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North Atlantic right whale #1950 and new calf © Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, taken under NOAA permit #26919. Aerial survey funded by NOAA Fisheries and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

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Women in science – Heather

The women in science blog series aims to celebrate women in the science field in light of International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11.

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Heather Pettis

Research Scientist with the Kraus Marine Mammal Conservation Program at the New England Aquarium

How long have you worked in marine science and/or conservation?

I have been in my current position for 24 years. At the KMMCP I study the North Atlantic right whale, a critically endangered large whale whose population numbers ~350 individuals. My primary research focuses on evaluating and monitoring right whale health and the impacts of human-caused injuries on right whale health. I am also the current Chair of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium - a collaborative group of researchers, conservationists, managers, ocean use stakeholders, and educators committed to the recovery and conservation of North Atlantic right whales.

Why is science important to you and how do you use science in your day-to-day role?

Curiosity is such a cool driver of human behavior – we seek to understand and explain the world around us. Science gives us the tools to do just that. I think that most people would not consider themselves “scientists,” but they likely engage in scientific endeavors on a daily basis. Making observations, putting forth potential explanations, and “testing” those explanations – these are all behaviors with which we tackle our daily lives. Science is a great uniter of humanity.

Working with a critically endangered species, the science that I practice is focused on understanding why North Atlantic right whales aren’t recovering and thinking about ways in which we can change that. I spend much of my time assessing the health of right whales using photographs and tracking how health is impacted by human activities, including fishing and boating/shipping. Using this information, I work to understand ways in which we can minimize human impacts so that right whales can more effectively carry out important biological processes like feeding and reproduction in order to survive as a species. While my work focuses on a single species, what we are learning extends far beyond right whales, specifically, how humans can balance ocean use with responsible stewardship of this incredible global resource and its inhabitants.

Who are your influences?

I’ve been incredibly fortunate in the opportunities and support that have led me to the career I have today. The reason I went into right whale research, and certainly the reason I have remained for nearly 25 years, is the passion and commitment of the right whale research and conservation communities in its shared goal of preserving this species. Dr. Michael Moore of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution provided me with opportunities and guidance during graduate school and early in my career that were transformational in my development as a research scientist and his integration of empathy and science in his work has particularly influenced the way I think about human impacts on right whales. Amy Knowlton of the New England Aquarium has been a mentor for my entire career and my interest in human impacts on North Atlantic right whales stems directly from her work and guidance over the years. Her compassion for both the animal and human sides of the challenges facing right whales has been a guidepost for me.

Generally, speaking, the entire North Atlantic right whale research and conservation community is a remarkably inspiring and motivating group. Being surrounded by, and working side by side with, the many people dedicated to saving this species has influenced me personally and professionally throughout my career.

What are your career goals?

I am hopeful that at the end of my career I can look back and say that our research contributed to the successful recovery of the North Atlantic right whale. There is a long way to go to achieve that goal, but also a great deal of hope that it is achievable. In working to conserve and protect this species, I also hope that our research broadens people’s understanding of, and commitment to, being good stewards of the ocean so that we aren’t faced with the potential extinction of another iconic marine species.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give to your younger self?

I would tell the younger me to seek out and say yes to even more experiences. And to be honest, I would tell the not so younger version of me the same thing! It’s easy to fall into a routine and convince oneself that there isn’t time for this or that. But seeking out new opportunities to grow, both personally and professionally, is so important.

Anything else you’d like to say about International Day of Women and Girls in Science? 

I love my career in science and am very grateful for the support that I have had along the way. I am particularly grateful to the trailblazing women who worked tirelessly to create opportunities so that when I attend a processional conference, I am just one of many women at the podium sharing their research and passion for the marine sciences. I hope that every little and not so little girl out there finds their passion and if it’s in the sciences, that they embrace it with an abundance of confidence and joy knowing that they can, and will, change the world for the better.

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