Paving the Way: Women in STEM

In what she considers one of the most inspiring moments of her career, Beth Firchau, scientist and nature lover, recently had the opportunity to travel to the Galápagos Islands just off the coast of Ecuador. Seeing the islands for the first time as the on-board biologist for an eco-tour, Beth was captivated by the beauty of her surroundings. Sightings of rare, wild animals and days full of adventure and exploration left her in awe. 

“All humans should be required to go there at least once in their lifetime,” said Beth, 47. “It’s a humbling experience that makes you feel very insignificant.” 

The Galápagos Islands are just one of the many places Beth has traveled in her position as Curator of Fishes at the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center, a career that’s opened many doors for her. While women are pursuing more STEM career positions—in science, technology, engineering and math, a significant imbalance between the sexes still exists. Beth and other local women scientists are paving the way for girls to enter STEM careers, which offer wide-open opportunities in the 21st-century. 

OUT IN NATURE

Growing up in Michigan, Beth Firchau was always outdoors. She loved being out in nature and interacting with animals. While attending Ohio State University, she took a special interest in studying sharks.

“I’ve always rooted for the underdog,” Beth said. “Sharks get a bum rap, and they are highly misunderstood. They are really the movers and shakers of the ocean, and I enjoyed learning about them and now having the opportunity to educate others and make a difference.”

After graduation, Beth accepted a position at Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. After several years, she felt the need to learn new skills and found an opening in Virginia Beach for a Senior Aquarist at the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center. 

Beth was hired in 1995 as the Virginia Aquarium was preparing to triple in size. Within two years, Beth was promoted to Curator of Fishes and Dive Operations Supervisor.

“Saying I’m a marine biologist is like saying I’m a doctor in the sense that there are so many different types and specialists,” Beth explained. “My area of focus is gathering collections for conservation and education. I do a lot to further understanding of animals.”

Beth supervises 14 staff members, 10 husbandry volunteers, and over 60 volunteer scuba divers. She is in charge of getting animals to the Virginia Aquarium and caring for them once they are there. Together, she and her staff care for over 10,500 individual fishes, invertebrates, and reptiles and maintain over 582,984 gallons of fresh and saltwater. 

Besides her behind-the-scenes work, Beth also takes pride in creating a lasting experience for visitors. “I believe in this industry,” Beth said. “I have empathy for the human race in regards to nature, and I am so motivated to share that with others.”

While she values the many rewarding moments in her career, she has also experienced her share of challenges. One of the biggest obstacles she faces is finding the energy to get everything done. She feels grateful that she her husband, Chuck, a local teacher, has a steady schedule that allows for raising a family. 

Many women who enter STEM careers leave early on because they want to raise a family, and moving up career ladder can become more demanding of their time. There are often long hours and extended travel. At some point, women may have to choose between their career goals and starting a family. Beth, mother of two stepchildren, Chloe and Clay, feels lucky that she has been able to manage both.

“I do notice that the trend is now shifting to more of a balance of women in STEM careers than there once used to be,” Beth said. “But it is also true that a lot of the women are at lower level, entry positions. As we look up the chain, it is still male-dominated.”

Although women are currently earning STEM-related degrees more frequently than in the past, they make up less than 30 percent of career positions in this field. But Beth is hopeful for the future. She encourages young women who want to enter STEM careers to find ways to constantly challenge themselves in more than one discipline. 

“Don’t ever feel entitled to anything,” Beth advised. “Be engaging and engage in other people, and you’ll go far. This is not a brick wall that women cannot pass. It just takes a lot of hard work.”

Someday, Beth aspires to be a director. She feels passionate about her career, and wants to continue to expand her skills so that she may continue giving back through conservation and education.

EXPLORE & DISCOVER

Susie Hill also loves her STEM job. She is the Education Specialist and Special Programs Manager at Nauticus, where she has worked since 1997. Situated on the Norfolk harbor, Nauticus is a museum that offers interactive experiences and utilizes the natural setting of its surroundings to educate about maritime commerce and our Navy.

After graduation from Old Dominion University with a bachelor’s degree in biology, Susie decided that she wanted to pursue both a career and a family at the same time, while remaining close to home. She found a job at Nauticus as a part-time Aquarist, where her duties included feeding sharks and cleaning habitats. In 1999, the museum merged the aquarium and educational staffs, and she began to expand her range of skills. 

Today, she develops, coordinates, and leads museum guests of all ages, including families, scout groups, science clubs, school field trips, and summer camps. She teaches STEM-related subjects to students, including marine science, military ships, history of the local Navy, and engineering aspects of robotics. 

“My favorite part of my job is that we get to teach such a variety of different topics with a wide age range of students,” Susie said. “We have a wonderful team of educators here, all from different backgrounds. I love to see our passion carry over to those we teach.”

Local schools are offering science programs and reaching out to students about potential STEM careers as early as middle school. More than in the past, there is a larger interest and sense of encouragement among girls. Susie remembers completing a school project about science careers in seventh grade. She met a marine biologist and knew that she wanted to pursue a career in that field someday.  Today, she values the chance to introduce other young people to science.

Aside from teaching, Susie also travels and conducts research. She knows that in order to be a successful educator, she must always keep learning. Every three or four years, she takes a major research trip. One of her most memorable was an expedition with Dr. Robert Ballard, well known for discovering the wreckage of the Titanic. One of his goals is to help women progress in science. Out of 26 people on the research trip, Susie recalls over half being female. 

“It gave me a huge boost of confidence, seeing other women in STEM careers from all different backgrounds and getting the opportunity to work with them and learn from them,” Susie said. “When you see other women in this field, you realize, if they can do it, then I can, too!”

One of the most rewarding aspects of Susie’s job is the ability to be that inspiration to other women. She encourages young people to explore what’s out there and start early in their educational journeys, as there is a whole world to explore and discover.

According to The Virginian-Pilot, our region offers an abundance of STEM career opportunities in local museums, aquariums, and military bases. In addition, our universities offer a variety of degrees in STEM disciplines. Virginia is also blessed with a diverse range of eco-systems to study and conduct research, including beaches, rivers, farmlands, and mountains. 

“Over the past decade, technology has just taken over,” Susie said. “The future is so promising now with potential STEM careers because there are resources absolutely everywhere.”

Susie grew up in Suffolk and currently lives there with her husband of 19 years and their two children, Noah and Hannah, who are both as interested in science as she. 

“I’m a homebody, and it’s nice and quiet here,” Susie said. “I like spending time with my family and visiting museums and local attractions together.”

In the future, she hopes to return to school and earn her master’s degree. She also looks forward to traveling on more research trips.

AMAZING ANIMALS

As a 24-year-old herpetologist at the Virginia Living Museum, Maggie McCartney is in the early stages of her STEM career. Her job at the Newport News museum helps support its mission of connecting people to nature through educational experiences that promote conservation. As a herpetologist, Maggie takes care of reptiles and amphibians and trains them to keep their minds active and help them be calmer. 

“As a child, I always played outside,” Maggie said. “Experiencing wildlife has always been a career goal for me.”

She began interning in the herpetology department at the museum in 2010 while earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in environmental science at Christopher Newport University. After she graduated, she kept moving up until she transitioned into a full-time position. 

She updates a blog on the museum website about her experiences working with these animals and what is new with the department. Her favorite animals to interact with are snakes.

“Snakes are so misunderstood and underappreciated,” Maggie said. “I am grateful for the opportunity to change people’s minds about them through education. If there were no snakes, there would be little agriculture because mice would eat everything. It is just about putting a positive spin on these amazing animals.”

In addition to her work at the museum, she also teaches Introduction to Biology labs at Christopher Newport University as an adjunct professor. 

“The sciences are very education driven,” Maggie said. “You can read a textbook all day long, but you must also really experience nature. I encourage people to go for every single opportunity they have. I applied for the museum internship on a whim, and it ended up becoming my dream job.”

When she isn’t working to raise awareness and education about wildlife, Maggie loves to spend time outdoors. She enjoys hiking and taking pictures of nature. 

“When you are an animal person, it is all consuming,” Maggie said. “You can’t escape this passion.”

Beth, Susie, and Maggie are three inspiring women whose passion for nature prompted them to pursue careers in science. While STEM careers were once synonymous with men in white lab coats, today women are donning the lab coats in higher numbers, proving they, too, can be successful, driven engineers and scientists. Beth, Susie, and Maggie are paving the way for other young women who share a passion for our amazing world. 

For more information:

• Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center - www.virginiaaquarium.com

• Nauticus - www.nauticus.org

• Virginia Living Museum - www.thevlm.org

Theresa Walker is a graduate of Virginia Wesleyan College and lives in Virginia Beach with her husband. 

More in this category: « Moving Forward
back to top