Science Wednesday: A Family’s Support Goes Far for a Passionate Woman Scientist

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By Sarah Blau

As part of Women’s History Month, I’ve been talking to EPA women scientists about their work. Recently, I spoke with Mary Kentula, a wetland ecologist from Corvallis, Oregon.

First, I curiously asked what she wanted to be when she was young.

“Well, I wanted to either be a hair dresser, work in a clothing department store, or be a secretary,” Kentula recalled, laughing.

To my astonishment, she explained that she grew up as a coal miner’s daughter in a small town in Pennsylvania. Most women in this town were stay-at-home mothers. Those who worked were hairdressers, store clerks, or secretaries.

Kentula’s interest in science originally came from her family. Her mother and maternal grandfather had a passion for the natural world, and Kentula shared this passion from an early age. In fact, when Kentula started biology in college, she realized she was already familiar with the topics because whenever something in nature had sparked her interest, she would ask her grandfather or look it up in his books.

When I switched the subject from her childhood to her current work at EPA, I could tell right away that Kentula is passionate about her work. While her job requires a fair amount of administrative tasks, Kentula loves hands-on science and often ventures to the field to experience first-hand what her fellow researchers are doing. She loves the cooperative efforts that EPA encourages and her ability to bring together multi-disciplinary teams with a variety of people.

With pride, Kentula explained how her wetlands research has helped inform national policy. Also, in 2007 she received an award from the Society of Wetland Scientists.

Now, as EPA prepares for a massive wetlands survey to be completed in 2011, Kentula can see that there is growing expertise across the nation regarding wetlands monitoring and assessment. She feels that her research has helped to encourage this movement.

Kentula continues to gain support from her family. Often when she works, she thinks to herself, “What would my parents think about this? Would they think it’s important?” She often uses her parents as a yardstick to measure the importance of her research and to bring her encouragement in her daily work.

It is clear from the tone of her voice and the excitement I hear when she speaks of wetlands research that Kentula has grown beyond her early notions of what careers were open to her and is now doing what she loves.

About the author: Writer Sarah Blau is a student services contractor working with EPA’s science communication team.

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