STEM Scene

The Big Boost Theory: Helping Women Scientists Advance Their Careers Helps Everyone

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Merrie Beth Neely can speak with expertise about fisheries, sea grasses, water quality, harmful aqua blooms and even the scientific appeal of the characters on The Big Bang Theory.

It’s impressive for a woman who found a passion for sea life while growing up in landlocked Slippery Rock in Western Pennsylvania. Despite the expertise, however, the certified program manager, phytoplankton ecologist and oceanographer once found herself struggling to find a job in her chosen field after an unexpected 2012 layoff from a management job with the Consortium for Ocean Leadership in Washington, D.C.

Neely returned to Florida, where she earned a marine science undergraduate degree from the University of Tampa and graduate degrees (masters and doctoral) from the University of South Florida. She eventually regained her footing in the science industry.

Now she’s the St. Petersburg pod coordinator for 500 Women Scientists, an organization bolstered by St. Petersburg’s burgeoning marine science industry. The group helps women navigate career opportunities in the science industry, much like Neely did back in 2012.

The organization, which holds monthly meetings at downtown St. Petersburg’s Rising Tide Innovation Center, seeks to make science open, inclusive, and accessible with three specific goals: empower women to grow to their full potential in science; increase scientific literacy through public engagement and advocate for equality in science.

Neely recently spoke about the organization; the challenges women face in the industry and how women sometimes hurt themselves in the pursuit of jobs.


What is it about the world of science that necessitates 500 Women Scientists?

The group originally came about sort of around the Women’s March and in response to the disappointment of the Trump election, but I would say the movement has been building for a while – in particular the perceived attack on science in the Trump administration. The 500 Women Scientists found a niche at the intersection of the Women’s March and the March for Science. There have also been a lot of national, high profile reports commenting on gender and diversity and the sciences.

It’s not where we would like to see it, is it?

It’s definitely not, and there’s also a vast belief – we could owe it to hubris but sometimes it’s deeper than that – that as scientists we would never be subject to a bias because that’s what we strive for in science. We’re scientific, just the facts. We remove all bias. So, there’s been a state of denial, if you will, about gender and diversity problems in academia and science. These things all came together at the right time.

What did a recent National Academy of Science study reveal about the topic?

It reinforced the knowledge that sexual harassment occurs in the science sector and science is no different than any other sector. But it also gave recognition – which was really empowering to me – that the term gender harassment and belittling statements or sexist comments … in science on every level can be just as damaging as the original quid pro quo sexual harassment.

Growing up in Western Pennsylvania with this desire to be a scientist, did anyone discourage you because of your gender?

I was discouraged in other ways. I was certainly told, even within my own family, “You can do that, but you should also get a career as a teacher so you can have a Plan B.”

Was that gender-related or concern about making a career in a scientific field?

It’s hard to tell. Within my family, I think it was probably both. Certainly, in school, undergraduate school, the faculty that I was presented with was 85 to 90 percent male. I saw opportunities presented to my male counterparts – maybe not overtly – but they were given opportunities in laboratories that I was not.

Do you share those kinds of stories, tales of discrimination, at your 500 Women Scientists events?

We have occasionally. We have a lot of younger members and a few of us that are more mature. It usually starts with career … so we talk about those scenarios. Sometimes we say, “Be careful. Don’t let them do this or that to you.” But we’re not man bashers. Basically, what we’re trying to do is help women advance in science fields.

I recently saw supermodel Karlie Kloss on the Today show pushing for more girls to enter STEM fields. Do you feel like more women are being drawn to the field?

Absolutely, and that’s great and certainly necessary. We feel like the STEM pipeline has been filled. That’s what a lot of employers and agencies and efforts recently have been aimed at, let’s get more undergraduate girls to enter STEM fields, and they’re graduating. More than 50 percent of the (USF) College of Marine Sciences are women and they have been for a while. But what happens when they get into their careers and they’re five years out from that degree. Are they still in a science? I can tell you there are a significant number of people that I went to graduate school with who have the same or similar degree that I do, and they are no longer in science. Most of those who have made a career change are women.

They made the career change because they couldn’t find a viable job?

They could find a job, but they couldn’t advance here in Florida. It’s sort of a dirty little secret in science here in Florida, the profound lack of pay in the natural sciences. It’s not across all sciences. You can make a lot of money in pharmaceuticals, in IT. In some aspects of traditional science, there’s an avenue to higher pay. But in life sciences, natural sciences and biology, the pay is terrible. You can do the same job for the state in Georgia that you do in Florida and you get paid 50 percent less.

What’s one of the challenges women scientists encounter in trying to advance their careers?

We as women suffer from being modest, whether that’s inherent in us or conditioned. One of the things we laugh around the table about involves job applications. The statistics say that wotj a gender-neutral position, 200 men will apply, and 75 percent are wholly unqualified. Meanwhile, 50 women will apply and almost all of them are qualified. As women, we will look at a job description and the list of things, we go through that list in our mind and put a check mark next to each requirement. If we don’t have a significant number of check marks, we won’t apply. If men do the same thing, if they have just a couple of check marks, they’ll still apply. I know as a former hiring manager, you throw the kitchen sink into a job description and you will be more than happy with people who tick off 50 or 60 percent of those skills. I also know that job descriptions are a lot of hooey. You hear a lot of people say, “I hire the person.”

You also help coordinate the Tampa Bay Science Networking Happy Hour in St. Petersburg. Can a group of scientists really get together and have fun?

We try to have fun. Nobody has been hauled away by the cops, but I always tell the establishment where we have it that we’ll clean up after ourselves.

Do you think the television show The Big Bang Theory has helped the general public see scientists in a more likable perspective?

We love it. It’s totally true. All of us scientists know one or more of those characters or the traits exhibited by those characters.

In closing, tell me your sales pitch for 500 Women Scientists.

You don’t have to be a woman. If you’re pro women in science, our doors are completely open to you.  If you’re a scientist at any career level – because our focus is job enhancement and helping scientists with their career skills – we could use mentors. If you’re job seeking, we can try to get you placed or give you tips for interviews and what you can expect. It’s a lot of stuff they don’t teach you as scientists. And, we have a really cool location (with the Rising Tide Innovation Center). We love this place.





World’s First Climate-Smart Zone? Disaster Leads to Innovation

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Hurricane Maria and Jose Menace the Caribbean and North Atlantic. Elements of this image furnished by NASA

Disaster May Lead to Innovation in the Caribbean

Clean-up crews will ship more than 580,000 cubic yards of debris off the U.S. Virgin Islands this fall.

That’s enough scattered pieces of waste and rubbish in the wake of two 2017 hurricanes that hit the islands to fill 175 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

The mountain of debris reflects just how far the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and other Caribbean nations must climb as they continue to bounce back from the devastation of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

Fallen trees, downed power lines and flooded streets dotted miles of landscape after the Category 5 storms blew through within a two-week period. The hurricane double-dose overturned cars, sprinkled rubbish over the land like confetti and collapsed tin roofs like an accordion.

The two hurricanes took lives, destroyed infrastructure, demolished housing and public facilities and gutted the tourist-based economies in many of the island nations. A year later finds blue tarps still resting in place of roofs.

As the clean-up efforts continue, the USVI, Puerto Rico and other island nations face a complex question: How do they merge recovery with resilience? A group is pushing to rebuild infrastructure, so it not only brings back a sense of normalcy, but leaves the islands better prepared to handle the next major storm.

Federal funding programs are in place to boost recovery, but the requirements of each program leave challenges in terms of addressing the planet’s changing dynamics. The USVI, Puerto Rico and the other nations will have to overcome obstacles to use the funds to deal with climate change and strengthen its resistance to catastrophic storms.

But a movement is in place to bring about those improvements.

Changing With The Climate

Shortly after the hurricanes, the international community committed to making the Caribbean the world’s first climate-smart zone. In the last year, 26 countries and 40 private and public sector partners move towards the goal by creating a coalition to participate in the Caribbean Climate-Smart.

As defined by the World Bank, climate-smart zones reduce vulnerability to a range of climate-related hazards and natural disaster risks by targeting a number of improvements:

Building resilient infrastructure

Reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation and other pollutants

Emphasize healthy ecosystems on the sea to support the blue economy

Promote healthy ecosystems on land for food security

Enhance energy security via promotion of energy efficiency, renewable energy and use of low carbon sources

Incorporate one or more of the Sustainable Development Goals in all major projects sponsored by participating governments.

The Inter-American Development Bank has committed a billion dollars towards the accelerator’s goal of promoting a climate smart zone.

Even though the U.S. Virgin Islands joined the coalition, the projects approved and funded thus far focus more on speeding recovery than meeting climate smart goals. The USVI expects to utilize $1.86 billion dollars of Community Development Block Grants for Disaster Recovery from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and $2.47 billion dollars from Federal Emergency Management Agency to fund recovery efforts.  Approximately a quarter of the HUD funds will be used for replacement of housing.  The bulk of the other funds are directed to roadway and utility repair.

The focus of the recovery projects in the USVI is consistent with federal policy. In the U.S., recovery resources are deployed under the auspices of FEMA in coordination with other federal agencies including HUD, the Small Business Administration, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The government rewards communities which have engaged in pre-disaster planning, but only encourages mitigation and adaptation as part of post-disaster recovery projects in limited circumstances.

Navigating the Regulations of Recovery Funds

There are several sources of disaster recovery funds after a presidential declaration of disaster occurs.  The Stafford Act supports disaster recovery through three programs:

The Individual Assistance (IA) Program provides funds to homeowners shortly after a disaster to make temporary repairs to their homes. The funds, administered through FEMA, are designed to allow individuals to make their homes safe for habitation.

The Public Assistance (PA) Program reimburses communities for repair costs related to public infrastructure and for costs of debris management and removal, but limits coverage to damage caused by the storm, not deferred maintenance. A sub-program known as the “406” can lend assistance, but it requires case-by-case assessments and cost-benefit analysis that can lead to delays.

The third program is the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) which is a grant-based program designed to fund future storm mitigation efforts.  However, the government links eligibility to disaster declarations, so even after it issues a grant award, receipt of these funds is often delayed. Historically, the process has been so cumbersome and uncertain that many homeowners choose not to participate.

A second piece of federal legislation is the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000.  This act adds to and consolidates earlier programs for Flood Mitigation Assistance and the Severe Repetitive Loss Program and adds a pre-disaster mitigation program to fund proactive risk reduction in advance of a storm.  The program is competitive, and funding is limited, so not all communities are awarded funds.

After any disaster, there are also supplemental appropriations by Congress to fund the various agencies disaster relief efforts that are not covered under the Stafford Act.  This highly political process involves lobbying by disaster-stricken communities and states, and in cases of multiple disasters in multiple jurisdictions, sometimes leads to competition for funds.  Supplemental funds are awarded with general rules as to their use. A designated agency must administer the funds.

These funds are directed toward perceived needs based on the impacts of disaster and can include costs of infrastructure repair and replacement, housing, social services, economic recovery and agriculture. Lead agencies can include HUD, FEMA, the US Army Corps of Engineers, EPA, or any other agency with responsibility under the National Response Framework and the National Disaster Response Framework.

Prioritizing Resistance Within the Federal Framework

Federal agency disaster recovery efforts occur based on two interrelated frameworks.  The National Response Framework is designed to address immediate disaster response to protect health, welfare and safety of disaster-stricken communities. The framework document can be retrieved at

The National Disaster Response Framework (NDRF) is implemented following catastrophic disasters to coordinate long-term recovery efforts. The framework document (second edition) is accessible at:

It is through the latter framework that communities can begin to implement mitigation and adaptation efforts as part of disaster recovery.  The NDRF appoints lead and supporting agencies based on these subject areas: Community Planning and Capacity Building, Economic, Health and Social Services, Infrastructure Systems, and Natural and Cultural Resources.

The government tasks each lead agency with subject matter responsibility with developing pre-disaster programs designed to build relationships between state and local community disaster coordinators. Immediately after a disaster, these same agencies, under direction of FEMA, carry out immediate disaster recovery roles, and then, when the community is secure, transition to the longer-term programs for recovery planning.

In all cases, the work on disaster recovery is supposed to involve the local community as well as state and territorial governments.  The federal framework envisions federal agencies as facilitators and technical assistance.

The timeline for agency action under the NDRF stretches over multiple years.  However, the funding for these activities comes only from supplemental appropriations and annual agency appropriations in the federal budget.  Thus, the effectiveness of the federal government in providing services related to mitigation and adaptation can be constrained by limited resources.

Directing Funds to Resilience

Within this regulatory framework, the USVI Hurricane Recovery and Resilience Task Force was established in October 2017 to guide expenditures of recovery funding. Appointed members included federal agency representatives, local government and business leaders, private donors, including Bloomberg L.P. and the Kenny Chesney Foundation, and the owner of Royal Caribbean Cruise Line. Federal agencies provided technical assistance and coordination. The task force, charged with prioritizing longer-term recovery projects and needs, released its final report on September 6, 2018, (available at

In total, the report includes 228 recommendations, addressing climate analysis, energy, communications, transportation, water, solid waste and wastewater, housing and building, health, vulnerable populations, education, economy, nonprofits and government response to disaster. Recommendations include:

  • Strengthen telecom towers and bury the aerial portions of the internet fiber that serves the territory.
  • Rebuild seaports, expand container ports and add another customs office.
  • Strengthen and modernize airport terminals.
  • Harden and rehabilitate existing water distribution systems, including replacing old pipes.
  • Rebuild schools and hospitals to withstand future storms.
  • Develop a housing retrofit program for houses built before 1996.
  • Diversify the energy system and develop microgrids for critical facilities.
  • Develop cloud based back up of government records.
  • Switch to buried cables for all government offices.
  • Replace streetlights with roundabouts.
  • Conduct a territory wide drainage study.
  • Add redundancy to the wastewater system.
  • Close the landfills.
  • Mandate a recycling program.
  • Expand public water systems.
  • Reform energy power purchase process.
  • Update building codes.
  • Install back-up generators at critical facilities.
  • Create an emergency operations center.

Many of these recommendations would further climate-smart initiatives.  However, implementing the recommendations will require pairing local funding with federal disaster relief.  The limitations on federal funding, as described above, will pose a challenge.  For instance, rehabilitation of existing water distribution systems and closing the landfill, which has operated under EPA consent order for many years, may not qualify for federal disaster relief funds as both projects relate to pre-existing infrastructure deficiencies.

At the same time, because the USVI economy continues to struggle with approximately 50 percent of hotels inoperable due to storm damage, and job loss at 7.8 percent since the hurricanes, local funding is also limited.

Summary: Post-Storm Resilience Efforts Remain Cloudy

The combination of federal regulations and limited local funding make it unclear how much progress will be made in the USVI towards the creation of a climate-smart zone. It also remains to be seen how successful other Caribbean islands will be in reaching that goal, as the resources available to many countries are much more limited than those available in the U.S. territories.

Hopefully, the Climate-Smart Accelerator will provide the vehicle to rebuild a resilient Caribbean, and the international community and the private sector will step in to fill the gaps in government recovery programs.