For most people, 2020 will forever be known as the year of cancelled plans. For a small group of students, the last months of 2020 brought an opportunity that none of us could have planned: the opportunity to go on the R/V Falkor to get hands-on experience in marine geoscience, thanks to the Schmidt Ocean Institute.
My name is Rebekah, and I am an honours student in geology at the University of Sydney. Six weeks ago, I received an email from my supervisor, offering me a place on board the R/V Falkor as part of my research. Usually, this would require years of planning, but COVID-19 has given the R/V Falkor extra time in Australia for additional research voyages. Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity!
Headed up on board by Dr Helen Bostock (University of Queensland), our science team is heavily student-focused, with five of us on our first-ever expedition. We are also a largely female team: of the eight-member science team on board, seven are women. I think this is exciting, as it represents the progress made in recent decades towards gender equity in ocean research.
Women joining research vessels has historically not been common. A superstition that women on ships were unlucky saw them excluded from expeditions for centuries. Persistent as ever, women still found ways to participate. A famous example is Jeanne Baret, who, disguised as a boy, worked as a botanist on Bougainville’s 1766 expedition and became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe.
Even as recently as 50 years ago, a science team made mostly of women was practically unheard of. A paper published last year by Hendry et al. tells the story of the many pioneering British female researchers who, over the last century, have paved the way for women in marine science today.
Standing on the shoulders of these women and their achievements, our science team on board the Falkor is a testament to the fact that more and more women are participating in science, and particularly marine science. According to the recently released Global Ocean Science Report, female researchers make up 39% of ocean scientists, which is 10% higher than the proportion of female researchers in the broader natural sciences.
Women in science still face obstacles to career progression, being under-represented in senior positions and as key-note speakers at conferences. We still have some work to do in the marine science community to achieve gender equality. But according to the Global Ocean Science Report, it is achievable. Some ways in which we can work towards this goal include providing both opportunities and positive role models, mentoring and networking for young women starting their career in science, as well as improved working conditions for women on research ships.
This is why I am so excited about our voyage on the Falkor.
The five of us students could not have hoped for a better mentor than the intrepid Helen, whose rich and varied career proves that the sky (or in this case, the sea) is limitless! We are also very grateful for the other senior researchers on board and from our respective institutions, of all genders, who worked hard to make this incredible opportunity available to us. But also to the crew and techs who have made us feel very welcome and at home on the R/V Falkor. We may have a long road ahead of us, but the future of ocean science is in good hands!