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Melanie Harrison Okoro, PhD – Water Quality Specialist, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration in the National Marine Fisheries Service

Melanie Harrison Okoro is a Water Quality Specialist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). Her areas of focus include water resources management, environmental assessment, and regulatory compliance. From 2009 to 2011 she participated in the NOAA Graduate Scientist Program and served as an Early Career Scientist on the Council of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), where she is active in promoting diversity and inclusion in the geosciences. She is also on the Leadership Board of the Earth Science Women’s Network. Dr. Okoro holds a PhD in Marine Estuarine and Environmental Science from the University of Maryland Baltimore County and Bachelor of Science in Biology from Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU).

Interview Questions

[OnlineEducation.com] Tell me about the work you do with the NOAA.

[Dr. Okoro] I started with NMFS as a NOAA Graduate Scientist focused on the impact of contaminants in freshwater and estuarine environments on threaten and endangered fish in northern California; primarily salmon, steelhead, and green sturgeon. Our ultimate goal is to recover these fish and conserve and protect their habitat. This was my primary focus during my early career with NMFS.

[OnlineEducation.com] You studied biology as an undergraduate, and then moved into environmental and marine estuarine science in your graduate program. What attracted you to environmental and estuarine science?

[Dr. Okoro] I like to tell this story because it’s special to me. I grew up fishing with my great-grandmother, who raised us in Alabama. My sister and I even learned how to swim in Lake Martin. Although we caught a lot of fish — great-grandmother was the real fisherwomen – I can remember as kids we really didn’t like being woken up early on a Saturday morning to go fishing. But those years were special and formative.

By the time I was in high school, I was set on becoming a medical doctor. I attended undergraduate school at JCSU in Charlotte. It’s a historically black college. There I met Dr. Fail, my four-year college advisor, who also taught ecology in the biology department. He was well known for his passion for teaching, for his tough-love persona with his students, and for exposing undergraduates to new experiences in the field of ecology. Perhaps this is why he was instrumental in shaping how I view the world. I can remember one experience, where he took our class to visit a hospital. We were taken to the basement level to view preserved organs. Let’s just say it didn’t take long for me to realize the field of medicine was not for me.

After that, I started to shift my focus from pre-med to ecology – it was for me an easy transition with Dr. Fail as my advisor. I absolutely loved the labs and did pretty well in class, but I was still thinking about medical school. Dr. Fail encouraged me to pursue two summer internships in ecology-related research. I conducted research in urban streams and wetlands of North Carolina, and studied the impacts of disease on declining eastern oyster populations at UNC Charlotte. Not only were these internships fundamental in gaining valuable research experience and building relationships in the field, but the financial support also helped.

During my senior year as an undergrad, I accepted an internship at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in New York, and I applied to post-baccalaureate program at the Wake Forest School of medicine. I met some wonderful people at Wake Forest but I quickly figured out after a year that medicine was not for me. I then applied for, and was accepted into a doctoral program at the University of Maryland Baltimore County funded by the National Science Foundation. The program was run by the Center for Urban Environmental Research and Education and it focused on water in the urban environment. Once I started the program, I never looked back.

The program funded the first two years of my doctoral career and once funding ran out I applied for and was accepted into NOAA’s Graduate Scientist Program with NMFS. Now, I look back and see that I’ve come full-circle, back to working in an environment I grew up in as a kid, back with the fish and the water.

[OnlineEducation.com] Biology is one of the sciences in which women tend to be better represented at the undergraduate level. Was that your experience, and how did that differ from what you encountered in ecology/environmental science?

[Dr. Okoro] Yes, in general this was my experience. I also remember a fairly even ratio of male to female undergraduate biology students at JCSU. Ecology was a required course in the department. As a perquisite, students had to take the course in order to received a bachelor of science. At the time, environmental science was not a course offering at the university.

[OnlineEducation.com] Your PhD experience was interesting in that it was a new doctoral program. Did you have any sense that you were going into a field that was atypical for women at the time?

[Dr. Okoro] Not initially. I admit entering the doctoral program at CUERE exposed me a number of women researchers and technicians working in the field and/or laboratory. The director of CUERE was a civil engineer, Dr. Claire Welty, and so it wasn’t apparent to me how atypical our research setting was. It wasn’t until I began to attend conferences in the field that I observed underrepresentation of women in the sub-disciplines of the field of ecology.

[OnlineEducation.com] I have seen data that suggest there are more women earning degrees in the natural sciences. But the National Science Foundation data also shows that only 27.5% of environmental science professionals, who would include professors and researches, are women. Do you have any thoughts on that disparity?

[Dr. Okoro] The disparity is a problem and more complex than what is reported. There are structural inequalities and biases that affect the potential of women to fulfill their career in the field of environmental science. From prejudicial harassment, to lack of recognition and access to income and resources, to subtle discrimination or work conditions (laboratory of field) – these are only a handful factors that contribute to the disparity, some of which are more difficult to quantify than others.

There are a number of potential causes. As an academic in the field, you either survive or you perish through publications in the early stages of your career as a scientist. That’s true for men and women. But there’s a crucial time for women when they may sense that they’re not getting the support that they need.

We like to think that we can apply the same standards to everyone and it will fit all needs. But, one of the big issues women are often facing as they progress in their education and career is having a family. Men think about this too, but women may still end up raising the children. This is nothing new and it does not indicate that women aren’t as passionate about their field. It’s is a difficult balance for women. They have to make choices that impact their level of productivity and their research opportunities.

Sexual harassment and the lack of institutional support for women are some of the other reasons for the disparity. When you’re faced with these issues, you might choose not to stay in a field even if you like it and you’re good at it. Representation, support, and community are really keys to overcoming these obstacles. I think women become stronger when they see other women represented in the field, when they get institutional support, and when they’re part of a community.

[OnlineEducation.com] What are some of the difficulties?

[Dr. Okoro] I think the difficulty is that environmental professionals don’t always realize how much gender bias plays a role in this disparity — and it plays out differently depending on a woman’s race and ethnicity. Whether you deal with isolation, gender discrimination, familial obligations, or having your success discounted, these are the difficulties that women have to deal with in the environmental field. It also important to note these issues are not unique or exclusive to the environmental field.

[OnlineEducation.com] What was it about going to conferences that informed your views about gender, diversity, and inclusion?

[Dr. Okoro] Conferences are designed as an opportunity to connect with peers and discuss scholarly work, but I often left feeling isolated. Success in this field is such a collaborative effort, and I believe conferences represent a unique opportunity to support and connect with members outside of their home institutions. This is why I view the role of scientific and professional organizations as integral to making sure we are starting and continuing the conversation and creating a platform to share information and support efforts around diversity and inclusion.

[OnlineEducation.com] You’re on the Leadership Board of the ESWN, you’ve been active in promoting diversity and inclusion through the AGU, and you’re also active with the American Association of University Women. What types of inclusion efforts do you see working, and are some of these barriers you’ve seen being overcome?

[Dr. Okoro] II’d love to talk about a program that I’ve seen work: the Minorities Pursuing Higher Degrees in Earth and Space Sciences program. The model that they have is one of community building, consistent dialogue, and networking. I was part of the program as a graduate student and it helped me to feel less isolated in the field. One of the great things about the program is that it’s a community that focuses on the diversity of the entire group. It brings together students who might be on their own studying Earth, space, and environmental science at schools like UMBC, Columbia, USF in Florida, Berkley, and other places, and it gives them a place to work through some of the common issues they’re dealing with, whether it’s feelings of isolation or a lack of a supportive community at their home institutions. When I was part of it, we were all able to connect with each other, discuss what was going on, and share information. So that was great. It also became a stepping-stone to opportunities within the academic community. It was extremely important for me to have that community and that dialogue in a constructive way that didn’t make any group or institution or organization feel bad about what was happening.

[OnlineEducation.com] So, your talking about a vision of diversity and inclusion that goes beyond gender parity.

[Dr. Okoro] That’s a very important point. The aim at NMFS is to create an organization where fairness, diversity, and inclusion are valued and where every employee has the opportunity to reach their fullest potential. So yes, I promote and support diversity and inclusion efforts that go beyond gender. These efforts include supporting outreach and recruitment efforts from a diverse and qualified group of applicants, cultivating a culture that encourages fairness and flexibility, and supporting strategies to engender a culture of inclusion

Key components of inclusion efforts are a focus on network building, the provision of safe spaces and/or platforms to discuss personal and professional barriers, and the creation of a sustained and consistent dialogue on inequality, biases, and prejudices for women in STEM fields. These organizations are not afraid to tackle what is often seen as taboo, and by doing so they create a platform for others to share and support one another. Building support networks within the academic community, fostering an inclusive culture, and having consistent dialogue on the topic of inclusion is key to overcoming barriers.

[OnlineEducation.com] Given the perspective that you have from your own experiences as an environmental scientist, what advice do you offer to young women who are considering a degree or a career in environmental science?

[Dr. Okoro] I think one key component is to leverage your relationship currency early on, whether you’re considering a degree or a career in the field of environmental science. Building relationships and networks early can be invaluable to ones career trajectory. If you’re considering a career in environmental science, relationship currency can be created by spending time with those in who work in the field. Ask mentors and/or peers about various aspects of the field. If you feel comfortable, get to know them, share your thoughts and ideas with them about your interest in obtaining a degree. Identify and join supportive environmental women’s networks such as ESWN that promote career development, build community, provide opportunities for informal mentoring and support, and facilitate professional collaborations. A strong support network is one of the keys to minimizing attrition.

Finally, get active. You’re more likely to stay in the environmental field and encourage other women to do so if you are actively engaged in the scholarly and social initiatives that value women as scientists, and value their knowledge, skill sets, and talents.

[OnlineEducation.com] One last question: Do you still go fishing?

[Dr. Okoro] Yes, I fished on Saturday.