Island Updates

Empowerment through ecology: Young women scientists in the field

Guest blog post by Science Educator Rachel Kimpton

Many people are starting to recognize that there is a significant gender gap in STEM fields, and that women and gender nonbinary people are often underrepresented. Out on the island, our perspective on this is often skewed, as the majority of our staff are not only women, but women scientists, thus we tend to feel removed from the realities of sexism. During the week of August 7, my co-teacher Eliza and I had the incredible opportunity of working with 11 budding scientists who all, serendipitously, happened to be young women. I should emphasize that this program was not marketed as only for women, but that only women happened to enroll. I never had the opportunity to embark on a weeklong program away from home when I was young, and I certainly never gathered intentionally in an all-women space until my early twenties. Needless to say, I was beyond excited to get to know and grow with this group.

I had a great feeling about the group when they got off the boat, as they were immediately radiating enthusiasm. Eliza kept that strong energy going in a lively round of speed dating to get to know each other, and we realized right away that we had a lot of overlapping interests and goals. That first afternoon was easygoing and filled with hikes and getting ourselves oriented to the island. We ended the day with a fun evening exploration of the South End beach and intertidal zones, playing with a variety of ocean creatures and enjoyed our first sunset together after our walk to Two Bush Island.

First banded lobster!

We spent Monday getting into the mindset of field ecology and beginning our big projects for the week. Michelle, one of our education interns, showed us how to identify trees using a dichotomous key. We examined different leaf types together under the shade of an old apple tree and around the main campus, then took our skills to the trails on a tree walk. Later that afternoon, Eliza and I introduced one of the weeklong, overarching projects: to design, build, and install biofilters for two of our outhouses. During the previous week, the High School Sustainability students installed rain barrels to collect and provide water for outhouse sinks. Our Island Ecology students were tasked with making that greywater safe to reenter the soil by modifying the design of our own large constructed wetland, which filters greywater from the shower house and kitchen, to better suit a smaller volume. We actually had the opportunity to tour the wetland with its creator, Russell Martin. He happened to be visiting the island that day, and he explained the system, his experiences as one of the few people in Maine building such systems, and how natural environments, like wetlands or trees along river beds, function as natural filtration systems. We split up into two design teams and began our preliminary planning, then took a break to participate in one of Maine’s largest economies: lobstering! We went out on the boats with Oakley to haul traps and got a closer look at lobster biology and anatomy with Eliza in the lab. We ended our busy day with a relaxing evening of seaside stargazing and chats.

Looking at baby scallops on the dock

On Tuesday, we spent our morning working with more of our staff’s amazing women scientists. Bailey and Jessie from the research team introduced us to the Island’s ongoing scallop research project, and we helped collect data by measuring shells of the tiny, adorable baby scallops and the larger adults. The research team also pulled us into designing and planning for our upcoming scallop aquaculture project on the island. This was particularly exciting because the research team will incorporate some of the ideas and designs we generated during this session into the final plans! After spending time with the scallops, Robin, one of our educators, took us on a walking geology lesson to give us context for why the island ROCKS and the geologic history of the area. Later in the afternoon, we built on this geologic knowledge with Josh, another educator, by taking soil samples from different parts of the island and testing soil stability using erosion and glomalin as indicators. Josh continued to hang out with us after dinner on an evening hiking in the dark, learning about the evolution of the human eye and putting our rhodopsin to the test by successfully navigating the island’s rocky terrain with only our eyes - and no flashlights!

Preparing materials for the biofilters

We gathered Wednesday morning to finalize our biofilter designs and begin construction with Silas and Rachael, two of our facilities staff. We managed to get our biofilters almost finished before the rain came in the afternoon, but that didn’t stop us from having fun! Rachael gave us a tour of our sustainable systems around the island, and we discussed the many important decomposers active in our lives and in these systems, such as the bacteria turning our food scraps and bathroom waste into soil and the worms in the vermicompost bin. Once the rain really started to come down, Rachael helped us with our own anaerobic decomposition project - fermenting milk into yogurt! We ended the day with Stef, our communications intern, as she led us in a nature writing lesson. Stef gave us a short, enjoyable piece by the activist and author Terry Tempest Williams to read. This gave us the opportunity to examine arguments from multiple perspectives and pursue science in an artistic way.

This intersection of science and art would carry through the rest of the week. Thursday was one of the best days during the week, loved by students and staff alike. In order to prepare for our other big project - a foraged feast - we spent the morning practicing our foraging skills, but not for edible purposes - to instead create natural dyes! It was fun to experiment with different plants, dyeing processes, and ways to apply and alter dyes. We made a big fire down on the South End and created beautifully dyed bandanas with eco bundles, shibori techniques, and smashing plants directly onto the surface. After lunch, we pushed ourselves and supported one another during a warm afternoon session of rock climbing. The rest of the day was so relaxing and fun - swimming, a sunset hike, a huge outdoor picnic featuring a lobster boil with the lobsters we caught(!), and stargazing with Michelle.

It was incredible how fast the week flew by! On Friday morning, we split up into our design teams to finish building and installing our biofilters with Silas and to row out on the ocean with Oakley. In order to fully appreciate the foraged feast we were to prepare that afternoon, I (Rachel) led an investigation into the organisms that make the majority of our food on the planet possible: pollinators! We looked at preserved pollinator specimens from the island under microscopes and hand lenses, including moths, butterflies, flies, beetles, and different types of bees. Bees are a personal favorite insect of mine and I was extremely excited to share, but not as excited as one of our students, Lindsay, who is learning beekeeping as her senior project! Sam, the director of the Center for Science and Leadership, let us take apart and analyze his collapsed honeybee hive. After lunch we set out to collect edibles growing wild around the island and in our gardens, which we prepared and shared together with staff. Eliza and I helped put together the menu, which featured a rhubarb lemonade, fried green tomatoes, herbed goat cheese filled squash blossoms, and a giant garden salad. We spent our final night on the island around a campfire, with s’mores, ghost stories, and music by staff and our student Kayla.

Through the crack

After a few rainy days on the island, the weather cleared up and we were able to enjoy a beautiful morning together, reflecting on the week and going on a final, silent hike around the island. Although we spent each morning during the week coming together to reflect on our experiences and desires, that final morning meeting was especially important and powerful. These young women had the chance to meet, speak with, and work alongside other women scientists on the island throughout the week in many different capacities, including data collection, experimentation, and bioengineering. In our final meeting, these women voiced that their experiences throughout the week had reinvigorated their passion for science, allowed them to discover their self-confidence in pursuing careers in fields that are often male-dominated, and, most importantly, that they believed in themselves more than ever before.

One of the most magical moments that I have witnessed during my summer here on Hurricane is the moment when strangers suddenly become friends. The obstacles or divisions we encounter in the world, like the artificial divide between science and art or the obstacles that come along with being a woman scientist, disappeared when entering this space. When I reflect on this week, I think of the huge strides these young women made in developing their leadership skills, challenging themselves, facing and challenging gender stereotypes, and learning how to encourage and support their peers.

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