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At the Forefront of Transformation: Judith McDowell Marks 50 Years in Environmental Science

When AAAS Fellow Judith McDowell applied for college in the 1960s, women were typically advised to pick one of two career options: teaching or nursing. McDowell was set on scientific research.

Her interests in science, the ocean and the environment had been strongly influenced by two women: her mother, Catherine Sullivan McDowell, and acclaimed nature writer, Rachel Carson.

Judith McDowell. Credit: Tom Kleindinst, WHOI

McDowell’s mother was a zoologist who spent several summers in the 1930s studying tide pools on remote islands off the coast of New Hampshire and Maine. Later in life, Catherine shared her fascination of coastal habitats with her three children. Every year, the family spent two weeks exploring the tide pools along the New Hampshire shoreline.

McDowell had also read Rachel Carson’s books, including “Silent Spring” and “The Sea Around Us,” admiring not only Carson’s ability to describe nature and ecology, but also her willingness to challenge the widespread use of pesticides like DDT before understanding the potential risks.

After studying biology, chemistry and philosophy at Stonehill College, McDowell decided to pursue a Ph.D. in zoology, which allowed her to combine her passions for physiology, chemistry and the environment. When she started at the University of New Hampshire in 1969, she was one of three women out of 80 graduate students in the zoology department.

“I would get comments from professors when I would turn in a paper, ‘Wow, I didn’t expect this from a woman’,” McDowell said. “I thought ‘Well, why not?’ I didn’t take offense, but I was surprised at those kinds of comments in the twentieth century.”

The early 1970s were a critical turning point; interest in environmental regulations and research was exploding, and so were opportunities for women across the sciences. By her fourth year in graduate school, McDowell’s classes were 40 percent women. “I could see before my eyes a program transform from being very male dominant to almost equal distribution,” she said. 

Within two years of receiving her Ph.D. in 1974, McDowell became a member of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s (WHOI) scientific staff. She thrived driving her own research program, writing grant proposals and putting teams of researchers together. She and her collaborators investigated how petroleum hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other fat-soluble contaminants affect marine organisms like lobsters and clams. By combining chemical analysis with biological development, McDowell and her colleagues gained a deeper understanding of how contaminants interfere with an organism’s energy that they need for development and reproduction, and resulting population-level impacts.

McDowell was the first woman to officially receive tenure at WHOI, though two women preceding her had equivalent positions before the tenure system was established. While it was stressful at times, she always viewed challenges as opportunities. “Research has been a dream,” she said.

For her contributions to biology and to “sound environmental policies,” McDowell was elected a AAAS Fellow in 1992.

She particularly enjoys collaborating with very large teams to tackle big problems, volunteering on numerous national committees, including the National Research Council’s Oil and the Sea III Report, which outlines how to assess the fate and effects of oil in the ocean.

She also led the efforts to compile environmental and contaminant data for Massachusetts’ Buzzards Bay so it could be designated a National Estuary under the Clean Water Act. McDowell wrote the comprehensive management plan for the estuary, for which she was named a “Local Hero” by the New England Monthly magazine. Additionally, she was recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for making a significant contribution to the regional environment.

McDowell equally enjoys administration. She directed WHOI Sea Grant for 24 years and served as the institution’s associate dean for nine years. She also chaired the biology department, even while undergoing chemotherapy for ovarian cancer, taking only the occasional sick day.

But what she truly values most is mentoring students, postdocs and junior scientists. “I like that I was able to nurture so many people in their careers,” she said.

As a mother of two now-grown children as well as a cancer survivor, McDowell is often approached by working men and women to discuss work-life balance and health concerns. She finds that being a good listener is the key to being a good mentor.

"Never trivialize someone’s issue,” she said. “You talk it out and you find solutions.”

Even though she technically retired in 2013, McDowell continues to chair the WHOI biology department’s postdoc mentoring committee, advocate for strong mentoring programs and serve as a corporation member on WHOI's Board of Trustees and Corporation. She continues to help with the Sea Grant program and advise the WHOI Center for Oceans and Human Health on community engagement.

When it comes to women in science, she applauds the huge strides that have occurred during her 50 years in the field. McDowell says she has seen more and more women coming up through the ranks of ocean and environmental sciences. But, she says, it is critical to not get complacent.

“It’s always something that has to be high on the agenda to make sure you have a positive climate for all people,” she said. “There has been a lot of progress, but you can never say the job is done.”


Laura Petersen

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