A series of graduate student conversations with leading women biologists, at the Women in Science Symposium at Cornell April 2-3.

Dr. Mary Power, Professor, Department of Integrative Biology, University of California, Berkeley.

Dr. Mary Power, a prominent stream ecologist from UC Berkeley, has not only written many important papers in food web and community ecology, but she has a reputation for being warm, inspirational, and extremely enthusiastic about natural history and field biology. Last week I had the pleasure of talking to Power about her career, challenges she has faced as a woman in science, and the future of food web ecology. As a fifth-year Ph.D. student who will soon face a daunting academic job market, her encouragement and advice were extremely valuable for me.

Like many ecologists, Power realized her passion for science when she had the opportunity to observe organisms in nature at a young age. Her particular fascination with aquatic habitats began when she finally found clear vision underwater through a diving mask. No one had discovered that six-year-old Power was nearsighted, so she describes her first view of the underwater world off the coast of Massachusetts as an experience of “irreversible shock of wonder and awe.”

Power remained interested in aquatic habitats throughout her childhood, but didn’t find herself interested in becoming an academic until much later. She completed her undergraduate degree at Brown University in a biology department with almost no ecologists. She found few allies in her quest to appreciate natural history while surrounded by “people who really did believe that if it was true for E. coli, then it was true for elephants!” She sought refuge in the library, where she read every natural history and ecology book she could find. Feeling confused and discouraged after graduation, she taught adult education courses at Boston University. The motivated students in her classes, along a month-long field course she was able to take, led by the inspirational shark biologist Ned Hodgson from Tufts University, at the Lerner Marine Lab in Bimini, Bahamas to study coral reef ecology, inspired her to continue her career as an ecologist.

Although Power’s true passions are natural history, field biology, and being underwater, she has managed to turn her interests into a highly successful academic career. She jokes that “academia was a secondary scheme to get society to pay me to be underwater watching things,” but she has also led an extremely active academic life as a professor at UC Berkeley, director of the Angelo Coast Reserve, leader in scientific societies, mentor to many successful students, and as an influential figure in several environmental policy debates. That’s a pretty impressive list for someone who was told, “Mary, if you get interested in this stuff, you’ll just be another save the whales housewife!” by her undergraduate professors.

Over the past 25 years that she has worked at Berkeley, Power has developed a research program on food web ecology, landscape ecology and community ecology in the Eel River of California. In this time she says she has learned many lessons. In one of her first summers as an assistant professor, for example, she conducted an influential study on trophic cascades that was published in Science. But when she returned to the Eel River the following summer to repeat the experiment, she could not reproduce the same result. Despite her initial worry and disappointment, she ended up discovering that climate or hydrologic contexts, droughts or floods, change the rules in river food webs. She now calls for ecologists to continue to focus on how and why species interactions change over both time and space. “I don’t think we’ll understand food webs until we understand how rules change across space and time, and especially space,” she says, “I was distressed when I couldn’t repeat that experiment after year one. Year two I realized I’d learned something more interesting, and more original, than just that the trophic cascade happens in rivers too!”

Power’s current home on the Eel River is the Angelo Coast Reserve, which is part of the University of California’s natural reserve system. While she described several downsides to being the director of a field station, including dealing with administrators who struggle with funding issues, and generating funds for staff and maintenance, she sees great value in the natural reserve system and thinks that it may be the most important legacy that the University of California leaves to the future. One of the driving forces behind the preservation of the reserve system is a tenacious and dynamic staff of people who are willing to fight for the land they love. Power commented that she has deeply enjoyed working with those people who are, “the sort of people who can make a tractor work under nine feet of snow.”

Even though her current research is rooted in California, she still harbors a passion for tropical rivers and their fish faunas, especially the armored catfish. As a graduate student, she spent years in Panama, much of it alone, becoming personally acquainted with hundreds of armored catfish and their specific movement patterns. She credits a visit from her husband Bill Dietrich, an eminent geomorphologist who is also a professor at Berkeley, for helping her place her armored catfish work in a broader context. He visited her field site in Panama and suggested she look at catfish distributions on a larger scale, which led to one of the most important conclusions of her thesis: that catfish followed the ideal free distribution.

Power says her 35-year marriage to Dietrich has influenced her career in other ways as well. Dietrich was first hired as an assistant professor at Berkeley. She had followed Dietrich to Berkeley and had a hard time finding a place for herself there, so she went to scientific conferences, met new collaborators, and ended up in Oklahoma for a postdoc on algae grazing fishes. During that time she saw very little of Dietrich and wanted to be in the same place as him. She finally had the opportunity to interview for an ecology job at Berkeley, in a department completely independent of Dietrich’s. The idea of interviewing for a perfect job in the same geographic location as her husband made Power so nervous that she couldn’t function. Dietrich (whose mother modeled for I Magnin in San Francisco) took her shopping and literally dressed her for the interview. Power landed the job. Her advice to younger academic couples? Figure out how to keep motivated, keep writing, and keep listening to each other, and keep both of your spirits up when one partner has a job and the other is unemployed. Pay attention to maintaining your relationship and your intellectual passions, and eventually things will work out.

Power also encourages young ecologists to take on the challenge of discovering general rules in ecology. Big goals may occasionally seem unrelated to the daily process of collecting data, but role models like Power provide an excellent example of scientists who are able to succeed in academia but still remember what excites them about ecology. For Power, that excitement stems from many activities: putting her head underwater, seeing armored catfish in the field, looking at algae under a microscope, or reading an interesting scientific paper. I don’t often speak with senior scientists who retain so much of their enthusiasm. Interviewing Mary Power helped me remember why I am so lucky to be a scientist.

Previously in this series:

Serendipity and Science: 30 Minutes with Dr. Sharon Long

The Co-Evolution of Insects, Plants and a Career

Empirically dancing your way to the top – How Nicole Dubilier does it!

From babies to baboons: one woman’s path to success