Dee Boersma

Photo: Dee Boersma
College of Arts & Sciences

Why penguins?

I’ve been interested in biology ever since I was little. From collecting butterflies to tadpoles, I’ve always just been interested in the natural world. So I started from a young age and continued to follow my passion.

I think the reason why I picked penguins was because I wanted to work in the Galapagos Islands. I was reading everything about the Galapagos and then I realized nothing was known about the Galapagos penguins. That’s when I started focusing on how the penguin, a cold-water species, live on the equator and survive.

What are you working on now?

Well I am interested in all facets of penguins but my major project is working with Magellanic penguins in Punta Tombo, Argentina. We are starting our 28th year in studying their breeding biology. I’m really interested in the natural history of Magellanic penguins and what it takes for them to survive. This is the largest breeding colony of Magellanic penguins in the world. So it’s really a spectacle of nature.

What is your proudest accomplishment in your career?

I guess I’m most proud of the fact that we’ve been able to help penguins survive. In the 1980s, up to 80% of the birds found dead on the beach were penguins covered in oil. Since tanker lanes were moved in the 1990s, we’re getting less than 1% of dead penguins on the beach. So, that reduction in oil pollution affecting penguins is really rewarding and made a lot of our work worthwhile.

What is the message that people should take away from your work?

I would hope that people take away the message that there are incredible life forms on the planet and that people are doing really poorly in terms of helping these other forms of life survive. There are too many people and there’s too much consumption. Those are fundamental issues and unfortunately, people are not paying much attention to our overconsumption and overpopulation. Until we get those in balance, we really are not going to be able to share the globe with other forms of life. That, I think, is a tragedy.

What were the perspectives of women scientists when you were growing up?

What women scientists? There weren’t very many. Jane Pauley interviewed me a while ago and asked me, “Isn’t it unusual to have a woman be working as field scientist?” and I responded with, “Well, ten or twenty years ago it would be unusual to have a woman as an anchor.” Fortunately, lots of different positions have opened up for women, but that was not true 30 or 40 years ago.

What challenges have you faced through your career?

Most things are based on gender, race, money, access to education, etc. which are all barriers that women face and it’s much harder for women. When I was growing up, abortions weren’t legal so women did not have control over their bodies. Until you have control over your reproductive system, it’s really difficult. When I was in school, women had dorm hours. As my grandfather explained to me, “The reason why we have dorm hours is that so the women have to be in by 11 o’clock at night. When the women go home, the boys go home.” I said to my grandfather, “If you want the boys to go home by 11, give them dorm hours.” But we often have discriminated and continue to discriminate based on gender.

Do you have any advice for young women pursing science?

I think people can do almost anything, but if you are a woman, you cannot be discouraged. You have to continue to move forward and you cannot let any of these barriers prevent you from reaching your dreams. This also means that there will be sacrifices. You can’t do it all; nobody can do it all. That means you have to make choices, which will narrow your options. So, if you are interested in science, don’t narrow your options by staying away from math or some of the science. The more math or technical education you can get, the better it will serve you.