mujeres oceanógrafas

Women with the sea in their veins

They are marine biologists, oceanographers, politicians, writers or fashion designers who have become innovators. They are women with a deep connection to the sea who have left a profound mark on the understanding and protection of the aquatic world that surrounds us, paving the way for sustainability. Surprisingly, the concept of sustainability, which is essential to balancing human development and environmental protection, had its genesis less than 40 years ago with the publication of the Brundtland Report in 1987. Under the leadership of Dr. Brundtland, then Prime Minister of Norway, this report marked a crucial milestone in global awareness, highlighting the need to address environmental challenges in a holistic way and laying the foundation for the sustainability movement. Since the early days of ocean exploration, women have played a key role in understanding and protecting the oceans. Jeanne Villepreux, a 19th century French dressmaker, was a pioneer in marine biology, inventing the aquarium (1832) and advancing the understanding of marine life in captivity. Her work not only established the foundations for marine conservation, but also laid the groundwork for the development of sustainable aquaculture.

Female leadership in marine research

Over the years, women such as Jimena Quirós and Ángeles Alvariño have challenged traditional gender roles and made significant contributions to the advancement of marine science. Quirós was born in 1899 and joined the Spanish Institute of Oceanography at the age of 20. She specialised in the physical geography of the oceans and laid the foundations for the modern understanding of ocean dynamics and its impact on marine ecosystems. On the other hand, Alvariño, born in 1916, was one of the first scientists to work aboard an oceanographic vessel. Her research on gelatinous zooplankton and its effect on ocean currents and the distribution of marine species is remarkable. Equal access for women to higher education in Spain in 1910 was a crucial milestone, allowing women like Josefina Castellví, born in 1934, to enter the field of marine science. Castellví became the first woman scientist to lead a Spanish expedition to Antarctica and made a significant contribution to the understanding of polar ecosystems and the effects of climate change on the oceans. In the international arena and contemporary of Castellví, Sylvia Earle, known as “Her Deepness”, has been a pioneer in the exploration and defence of the oceans. Earle, the first female head of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), has led numerous underwater expeditions and, at the age of 87, remains a tireless advocate for marine conservation. Before marine conservation became a global movement, American marine biologist and author Rachel Carson led the way with her pen in the 1960s. Her book The Sea Around Us changed public perception of the ocean, highlighting its ecological importance and the need to protect it from human threats. In the same decade in France, Anita Conti, known as the “Lady of the Sea”, distinguished herself as a journalist and advocate for sustainable fishing. Her work has been instrumental in raising awareness of the overexploitation of the oceans and advocating for more responsible fishing practices. In Spain, Maria del Carmen Sarasquete (1956-2021), Director of the Institute of Marine Sciences of Andalusia (ICMAN-CSIC), played a leading role in sustainable aquaculture research through her commitment to understanding fish physiology and improving aquaculture practices to ensure a healthier future for both fish and consumers.

Recent contributions to the blue economy

Currently, outstanding researchers from the Valencian Community appear in the Standford ranking, which identifies the 2% of the world’s most cited researchers. Their contributions in various marine disciplines are inspiring and exemplify the power of knowledge and perseverance in the pursuit of scientific progress. Among them are Ariadna Sitjà, Director of the Institute of Aquaculture of Torre de la Sal (IATS-CSIC), a pioneer in the field of aquatic pathology; Esther Sendra, Professor of Food Technology at the UMH in the Polytechnic School of Orihuela (EPSO); Yolanda Pico, Professor of Nutrition and Bromatology at the University of Valencia; Sandra Sendra, one of the first female researchers in Spain in the field of telecommunications and biosensor development, Professor and Academic Director of the Interactive Technologies Degree at the Gandia Campus; Leticia Mora, senior researcher at the Institute of Agrochemistry and Food Technology (IATA-CSIC); Maria Ibáñez, professor at the Department of Physical and Analytical Chemistry at the Jaume I University in Castellón; Mónica Flores, professor of the Master in Food Quality and Safety at the University of Valencia and Emilia Morallón, professor at the University of Alicante and expert in electrocatalysis and electrochemistry of polymers applied to biosensors. All of them involved in the GVA-ThinkinAzul project are driving research into the blue economy, promoting sustainability and innovation in Mediterranean aquaculture. Their work not only contributes to scientific progress, but also aims to raise public awareness of the importance of sustainable development in this key sector. For example, during her three decades of research, Ariadna Sitjà has developed innovative strategies for the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of fish diseases, with the aim of reducing the negative impact of parasitosis in aquaculture. Her involvement as WP4 coordinator in the ThinkinAzul project focuses on identifying new emerging pathologies, improving diagnostic methods, studying the impact of climate change on aquatic pathogens and developing environmentally sustainable treatments. On the other hand, Esther Sendra, leads the WP5 of the ThinkinAzul project. Her research focuses on characterising raw materials for aquaculture feeds, evaluating the nutritional quality of fish fed with these feeds, and developing new healthy and sustainable processed products. She is also involved in the development of methods to detect contaminants in fishery products. These women have played and continue to play a fundamental role in the advancement of knowledge and the protection of the oceans, both in Spain and around the world. Their contributions have not only driven scientific and technological development, but also encouraged a shift towards more responsible practices. Their legacy inspires future generations to continue to explore, learn and protect marine resources.

Looking to the future

However, in many aspects of science today, there is still a gender gap. Only 3% of Nobel Prizes in scientific disciplines have been awarded to women, and although women researchers make up 37% of the scientific staff at the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC), this figure drops to 26% at the highest levels. Furthermore, although women represent 69.2% of the technical staff dedicated to Scientific Culture at the CSIC, gender stereotypes persist in the choice of studies, with less than 25% of women in engineering careers. However, it is encouraging to see that more than 50% of science roles are held by women. This progress reflects a positive cultural change and an increased awareness of the importance of making use of talent and diversity in the scientific research community. With a continued commitment to breaking down existing barriers, we can create an environment where all people, regardless of gender, have an equal opportunity to contribute meaningfully to the advancement of knowledge and the conservation of our oceans.
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