Women of the Arctic Council: Interview with Cathy Coon, at the intersection of marine science and policy making

In honor of International Women’s Day on 8 March, we spoke with some of the women who work with the Arctic Council to learn more about them, what it means to be a woman in their field and their advice for young women

Cathy Coon works as a branch chief for the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and is co-lead of the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna’s (CAFF) Circumpolar Biodiversity Monitoring Program. We spoke with Cathy about her background in marine science and fisheries management, the importance of collaboration between science and policy making, opportunities and challenges for women science, the value of mentorship and more.

Tell us about yourself and how you are involved with the Arctic Council

I work for the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). I serve as a branch chief for an environmental sciences section where we develop and fund work across the marine, coastal and human environments in the U.S. Arctic. I have a background in marine sciences with a bachelor’s in biology and a master’s in fisheries science. I initially became familiar with the Arctic Council with work efforts in 2014 with the Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment Working Group (PAME), primarily with their Ecosystem Approach to Management and Marine Protected Areas Expert Groups. I’ve learned a lot from our Arctic Council expert at BOEM, Dennis Thurston, who was involved as the Arctic Council was created. As of 2019, I began working more with the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna Working Group (CAFF), and for the last year or so have been the co-lead of the Circumpolar Biodiversity Monitoring Program.

"There are many factors that contribute to healthy oceans and I’m of the purview that sustainable use includes both conservation and good environmental stewardship – and includes the perspectives of local communities. It’s important for scientists and decision makers to convey perspectives to each other especially as it involves monitoring." Cathy Coon

What motivated you to pursue a career in marine science?

My motivation is my love of the ocean and a vision for healthy ocean ecosystems. There are many factors that contribute to healthy oceans and I’m of the purview that sustainable use includes both conservation and good environmental stewardship – and includes the perspectives of local communities. It’s important for scientists and decision makers to convey perspectives to each other especially as it involves monitoring.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

As a leader in federal service, I enjoy converting science into policy to affect the balance between environmental stewardship and sustainability in ocean ecosystems.

Have you faced any obstacles during your career? Do you believe any of these were specific to being a woman?

I’ve been very fortunate in my career and have a lot of opportunities to experience both field work and meaningful policy exchanges based on applied science. My first job out of college was in Alaska (in 1990) on the commercial fishing boats as a fishery observer where I spent time understanding the importance of sustainable fisheries for small communities and families that thrive on them. Since that time, I’ve stayed in Alaska and have gained further experiences in state and local governments and have understood the importance of good science in decision making, as well as context for communities, their livelihoods and traditional ways of living. Living in Alaska – there have been many women who have pioneered careers in science and otherwise, so I feel very fortunate to have not experienced the hard ships they have.

What do you think are the current challenges and opportunities for women in science?

I think there are more women in science than ever before. But I do think there are both challenges and opportunities with those increases in numbers. One area of importance is finding good mentors – it’s imperative at each career stage to have good mentors – someone who can guide you as you begin your career – and someone to hear problems and offer solutions. I think a real challenge is promoting scientific opportunities to racial and ethnic minorities. I think the Arctic Council’s work with youth engagement is a great resource and example. Another challenge is work-life balance especially with the Covid-19 pandemic. Many families including female scientists are challenged by keeping up with increased child- and family-care demands. It’s a concern that women may disproportionately lose more work hours than male counterparts due to child rearing responsibilities which could have long-term implications on their careers.

"Live your passion and don’t be shy. Science can offer an amazing career paths where you can meet people of all different cultures who rely on and better understand the importance of ocean diversity." Cathy Coon

Who is your role model, and why?

As many young marine scientists, I think I owe a great debt of gratitude to Jacques Cousteau for both his role in exploration and conservation. Though I grew up in the midwestern United States – after reading and watching of Cousteau’s adventures – I wanted to SCUBA dive as a priority in my pre-teens. In more modern times, I appreciate the modeling that Jane Lubchenco provided for women in marine science, who has moved from the realm of the importance of ecological systems to that of a leadership role in government service.

What advice do you have for young women who are interested in pursuing a career in science?

Live your passion and don’t be shy. Science can offer an amazing career paths where you can meet people of all different cultures who rely on and better understand the importance of ocean diversity. Find good role models and mentors – establish a strong network of friends and colleagues who share your same interests.

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