Amanda Southwood Williard is an Associate Professor in the Biology and Marine Biology Department at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. She obtained her Bachelor’s in Marine Biology from Auburn University, Master’s in Zoology from the University of British Columbia (Vancouver, Canada), and Ph.D. in Zoology from the University of British Columbia. Before coming to UNCW in 2005, Dr. Williard worked with the National Marine Fisheries Service through the Pacific Island Fisheries Center and had a Postdoctoral Fellowship through the University of Hawaii in Honolulu.
Dr. Williard’s training is in comparative physiology – specifically in aspects of diving and thermal physiology of reptiles. Her current projects involve working with sea turtles and estuarine turtles, such as the diamond-back terrapin, and studying their physiological changes in response to their environment. She has several students working with her at both the undergraduate and graduate level. She chose STEM because of her interest in biology and a love of nature. Those interests grew into a thirst to understand more about natural processes and how animals function in their environments.
Over the course of her career, she’s noticed a balance shift in the ratio of males to females. When she first started graduate school, in the 1990’s, she remembers being it heavily weighted toward males, especially at the faculty level. However, being in a STEM field that was once typically dominated by men, she says she can’t really say that the disparity bothered her. In graduate school she did field work in Central America, which was a very male dominated environment. Dr. Williard does say that she’s been lucky – “I’ve had some amazing women mentors, and I’ve also had the opportunity to work with some amazing male mentors that were supportive of trying to promote women in science. I have never felt impeded in my ability or my drive to pursue what I wanted to do.”
She hasn’t dwelled too much on the thought of being a woman in STEM, her reasoning being she didn’t really perceive it as unusual. Dr. Williard does state, “One thing that is an undeniable challenge, and when I was coming through in the 1990’s, I did not have many mentors to show me that it is possible to succeed at your career and also pursue other things in your personal life that you may want to achieve. I didn’t have many roles models in that regard back then because it seemed more difficult. But now, if you look at the faculty we have in the Biology Department here, you will see that many women are at the pinnacle of their academic career success, but they’ve managed to balance doing things in their personal life that they wanted to do as well. I feel like it’s very positive, and I do feel like I am very lucky to be in an environment where I‘ve been able to achieve that. For me as a woman in science now, I just feel like I don’t consider myself a role model. Maybe for me, and all the other women that are in our department, who are being a professor and a research scientist that, this is normal now. I’d like to think that this is normal, this is what you can do.”
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,
Dr. Toni B. Pence, a South Carolina native, graduated from Winthrop University in Rock Hill, SC with a B.S. Computer Science. From there, she attended Clemson University in Clemson, SC where she received her Master’s and Ph.D. in Computer Science. She is currently teaching courses in eye tracking and virtual reality at UNCW. Dr. Pence was the recipient of the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship during her time at Clemson University. She spent her time developing a virtual pediatric patient system for nursing students. This system allows those students to practice their interviewing and decision-making skills.
As an undergraduate, Dr. Pence originally majored in mathematics, but after a year in mathematics, she took a programming class and switched majors to Computer Science. During her time at Winthrop, Pence was the only female in her computer science classes. Her advice for young women pursuing a career in STEM is, “Do it. There isn’t anything women can’t do, and though the landscape might look different, and there might not be people who look like you, you should find your tribe. Also, don’t be afraid to reach out to men in the field because they can help change the landscape too, so find those people. Find people who are going to support your dreams!”
Dr. Pence joined the University of North Carolina Wilmington during the 2015-2016 school year. Her current research includes using virtual environments to detect different biases, such as obesity, gender, or race. If a detection is possible, the behavior is acted upon and the bias is corrected.
When asked what it means to her to be a woman in STEM she replied, “For me, the biggest thing is that I want to help as many women and minority students as I can, I want to be their support system. If I had not had that during my schooling, I don’t know if I would be here, and I want to be that for them. I also want to show that the idea of a typical Computer Scientist is changing, it’s not your typical nerd sitting behind the desk with videogames, we’re evolving and there is not one type of Computer Scientist anymore.” In her spare time, you can usually find her being active or crafty with tennis or quilting.
Dr. Wendy Strangman received her Ph.D. in Oceanography from Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, specializing in marine natural products chemistry. She began her career at the University of British Columbia (Vancouver), working in the Earth and Ocean Sciences Department with natural products chemistry, purifications, bioactive molecules, structure elucidation, and organic synthesis. She grew up watching Jacques Cousteau and National Geographic and in high school, she decided she wanted to pursue an education as a Marine Biologist. Since the shows she grew up watching took place at Scripps, she planned to attend UC-San Diego for her undergraduate degree and apply for a job with Scripps. That way she could have a foot in the door for graduate school. However, she did have to convince her parents to let her attend school in California, since she grew up in Arizona. Initially wanting to work with whales and dolphins, she changed her mind after interacting with others in that particular field. She opted to begin working with the CalSpace program (and NASA) designing a science-based educational website. When discussing her dreams and goals with a faculty leader, it was suggested she speak with Dr. Faulkner, as his specialty was marine biology. From there, the rest is history – she researched him via his website, where his “Drugs of the Sea” research captivated her. Who wouldn’t be interested in studying the purification of molecules and the killing of cancer cells by sponges?
Before college, in junior high, she was in a MAGNET program – once you were in the program, you could choose what high school you wanted to go to and there was a particular school offering International Baccalaureate (IB) courses. When she spoke to someone about it, saying she wanted to go into science, she was told that most girls don’t do well in math and science – she instead chose an International Studies school where they offered 8 foreign languages. When you chose a language you also got to go abroad to that country, she chose Japan. Other than that experience, she has not noticed any gender issues with her education – all the places she’s traveled have been very positive about women. In college, most of her mentors were male but her peers in the lab were predominately female – showing that her mentors were motivated to bring women into the field. Her mentors benefited her tremendously as a student and Dr. Strangman said she would not be where she is today with them. Mentorship allowed her to understand the protocols and “voo-doo science” behind the protocols in addition to providing her with networking opportunities that are crucial to development.
As for the gender gap, Dr. Strangman knows it’s there, but she believes it’s changed so much over time. “Women in STEM are smart and strong”, Strangman says, “and as long as you work hard and prove the scientific evidence then there’s nothing that should ever keep you from progressing and moving forward. You can also have a life outside of STEM – you can be a mom and do other things. Don’t be afraid that maternity leave will disrupt your job, it will be there when you come back. Let life progress naturally, don’t try and force things”.
Dr. Strangman currently has mentees of her own, helping design and conduct experiments and explaining the “voo-doo science” to future generations. The most rewarding part of her job is to be able to teach them what she knows and help them grow into scientists. Thanks to her networking, it also allows her to recommend students to peers in her field for further education or career opportunities. Dr. Strangman enjoys skiing and rock climbing, which she also did while working at the University of British Columbia.
Campus Representative: Jo-El B. Sidbury Smith