Dr. Joanne Halls, Associate Professor of Geography and Graduate Program Coordinator for the Department of Earth and Ocean Sciences at UNCW, grew up in Montreal, Canada. Education in Canada is different from the U.S. – you graduate high school at grade 11 and then enter the Collège d'enseignement général et professionnel, or CEGEP. A student must complete CEGEP before entering a university, CEGEP is similar to a community or vocational college. There, she studied social studies and artistic design and towards the end of her CEGEP education, she took a course in computer science and fell in love with programming.
Dr. Halls obtained a full scholarship to study architecture at the University of Toronto, but her parents objected as they had moved to Colorado when she was 17 and thought her behavior in Canada unacceptable. After making the choice to move to Colorado, she found a program at the University of Colorado in Environmental Design. However, she chose to attend the University of Denver due to tuition costs. Despite these setbacks, it was a good choice – it was there she discovered and fell in love with geography. Graduating with the class of 1985, she obtained her degree in Geography with specialties in GIS and Geomorphology and has a minor in Geology. Upon graduation, she was employed by the Bureau of Reclamation (they managed dams and water).
While working for the Bureau, Dr. Halls noticed that she was not being promoted as quickly as her peers were. After talking with her supervisor, she was told she would need her graduate degree to progress in the company. Dr. Halls gave her notice, applied to graduate school, and was accepted and attended the University of South Carolina. She obtained her Masters in 1990, and began working at a local consulting firm as the GSI manager. While employed, her former advisor inquired as to why she was not working towards her Ph.D. since she was still in Columbia, SC. With the thought of starting her own business, which would allow her to move up as a consultant and obtain more federal contacts, Dr. Halls went back for her Ph.D. After graduation, she returned to consulting. She loved the variety of projects in consulting, and getting to travel the world, but the stress levels were high. There were 30 people working under her, and she had to ensure projects were available so they could collect a paycheck. As a consultant, she has traveled to nearly all of the coastal United States. She has also been to El Salvador, Guatemala, Brazil, Venezuela, and the Middle East. Her work in the Middle East focused on preparing maps to respond to oil spills, and as a female, she was not entirely comfortable with traveling there at the time.
In 1999, Dr. Halls saw an opening at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. She was hesitant to enter academia because of experiences at a large R1 university – she left with the feeling that the education system should not focus only on grants and completing research, but that more emphasis needs to be placed on the students and their needs. Teaching was also low on her priority list, but the environment at UNCW was different – there as a balance between teaching and research and though the school was smaller, the quality of education and the resources were better. The most rewarding part of her teaching career has working with students, integrating her research with their ideas, and she loves being in the classroom.
As a woman in STEM, during the early years when women were very much a minority, Dr. Halls has seen changes. In her own department, when she was hired, there were only two women out of 19 staff members – currently there are nine women out of 19 professors total. During her time with the Bureau of Reclamation, her boss and she were the only females. At the University of Denver, she was the sole woman. All of her girlfriends went to business school, as that was the trend for the 80’s. At the University of South Carolina, the graduate program was roughly 75% male, with only one female faculty member. Overall, she feels that nothing was holding her back, and that the disparity did not present any issues in her career. She says, “We hear more about gender issues today than we did back then. I think it’s more noticeable now, and there are some fields that are notoriously harmful to women (the media and politics in particular). In the sciences, I feel that I have never been mistreated due to my gender – I don’t feel that it’s the makeup of people who enter the sciences. Even in traveling the world, meeting with different government officials and other scientists (which are male dominated fields), I never once had someone question my intelligence or integrity due to my sex.”
Dr. Halls is glad to see the number of women in the sciences increasing, but is also concerned about the diversity. “We now have more female students than male. I worry about the number of males going into the sciences – I worry about them not pursing it. There is also a trend of bad recruitment of non-Caucasians. I am not sure what the solution for this is, though UNCW is slowly improving.” For those young women who wish to pursue a degree in STEM, Dr. Halls advises,