Billie Swalla

Photo: Billie Swalla
College of Arts & Sciences
Friday Harbor Laboratories

Dr. Billie J. Swalla is a Professor in the Department of Biology and Interim Director of Friday Harbor Laboratories. As far back as she can remember, Dr. Swalla has had a passion for biology. She pursued her interest all the way through her doctorate degree at the University of Iowa and her tenure-track professorship at the University of Washington. She currently studies the evolution of chordates (vertebrates) and works with marine invertebrates called tunicates and hemichordates. Tunicates and hemichordates have some similarities in their body structures to those of humans. Since hemichordate worms regenerate their central nervous systems, Dr. Swalla is particularly interested in exploring how these organisms regenerate, hoping that the process may shed light on regenerating injured human organs.

We sat down with Dr. Swalla and asked her to share her reflections and advice on gender bias with other science-minded women:

Q&A: Being a Woman Scientists

Q. What have you found most surprising from being a woman scientist?

A. I am surprised that I still run into gender bias. I will be at a meeting where I raise my hand and four other men raise their hands, but they all get called on before I do. I run the seminar series in the Biology Department at UW and 90% of the people suggested by faculty are male. I work hard to make sure that we have a ratio of 50% female speakers which means that I turn away a lot of the male speakers in order to find female speakers. Some people tell me that this is not the right thing to do but I strongly believe that we need a balanced seminar series to provide role models to other young female scientists.

Another real surprise for me is that female graduate students often treat me poorly but I think that’s because we give more respect to men in our society. Yet, I expect that female graduate students will want respect from their students when they grow up to become scientists. As a student, I always especially admired women scientists, so I find it frustrating when I come across this attitude.

Q.Do you have any advice for young women pursing the scientific field?

A. The biggest question I receive is, “When’s the best time to have children?” I will say, “The best time is when it’s the best time for you.” I think we will finally achieve gender equality when a woman can be married or have children and still have respect as a scientist. That’s what men have right now and where we want to be. Children are disruptive to a career. I have two children but I would not trade my experience as a mother. It’s been amazing.

Women have great potential, but many do not reach that potential because they don’t take risks. It’s important to find supportive people who will help someone reach their full potential. We all need mentors who help us navigate difficulties and believe that we will be successful. I am very grateful to my mentors here at UW and I thank them frequently.

Learn more about Dr. Swalla via her lab website: