Fiorenza Micheli, Systems Thinker for Oceans and Women Scientists

NCEAS Portraits: Special Women-in-Science Edition

By Jenny Seifert

As a member of the first cohort of NCEAS postdoctoral researchers a little over twenty years ago, Fiorenza Micheli offers a unique perspective on the contributions of women to the synthesis science movement – and vice versa. Now a professor and co-director of Stanford University’s Center for Ocean Solutions, Micheli has become one of the world’s leading thinkers in marine ecology and conservation.

Micheli takes a systems approach to studying oceans, looking at both the natural and social components and the many processes and pressures influencing their health. Her current research portfolio includes examining the role of sharks and other predators in marine ecosystems, how to best design marine reserves to meet conservation goals, and how small-scale fisheries can adapt to climate change. 

“We depend on oceans in so many different ways, and oceans are changing so quickly. And yet we still know very little about them,” said Micheli of her work. “It’s really about our future, not only the ocean’s future.”

By connecting her to many different people and ideas, NCEAS has left an indelible and invaluable mark on Micheli’s career, she explained. Among her accomplishments through NCEAS was a global synthesis of studies on what happens to marine ecosystems when a predator disappears from the food chain, a phenomenon called a trophic cascade, and participating in the first-ever assessment of how humans have cumulatively impacted the world’s oceans (the latter project was led by our current director, Ben Halpern, and informed the subsequent creation of the Ocean Health Index, a tool to help bring about a desirable future for oceans and people).

“Those kind of efforts – where you have expertise and information from many different disciplines, countries, and approaches brought together – wouldn’t have been possible without NCEAS,” said Micheli.

When it comes to women in science, Micheli views this capacity to connect and include as important ways NCEAS and other synthesis centers can elevate women’s contributions.

Is there another woman in science who has been influential to you?

FM: There are many. This is actually also a benefit of NCEAS – bringing together so many amazing people, including many women, and exposing young scientists (the postdocs and students involved in working groups) to these incredible role models is definitely a very positive impact. For me personally, really influential women scientists include Jane Lubchenco, who is an amazing role model of combining commitment to the natural sciences with this incredible leadership capacity and vision.

What notable contributions to your field have women made?

FM: Women have contributed in major ways to marine ecology – for example Drew Harvell in marine diseases; also Nancy Knowlton in biodiversity in corals. There are so many great women scientists, including many rising stars.

Going back to Jane Lubchenco and many others, one important contribution has been to bring the community together for ocean sciences in different ways. This includes the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program that was started by Jane and COMPASS by Nancy Baron [NCEAS Senior Fellow]. I think an important role for some women scientists has been to be the leaders in organizing scientists around themes and goals – and not just organizers but having the original idea of what was needed for our community to have a positive impact. For example, with the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program and COMPASS, realizing that a major need is to actually get scientific insights to decision makers and the public.

Is there anything particularly challenging or helpful about the collaborative synthesis model for women?

FM: I feel synthesis centers in general play a really important role in contributing to equity in science. Places like NCEAS, that bring together really different backgrounds and ways of thinking, have been an amazing place for women to have a voice, because they are inclusive by definition. They have created an opportunity for many women scientists to be part of a high-impact, high-profile effort.

Sometimes the challenge in working groups has been for the women participants to actually be heard and truly included. It is not always the case, but it can be a challenge, depending on the composition of the group.

What do you think groups can do to overcome that challenge?

FM: One of the most important things is to be very thoughtful in forming the groups, ensuring a balanced composition and including emerging women scientists who have a lot to contribute, but perhaps are not yet part of the networks.

The other is to ensure the dynamics of the group allow participation and inclusion of everyone. In some cases, that might mean using professional facilitators. In others, it might be useful to have members contribute some background on their work at the beginning of the meetings, so their contributions are clearly laid out and not based on being forceful through the meetings.

What can institutions like NCEAS do better at elevating the contributions of women?

FM: I think places like NCEAS can make a big difference in promoting the contributions of women, by highlighting and honoring women scientists.

The other commitment that I think could go a long way at NCEAS and, in general, at academic institutions is having dedicated training and discussion on unconscious gender bias and other forms of discrimination in academia. I think by explicitly addressing what the issues are and what can be done to overcome them, we can create a culture that is more supportive of women scientists.

What is THE issue in women in science that is most important to you?

FM: There are many, but one that I think is critical is the dramatic drop in representation of women that happens after the postdoc [level]. In ecology and science in general, there is a large number of women that make it to the beginning of academic careers, and then there’s a sudden drop. So, thinking of ways for women to be able to stay in science, if they have a passion for it and have already invested so much in it, should be a priority.

Meet other NCEAS women in science in the Special Women-in-Science Edition of NCEAS Portraits.