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Logo: International Women's Day

International Womenʼs Day is an opportunity to celebrate the social, professional, and cultural achievements of women all over the world. The Galapagos Initiative is home to incredible female leaders and scientists at UNC, USFQ, and at the Galapagos Science Center. For International Womenʼs Day this year, we will showcase seven of these accomplished women throughout the week.

A woman in head-to-toe khaki dangles a sampling device from a long black cord into a cloudy stream.
Sampling of mining effluents in Santa Rosa, Machala, Ecuador in January, 2021.

Today we sit down with Valeria Ochoa-Herrera, vice dean of the College of Science and Engineering, at USFQ.

Can you tell us about the WISE program you helped to create?

We started WISE as an initiative to promote more women in science. WISE stands for Women in Science and Engineering and is a USFQ initiative that seeks to promote the presence of women in scientific careers, their successful achievement, and their contribution to the scientific and technological development of the country. At USFQ, we were the first university in Ecuador to start a program like this. We need more women in STEM, so we want to encourage university students that are unclear about what they want to do; because, they are not sure they belong in science or donʼt have any female teachers to model that future for them. We give them a community.

We typically have about two events per semester in which we invite local or visiting colleagues and scholars to talk and inspire our students. If you have people come talk about their science and their journey, they can be great role models.

The initiative is not about feeling sorry for women or listening to us complain or cry. It is about talking about how we can work together to be in a place where all of us are comfortable. While the WISE program is centered around young women, we invite everyone to the talks. The male peers in the audience are so important as allies. Half of the room should be male. We canʼt do this without them.

We have a WISE scholarship as part of the program, which is a 100% tuition scholarship. The third was given last September. We are looking to create a chapter for undergraduate students to involve more input from them. Eventually, we want to be able to reach high and middle schools and even primary schools, to expand our audience and foster that passion.

What have you enjoyed about working in the Galapagos?

My husband sometimes makes fun of me because he says I donʼt have colleagues, I have friends. If you donʼt become friends with who you work with, it is so much harder to figure out problems and keep going. For example, Jill Stewart and I have done amazing things together because of our time and commitment to each other. We are always supporting each otherʼs ideas and collaborating.

Photo: A group of individuals of varying ages smile at the camera. In the background a man can be seen pointing a device at a pipe.
Sampling water sources in Isabela Island, Galapagos with students from USFQ and UNC-Chapel Hill in July, 2019.

Once you develop mutual trust with people in the Galapagos, everything runs more smoothly. It is hard to run a lab from UNC or USFQ that is in the Galapagos, but once you are organized and you know you want to do it, you will find ways to make it happen. There are things that donʼt work sometimes, but if you have a team to talk to, you can all think on your feet and find another way. At the GSC, you already have good science and talented people, the only other thing you need is friendship.

The Galapagos has many amazing women in leadership roles. We think differently than men, and that is an advantage. When you have men and women, you have two perspectives that complement each other. We tend to have more of a long-term vision, and also stay flexible and open to sharing ideas. We need both types of brains working differently to be successful.

What are you most proud of?

I am so proud of the students that Jill and I have been working with in the Galapagos. Many of the students that keep our project running are local and you can tell they really care about the environment. We write the proposals and recruit the money, but they do all the work – they are the ones running the lab. We have been able to teach them how to analyze samples and perform other skills, so they are really in charge. If you want to make a change somewhere, the only way to do it is by getting local people involved.

Who do you look up to?

Michelle Obama and Kamala Harris are heroes to me. They are amazing and inspiring, but it is more important to me to learn from the people I am surrounded by. For example, I look up to my mom, my advisor, my colleagues, my students and all the amazing women around me.

A man, a woman, and two girls pose above Machu Picchu.
Family trip to Machu Picchu, Perú. October 20, 2019

Most importantly, I look up to my two daughters. Valerie is 20 years old, and I learn from her every day. I started graduate school as a single mom when my daughter was 4 years old so we have been through a lot together! Sometimes I believe she is my therapist – we are very close. I also learn and enjoy talking to Romina, she is 7 years old and it is amazing to see the world through your childʼs eyes.

What does International Womenʼs Day mean to you?

In an ideal world, I donʼt want International Womenʼs Day, but we donʼt live in an ideal place. We have lots of challenges that we face, and we need to talk about those inequalities and challenges. The moment we live in requires recognition.

We must recognize the women that are the first to do something, but they will not be the last. Giving recognition is a positive thing. Young women who want to study science should follow their dreams. If this is what you want to do, do it. Give all of your heart to your passion. Find a role model and someone to talk to about what you want, whether it is a great scientist or not. Ask them to talk or show you their research.

We need more women in this field. It is so important to have good and talented people. The ones that are here must learn to collaborate and realize this is not a competition. We should join forces, mentor each other, share our work, and transfer knowledge to younger generations. We canʼt be afraid to ask questions and not know the right answers.

As the African proverb says: If we want to go fast, we should go alone but if we want to go far, we should go together.

Written collaboratively by Kelly Weaver, Director of External Affairs & Communications, Center for Galapagos Studies; and Molly Herring ’23, UNC Global Studies and Biology.

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