Ecology: a celebration of great women

So, on International Day of Women In Science, I found myself thinking back to my own university days, studying Environmental Sciences, on a course dominated by women. Was there a reason why so many young women were attracted to ecological studies? How many have gone on to have successful careers? And who are the women currently shaping the science that’s addressing the key environmental issues of the day?

Schemes to support young women scientists are run by bodies such as The British Ecological Society, and do much to attract and develop talented researchers

Schemes to support young women scientists are run by bodies such as The British Ecological Society, and do much to attract and develop talented researchers

Let’s take a look…

Countless women have played pivotal roles in the study and protection of the environment. These are just a few to celebrate. Five of the best from a very large field.

Now, I’m biased as someone who loves trees and who has a fascination for all things African. So, my first choice is Wangari Maathai, a truly remarkable women deedicated to planting trees. Shei is almost single-handedly responsible for bringing trees back to the Kenyan landscape.  In the 1970s, she founded the Green Belt Movement, encouraging Kenyans to replant trees to replace those cut down for firewood, farm use or plantations. Through her work planting trees, she also became an advocate for women's rights, prison reform, and projects to combat poverty, demonstrating the inter-relationships between environmental protection and social justice. In 2004, Wangari Maathai became the first African woman and the first environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to protect the environment. A truly inspiring woman.


Going back to the early days of the global environmental movement, my next choice is author of the seminal work, Silent Spring. Rachel Carson’s book brought national attention to the issue of pesticide contamination and the effect it was having on the planet. It spurred an environmental movement that led to pesticide-use policies and better protection for many animal species that had been affected by their use. However, her work goes far beyond that. Rachel Carson was first a marine scientist working for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in Washington, DC, primarily as a writer and editor. She wrote about geological discoveries from submarine technology and underwater research, of how islands were formed, how currents change and merge, how temperature affects sea life, and how erosion impacts not just shore lines but salinity, fish populations, and tiny micro-organisms. Climate change, rising sea-levels, melting Arctic glaciers, collapsing bird and animal populations, crumbling geological faults; all are part of her work.


In Silent Spring she asked the hard questions about whether and why humans had the right to control nature; to decide who lives or dies, to poison or to destroy non-human life. In showing that all biological systems were dynamic and by urging the public to question authority, Rachel Carson became a social revolutionary.

British primatologist Jane Goodall is best known as the world's foremost expert on chimpanzees. She studied the primates for over five decades in the forests of Tanzania. Goodall has worked tirelessly over the years to promote conservation and animal welfare. In July 1960, at the age of 26, Jane traveled from England to what is now Tanzania and ventured into the little-known world of wild chimpanzees. Through nearly 60 years of groundbreaking work, she has not only shown us the urgent need to protect chimpanzees from extinction; she has also redefined species conservation to include the needs of local people and the environment. Today, she travels around the world, writing, speaking and spreading hope through action, encouraging each of us to “use the gift of our life to make the world a better place.” As a conservationist, humanitarian and crusader for the ethical treatment of animals, she is a global force for compassion and a UN Messenger of Peace.


Vandana Shiva is an Indian activist and environmentalist whose work on protecting seed diversity changed the focus of the green revolution from large agribusiness firms to local, organic growers. . She didn’t start out as an ecologist, though, first training as a Physicist at the University of Punjab,and only later shifted to inter-disciplinary research in science, technology and environmental policy, which she carried out at the Indian Institute of Science and the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore. In 1982, she founded an independent institute – the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology in Dehra Dun – dedicated to high quality and independent research to address the most significant ecological and social issues of our times, working in close partnership with local communities and social movements. In 1991 she founded Navdanya, a national movement to protect the diversity and integrity of living resources – especially native seed – and to promote organic farming and fair trade. For last two decades, Navdanya has worked with local communities and organisations, serving more than 500,000 men and women farmers, resulting in the conservation of more than 3000 rice varieties from across India. The organisation has established 60 seed banks in 16 states across the country.


Francia Marquez is a formidable leader of the Afro-Colombian community, who organised the women of La Toma and stopped illegal gold mining on their ancestral land. Illegal miners used mercury and cyanide to extract the gold from dirt and rock. These toxic chemicals flowed directly into the Ovejas River, contaminating the community’s only source of fresh water. Mining camps transformed into small cities, much like the boom towns of the California Gold Rush. With populations of up to 5,000 people, these cities gave rise to prostitution, illegal drug use, and rampant violence as miners preyed upon and clashed with local residents.

Francia exerted steady pressure on the Colombian government and spearheaded a 10-day, 350-mile march of 80 women to the nation’s capital, resulting in the removal of all illegal miners and equipment from her community. single mother of two who was born in Yolombo, a village in the Cauca region. She first became an activist at 13, when construction of a dam threatened her community. As a young woman, Francia became a local leader who took on the struggle for environmental and ancestral land rights, fighting and beating back incursions into La Toma by multi-national mining companies. She also educated farmers in her region on sustainable agricultural techniques and worked to promote Afro-Colombian cultural and land rights.


In order to attract talented young women into the environmental field, it is important that we all work to remove barriers to progress and ensure a level playing field of opportunity. There are so many great female ecologists, who we should celebrate for their important scientific and cultural contributions, and who serve to inspire the next generation of women in ecology.

So, who are your female ecologist role models? #WomeninEcology #InternationalWomeninScienceDay