Women in Science
With International Women’s Day just around on the corner on March 8, I wanted to highlight a couple of our hardworking women in science and conservation here at Zoo Atlanta: Hayley Murphy, DVM, Vice President of Animal Divisions, and Jennifer Mickelberg, PhD, Vice President of Collections and Conservation. Promoting conservation and science is a key point in our mission, and encouraging women of all ages to pursue interests and careers in science is important to Zoo Atlanta. How can we continue to help women in science? To answer these questions, we went straight to the sources.
What inspired you to pursue a career in science?
I grew up wanting to be a veterinarian. I never thought of doing anything else in life. My love for animals was in me since birth, I believe, but I never thought that I could get into veterinary school because it is so difficult and competitive. I almost gave up on that dream, but several things changed my attitude and made me realize I was smart enough. One was a teacher I had in high school, Mr. LaFica, who taught Physics. He dragged me through Physics kicking and screaming and proved to me that I was smart enough to do it and excel when no one else had that kind of faith in me. The other was a graduate student I met in undergraduate studies who was studying why successful students struggled with math (which I did). She proved to me that math can be easy if you just sit down and take the time to look at it logically and relate it to life, which I did and again, proved to myself that I was smart enough to overcome those challenges. The final inspiration was becoming a veterinary technician and actually working at the veterinary college at Cornell University. It was there that I started really seeing the “inside” of veterinary medicine, working with animals and vet students, and really completely immersing myself in medicine and surgery, which I love to this day.
I have always been fascinated by wildlife and loved science and math as a kid. I have been inspired by many different events in my life (it wasn’t just one event that put me on my path), but really my passion for wanting to protect wildlife has inspired me the most, and having many role models who have done just that, has influenced my career.
Is there a famous woman scientist who inspired you?
Yes – Dian Fossey. I read “Gorillas in the Mist” and fell in love with gorillas and the amazing work that she did. She was so incredibly brave and dedicated to saving gorillas that I am still inspired and awed to this day by her.
I have been fortunate to have worked, and been inspired by, many brilliant scientists—both men and women– along my career path. When I started working with golden lion tamarins in 2000, I worked alongside Dr. Devra Kleiman at Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Devra was a force—you knew it the second you met her, and I was inspired by her strength and perseverance. As the first woman scientist hired at the Smithsonian, she really paved the way for women working in our field today. She was also one of the founders of the golden lion tamarin conservation program and the giant panda breeding program in the U.S., among many other accomplishments. Her progressive vision and her actions not only impacted the species she was working for, but also helped formed the field of conservation biology. She was among the first to demonstrate the clear role that zoos have in conserving species. She also urged zoos to work more collaboratively in a time when that was not common. Devra unexpectedly passed away in 2010, but she left a legacy. Those of us who were fortunate enough to know her learned many valuable lessons from her, most importantly, to not give up and always push ahead.
Why do you love working in the scientific field?
I love working in science because every day, something changes. There is always something discovered, something new, or something that has changed and no day is ever boring. Science relates to everything in our lives, from the chemistry in the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe, to how we power our cars, treat and prevent diseases, and interact with our environments. I cannot imagine living in a world where I wasn’t involved in science.
I love working in the scientific field because things are always evolving. It’s impossible to get bored when there are always new and exciting challenges. Also, I have yet to find a more interesting and more passionate group of professionals than scientists (I may be biased).
Give a brief synopsis of your main project and how you’re involved?
I run the Great Ape Heart Project headquartered at Zoo Atlanta, a group of dedicated and coordinated subject matter experts who provide a network of clinical, pathologic and research strategies to aid in the understanding and treating of cardiac disease in all four great ape taxa, with the ultimate goal of reducing cardiovascular-related mortalities and improving the health and well-being of great apes in zoological settings.
I am a small population biologist and work on several projects that focus on protecting species from extinction. I have been most closely involved with the Golden Lion Tamarin Conservation Program, which is dedicated to protecting this small Brazilian monkey, the golden lion tamarin, and its habitat in Brazil’s Atlantic Coastal forest, from extinction. This monkey was on the brink of extinction in the 1970s and due to intensive conservation action, we have seen the golden lion tamarin population increase to over 3,000 in the wild. While the population has increased, only 2 percent of their habitat remains, so we still have some work to do!
What can we do to inspire future women in science?
I think leading by example is very inspirational. Let girls know that it is okay to pursue science and that they are just as smart, and have just as much talent and right, to be a scientist as men do. Leading with your mind AND your heart are actually good things and something that women are exceptional at; just believe in yourself.
I work in a field that is now largely dominated by females. It’s important to continue to provide good examples demonstrating that through hard work and dedication, you can achieve your goals.
Conservation Education Initiatives Supervisor