I have once again joined forces with Dawn Dish Detergent to support their wildlife rescue efforts. I had the opportunity to connect with their accomplished and inspiring spokesperson, Dr. Ellen Prager, for this sponsored STEM Girl Friday post. I think it’s more important than ever to promote women in STEM and shine a light on environmental issues and empower people to make positive change. So, without further ado…
Meet Dr. Ellen Prager
Dr. Ellen Prager is a marine scientist, author of popular science and children’s books, science advisor to Celebrity Cruises in the Galapagos, and currently a spokesperson for Dawn Dish Detergent’s Saves Wildlife campaign.
What inspired you to study marine biology?
I’ve always, even as a kid, been fascinated by nature and was awed by the early underwater exploits of Jacque Cousteau. Then, in high school while teaching swimming lessons my fellow lifeguards offered me the opportunity to try scuba – they couldn’t get me out of the pool. I loved it and was soon a certified scuba diver. In college, I discovered oceanography and marine sciences that combined my love of nature, my interest and strength in science – and scuba diving. I was hooked! I spent my junior year at Wesleyan University at a tropical marine laboratory in St. Croix and that was it for me. Along the way, I also had wonderfully inspiring teachers and professors that encouraged me and were terrific role models.
At one time I thought about being a marine biologist. I know so many other women who flirted with it when they were young. What do you think draws girls to the subject?
Yes, I’ve met many young women and girls that dream of being marine biologists. I’m not sure where the fascination comes from. Certainly, marine life-like dolphins, sea lions, and sea turtles are a huge draw. But there seems to be something about the ocean and a wide range of marine animals that attracts the interest of youngsters – both girls and boys alike. It is furthered by movies like Finding Nemo and The Little Mermaid. As they get older, some kids may also be attracted to the perceived adventure involved–I know I was.
What was it like working in the world’s only undersea research station?
I was very fortunate to work as the chief scientist for the Aquarius Reef Base and also do two missions living underwater to study coral reefs. It was fantastic! Living in Aquarius provides the opportunity to scuba dive down to 100 feet for six to nine hours a day. Normally, if you are diving no-decompression limits, your time underwater, especially at deeper depths, is very limited. At Aquarius, instead of just being brief visitors to the underwater world, we were living and working there. We could fully observe the daily routines and behaviors of the creatures around us. One of my favorite things to do was to get up before anyone else and sit at the big viewport to watch as the reef and underwater world went from night to day. The surrounding ocean went from black to royal blue and then shafts of golden light flickered down through the water (on sunny days). Fish that spent the night out on the reef would swim back to the habitat, while the day crew headed off in the opposite direction. On both of my missions, we had a super team of aquanauts: scientists, technicians, and filmmakers that worked hard and were fun to be with (very important when living in such close quarters for an extended period of time).
The Maker Mom’s note: click here to take a peek inside Dr. Prager’s temporary underwater home.
In addition to being a researcher and professor, you’re an author, a speaker, and an environmental steward. What do you consider your top professional accomplishment to date?
I’m very proud of many of my accomplishments, but I think I’m most proud of the work I’ve done to bring science to lay audiences of all ages. I make is understandable and entertaining. In doing so, I hope I have helped to educate people about the ocean and have inspired them to become life-long stewards for the sea, marine life, and our planet. I also hope I am helping people recognize the connections between the ocean and their own lives as well as our economy, security, health, and overall well-being.
With my recent adventure fiction series for middle graders (Tristan Hunt and the Sea Guardians) (affiliate link), I’m especially proud of getting kids excited not only about the ocean and marine life but also about reading. Reading is a critically important life-long skill for both achievement and success. The notes I’ve received from readers and parents with regard to the middle-grade series have been too precious for words. Recently a mother sent me a note (and 5-star review) saying her son got in trouble in school when he was caught reading my book Stingray City under his desk. She wrote she doesn’t condone the behavior – but she loved that he got in trouble for reading! Now that is an accomplishment to be proud of. I also love speaking to a wide variety of audiences and being able to answer people’s questions about issues like climate change, marine debris, invasive species, and coral reefs.
What are the biggest threats to the health of our oceans right now and what can kids and their families do to “turn the tide” on these threats, even if they don’t leave near an ocean?
Here are my five top threats to the ocean and marine life:
- Climate change,
- Marine pollution (plastics, excess nutrients, oil, chemical wastes etc),
- Invasive species,
- Loss of critical habitats (coral reefs, sea grass beds, mangroves, kelp beds, and wetlands)
Regional and local problems can enhance the ocean and coast’s vulnerability to global problems like climate change and make them less resilient. Climate change alone is a multi-pronged problem that includes a pace of seawater warming that has accelerated beyond the natural cycle along with ocean acidification (the increase in ocean acidity due the absorption of excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere), rising sea level, intensified storms, more dead zones, and vulnerability of organisms to disease in higher seawater temperatures.
As consumers and constituents, every individual can make a difference! We can make wise seafood choices and support sustainable fisheries (organizations like Monterey Bay Aquarium and The Safina Center have excellent information on what fish and shellfish are best choices), we can reduce our plastic use and recycle, and dispose of our trash properly and conserve energy. But just as importantly, anyone anywhere can write or tweet to their political representatives to tell them that climate change is real and a serious problem, that the ocean and coasts are important, and they can help to support policies and politicians that protect the ocean and marine life.
Kids and their families can also support organizations doing good work (like International Bird Rescue and the Marine Mammal Center, which Dawn supports) (Kim’s note: I was fortunate to see MMC with Dawn), visit local aquariums or nature centers, or volunteer for beach, river, or lake clean-ups. Now, maybe more than ever everyone must speak up for the ocean and get involved!
What advice can you offer girls who want a career like yours?
Thankfully, I’ll pass on what my parents told me: You can do anything you want as long as you work and study hard. I’ll add to be proactive in seeking out opportunities, don’t be afraid to take risks or fail, and laugh as much as possible.
For a career in any field of marine science, all students must get a basic background in biology, chemistry, physics, geology, and math. From there you can go on to study marine biology, oceanography, geology, policy, conservation or get involved in ocean education and outreach. In addition to school, I strongly recommend girls (and boys) get involved outside of the classroom through volunteering, internships or jobs at nature centers, aquariums, museums, university laboratories, or other non-profit organizations. Luckily, there is a wealth of information available on the Internet. A couple of helpful sites are:
Bridge Ocean Education (primarily for teachers but has a lot of good information)
Thanks again to Dawn for sponsoring this post.