Why Women Rule NRDC’s Science Center

And why female leaders tend to be more attuned to issues of environmental equity.
March for Science, Washington, D.C., 2017

JIM LO SCALZO/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

A few thousand miles, a couple of decades of experience, and three scientific specialties separate the NRDC Science Center’s Dr. Christina Swanson, Dr. Kim Knowlton, and Dr. Stacy Woods―a San Francisco–based biologist, a New York doctor of public health, and a D.C.-based geostatistician, respectively. But the paths of Swanson, the center’s director of seven years; Knowlton, its deputy director; and Woods, who rounded out the trio last fall as staff scientist, have followed a similar course. There was ample time in academia to start, with teaching positions for all. There was a call to public policy, and positions authoring environmental regulations. And there were previous labs and workplaces dominated by men.

Dr. Christina Swanson, senior director of NRDC’s Science Center. with her research assistant, Max

Courtesy Dr. Christina Swanson

“I started in the super-male-dominated field of geology,” Knowlton says. “I can remember literally being patted on the head by male geologists who thought I was cute.” Knowlton notes that in spite of the patronization, she did manage to find a small community of women in the earth sciences—and then a much larger one when she moved on to study climate change. Meanwhile, for Woods and Swanson, the shift to a gender-balanced workplace didn’t come until much later in their careers. “People ask me, did I have a woman mentor when I was doing my PhD, and I can’t think of one,” Swanson says, recalling her days at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she earned her doctorate in biology in 1991. Later, she went on to work for the Bay Institute, a conservation organization dedicated to protecting the greater San Francisco Bay, initially serving as its fisheries scientist and later as its executive director. “I was frequently the only woman in the room,” she says. “It didn’t particularly intimidate me. It was notable, but it never impinged on my thinking one way or the other—maybe because I was brought up in a family of very strong women.”

Dr. Kim Knowlton, deputy director of NRDC’s Science Center, in Ahmedabad, India

Courtesy Kim Knowlton

Now Swanson, Knowlton, and Woods are part of a veritable family of strong women at the Science Center, where they oversee a growing unit of science fellows, most of whom also happen to be women. Though NRDC is now in its 48th year, this department is a relatively new one. It was initiated in 2006 to help strengthen the organization’s research and analysis projects, facilitate collaboration with outside scientists, oversee independent peer review of NRDC publications, and provide guidance to NRDC’s science communicators. Swanson, Knowlton, and Woods all cite their strength as mentors as essential to the jobs they perform. “The drive to teach and engage with people in ways that encourage them to think, make connections, and integrate and apply information is an important element of what we do,” Swanson says.

The Science Center plays far more than a support role in NRDC’s scientific work; in recent years, Swanson has helped steer the organization’s policy advocacy as well. In 2017, she and Knowlton led the development of groundbreaking climate and health geographic information system (GIS) maps, part of a series of reports documenting the communities most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change across the United States. For the first two sets of analyses and maps, they illustrated where extreme heat and a decline in air quality will take the greatest toll. As Knowlton wrote in an overview, children, the elderly, and communities living in poverty suffer most from these health risks. And on further reflection, she notes that caring for these population sectors often falls to women all over the world.

Women handing out Heat Action Plan flyers to the community

Dr. Anjali Ambatkar

“Women and girls are among the people in the world most impacted by climate change—the people who know about it,” she says. “We are the heads of household and the caregivers who help elders get out of harm’s way when there is a flood or take children to the doctor when there’s a heat wave that triggers asthma attacks.” Knowlton also points out that in many areas of the world, women have the chief responsibility for tending fields and collecting water and firewood. This makes them more attuned to the effects of climate change on natural resources and, by extension, on their families’ and communities’ well-being.

For all those reasons, Knowlton notes that the world’s climate leaders—both at the grassroots level and on the global policy stage—are often women. For example, she cites activists in India, where NRDC’s India Initiative, led by Anjali Jaiswal, works with local partners to guide community heat action plans that include measures to reduce the impacts of air pollution and related health risks. “Women have been super important in getting the word out,” she says, “holding marches with banners and music throughout their communities. They’ve been extremely vocal.” She also cites the importance of international leaders like Mary Robinson, who served as Ireland’s first female president from 1990–97 and today presides over the Mary Robinson Foundation–Climate Justice. The foundation considers gender equity one of the guiding principles of its environmental work and aims to elevate the voices of women in climate policy decision making—in particular, of those experiencing environmental injustice firsthand. “Robinson is a leading voice on the need to prepare for climate effects we can’t avoid,” Knowlton says.

Mary Robinson, founder of the Mary Robinson Foundation-Climate Justice, with health worker Nadhifa Ibrahim in Mohamed, Somalia, 2011

Trocaire/Wikimedia Commons

Scientists like Knowlton, Swanson, and Woods are laying the foundation for that action. In March, Stanford University held its annual Global Women in Data Science (WiDS) Conference, which Forbes magazine characterized as “the Women’s March for analytics.” The WiDS founder, Margot Gerritsen, of Stanford’s Institute for Computational and Mathematical Engineering, noted in her opening remarks that global leaders increasingly rely on data science to inform decisions affecting industry, policy, commerce, the social sciences, medicine, and other fields. Yet only 10 percent to 20 percent of data scientists are women, she said. And that gender imbalance is a critical problem when it comes to producing the data necessary to inform equitable solutions.

Dr. Margot Gerritsen, founder of the Global Women in Data Science, at a conference

Ved Chirayath

Woods, a data scientist by training, knows this well. While earning her PhD in environmental health at Johns Hopkins University, she worked in a lab made up entirely of men, and under a male adviser; the university students enrolled in the GIS classes she taught, she notes, were more diverse. After a stint at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, she’s now teaching those same skills to her colleagues at NRDC, an organization where science underlies all environmental and public health advocacy work―and where, as Swanson points out, 60 percent of the staff are female.

Dr. Stacy Woods, staff scientist of NRDC’s Science Center

Troy J. Stewart

“Data-driven policy is something that has always appealed to me,” says Woods, who describes herself as a statistician who was initially “into math for math’s sake.” But as her career developed, she says, “I was extremely excited by the second-degree work, translating the science from the lab into policy to effect change.” For example, she recently worked with NRDC senior attorney Alison Kelly to quantify the extent of oil extraction in Florida’s Big Cypress National Park. They produced an interactive map that has attracted significant media attention and political interest at a time when Florida has been in the national news for its opposition to offshore drilling along its coast.

In February, the bicoastal staff of the Science Center got together for a rare in-person retreat in New York. Knowlton remarked on how lucky she felt to welcome Woods and the other new scientists to the team. “I’ve been super lucky to learn from women in science all throughout my career,” she says. “In turn, I need to do my best for the young women scientists here now, because they’re going to be the generation who cares for our future.”

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