Infection, Inspiration, and Insight: Lessons Learned by a Disease Ecologist #WomeninScience

This month, Thimedi Hetti, journal specialist for Frontiers in Marine Science, talks to Dr. Sarah Gignoux-Wolfsohn, an ecologist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center who works in both the Marine Invasions Lab and the Marine Disease Ecology Lab. In 2020, Dr. Gignoux-Wolfsohn received the first Women in Ocean Science Award from the Central Caribbean Marine Institute to study coral disease. They discuss where her passion to study marine science stemmed from, overcoming sexism in her field, and the importance of establishing a strong network.

Tell me a little bit about what you do.

“I study the ecology and evolution of infectious diseases in multiple systems. I got my PhD studying coral disease, specifically white band disease, and then did a postdoc looking at white nose syndrome in bats. I’ve also studied some oyster diseases and now I’m moving back into the coral disease (Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease) and other systems. Primarily, I have worked in marine environments, other than my brief foray into bat disease.”

“What ties my work together is thinking about how infectious diseases are influenced by – and influence – the populations of communities of both the pathogen and the host. So taking a more community and biodiversity-centric view of infectious disease, rather than the traditional ‘one-host, one-pathogen’ model, which I think we’re learning doesn’t really apply to a lot of diseases.”

What is it that attracted you to marine science?

“I think part of why I like working in the marine environment is because I do get to do a lot of fieldwork and experimentation. I spend a lot of time in the water, going to different locations, like when I’m studying corals, for example. Now I’m also at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center near Chesapeake Bay where we have a wet lab, so I get to spend a lot of time down there, interacting with organisms, specifically setting up a lot of experiments.”

“For the time being however, I’m not doing any of that due to COVID-19. Instead, I’m mostly analyzing data and doing a lot of writing; trying to get publications out. So in some ways, COVID-19 has been really good at forcing me to do the data analysis and writing, which I definitely enjoy sometimes. However, it can take a back seat to running experiments and collecting more data in normal times.”

How did you first get into your field, and did you always know that you wanted to work in science?

“Yes, I think I did always know that I wanted to go into science. As a kid I was really inspired by famous female scientists like Jane Goodall and Eugenie Clark. Growing up, we spent a lot of time around the ocean. We would go to Maine every summer, and I spent a lot of time with my mom in the tide pools and on the beaches, looking at things. So I think that made me really love the ocean. Once I realized that being a marine scientist was something I could do, it seemed really attractive.” 

“But it wasn’t always a straight shot. I had times where I thought about doing other things like going to medical school or being a science writer, but I do really like research. I like the process of asking questions and getting to set up experiments and studies to try to answer those questions. So I always returned to the idea of becoming a researcher.”

I noted you received the first Woman in Science Scholar to do your coral study, how did that feel?

“Great! It felt really validating and exciting. In the application I wrote specifically about being a woman in science and about my feelings about it, and my thoughts about how to inspire the next generation. It was really cool to receive it based both on my research as well as my views about how to support other women in science.”

Focusing on being a woman in science and your thoughts about it, did you ever face any struggles or moments where you felt like it had an impact?

“I have experienced sexism, both subtle and more overt. It’s kind of a constant in this field. But I have also found that the older I get, and the more I’m able to find mentors and networks of people who support me (especially strong female mentors), the more I’m able to counteract any challenges that I might encounter as a woman. Just having that community validates your feelings. I think one of the hardest things is that you don’t know if someone is being sexist, or if you are doubting yourself. You ask yourself, ‘Is this because I’m a woman? Maybe I’m being dramatic?’ So I think the older I get and the more I have people that I trust, people who can say, ‘You are facing a struggle, that person is interacting with you differently’, the easier things get and the easier it is to ignore.”

Throughout your career, did you look up to any  strong female mentors to, and what effect did they have on you?

“I did. When I was an undergrad, I worked in a lab with two female PhD students who were really influential, particularly when I didn’t really know what working in science was like at the time. They were very supportive and introduced me to science; the good things, and the challenging parts of it.”  

“During my PhD, Melissa Garren was incredibly influential on me. She was extremely supportive and was actually one of my committee members. I currently have a wonderful female mentor who I work with at the Smithsonian, Katrina Lohan, who has been really supportive. Some people may have a lot more formal female mentorship than I have, but I was able to seek my own.”

If you could meet a young version of yourself, what advice would you give to her?

“My advice would be to work on validating myself rather than seeking external validation. When I was younger I was very focused on, and still am to this day, external validation. In school you get judged on grades and if you go into science, that can translate into publications or citations, which are important and a great part of science, but can also take a long time, and don’t actually reflect on your self-worth as a person or as a scientist. There are a lot of parts of science other than just publications or big-picture achievements. I think if I could go back, I would just say to spend time appreciating the day-to-day accomplishments and find ways to understand my self-worth independent of the external forces.” 

Do you have any advice to younger people who may want to launch a career in a similar field to your own?

“I think the best thing to do is just try to talk to as many people as you can. Often, that involves cold emailing people, which can be hard because a lot of times, people won’t respond. But if you can, try and email people multiple times, because usually they are not being unresponsive because they don’t care, but because they get so many emails. Also cast a wide net, and try to vary who you talk to. I have found that if you’re interested in something, talking to someone who has that experience can give you a much better idea that you can’t get from reading, such as what working there would actually entail, both on a day-to-day and on a high-level intellectual perspective. So growing your network.”

“When I was younger I thought that networking meant I had to build a network of big-wigs. While that can be great and they might be super receptive and helpful, those people can be very busy. So try having a network of people on your level. If you’re an undergraduate, talk to other undergraduates working in different labs, or talk to graduate students. People who are closer to you and then, as you move up, they move up and then you get to work with them at a higher level and still have that support.”

You can read more about Sarah and her research at her website: sarahgw.com/