3 Lesser-Known Women in Marine Science

These women contributed greatly to our understanding of the underwater world.

This March we are celebrating Women’s History Month, a time to reflect on the significant contributions women have made to our lives and our culture. It’s also a time to recognize the contributions women are making across many sectors—and especially for our ocean.

Today is doubly significant, as it marks International Women’s Day. I want to take this opportunity to recognize three lesser known, trailblazing women who have helped shape the way we view ocean science and policy today.

They are just a few of the numerous incredible women who have broken barriers to pursue their passion of caring for the ocean and laid the foundation for the science-based work we do today.

Marie Tharp Women in History

One such woman was Marie Tharp. Tharp made one of the most significant bathymetric discoveries ever regarding underwater depth when she found the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and proved the validity of continental drift. It was the 1950s, and her work at the time was largely diminished because of gender stereotypes. When she reported her discovery, her own supervisor Bruce Heezen notes that he “discounted it as girl talk and didn’t believe it for a year.” Despite not getting recognition at the time, Tharp’s renowned map still hangs in the offices of many ocean scientists today. And the current maps that NOAA makes are rooted in Tharp’s work.

Rosa Smith Eigenmann,1889

Another trailblazer was Rosa Smith Eigenmann, one of the first widely published female ichthyologists. She began her career collecting specimens for the San Diego Society of Natural History, during which time she met the famed ichthyologist David Starr Jordan who encouraged her to join him as a student at Indiana University. She spent the next few years touring Europe with the lab, collecting and documenting species of fish. She published almost 20 papers on her own and later collaborated with her husband on 15 more. Her work contributed greatly to our knowledge of fish species and lineages, despite the fact she faced many obstacles. She wrote, “In science as everywhere else in the domain of thought woman should be judged by the same standard as her brother. Her work must not simply be well done for a woman.”

Dr. Young Women in History

Last, but not least, there was Dr. Roger Arliner Young—the first African-American woman to receive a doctorate in zoology in 1940. She was a researcher and an activist who fought her entire career to overcome racism, sexism and classism. She was the first Black woman to publish in the prestigious journal Science, but was also excluded from authorship on numerous papers she contributed to throughout her master’s and Ph.D. studies. Her legacy is partially captured now in the Roger Arliner Young Fellowship Program—a year-long, paid fellowship for recent college undergraduates that focuses on increasing opportunities for historically underrepresented communities in the U.S. conservation sector, which has historically been overwhelmingly white.

These three women represent a small sample of the expansive, diverse contributions of women to science that have been historically overlooked in the field of marine conservation. They blazed a path for future generations of female scientists, researchers, oceanographic cartographers and more to follow their passions of ocean exploration and conservation.

We know that our fates are intertwined with the ocean, and it’s imperative that every person who aspires to save it—regardless of gender, race or identity—has the opportunity to pursue their passion. As we celebrate Women’s History Month, I invite you to reflect on the women who have served as mentors and role models in your conservation journey.

Our work is focused on solving some of the greatest threats facing our ocean today. We bring people, science and policy together to champion innovative solutions and fight for a sustainable ocean.
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