For this episode of PhDeep, Becca Horan interviews Duke Marine Science and Conservation alumna and current postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Hillary Smith, to learn more about her research on gender equity in small scale fisheries and how she navigated the PhD while becoming a parent, mentoring undergrads, and facing the daunting task of dissertation writing with a buddy.
Becca Horan is a Marine Science and Conservation PhD student in Dr. David Gill’s Ocean Synthesis Lab at Duke University. Becca’s past conservation and development work has brought her from the forests of Madagascar to the agricultural lands of Kenya and Tanzania, as well as the beaches of Martha’s Vineyard and the Philippines. Regardless of the ecosystem, she has most enjoyed working with colleagues and rural community members who have generously shared their wisdom. She hopes to continue working with practitioners during her PhD research to understand how coastal communities, especially women’s fishing organizations, are responding to climate change and inform more just adaptive capacity interventions. A New Englander at heart, Becca has a bachelor’s degree from Connecticut College in Environmental Studies with a certificate from the Goodwin-Niering Center for the Environment.
Featured in this Episode
Dr. Hillary Smith conducts research that explores the equity dimensions of common-pool resource governance, environmental policy, and food systems. She received BAs in Geography and Anthropology from the University of Florida in 2009, her MA in Geography from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2014, and her Ph.D. in Marine Science and Conservation at Duke in 2021. Her dissertation research followed the implementation of The Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries, the first global policy designed for the small-scale fishing sector. As part of her research, she co-developed a novel mapping methodology used by policymakers in Tanzania to increase the visibility of women’s fisheries organizations and gender dynamics in fish value chains. Now published as a United Nations Handbook and part of the global ‘toolkit’ of policy implementation strategies, she continues to expand the mapping study under an FAO initiative, ‘Empowering Women in Small-Scale Fisheries for Sustainable Food Systems in Sub-Saharan Africa.’ As a Post-Doctoral researcher working with Dr. David Gill and Grant Murray, she applies a food systems lens to understand gender dynamics and equity dimensions of blue food systems. Hillary was recently highlighted as an Innovative Duke Scholar in celebration of International Women’s Day.
(photo credits – Hillary Smith)
Supplemental material for this episode
Seas the Day Episode 29 – Fishing for Gender Equity with Dr. Hillary Smith
[music – oyster waltz]
Becca: Welcome listeners to PhDeep. Have you ever wondered how someone’s research or teaching evolved over time or what they do to stay motivated during the PhD WHILE maintaining a personal life? In this episode, I, your host Becca Horan, will bring you into conversation with my friend and collaborator, Dr. Hillary Smith.
Join us for a crash course on the complexity of women’s roles in fisheries in Tanzania and UN policy implementation. But be sure to stay to hear her work-life balance wisdom, including how she navigated her PhD with becoming a parent, teaching undergrads and facing the daunting task of dissertation writing with a buddy! Now let’s meet Hillary.
Hillary: I’m Dr. Hillary Smith. My pronouns are she/hers and I always have a hard time labeling myself as a certain kind of scientist. But I think the closest I feel comfortable to is is a marine social scientist and a human environment, geographer. I’m still trying trying out the fit on that one.
Becca: We’ll take you in all forms! And what has been your affiliation with Duke?
Hillary: So I did my PhD at Duke in the Marine Science and Conservation program and I graduated in May of 2021 and then a few months break and began a new position as a postdoctoral researcher. Also at Duke University in the Marine Science and Conservation program, working with Dr. David Gill in the Ocean Synthesis Lab and also advised by Dr. Grant Murray.
Becca: If you could just please give us a brief overview of the work that you do.
Hillary: Through my research I try to think through how we can equitably govern our food systems in ways that support goals like gender equity and also in ways that sustain the Commons and by Commons I mean a few different things. There’s kind of a lot packed into that term, so for me I mean Commons as in common pool resources such as fisheries, forests, pasture and water. These sort of sets of resources which provision our food systems. They’re also often held in common, so as common properties, so not just private property or state property but as property held in common.
But I also mean Commons as a verb, so commoning or being in common, so I’m interested in how we can govern our food systems in ways that support human and nonhuman communities and collectivity, rather than corporate consolidation, profit, and alienation from our food systems.
Becca: Thanks for defining what we have in common here! In terms of gender equity that you mentioned with small scale fisheries, how did you first get interested in that topic for your research?
Hillary: Yeah, I’ll say as a new PhD student I really knew nothing about the topic and it wasn’t what I came into the PhD thinking I would work on. So I sort of found my way there through sort of two intersecting experiences that happened early in my PhD, which was great, because it kind of led me down this path that I had no idea that I was starting out down, but early enough in the process that I, you know, had time to really invest in understanding these dynamics a lot better.
The first, I was a research assistant on a larger project led by Xavier Basurto and John Virdin on the governance of small-scale fisheries, and we convened a roundtable of experts of different faculty at Duke kind of across different schools and also from UNC, there is a really wonderful professor there, Dr. Elizabeth Havice, who was at this roundtable of experts. We were just sort of thinking of high-level questions and kind of kicking them around and just getting their feedback. And she kept encouraging us to kind of go back to the simpler questions of what even are small scale fisheries.
And that ended up becoming a whole chapter of my dissertation, and it was really in answering that question that I saw who has not been included in the definition of what small scale fisheries are and you know one answer to that has been women. And with that, we’ve focused a lot on the technologies and activities that tend to be male dominated parts of the fishing sector, and so in answering this seemingly basic question that she inspired me to investigate that kind of led me to this gender angle in the in the answer I found that question.
And the second experience was that also as a research assistant on that project we were invited to attend a global forum of a civil society organization that represents the small scale fishing sector and global processes at the United Nations in other forums. And I was just able to go and listen to these small scale fishers or representatives of the fishing sector from all over the world. And this was, you know, not a space that outsiders were usually invited into. So myself and Xavier were invited to be there, which felt like a real privilege. And we I was just able to listen to what kind of topics were important to them, how they were strategizing you know what are the issues they want to talk about for this continent versus that continent versus the global strategy.
But across all of it, and all the different kind of dimensions of those conversations, I was just amazed how gender, gender relations and the goal of gender equity kept coming up. Whether it was climate change they were talking about or sort of high-level UN policy goals or sustainability and just kind of kept hearing gender come up and was just very aware that it wasn’t for my benefit or for the ears of others, it was really this was their conversation that we were just able to observe, and so I just really kind of soaked that experience up. And just left feeling like this is something I could follow, use my position as a researcher early in my career to kind of contribute to this topic that they have named that as really important.
Becca: Wow, that’s really interesting to hear how it how the questions that originated at kind of an academic roundtable then translated with practitioners. And from that, you know, initial working group and the different folks you were interacting with along the way, were there particular elements of those gender dynamics that were really surprising or that checked some of the assumptions that the research perhaps started with?
Hillary: Yeah, that’s an interesting question. I guess it’s helpful to maybe preview that that research also ended up focusing a lot on one high high level policy, which is the small scale fisheries guidelines. That’s the first international policy that was negotiated specifically for small scale fisheries in the fishing sector, and also incorporated small scale fishers and their civil society organizations in developing the principles that it would contain.
So a lot of my research has focused on the small scale fisheries guidelines and one major theme in that is human rights. So taking a human rights based approach to fisheries and going into that research, so that policy was passed in 2014 and I started my PhD at that same time, so there wasn’t a lot of research yet on like what was happening with the small scale fisheries guidelines, which gender equity is is one of the sort of central tenants of that policy.
If I went in with one assumption, it was maybe that there was like something wrong or there was something else going on there like that these ideas hadn’t really been theirs and that these were goals, these were not their primary goals. Maybe like, maybe gender equity was UN discourse that fit the bill, but wasn’t really their motivation or their you know real priorities. So I think I I actually left having that assumption really upended and steered me off this path of maybe a more kind of critical critique, political ecology, kind of orientation to that policy and how it was implemented, really shifted the way I approached research. Because I left that meeting hearing both a lot of ownership over those goals, including gender equity from small scale fishers and also a lot of hope.
And so I felt like, if I’ve been invited into this space, which not a lot of researchers have, and I come in with my like hatchet in my predetermined analysis, you know, I’m not serving this this community that’s given me this like privilege of being present. Like I I felt like I should follow their lead and and that was kind of the direction I went in was following this goal of gender equity and and really, just focusing on what it meant and how it was enacted in place through policy implementation, rather than kind of coming in with a certain kind of frame or lens on it of how I was going to analyze it.
Becca: Listening before coming in with the approach at hand, that’s excellent. And with these actors, you’re talking about civil society organizations, and I don’t know that everyone necessarily is particularly familiar with those, and especially in this fishing context.
Hillary: Yeah, civil society organization, it’s a really big term that basically means everything that’s not the state or a private corporation, so it can include, like church organizations, NGOs, advocacy groups, the sort of broad term, that’s what it means. But I’ll say in the context of fisheries and in the context of the UN, it means something a little bit more specific usually, and when I’m using it, I mean like people organizations like people’s movement organizations. So these are organizations that represent the small scale fishing sector that are composed of members of that community or representatives of that community. And so, you know, they kind of began as social movements for kind of greater equity in the fishing sector and they became kind of better organized over time and now are organized at the global level.
Becca: Thanks for clarifying. I find that I even use that terminology and sometimes I’m wondering what I mean by it when I talk about civil society. As you continued your work after these initial introductions at the meetings with the civil society organizations, how did you maintain the trust as you were developing your research process, and how much of that was kind of a co-development versus what your agenda was.
Hillary: Yeah, that is a great question. So the President of that global civil Society organization is somebody who was my sort of closest confidant in this research process. And her name is Editrudith Lukanga. She’s a passionate advocate for small scale fisheries and for women in the sector in particular, and she’s involved in all different policy processes at the national level and global level.
In some ways, if you had to pick one person, probably the president of a global forum that represents small scale fishers at the UN is, you know, it’s a hierarchical way of thinking about it, but like, hopefully she’s really representative of the secretor or she was elected and she’s taken on many leadership roles. So I’d say the model that I ended up thinking of for my research is sort of an accountability through this close relationship with, Editrudith, who actually wears many hats and represents like a global organization, she has a national organization in Tanzania. So when I moved towards doing field work in Tanzania, I would you know, work with her or as her national organization which is um a small environmental NGO in Tanzania.
And then as far as studying this sort of policy implementation process in Tanzania, there’s actually a national task team. It’s called NTT that is a multi stakeholder group that was steering the policy implementation process. And that group had both social and natural scientists on it, women, fish workers and processors who represented small collectives, there were kind of members from local fisheries governance committees, members from the central government.
So, I was also interfacing with that larger group that was about 15 people and they had to kind of give me permission to attend any meeting related to that policy. I ended up helping you know, design a survey instrument that they would use, so I was in collaboration with them on that. And then I’ll say there was also kind of another higher level layer of accountability in checking in with the Food and Agriculture Organization. Because this policy is technically an FAO document and the FAO is overseeing technical implementation and support. And so you know, I wasn’t working for the FAO, but there was a lot of informing them about my work and sort of which direction it was going in. They never told me what I could or couldn’t do or kind of steered it, but it was, just I felt like I needed to let them know what I was up to and you know we would see each other at some of the same meetings and so they were aware of what I was doing as well.
Becca: Good to maintain positive relationships across levels, the folks who who are involved with the policy all the way down to those you’re working with in the field. And when you were working with the fish workers and processors in Tanzania, what shape did your research end up taking in sort of the field activities you were engaging in?
Hillary: Yeah, so through some earlier pre dissertation research, I was working with Editrudith. So it started with just showing up in Wanze, which is a large city in Lake Victoria, where her NGO is based and just her showing me around with what was going on in the fishery. She works a lot on gender issues in fisheries, so she brought me to meet a few fish working processor collectives that are in Wanze that are quite well organized and are fairly well resourced, especially relative to just an independent processor.
So I think that was my first contact was before really formally studying the policy implementation process and coming for my like longer stint of field work. Was we visited a handful of those organizations around Lake Victoria and also some independent processors as well, so I was able to see these organizations in a few different contacts and also kind of see what it looked like to work when you weren’t a part of one of these collectives or women fishing organizations.
Yeah, and so as I was studying the national policy implementation process for the small scale fisheries guidelines, they had chosen to focus on the chapter on gender equity and equality in the small scale fisheries guidelines. And within that, there’s a lot said about creating space for for women, fisheries organizations, ensuring their equal access and participation in fisheries governance processes. So that language, some of the basis of that language was already in the policy, but the way that they envisioned the implementation process at the national level focused a lot on identifying and strengthening women’s fisheries organizations and also networking among them, so helping them build a national platform for these existing cooperatives and associations to be able to link to each other and join at the national level.
So these were these sort of input policy implementation actions that were determined there in Tanzania, and one activity that they decided that they needed was some baseline kind of mapping study of where those organizations are and what their current capacities and needs are. So this came out as a really clear next step out of the initial policy implementation meeting that I was able to observe, but it was clear that they were looking for volunteers to lead that process nobody was exactly stepping up in the meeting to do that, you know there weren’t a lot of resources for this process. So I saw myself there with my, you know, small PhD research budget, but saw an opportunity to kind of use that money and to actually help them develop that study methodology.
So again, my co-conspirator in this, my friend, Editrudith, she and I went back to Lake Victoria and returned to some of the same women organizations that we had met the previous year together. We started to, you know, go from open-ended conversations to a draft semi structured survey and then we tested that survey with a handful of organizations around Lake Victoria and then we shared those results with that multi stakeholder task team in Tanzania that was overseeing implementation and they gave us feedback on it. And then she and I actually were able to meet about six months later at the FAO headquarters in Rome, and we revised the survey based on the feedback from that national task team and sort of finalized the survey and then the national task team itself determined the methodology for how to implement the study throughout the country and designated areas for implementation. And then I later returned the following year and helped implement that study in a few of those locations became areas where I implemented the study and other members of the national task team implemented it in other locations.
Becca: That is quite the impressive process and thanks for showing us behind the curtain as to the different phases along the way to develop something like that. And for women in fish processing or fishing itself, what is the benefit to being a part of these collectives and organizations that you were trying to map and better understand?
Hillary: Spoiler is that this work has spilled out and now it’s happening in multiple countries, but we’ll focus on, we’ll focus on Tanzania because this is where I was working for my PhD research. So focusing on Tanzania, gender equality is real, it exists, it’s a part of society and it’s also you know, gender relations are definitely also changing. They’re not sort of fixed in any one way. They’re changing, but there are unequal relationships between men and women in terms of who has access to different kinds of resources, especially capital. So to get a collateral backed loan, so to get a conventional bank loan, you need to have some kind of collateral you can put up for that loan, but most women don’t own their home or their land. So that’s the kind of conventional form of capital that women just don’t have access to. So if you needed to get a small loan to be able to kind of start or expand your fisheries business, most women cannot get that, and so they’d be reliant on their husbands to be able to get it. Or just can’t get one at all.
And so one of the main reasons I heard from women were about why they would form a group or choose to join one is to be able to kind of collectivize their capital, so to be able to pool capital to purchase larger quantities of fish to be able to purchase equipment or to rent land to do their processing so they wouldn’t have to do it directly on the beach. A lot of women who are working independently as processors are buying really small quantities of fish, like one kind of small bucket of fish, and then they’re just processing it right there on the beach because they don’t have any facilities or kind of compound in which they can go and do that, and so there’s a lot of sand on their fish. The quality of the product isn’t as good and they you know they’re not in a secure workspace.
They can be harassed. They talk a lot about also being harassed at the beach when trying to buy fish or or when trying to sell fish and so another layer of that, not just access to capital, but as you know, access to secure workspace. And a feeling of safety. Some in areas where gender discrimination at the beach landing sites is high, some of these women organizations actually employ a male family member like a cousin or or an eldest son to go to the beach to buy fish for the group and then to transport it back, so they have enough money as a group to kind of hire this sort of younger male relative to take a motorbike, buy a larger quantity of fish with them and to bring it back to their site, so they’re able to kind of avoid that space where they’re not, you know, able to work safely.
Becca: I didn’t even think about the safety element, I was focused on the work space, but that’s challenging and I’m glad that there are opportunities for these women to come together and hopefully provide for better working environments.
Clearly I could talk to you all day about the different dynamics going on and what you’re seeing in the field, what do you think that the scientists or policymakers, or even practitioners in the field really need to be focused on or need to better understand about these gender dynamics in small scale fisheries, we can say just in Tanzania or writ large depending on your comfort level.
Hillary: Yeah, I think maybe one thing I didn’t get to say in the last part, but comes into this is that the sort of gender dynamics and the sort of particular challenges that women might face in fisheries, you know, I think obviously depend on time and space like where they are or what the history of that place is the geographic context of that place, but it’s also a lot shaped by the target species that they’re working with. So, I didn’t give the example to to your last question, there’s also particular reasons why women might want to form a group for the marketing side of things.
So for example, in seaweed harvesting, there are these large exporting companies on the island of Zanzibar that control exports, and these are like global exports. They’re going into global commodity chains, but women can’t, individually, you know, sell into that into that global market, so they have to sell to these large buyers that set artificially low prices and basically get them into debt through advancing them loans for materials, and then they’re forced to sell back to them at these really low prices. And so in seaweed, one of the main reasons women are forming collectives is both to get out of that debt cycle of having to take loans from these exporting companies and also to get around selling to them, so being able to find and experiment with other market outlets. So that’s kind of one that I found that was a little bit unique to the circumstances in seaweed. But the the challenges and the reasons why women might form groups was different if they worked in small pelagic processing, was different from if they were octopus fishers, was different from you know if they were just buying and selling fresh fish of different species.
To link that to this question, I would say that if you’re interested in gender and gender relations like you really need to look at the like the human environment context, the environment being what is the fishery and the target species that they’re working in and the sort of specific dynamics of that fishery. There isn’t like one answer, like that was one of the main findings of the of the mapping study in Tanzania was that there’s not one experience of being a women’s fisheries organization, and because there’s not one reason why they form, and there’s not like one form that they take because they’re adapting to and working within different conditions depending on where they were in the country and inland or marine fisheries, or what species they’re working with.
So I would say like, people always want a simple a simple answer. I feel like, and I get asked for that sometimes. And I, and I understand I understand where that comes from, but if you’re if you’re really interested in gender, not just interested in like ticking a box, then you really have to take that kind of human environment side into account. So really, look at the fishery, look at the target species they’re working with the part of the value chain that they’re working in, so taking that into account.
And the second part I would say is to pay attention to how gender relations are changing. Another interesting gender story I would hear, especially around Lake Victoria is that these parts of the sector that used to be considered like low value low wage work where women tended to work. Women have partially through forming organizations improved their processing, methods, improved their products and now as that’s become more desirable species and food types that they’re creating. Men are starting to enter into, in this case, processing small pelagic fish from Lake Victoria and they’re coming from kind of outside of the community and with greater capital and can buy more fish. But it’s like they’re only now interested in what was typically considered women’s work in that part of the fishery. And so there’s this change happening that you know has implications for women.
We need to leave space for that heterogeneity and complexity, even though the inclination is find the simple solution. Very briefly, I know for some who may not think about the fisheries food system, with some fish species is that there was marketing opportunities for export and that sort of thing, what is that balance with the fish for consumption at the household level versus marketing and selling it further afield. Obviously again, this is a spot where we can’t simplify and say it looks one way everywhere, but just at a pretty high level, a sense of that balance.
Hillary: Yeah, I, I think this comes back to, especially if you’re talking to people who are really not familiar with small scale fisheries. It’s easy for me to forget just pointing out the small scale fisheries are not just a subsistence fishery, which I think is one idea that people might have about them is that ooh, it’s so small scale you’re just catching a fish taking it home and eating it. But most small stuff, fisheries that we are talking about today, you know, are commercial fisheries, this is a livelihood due to their catching fish to sell it into different, you know, markets and a lot of times it’s you know not as easy as just a local market or a global market. You know, actually a lot of small scale fisheries are important, the catch goes to a lot of regional trade networks that are not very well understood, like for example in Tanzania, a lot of fish that’s caught or aquatic foods that are caught actually get ended up getting traded through routes inland and go into Democratic Republic of Congo. It is a big market for fish caught in Tanzania, so I think there’s often a perception that it’s subsistence fishing, or that it’s only for local markets and it’s actually a more complicated story than that. So the women’s fisheries organizations that we interviewed for the mapping project, all had multiple market outlets. Seafood is just such a challenging one to trace, so you know even a lot of these organizations probably don’t know where that final product is going to end up.
One thing I’m hoping to be able to address through my postdoc research is that are women who are working in the fishing sector, you know as buyers, processors, traders, you know where this is their livelihood, how does that relate to their food security and their nutritional outcomes? So it’s makes sense to me, having worked in these communities and just observed that through doing this work, you are still bringing fish home, you know. So it is supplementing your diet, even though it’s not maybe the primary reason why you’re engaged in fisheries. You know it’s an economic enterprise, it’s a livelihood for most people, but a lot of that food does end up coming home and supporting you and your family. And a lot of times that’s probably opportunistic about you, have too much of something it didn’t sell that day, you know, fish depending on how it’s processed doesn’t last too long, and so I think a lot of that does end up coming home and supporting food security and nutrition. So again, just one of those multilayered, it’s not only subsistence, but it’s also not only local trade, it’s kind of a more complicated answer.
Becca: More and more layers, it seems like there’s still a lot to be understood even about this space in terms of following that fish, and in that balance with how it impacts well being or nutrition on that more individual and household level. So you you’ve kind of mentioned a few times how this is interacting with your continued work, but do you want to let us know what’s coming up next for you in this gender equity and fisheries space?
Hillary: Yeah, so I’ve talked a lot about the work that made up my PhD research, but what kind of started to happen the last year of my PhD and I’ve continued since is that this actually became something that the FAO wanted to take on and to expand. They saw this mapping study was conducted successfully and they saw the report from how the study went in Tanzania and they contracted me to work as a consultant and to develop that method into a handbook that could be published, which it actually just came out as a methodological guide, so now this methodology has been published and as part of the global toolkit for how to implement the small scale fisheries guidelines.
So one of the both amazing, but challenging things about the small scale fisheries guidelines is they don’t prescribe one path to implementation. It’s not like OK you signed on to this policy, do steps one through ten and you’ve implemented the policy. It was left open ended. So that countries could determine collaboratively with a multi stakeholder group what it meant to implement these principles like gender equality in their own context, and so it needed to represent diverse voices and the context of that fishery in the solutions or in the steps that they came up with for how to implement it. But at the same time, a lot of countries were also like give us some examples, give us some tools, give us something that we could see that other countries have done. Or maybe we choose to use it or not, or we choose to adapt it or maybe it just inspires us to do something different. And so the FAO has been working to create a set like a global toolkit so that other countries could see what other countries have done and and be able to kind of take a handbook like the one we created and and see like do we want to implement this in our fishery? Would this help us implement the guidelines in our in our context?
And so, that methodology is published as a UN handbook now. And we’ve also through a larger initiative for empowering women in small scale fisheries for sustainable food systems that is supporting the goals of implementing the guidelines through this project, we’ve also expanded the mapping study to five other countries, and so all in Sub Saharan Africa so far, although we’re also starting to reach out and expand it in Southeast Asia.
And so I’ve worked with the FAO to implement this study in these other countries, actually, all during the pandemic. And so that’s what I’ve been working on for the last two years, kind of alongside of finishing my PhD and since I finished. And that work continues in my role at the FAO and then I’ve also started a postdoc position in David Gill’s lab on a larger project on small scale fisheries as food systems. And in my role in that project as a postdoctoral researcher, I’m looking at culture and fish as food systems. And so within that kind of wide open field of culture, which presents many, many potential questions just with my pre-existing interest in gender. I’ve ended up taking that direction with it, and actually we’re going to work with that FAO data set, so that includes a lot of household level data and just information on women’s health, nutrition and also participation in small scale fisheries.
Becca: Congrats on getting the handbook published and giving different countries a potential what it could look like in terms of implementation and approaches on their end. And sounds like in tackling culture in these spaces you continue to grapple with these big complex questions.
I am curious being entrenched in this gender dynamics and focus space, has that influenced you at all as a researcher?
Hillary: Yeah, I would say an interest in gender led to an interest in feminist methodologies, so also grounded in practices of listening and accountability to communities and to partners that I conduct my research with and that was also something that I really didn’t come into the PhD process with but it felt like, OK, I’m interested in gender dynamics, I’m working with these communities, I’ve have a lot of gratitude for being invited to listen and be a part of this civil society space like what is a less harmful or hopefully not harmful research approach I could take. I’ll be working with kind of marginalized groups and, you know, I want my research to shine a light on that, but also just being aware that there’s also a lot of unthoughtful research or you know research methodologies that are, you know, very imposing, like imposing lenses and imposing questions.
So it led to me wanting to conduct research where I was not bringing in those outside questions ahead of going to the field. So it led to a much looser process of really following rather than sort of leading the research process.
Becca: The methodologies coming from that work sounds like the respectful approach that factors into these questions of equity and justice that we’re all trying to grapple with.
So if you’re ready, I think we’ll head into some questions to learn a little bit more about your PhD experience and hopefully again kind of shed some light on what this experience can look like for different folks.
What would be one of your proudest teaching or mentoring moments during the PhD?
Hillary: I think what comes to mind is that I was able to teach a two semester course that I co-designed with two other PhD students, one being Joe Fader who’s a marine mammals person, a population biologist, and Alejandro Garcia, who’s another human environment, geographer. So we co-taught this class that really focused on this specific conflict between tuna fishers and pilot whales in North Carolina and the Mid Atlantic generally. And through teaching that class, which was really, a pretty complicated and fraught topic of kind of pulling at undergrad feelings about conservation and whales. But we were also asking them to like consider the fisher and kind of consider this livelihood.
They were able to conduct research, to interview fishers to go and see a fishing vessel and to go to a fishing port. They were able to also kind of work with secondary fisheries data and observer data to look at fishery whale conflicts and they created a really beautiful poster from their really interdisciplinary project and they presented it at a regional conference, the southeast and Mid Atlantic Marine Mammal Symposium, and they won best student poster award. And so I felt really proud of them because they took on a really complicated topic through the course and they really did an interdisciplinary project and they brought it to a space of marine mammal conservationists, you know, maybe asking them to consider the perspective of the fisher also.
Becca: Applied, critical, interdisciplinary research, that’s some pretty impressive student work.
So what was some of the best PhD advice you received and would pass on to other students?
Hillary: What comes to mind as an undergrad I was able to do a National Science Foundation research experience for undergraduates, which I did not produce anything memorable like research wise out of that process, but I learned a lot and I remember this was like one of the first times I spent any extended period of time with graduate students who are a part of the teaching model of that program. And I just remember one graduate student talking to us, this group of undergrads saying like at the end of the day nobody writes your dissertation for you, there will be days when you wake up that you like, don’t really want to get up and work on this. Spoiler, it might be a lot of days, it was for me. There has to be something that pulls you to do it like the calls you to do it, and she said to us like pick a project that even on that like bad day, there’s something about that project that will make you get up and work on it.
And so what I took from that was like don’t pick someone else’s project. Don’t pick the project that my advisor thinks I should pick necessarily, or that, like the smartest person I know or the scholar I admire most says this this is the agenda for the field. But like I just needed to listen to some intuition of my own that was like this is my project, is in like on my worst day, it’s still my project and I have to do it because that’s what it takes to finish a PhD. In the end it’s like it’s you alone with, I’d like to say the pencil, but sadly you’re your laptop keyboard. It’s just you two and you gotta be able to do that and nobody will be sitting next to you telling you you have to do it really. In the end, like you just have to find that motivation and so I I really sympathize with people who end up not finishing their PhD because there’s so many points along the way where one contemplates that question for themselves. And I don’t think I was like on this path no matter what, I think I got lucky in that I picked something I was really interested in and I had people who like supported me and who didn’t try to steer me off that path and that that’s like why I finished and why I feel like I finished also with a project that I felt like was authentic to me it was it was a little bit of a mess, but it was my mess.
Becca: Trusting yourself and staying true to who you are and what you want to do. What about the biggest surprise you happened to have during your PhD experience?
Hillary: Well certainly the biggest one was becoming pregnant, which I was not expecting, which you know, I was open to that possibility, I would say, which is probably not true for everybody. That was definitely a big surprise, certainly not like when I started my PhD at Duke, what I thought I’d be ending ending it with would be like a family and being a parent.
Becca: And how did you manage to balance being a parent and a PhD student all at once?
Hillary: I’ll say that for me it was a really amazing experience and worked out beautifully. But just want to acknowledge that having a child while in Graduate School it depends on obviously what your partner and family situation is. It depends a lot on your department and your advisor and on your director of graduate studies, depends on your institution, what are its policies? What are the resources it has for you and for all the institutional side of those answers, Duke is actually a a very supportive place for that, or at least for me it was with the advisor I had in the department I was in at the time I was doing it.
That being said, it’s still America, so you know like parental leave policies are certainly not up to the standards of other countries, but when I found out I was pregnant like something like the 8th and 9th person that I told were my co-advisor and director of graduate studies and our DGSA Rachel LoPiccolo so I told them like seriously, before I told other members of my family and partly because I kind of needed somebody to be like this is OK, like you can do this. You know somebody who understood what I was still facing in terms of the PhD process. And that is certainly not something I take for granted at all and I wish everybody had that, and had as supportive of an experience as I had, but I also know that that’s like very, very far from being a given.
For me, I got support taking time off when I did. I also got support doing some things that were going to be difficult to do like going into the field while pregnant, or like going to a conference with a one month old baby, which were both things that I did that I wouldn’t blanket advise people do. But I was able to do them in my circumstance and with support from others. It was a really flexible time of life in terms of work in some ways and very self-regulated work, which is also challenging.
But one thing I found, and I remember hearing this from other people that had kids while they were in grad school, is that in some ways a PhD is such a boundless experience, it can just like spill over and kind of take over your life. And I kind of had that experience when I did my masters degree and I feel like having a child, especially a baby like you need other parts of your life to like, sustain this other person now. And so you kind of can’t let the PhD take over everything because you now have to put up boundaries. And so I feel like it actually really allowed me to put boundaries around work and do my work when I had time to do my work and really cut out a lot of the like I’m working, but I’m not working. It’s like if I sat down to work and I knew I had two hours because that my baby was going to wake up, I was typing like I was like writing furiously. Yeah, actually felt like it created a a better work life balance that, we should all have, but I wasn’t good at before I had a child.
Becca: Thanks so much for sharing all of that with us, sounds like you had the infant Pomodoro method going on for a while.
Hillary: Yeah, that’s right. I’m I’m a big proponent over the Pomodoro method, basically a good nap was like going to be 2 to 4 pomodoros. You better get on it because they’re going to wake up, the timer is going to go off.
Becca: And I’m really glad that folks at Marine Lab were supportive during this process for you. Any specific ways that you treated yourself to help you get through it? Sounds like you were definitely navigating that as a parent, but any other practices that kept you focused, motivated through that long process that can be the PhD?
Hillary: Yeah, I’ll say one thing I did earlier on was I did a yoga teacher training when I was still in kind of like a full course load of classes, which was a lot to take on because it’s a lot of other things you’re supposed to read and like it was whole weekends, you know 12 hour days on weekends. So I knew it was going to be tiring and kind of a gamble to take on like another kind of training on top of the PhD training. But for me it was something I did for myself. And so it wasn’t with the goal of even necessarily teaching yoga, but it was like I’m going to make time for this other thing that is fast paced and will require a lot of me. But it’s something that I wanted to do, and so I I did that and I felt like that was something I just really chose for myself.
And then I think in the latter half of the PhD, especially the writing part. I think finding a good writing partner, I kind of did that a little bit later in the process, but finding a good writing partner, or was something that really made a difference for me because it is hard to just stare down your laptop every day. Like are we doing this? But if there’s just that other person in the room to kind of keep you going and to commiserate with sometimes but also just we would like start with daily goals and then you know check in at lunch and check in at the end of the day and that was something that really made a difference for me.
Becca: Accountability, outside practices that are fulfilling in ways that sometimes the research may be different from, excellent.
Hillary: Yeah, and for me I’ve just been working remotely for so long, like being pregnant and maternity leave and then research and then you know the pandemic. It was like it humanized the process like it’s not just me in computers and other computer faces like a real person. These are unique and strange times to be doing it in maybe if I had been in person with everybody all the time that would have meant something different to me, but I felt like I needed a way to kind of ground the research and the writing in the end with like in a relationship that wasn’t a digital one, and so having an in person writing partner was really helpful.
Becca: I think we forget sometimes how isolated we are when we are often on screens with other people, it’s not quite the same experience.
Anything else you want to make sure that you share here.
Hillary: Yeah, what I was thinking of is just that, if you’re interested in gender equity and conservation or development or marine anything, my advice is like it’s a good time to be working on this. I think if you were doing this ten years ago, you might feel a little bit alone or that nobody was listening. But I think people are starting to listen and especially people in high up places. Just because they’re listening doesn’t mean you’re going to tell them what they wanted to hear or expected to hear, but I just think like there’s an audience for this message, and people I think can be pushed to listen to something more than just a simple message too.
So anyone interested in working on this, it’s a good time, there’s an audience for it, and we just need to think about how we want to communicate our research and and how to think about applications in ways that are not like overly simplifying but that also we aren’t just left saying, ooh it’s too complicated, you know? So kind of finding that balance between like nuanced context and also like a message that is going to land.
Becca: I think that’s a great point about the timing and figuring out that balance because it is, it is a little too easy to just be hypercritical of everything, or you’re like it has to be so context specific that we can’t say anything, and then the folks who want that 10 point checklist. Or somewhere in between.
Hillary: Right, yeah, no it’s hard. I mean and you can. You can definitely do one or the other two like there’s space for both of those things too, but I hope to position myself and would encourage others to like try something out in between those two.
[music – oyster waltz]
Becca: Thanks Hillary for giving us a window into your experiences. Personally, as a PhD student interested in co-developing similar research, it was really helpful to hear how ideas generated in meeting rooms translated into methods in the field and further professional opportunities.
And I think all of us, PhD students or not, can benefit from Hillary’s reminders to find our support systems and set healthy boundaries with work. That probably means it’s time for me to go outside to really seas this day, until next time!
Today’s episode was written and produced by Becca Horan with support from the Seas the Day Team. Our theme music, the Oyster Waltz is written and recorded by Joe Morton. Our artwork is by Stephanie Hillsgrove. For more about today’s episode, including links to content mentioned, check out our website at sites.nicholas.edu/seastheday. Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter or Instagram at Seas the Day Pod and leave us a rating wherever you listen to podcasts.
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