|Becoming a scientist, particularly if you are a woman, takes a lot of spunk and a refusal to take no for an answer. At least it seems that way when you hear Helen Hays talk about how she became a scientist.
Today she is in charge of the Great Gull Island Project, an American Museum of Natural History research station at the entrance to the Long Island Sound, where teams of scientists study two species of tern--the endangered roseate tern and the threatened common tern. But when she was in college just after World War II, she braved the frigid weather of Manitoba, Canada, and the even chillier welcome of the male scientists she found there, to learn what doing fieldwork really meant.
"Just before I went to college, my parents asked me what I thought I might be doing in life, and I told them that I wanted to do fieldwork. I was still saying that after my second year in college, so they said, 'Don't you think you should do some fieldwork before you make this a career decision?' I thought that was a fine idea, but I didn't have any idea how to go about it.
"A few days later, I met the town librarian on the street, and she said she had a wonderful book for me. So I went down to the library, though of course I'd already decided that I'd hate the book.It was by Florence Jacques, and in it she talked about the Delta Waterfowl Research Station in Manitoba, Canada. She mentioned the director's name, and I thought I'd write him and see if I could go there. And I did. After what seemed like a long while, I finally got a letter back, and it said, 'We've never had a single woman up here before. Now we have one. Sincerely yours, H. Albert Hochbaum, Director.' "
So she went. She traveled by train from her hometown of Johnstown, New York, all the way to Winnipeg, and then by car another 60 miles northwest to the tiny town of Delta on the shores of Lake Manitoba.
Shortly after her arrival, one of the scientists took her aside and told her, "I know you've come a long way and you're going to be here for the summer. There's not much I can do about that. But as far as I'm concerned, a woman's place is behind the stove. And I thought you should know that."
"I guess he thought I'd get in the way, or cry, or get lost, or something," Helen said, smiling at the story so many years later. "But it worked out all right and I had a good summer."
Helen began by helping other researchers, but soon she got her own project and a good taste of fieldwork.
"Nobody knew what the incubation period of the ruddy duck was, so I was assigned to try to find a nest. The idea was to put one egg in the hatchery and watch one in the wild to find out what the incubation period was. So I did that, but of course it took me all summer to find a nest. There were just miles and miles of marsh!"
Helen told us that after her first day she never again saw the scientist with strong opinions about a woman's place. She certainly never let his attitude discourage her from doing fieldwork. In fact, what she learned that summer cemented the career decision she had discussed with her parents before she set off for college.
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