Joan Walsh, Gerard Bertrand Chair of Field Ornithology & Natural History, Mass Audubon
What path(s) did you take to come to work in STEM?
I was interested in science at a very young age. I would take things apart or build things just to figure them out. I built boats out of scrap wood in the garage and remember very vividly spending a whole day trying to figure out how to build an anchor because my homemade boat kept floating away. I also spent a lot of time outside. My friends and I would go to the Old Farmington canal and investigate the wildlife. We’d come home all muddy and wet, but we didn’t care. That was the way suburban kids grew up in the 60’s.
As one of six children, I knew growing up that I would have to work to support myself and that the most suitable career for me would be both outside and science-based. I started working when I was a teenager — as a cleaner, at a plant store in the mall, in a box office, and in college as a bird researcher. Each opportunity helped me to grow, but realistically, I just don’t know that anything else besides science would have made me happy.
I’m proud to say that I’m a first generation college alumna! In the 70’s-80’s when there still weren’t that many women pursuing science, I paid my own way to undergraduate school to earn my degree in biology from Southern Connecticut State University. I treated school like a full-time 40-hour per week job to get good grades, and was inspired by my professors and peers. Like me, many of my peers worked part-time to support themselves through school, but we all still somehow found time to do our field research. My field research was on Great Gull Island, an initiative of the American Museum of Natural History led by conservationist and ornithologist Helen Hays. I came to realize that if someone has a good professor or mentor who inspires them, that person can go on to do anything. I also recognized how rare I was as a woman in STEM and only now am realizing how fortunate I had been to be mentored by a woman, and supported fully by my male counterparts.
Please describe your work in STEM. What are your main projects or initiatives?
My role as the Gerard Bertrand Chair of Field Ornithology & Natural History is unique. My research on common terns and endangered roseate terns takes place in Brazil, New York, and Massachusetts, with another potential research site blossoming in Belize. These projects are made possible through partnerships, and I can’t stress the importance of building partnerships in your career. Look for opportunities to knit together topics and expertise – and never burn a bridge!
In Massachusetts, I have been working with partners to predict how offshore wind turbines will impact wildlife and identifying tools to minimize and mitigate for the effects of these clean energy technologies. Since seabirds aren’t used to wind turbines (or any tall structures) in their environment, we are measuring the effects of the presence of turbines on birds, identifying the species most affected, and calculating the rate of collisions between birds and turbines. Then we need to mitigate for losses, hopefully ending up with more birds than we started with. For young people looking for hands-on, practical experience in the field, getting into the offshore wind science would be a powerful job, from the applied conservation perspective as well as from the clean energy perspective. It is super exciting, and will grow tremendously in the next 10 years.
In New York, the research focuses on avian diets, specifically Common and Roseate Terns. What do terns feed their young, and how are their food sources changing as the climate changes? We really want to know how the warming waters of the Long Island Sound are influencing tern’s food abundance and accessibility. We are currently ramping up our remote data collection techniques to collect more information this summer.
In Brazil, we are working to reduce the collisions of roseate terns with power lines by placing markers along the lines to make them more visible to the birds when they return to land after foraging at sea during the day. This work is a partnership of two federal governments, e-NGOs, and power companies. It is a great project, and one we are all really proud of.
How does your current role contribute to the STEM education community?
In my role, I need to be able to share my research with a wide audience. This involves effectively breaking down the complexities of the science content and communicating the science in ways that anyone can understand. I hope that my work will inspire young people to learn and practice field research, and older people to take action to protect wildlife. There are many problems to solve, and the bigger the problem is, the more important it is that we get going on solving it. It seems to me that as we move forward and invest in science, everyone needs to be involved – and we need to focus on bringing people of color, underserved communities, and indigenous people into our work. Everyone has the capacity to be a change agent – everyone. Every person can contribute, and we need that because who knows what someone might invent!