International Women’s Day: An Interview With BCSS Research Manager Karen Bowles

Women have made great contributions to the world of science; whether it’s  unraveling the structure of DNA, producing the first map of the ocean floor or calculating mankind’s trajectory to the moon. Yet, women still account for less than 30% of careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. In the light of International Women’s Day, we interviewed our Research Manager Karen Bowles. Karen told us what led her to become an environmental scientist and what drives her daily contribution to marine science.

Tell us about yourself, where you are from and what’s your academic background?

I grew up in nature and have lived most of my life by the sea. I have been curious about how the Earth’s systems work, especially ocean and climate, and our impact on them, for as long as I can remember. However, I did not know that  pursuing my interest was an option for a career, as science careers are not the norm in Mozambique. And the sector, particularly ocean sciences, is still very young and limited.

What motivated you to study environmental science?

Though my passion stems from a keen interest in the Earth’s systems, these days I am more interested in research in oceanography and the application of data science and management in this field. This is what attracted me to apply for a position at BCSS, as we host the first permanent Ocean Observatory focused on multi-ecosystem time series research in Africa. My goal is to study the ocean and contribute to increasing scientific knowledge, recognition, and support for basic and applied research in ocean sciences in Mozambique. There is still a lot that I need to learn, and the trajectory is filled with challenges – big and small.

Can you give us a few examples of those challenges?

There are many, but a few that come to mind immediately are a lack of funding, mentorship and role models, opportunities and job options. There is a big lack of opportunity for training, both locally and internationally, especially for technical and practical skill-sets and knowledge, which makes getting into the field tricky. On a governmental level, I would love to see a research ecosystem that encourages and supports research and innovation, and effective implementation of legal frameworks to conduct research. 

Another challenge is the fact that at times, working in environmental sciences can be physically demanding; you may work in remote areas or in vessels where you become more alert to personal safety –  and safety equipment and the infrastructure are often not designed to fit or accommodate women. On top of that, working remotely and in nature often means you have to make sacrifices in your personal life in order to pursue your career.

Why do you think there is a minority of female scientists? What can be done to increase the number of female scientists?

Science has always been a male-dominated field. Changing that takes intentional actions, a lot of re-educating, awareness raising and time. We need to encourage each other to not be afraid to be outspoken and that we too deserve a seat at the table, so that we can actively create an environment where we belong and where we are heard. 

I think there are many of women interested in (environmental) sciences who are motivated to pursue a career in the field, but as long as the sector is not developed to accommodate women, which is the case in most African nations, the door will stay closed for the majority.

What do you love the most about working as a scientist at BCSS?

Every day is different. Even though we do routine work, you can never predict what the day will have in store; from what you will experience and encounter at sea and what you will learn, to the challenges of working on a remote island. I also feel that my work is multidisciplinary. Though the focus is on research, there are many extra responsibilities within my job. Examples are the sustainability consultation for our sister organisation Kisawa Sanctuary and  interaction with fellow scientists, interns and conservation authorities and decision makers.

We also asked Karen’s peers in Mozambique their views on women in science and their advice for budding female science students:

Nércia Nhanice, Maputo – studied BsC Marine Biology at Eduardo Mondlane University
“I mostly enjoy fieldwork, which allows me to collect and analyse data from which I can obtain and present results. The goal is to guarantee the conservation and sustainability of marine resources. One of the challenges I have faced is to establish myself in a science course, because the science courses in Mozambique do not provide financial security. I needed my own motivation to move past this challenge, but lately science courses are gaining more traction and recognition.”

Amemarlito Matos, Mucubu – studied Conservation Biology at Gorongosa National Park
“I study how we can conserve animals and plants, and how we can use these resources in a sustainable way. To go into the conservation sector was not easy for me, especially because people would say it’s a task for men, not women. I had to be persistent and go forward, and I succeeded. I would like to tell girls that want to pursue a career in conservation that, in life, there will always be difficulties; there will be fair and challenges. But we have to be persistent in order to achieve our dreams. Good luck with your studies, and I hope that one day we can work together for the sake of conservation. Remember, nothing is impossible.”

Amina Amade, XaiXai – studied MsC in Conservation Biology at Gorongosa National Park
“I studied macro-fungi because they are nature’s cleaning agents and help plant growth. My biggest challenge was to live in Gorongosa National Park for two years, because it is a very isolated and competitive place. I overcame it through reading and practicing what we had learnt in class. My advice would be to overcome your fears and always give it your best.”

Dra Gelica Inteca, Gurué – professor at Lúrio University
“I live in Pemba and work at the University of Lúrio, at the faculty of Natural Sciences. I am a professor and an adjunct director of post-graduation, research and extension. My background is in biological sciences, but I work more in marine biology. My research is on sea turtles and marine mammals. In addition, I also work with fishing communities and organise activities for environmental education for children and adults in the coastal province of Cabo Delgado. My advice is to never give up on your dreams. Be persistent. Have an objective in life, and don’t give up on what you love to do.”

Adija Willson, Chimoio – Studied a MsC in Conservation Biology
“I was born in Chimoio, a city in central Mozambique, where I would hear that girls and women could not do courses like mathematics and engineering. That is why I decided to study biology. Today, I am researching honey, which is produced by bees. Bees are very important for our life on earth because they help the plants that we eat as well as the plants in the forest to grow, besides providing us with nutritious honey. I want to tell all girls the following: you are very lucky to have been born a woman. You have a lot of strength, you are very intelligent, and you can do whatever you want in your life. You can be whoever or whatever you want to be.”

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