International Women’s Day: Meet Four Female Scientists Working to Understand Vulnerable Polar Bears
Today is International Women’s Day, a day to celebrate the achievements of women and girls around the world. This year’s theme is #BreakTheBias, and one field in which gender bias remains a persistent reality is the field of science and technology. According to the American Association of University Women, women only account for 28 percent of the workforce in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, and they are systematically directed away from these subjects as young students.
To do its part to break this bias, EcoWatch is profiling four female scientists involved with the Polar Bear Research Council (PBRC). This body, which was founded by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) in 2018 with support from Polar Bears International (PBI), just released its 2022 research Masterplan last month to help understand and protect these fearsome but vulnerable Arctic predators. There are only around 26,000 polar bears left in their native habitat, which is rapidly transforming because of the climate crisis. The four scientists responding to this urgent moment represent a variety of life experiences and research approaches. They are both mothers and not, field workers and zoo based. But their stories offer an important example to the scientists of the future.
As one of the scientists, PBI’s Dr. Thea Bechshoft, put it: “However you feel like you’re not being represented by the stereotypical white male researcher, I just want you to know that there is room for you, and we need you.”
So meet these four incredible researchers who prove every day that a woman’s place is in the field, or the lab.
Dr. Terri Roth, Ph.D., is a PBRC co-chair as well as the Vice President of Conservation and Science at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden and director of the zoo’s Lindner Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW). Her current primary research focus is on rhinos, but CREW as a whole is working on polar bears as one of its four primary research projects.
Specifically, Roth’s team is trying to find a way to diagnose pregnancy in female bears. This would be game-changing for several reasons. For one thing, polar bears are not breeding well in zoos. For another, female polar bears only go into torpor for the winter if they are having cubs. Zookeepers can better care for female bears if they know whether they should be secured in a small den or left free to wander in a larger space. Finally, polar bears in the wild are now also struggling to breed because of the climate crisis, but their reproduction is much harder to study. A simple diagnostic test would make field observations much easier. In general, Roth explained that studying zoo bears can help understand wild populations.
“By studying zoo polar bears, we can get a lot of information that is not attainable when studying wild bears because we can see the same bears every day all year, we know when they are breeding, we can collect biological material for analysis on a regular basis, and we know when they give birth or don’t, and when cubs live and die,” she said.
Roth didn’t originally specialize in polar bears. She focused on goats and sheep for her master’s, horses for her Ph.D., cats for her postdoctoral research, and, finally, rhinos. However, all of her work focused on reproduction, and this expertise allowed her to step in when she noticed that two female bears at the Cincinnati Zoo were suffering from dermatitis. She suspected a hormone imbalance, and prescribed a treatment that reduced hormone fluctuation. This appeared to do the trick, though she couldn’t know for sure why. However, her theory was supported when CREW began working with other zoos to study dermatitis in bears. They would ask the zoos about their bears’ skin and coat quality, and also about how well they were breeding and whether or not male bears had any preferences when choosing females.
“Initially, we were amused when we received comments about the male bear’s preference for the female with the prettier coat, but then we realized why the two were connected,” Roth said. “The female preferred by the male was breeding and undergoing different hormonal changes than the female that was not breeding. This connection supported our theory that the dermatitis might be hormone related.”
Roth said she personally has not experienced many barriers as a female scientist. The only exception is when she conducts fieldwork with Sumatran rhinos in Indonesia, where she has noticed that people tend to listen more to men who know less. However, Roth can’t say for sure if her advice is heeded less because she is a woman, or because she is a Western foreigner.
Back in the U.S., Roth does note that CREW is a unique work environment: of a permanent staff of 12 to 15, only one of them is a man! Most of the job applications they receive are also from women. Roth said the field of veterinary medicine is heavily female, and this is becoming true of wildlife science as well.
“I think a lot of women are drawn to animals and also have a nurturing side,” she said. “You combine those characteristics with the brilliant mind of a smart woman and you have the perfect wildlife scientist – someone who uses her brain to help the animals she loves survive and thrive. It is a powerful combination!”
Dr. Megan A. Owen, Ph.D., is also a PBRC co-chair as well as the Vice President of Conservation Science at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. As vice president, she does more overseeing of other people’s research than direct fieldwork nowadays, but she is currently involved with two polar bear research projects.
The first is trying to find out whether the climate crisis is really shortening the amount of time that mothers and new cubs spend in their dens. If this is true, “the implications are pretty profound,” Owen said. That’s because polar bear cubs are born altricial, the scientific term for helpless and in need of motherly love.
“The safety and security of the den ensures that a polar bear cub that’s born at about a pound, and blind, and hairless, will have the time to develop physically and behaviorally to such an extent that they can successfully follow their mom out onto the sea ice,” Owen explained. “So if the dening period is disrupted or shortened, it reduces that development time that a polar bear cub might have.”
The other project involves finding ways to improve interactions between humans and polar bears. The main goal here is to try and improve methods for detecting bears as soon as possible when they approach human communities.
Owen has been conducting Arctic fieldwork since 1994, when she first spent a season in Churchill, Canada, “the polar bear capital of North America.” At the time, her scientific focus was nesting birds, but the white bears still captured her imagination. Owen said much of her early work was done on foot.
“When you would encounter a polar bear in that kind of situation, you realize very quickly your vulnerability in the face of such a majestic, powerful, extraordinary species,” she said.
Her chance to study polar bears officially came when she arrived at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance as part of its giant panda research group. She realized that giant pandas and polar bears had a lot in common as ecosystem specialists responding to rapid, human-driven change and she decided to pursue that comparison.
“The polar bear is a fascinating species to study,” Owen said. “They are the sentinel species of the Arctic sea ice environment and their habitat is being impacted at such a rapid rate.”
Owen said that being a woman had definitely affected her career. Her early fieldwork especially was very male dominated.
“The fieldwork was very intense and demanding and physical and arduous, and so certainly attitudes about women in the field in those kinds of settings when I started my career were very much that you had to prove yourself in a way that wasn’t similar to my male colleagues,” she recalled.
However, she noted that things were improving and that there are now many well-respected female polar bear scientists. She also said that she felt her gender had influenced the opportunities she had been offered, and that, because of this, her career has taken longer to develop than some of her male counterparts. However, she reflected that this had its silver lining.
“The evolution of the way I think about what I do has been a constant, ongoing learning experience,” she said. “No laurel resting. And I think that that is very much a positive in my career.”
Dr. Thea Bechshoft, Ph.D. is PBRC’s “Field Techniques Advisor and a PBI staff scientist. She is currently working on a project to determine if polar bears can recognize kin, and, if so, how long they remember their family members. This is important for understanding bears’ behavior in the wild as well as their genetics.
“It also is a very small piece of the puzzle as to whether, when we see orphan cubs… we can actually help keep them wild and how we would go about doing that,” Bechshoft explained.
There have been documented cases of polar bears adopting orphan cubs, but none of these have been facilitated by humans. But if polar bears don’t recognize their own cubs, for example, it would theoretically be simple for scientists to introduce an abandoned baby to a new mother and her other children.
Bechshoft took a winding path to polar bear research. She was studying biology in Denmark and casting about for an idea for her master’s thesis when a professor pointed her in the direction of the University Centre in Svalbard, Norway in the high Arctic. The professor had suggested she take a short course there, but she ended up staying for around two years. It was here that she saw polar bears in the wild for the first time. When she finally decided it was time to choose a master’s thesis, a friend pointed her in the direction of a professor in Oslo with a collection of 700 polar bear skulls they wanted someone to look at.
“Obviously I had become completely enamored with this amazing creature that I had now met in the wild, the polar bear, and also with the Arctic, and with the cold, and so how could I not want to do that?” she said.
The master’s led to a Ph.D. working with polar bears in East Greenland followed by post-doctoral research with polar bears in Canada.
“The more you learn the more you want to learn, about most things but definitely also about polar bears,” she said.
Bechshoft said that she didn’t think personally that being a woman had influenced her career trajectory.
“However,” she added, “it’s really hard to tell because I don’t know the opportunities that I’ve missed or not been given, and I don’t know the opportunities that others would have had or not had if they were someone else.”
She did acknowledge that her decision not to have children has made it easier for her to move around freely as a field scientist.
Overall Bechshoft, who began her career in 2004, said that most of the research teams she worked with were still “hugely male dominated.” Before coming to PBI, she had never worked with a group with so many women. While things are improving, there is still a ways to go before the research community represents the true diversity of human experience. But she thinks that working towards that goal can only help science.
“The more diversity we have, the more ways we have of looking at the different problems… we have that are facing polar bears and everyone else with climate warming, and the more ways we have of coming up with solutions,” she said.
Dr. Karyn Rode, Ph.D. is a Research Wildlife Biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Alaska Science Center. She is also a highly-recommended active PBRC member, involved with three current PBRC-endorsed research studies. Currently, she is working on three main projects. The first is looking at how changes in diets in the two Alaska polar bear populations are impacting their bodies, reproduction and survival.
The second involves trying to estimate how much time polar bears will spend on land in the future. Typically, only some Alaska bears come onto the land during the summer, but this number is increasing as sea ice melts. Researchers want to know when half of the bears might emerge onto the land and when they might begin to spend as many as three months there.
“There’s industry there, there’s native communities, there’s recreation, so polar bears are going to interact with people more in those settings,” Rode said.
Relatedly, Rode also wants to understand how coming onto the shore will impact the bears’ health, reproduction and survival.
Rode’s decision to pursue polar bear research was a matter of timing. She graduated with a Ph.D. focused on grizzly bears in 2005, right around when a petition had been submitted to the U.S. government to list polar bears as an endangered species.
“There was just a lot more attention on sea-ice loss and global warming, and so, as I looked for a job, I had a colleague that said ‘there’s going to be a lot of information needed about polar bears,’” Rode recalled.
She took her friend’s advice, and ended up landing a job studying polar bears with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Rode thought that being a woman had impacted her career, though it’s hard to generalize from personal experience. For her, perhaps the biggest challenge has been her decision to have a family. While she said her agency had been extremely supportive, achieving a work-life balance is still a challenge.
“You don’t have the time that a colleague that doesn’t have children has to put into their work, so you have to be really careful about what you commit to and how you use the time that you have available because you’re balancing that with another huge responsibility,” she said.
However, being a mother also gave her a better understanding of the animals she works with. For example, she has conducted studies with animals to assess their behavior while carrying out different activities like eating and walking. During these observations, she noticed that mothers with young were always the most vigilant or alert.
“After I had kids I thought, ‘Oh, well of course.’” she said. “I was a lot more vigilant when I was running around chasing a toddler in a parking lot.”
This is just one example of how female researchers can bring important insights to the field.
“Your personal experiences do affect your perspective and it’s good to have women out there studying these animals as well for that reason,” she said.