the time for it or getting out of the classroom and into the field. I think that’s a key point — what is the teacher promoting, and how are they doing it?” she said.
The Texas-born researcher said she had some excellent teachers who really promoted science — not to mention a scientist father.
“I was five- years- old when he weighed one of my hairs on his scale, and it was fascinating to me,” she said.
“So even from an early, early age, I was fascinated with science, and probably a geek in the most classic sense.
We would dissect frogs in science class, and I would have to take one home so I could dissect another one at home. (I was) president of the science club and the chess club and the math club, and everything like that.”
After a spell at the Ocean Sciences Centre, McKenzie moved to DFO, where she’s been focusing on invasive species for the past 15 years. She’s probably best known for her work with green crab, which continue their invasion of Newfoundland waters.
“I work with fish harvesters and other groups, trying to figure out what they’re doing, what impact they’re having on the environment, what kind of response we could have that would be effective,” she said, adding right now they’re focusing on Fortune Bay.
“We are concerned about how they may impact in the future the lobster there. We’re working with a lot of the lobster harvesters in that area to try to mitigate them and trap them before they get too much of a foothold and have an impact on either the habitat or the lobster fishery.”
As they continue their work, both McKenzie and Wareham encourage girls with an interest in science to follow their passion, too.
“Science is a very exciting field,” said Wareham. “I love my job, and it’s what drove me back to school. I wanted to be able to make a difference in what I do. I wanted to teach as many people what I know to help make this planet better. High school is important, and school is important, but it doesn’t necessarily dictate what you’re going to do when you get out of high school.
“That would be my key message. You can do anything you put your mind to.”