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If you like Sylvia Earle's story, you might also like:
Robert Ballard,
Lee Berger,
Elizabeth Blackburn,
Linda Buck,
Gertrude Elion,
Jane Goodall,
Stephen Jay Gould,
Susan Hockfield,
Meave Leakey,
Richard Leakey,
Mario Molina,
Sally Ride,
Donna Shirley and
Edward O. Wilson

Sylvia Earle can also be seen and heard in our Podcast Center

Sylvia Earle's recommended reading: Galapagos: World's End

Sylvia Earle also appears in the videos:
Women and the World of Science and Exploration,

Frontiers of Exploration: From the Cell to the Solar System

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Sylvia Earle in the Achievement Curriculum section:
Earth Day

Related Links:
National Geographic
Texas A & M
Women's Hall of Fame
Ocean Doctor
Marine Sanctuary

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Sylvia Earle
Sylvia Earle
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Sylvia Earle Interview (page: 3 / 8)

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  Sylvia Earle

We've talked about you breezing through high school and college, but actually it took you seven years to get your doctorate. I know there were several interruptions along the way. How did you manage to balance career and family?

Sylvia Earle: I didn't zoom through high school. I got out at the age of 16, and went on to finish my Bachelor's degree by the time I was 19. And then a Master's by the time I was 20. Then I didn't exactly slow down, but I began to broaden the interests into some other areas. There was a point where I thought, I've had enough of books, what I really want to do is study the real thing. I want to get out in the water, I want to see fish, real fish, not fish in a laboratory.

I also was attracted to a fellow student, when I was at Duke. And the upshot of all that is that we got married. My new husband almost immediately was swept away aboard a ship to the Mediterranean, and was gone for several months. I had an opportunity to go to work, and get to see real fish, not fish in a book.

For about six months I had a job working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service down on the coast of North Carolina. I knew that I wanted to go back to school and finish my degree, but my attention turned to being married and having a family. In the next few years, two children arrived, but I was able to continue work on my Ph.D.

We moved to Florida, and I went to the University of Florida at Gainesville. Once again, I took a job in the same department where I was taking classes. It certainly helped financially, but I think even more, it helped put my feet solidly on the ground, becoming tuned into what the real professionals were doing in that area. They accepted me as a part of their team, if you will. I learned so much just from being there on a day-in day-out basis, not just as a student.

Sylvia Earle Interview Photo
I took a long time to finish up a formal program for dissertation. It was only possible because my nature professor for the Masters degree agreed to take me back as a doctoral student, even though I was living in Florida. I had enough course work during my time at Gainesville, and before I left Duke University, so that most of what I had to do could be done from a distance. But I did have to pass the necessary examinations that are required. Having been out of some of the classes for some time, it meant that I really had to do some independent study to catch up. So much had been learned in such a sort time in areas such as genetics and physiology that I had to squeeze a lot of condensed effort into a few weeks, a few months actually prior to actually taking the exams.

I was so pleased when it really worked. I took the exams and I passed them. What remained then was to take the accumulated effort of 13 years of work and put this together in a formal presentation, which was the dissertation. But having passed these exams and so on, there was yet another opportunity to go off and be the botanist aboard a research vessel for about six weeks as part of the International Indian Ocean Expedition. I was not aware at the time that I was the only woman who had been invited to come aboard. I wasn't invited as the only woman, I was invited as the only botanist.

We had to depart from Mombassa, in Kenya. Someone got wind of the fact that there was a woman aboard this research vessel. This was 1964, before it was more or less traditional. It was okay for women to go, but was certainly not traditional for women to do such things. The reporter came down, and I was excited about talking with him about what we were going to do scientifically, and all he wanted to talk about was, what's it going to be like out there, with all those men? And the headline reads: "Sylvia Sails Away With 70 Men, But She Expects No Problems." There were no problems. It was great fun. It was really a delight. It's not all bad being a woman in this field.

A lot of women are struggling to combine career and family. You read about achievers in different fields who decide to have kids at age 40. As you talk about forming your family, you are also talking about your excitement about your career. Was that never a problem?

Sylvia Earle: It is a problem trying to combine having family and being as enthusiastic about a specialty as I have always been. I have managed it in part through ingenious rearranging of a life, I suppose. Having a laboratory set up at home. I always had a microscope -- not a big, fancy, sophisticated microscope, but something that would make it possible for me to work at home. And I have a professional library that I have accumulated all my life. The big professional libraries do provide the necessary access to a world of information, but I have managed to gather a nucleus of books at home that are like an extension of my mind. My favorite wall paper is books. I can't possibly keep everything in my brain, but if I have access to it, and know where to get it off the shelf, that's like having an extension -- a bigger brain. That's certainly true with computers now. Like the sign reads over the library at Florida State University: "The Half of Knowledge is Knowing Where to Find Knowledge."

You have implied in previous interviews that your scientific expeditions may have led to the dissolution of your first marriage. Do you think that's the case?

Sylvia Earle Interview Photo
Sylvia Earle: It's hard to have a traditional kind of relationship when you are as motivated as I have been. To stay involved with the cutting edge of certain kinds of exploration is, for me, irresistible. I never meant it to be an either-or choice. That's not the point at all. I can't help it! I suppose there are musicians or writers or poets, who can't help themselves. They just have to do certain things. I can't turn my mind off, or stop the curiosity that is inherent in all children and all scientists. It's just there. I think it's there in all human beings, but maybe a slightly more liberal dose with most scientists and all children. Why things come apart, I simply don't know. I love being with someone. I love having a home, love cooking, love all the things that are traditional in a housewife-mother kind of situation. I certainly have loved my family, and have no good sound explanation for why a long-term enduring relationship didn't work. It does put a strain on things when one or both partners have a strong interests that aren't side by side. Or sometimes even when they are.

My parents and their generation took it for granted that marriages would endure. You were bound to stay together no matter what. There wasn't an easy out. Now, it's too easy to say, "This just isn't working. Good bye." People don't try as hard, they are more easily discouraged. I don't know which is better. I would much prefer having a lifetime kind of relationship, but if it doesn't work out, then it doesn't work out.

Sylvia Earle Interview Photo
What would you say to young girls who are worried about being able to juggle family life and professional life?

Sylvia Earle: I would say to young women, or young men, "Why not do your best to have it all?" Why not try? It may not work out, but you can be sure it won't if you don't try. It doesn't mean you should get married f just or the sake of getting married, but if you find someone, you'll know. It's worth stretching to combine both. Maybe it isn't for everyone, but certainly I would not have had it any other way. I love having a family. I love having a circle of friends. Marriage, for me, is fundamentally a friendship, a solid mutual respect. Other good things come with marriage, of course, but the center pole is that I like this person, I care about this person, I will be loyal to this person, and I love this person. This is the way I grew up as a child, and it was the standard I set for myself. Maybe it's too high a standard, but I don't think so.

There were points in your career where being female kept you from doing certain things. Isn't that the case?

Sylvia Earle: At various points along the way, the fact that I was a woman was held up to me as a reason why I couldn't do this or that or the other thing. The earliest recollection that I have was when my older brother got to go to the World's Fair, and partly because I was a little bit younger than he, but mostly because I was a little girl, I was told, well, you know, he's a little boy, and he's older than you, and he can go. And I thought, well so? I'm a little girl. So what? That was my first recollection of kind of being rocked back on my heels with that kind of awareness. Although I'm sure that all through school, the role models are pretty well established. You will become one of three or four things. You will become a wife and mother, or you will become a teacher, or a nurse, or maybe a stewardess on an aircraft. Or you could type, you could become a secretary. And there aren't very many other options that are held out. They weren't to me as a child, growing up. But it never occurred to me that was all I could be.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

I just knew that there were other things, and that one way or another I could be whatever I want to be. And I knew what I wanted to be, and I'd somehow find a way to make that possible. Having parents who didn't discourage me from this notion made it possible for me to have confidence in myself. They did think it was a good idea for me to get the necessary credentials to teach as, quote, an insurance policy. But I really didn't mind. I thought I might really like to teach. I do teach now, by giving talks and writing, although I don't have the pleasure of the sustained relationship that teachers and students have, at least not on a regular basis. I may some day. I really enjoy it, and I really enjoy the contact I have as I go along.

Was there someone in your career who kind of gave you your first break?

Sylvia Earle: If I had a first big break, it came with loving parents who kept me on track, who didn't knock me down anytime I said I wanted to do something. They didn't say it was stupid or foolish, or they had something else in mind for me to do. It was all right for me to do what I wanted to do. They wanted me to choose something that made my heart beat fast. They encouraged me, the way I do others now, that if you really have something that you like to do, that's what you probably should do. Despite what everybody says, that you can't make a living, or that's not practical, or a thousand reasons why you may not do this or this or this. If that's what your heart says you should do, chances are that you ought to listen.

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This page last revised on Sep 22, 2010 11:29 EDT
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