Women can do science, and surf, too

Whether in her office at Moss Landing Marine Labs, or riding a wave, the ocean is rarely far from...

Story by Marissa Fessenden
(Santa Cruz Sentinel (MCT))
Sun, Jan 29, 2012
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SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — Between sets of waves, surfer Tanya Novak sits on her board and takes in the world around her. She watches tiny crustaceans swimming in her cupped hands. She speculates about what species they are before setting them free again. When the wind picks up and shifts south, she wonders if a storm is brewing somewhere out to sea.

Most surfers, the good ones, are intimately tuned to their environment, monitoring the swell and searching for the best waves. Novak’s attention goes beyond that. She is a graduate student at Moss Landing Marine Lab who this winter earned a master’s in physical oceanography from Cal State Monterey Bay.

“I’m picking off pieces of algae and rubbing them in my fingers,” she said. “Just constantly noticing my surroundings, constantly in that science brain because that’s just a part of who I am.”

That science brain makes Novak rare among surfers. But couple that with her gender and she’s even more unusual.

Both surfing and science are historically male-dominated scenes. So many surfer-scientist women must push against misconceptions and stereotypes in two key areas of their lives. The pressure that results shapes their lives and their attitudes.

“I felt like I was representing all women,” the 28-year-old Novak said, recalling the nervousness she felt learning the ropes as a marine sciences researcher and the only woman in a group of technicians securing heavy instruments to moorings. “I thought, I better be able to ‘man-up’ to these physical requirements.”

The feeling of being outnumbered should eventually be a thing of the past for women entering the sciences. Women earned 40 percent of doctorates in science and engineering in 2006, compared with 8 percent in 1958, according to a report by the National Science Foundation. But they are still underrepresented in academia’s top echelons, holding fewer than a quarter of tenured professorships in science and engineering.

Surfing faces a similar situation. Just fewer than a third of the 2.6 million American surfers are women, according to Board-Trac, a sports market research company.

Still, their numbers at surfing competitions lag behind men. And although more women in recent years have taken up the sport, Novak said, unless she goes out with female friends she is often the only woman at many surf spots.

The relaxed, hang-loose attitude of surfers might not seem to jibe with the rigor and stuffiness of science. But for Novak and other surfer-scientists, that mix gives them a unique life perspective.

“It gives you a cleansing breath,” said Shannon Johnson Williams, a research technician at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. “I work at a lab and work at computers all day, so it is kind of a good break to get outside.”

Williams said her adviser lets researchers ride the waves at lunchtime. And she thinks that tolerance might pay off.

“I’ve been puzzling over a problem many times and walked down to the beach,” said Williams, 37, of Santa Cruz, Calif. “I get in the water and after a few minutes think: ‘Oh yeah! I know what’s wrong with that sample. It’s backwards!’ ’

Not all her colleagues approve of the surfer lifestyle. “There’s plenty of academic snobbery,” Williams said. “But they’re just missing out.”

She recalls when she was out in a boat in May 2005, collecting samples of creatures such as mussels, crabs and tube worms living near deep-sea hydrothermal vents in the South Pacific. Collecting those organisms took her hundreds of miles from shore. By checking some of her favorite surf websites via satellite, she found out that a huge storm was headed her way.

Like many surfers, Williams is obsessed with faraway storms that affect the local surf breaks. A gale near Fiji will send waves across thousands of miles of ocean toward the California coast, where surfers await. Websites keep track of these events and give a surf forecast of how high the swell will be.

But this time, Williams wasn’t thinking of heading toward shore and grabbing a board.

“There’s no hiding from these storms when you are that far out,” she said. “I kept telling the captain we’re going to get hammered by this storm and he scoffed at me. ’We don’t get our forecast from surf websites,’ he said.”

Williams got off the boat before the storm hit but caught up with that doubting captain later in Hawaii when he dropped off samples. He admitted that everyone had been in the bunks during the storm, seasick as waves and wind tossed the ship around.

“He was like: ‘Turns out that website was pretty good,’ ” said Williams with a laugh.

Surfing and science have a lot in common. Both demand focus and passion. And both, if done well, offer great rewards.

“Surfing can be so empowering and it can be so humbling at the same time,” Novak said. “You can catch a wave and feel like ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I made that drop.’ Or you’ll think you can make this wave and you end up falling on your face.”

Katie Roberts, a 33-year-old Santa Cruz native and staff researcher in marine sciences at the University of California-Santa Cruz, said: “Surfing helps me step back and think about the bigger world and my place.”

And, she added, scientists think the same way.

“One thing I love is being part of the scientific community — a bunch of people creatively trying to think of ways the world is working around them,” she said. “They’re looking at things you can’t necessarily see and understand.”

Female surfer-scientist role models include Sarah Gerhardt, the first woman to tackle Maverick’s, the legendary big-wave break just north of Half Moon Bay. Gerhardt also holds a doctorate in chemistry from the University of California-Santa Cruz and teaches at Cabrillo College, where she is up for tenure this fall.

As a tenure-track college science teacher, Gerhardt is in a tiny minority. Even after doing the work to get a doctorate, many women don’t become professors. For some, that is by choice. None of the three scientific researchers interviewed for this article plans to pursue a degree beyond the master’s level or teach at a university. They all said that a job as a lab researcher gives them more time to enjoy life — and keep surfing.

One of the greatest challenges women face is disapproval from colleagues who think that outside interests indicate a lack of commitment to research. This often makes waves when women scientists think about starting a family.

“Any graduate student has to struggle with that decision,” said Zia Isola, the associate director for diversity programs in biomedical sciences and engineering at UC Santa Cruz. “But usually it is more because of economics than how they are going to be perceived by their community.”

Isola argued that having more women and minorities in sciences results in a broader diversity of perspectives and insights. And Novak has noticed that the same thing happens when more than one woman joins a group of mostly male surfers bobbing in the ocean, waiting for that day’s perfect wave.

“The girls are less competitive and aggressive.” she said. “I’ve noticed that guys change attitudes when there are a lot of girls in the water. They start being goofier. I feel like people have more fun when there are girls in the water.”

Science, surfing, women
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