By Rhonda Van Pelt
When young women graduating from CC go on to graduate studies or careers in the sciences, they owe a great debt to the women who have blazed a trail to the laboratories, to the oceans, and to space.
Sharon L. Smith ’67 is among those pioneers.
She became fascinated by ocean ecosystems when she was 10 years old. Her family spent four months on a freighter traveling from New York to Buenos Aires and back, with multiple stops along the way.
In the late 1960s, it was rare for women to study science in graduate school and difficult to find professors who would even accept women as graduate students.
“In retrospect, indeed discrimination based on gender was very challenging, but as life unfolds one deals practically with the ‘constraints’ one faces, keeping in mind larger goals. I am a competitive person, so I just kept going,” says Smith, who emailed from Miami, where she’s a professor emeritus in the University of Miami’s Department of Marine Biology and Ecology.
“I marvel at the confidence of women entering oceanography now. They can’t believe how challenging it was. CC was a lovely sheltered start!”
Two professors in particular were responsible: Dick Beidleman, who taught Smith field ecology and found her a mentor at Duke University; and Jim Enderson, who encouraged her in her field ecology pursuits after graduation.
Smith is also grateful for the training in writing and the exposure to art, literature, and history she received at CC.
After earning her master’s in zoology in 1969 from the University of Auckland in New Zealand, Smith went on to Duke University for her doctorate in zoology and a post-doctoral fellowship at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. She also has honorary doctorates of science from CC and the Southampton College of Long Island University.
But the world’s oceans have been her true classroom.
“I always have felt privileged to investigate the ocean off places like Peru, Mauritania, Somalia, Oman, Greenland, and Alaska — extreme environments that have offered challenges and remarkable discoveries.”
Oman, its people, and its complex ecosystem have captured her heart.
“Over the 20 years I have experienced the country, it has developed explosively into an intensely consumer-driven culture with a standard of living well beyond the average in the U.S. Omanis are exuberant, generous, and hospitable.”
Smith is writing a book about the fauna, oceanography, and geology found on and around Oman’s Masirah Island.
“Of the seven species of turtle we have on Earth, five of them lay eggs on Masirah Island’s remote and pristine beaches. The world’s only non-migratory population of humpback whales makes its home at the southern end of the island. Pilot whales, spinner dolphin, and bottlenose dolphin use the fishery of Masirah’s coral reefs.”
Smith returns to Oman every year to collect plankton samples from the Arabian Sea during the onset or die-off of the Southwest Monsoon.
“The strong winds of the SW Monsoon are in part caused by how much snow and ice are on the Tibetan Plateau, and climate change is causing those glaciers to recede. The rich ocean ecosystem off Oman right now could change dramatically.”
Her advice for young women passionate about science: “The fundamental suggestion I make to all our students is, ‘Pay attention to your heart.’ If you are doing what you enjoy, it will be easy to accomplish important things and every day will be fun and gratifying.
“Choose what makes you happy, truly deeply happy. That love of what you do every day will give you the perseverance and strength to face challenges of whatever sort.”