Celebrating Women’s History Month

The Academy has long been a home for women scientists to learn, research, collaborate and build their careers. With March being designated Women’s History Month, we thought it a good time to get to know a few of the people who are continuing that legacy.

JOCELYN SESSA, PhD 

Jocelyn Sessa, PhD, is the Assistant Curator of Invertebrate Paleontology at the Academy of Natural Sciences and an Assistant Professor in Drexel’s Department of Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science. 

Curating the Invertebrate Paleontology Collection means supervising the Academy’s collection of organisms without backbones (invertebrates) and using the specimens in her research. Sessa studies deep-time climate change: climatic shifts that happened hundreds of thousands to millions of years ago. Being a BEES assistant professor allows her to engage students in her work. “I look for ways to incorporate my research into my teaching, because students really enjoy hearing about real-world examples and current research.”

Sessa started a new Academy research program on the effects of ocean acidification. As we put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, we’re also changing the chemistry of the oceans. Sessa studies a particular group of snails that are considered biomonitors. These snails have very thin shells and are highly susceptible to changes in ocean chemistry.

“We study museum specimens that were collected as many as 200 years ago, up through specimens that were collected present-day, to look at whether and how those snails’ shells have been affected over the last 200 years of changing climate and ocean chemistry.” She works in conjunction with Rosie Oakes, PhD, a former post-doc and now Academy research associate, and Bryce Koester, a BEES graduate student, to study specimens from different ocean environments around the world. 

Her love of the natural world started during her childhood on Long Island. “I loved going to the beach and seeing all the different marine life. Even looking at the waves I’d ask, ‘How do they work?'” In college she planned to study environmental law, but an elective class in paleontology inspired a literal and figurative change of course.

“The idea that the earth was hundreds of millions of years old and that we had all sorts of plants and animals that went extinct, that were nothing like we have today, was mind blowing,” Sessa says. She dropped law and became a geology major.

An undergraduate research experience at Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History opened her eyes to all that happened behind the scenes at a museum. “I thought, wow, museums are such exciting places – you’ve got research, education; there’s something for everyone here.”

Museum jobs are hard to come by, and she never thought she’d be able to get one. Fortunately, through the partnership with Drexel and the creation of the BEES Department, the Academy was able to hire an invertebrate paleontology curator for – in a nice twist of fate – the first time since the year Sessa was born! It was meant to be.  

What is a dream project that you’d love to work on? 

“What I’m working on now is a dream project! But last March, Bryce and I were supposed to go to California to start an ocean acidification project with researchers who have been doing decades-long monitoring. We had our plane tickets and lodging booked, but had to cancel because of the pandemic. We were going to get access to their specimens and ocean chemistry samples, and Bryce might have been able to join a summertime oceanographic cruise. I’d love to get on a research cruise, actually be able to collect snails and see how the scientists on the research vessels collect other oceanographic data.” 

TANYA DAPKEY 

Tanya Dapkey, Macroinvertebrate Lab manager in the Watershed Ecology section of the Patrick Center for Environmental Research, credits a childhood visit from her German cousins for opening her eyes to the wonders of nature. During a visit to Ridley Creek State Park, cousin Hans found a tree frog hiding in a spot that 10-year-old Tanya had just been looking in, but hadn’t seen the frog.

Hans was an ecology graduate student at the time, and described the frog, why it was hard to find, and more about its biology. Tanya was enthralled and knew she wanted to be a scientist who studies the natural world.

This childhood interest in natural sciences was further encouraged through childhood visits to the Academy with her grandmother. “I have always wanted to work at the Academy,” she says. “Thanks to my network of amazing women scientists (the 500 Women Scientists Philly Pod), I met Dr. Stef Kroll (Watershed Ecology Section lead). When she posted this job, I applied right away.” 

Dapkey is still looking for critters out in nature, but with a focus on the macroinvertebrates (insects and other small animals) that live in rivers and streams. Aquatic macroinvertebrates are useful indicators of a stream or river’s overall health. Identifying insects through a microscope is a classic and essential aspect of her work. While hours looking through a microscope might sound tedious, there are moments where that childlike wonder is rekindled.

“I love identifying an insect I have never seen before. When this happens, my co-worker and I squeal with excitement and share our microscopes!” But Dapkey also brings modern techniques with her into the laboratory. Her master’s research explored DNA barcoding to refine the identification of some insect groups.  

Dapkey and the Watershed Ecology team are looking to use DNA barcoding to better assess the macroinvertebrate communities in headwater streams of the Delaware River Watershed. The project looks at how climate change affects not only the forested areas that serve as important stream and river protectors, but also the organisms that live in these ecosystems. They hope to develop a blueprint for the types of healthy ecosystems that need to be in place for these areas to be resilient to the effects of climate change.

“Climate change is real, and it’s happening, and we need to devote more resources to combat the problems that are going to arise. We need more engineers, creative thinkers, scientists, conservationists, city planners, and anyone who cares about this planet to come up with creative solutions. I know we can do it if we stay positive and work together.” 

What women scientists have inspired you, your career or your work? 

“I used to watch Dr. Jane Goodall on PBS programs when I was a child. You could really see how she loved what she did, her tireless efforts made real change for chimpanzees. She showed me that even one person can make a difference. The character Dr. Ellie Arroway from Contact inspired me to not care what other people thought or said about my career path. She was strong and never stopped speaking the truth even when people didn’t believe her. Dr. Maya Evenden was my entomology teacher at West Chester University. Her insect enthusiasm was so contagious, and she not only encouraged but supported my bug journey.”
 

ALEXIS WILEY 

Alexis Wiley is all about connections. A Philadelphia native with familial roots in the Carolinas, Wiley is sure that being raised in Philly within a Southern culture has fostered an inherent love for the natural world. “I most likely would not be as interested in environmental science had I not spent so much of my childhood outside, gardening with my family,” they said. Wiley turned that love for the outdoors into a passion for studying the connections that exist within, and in relation to, the natural world. 

An environmental research technician in the Wetlands Section of the Patrick Center, Wiley examines the interactions within ecosystems – how one phenomenon can impact others and how those dynamics contribute to the bigger picture of overall ecosystem health. In wetlands, the main driver of vegetation loss is sea level rise caused by climate change.

As seas rise, coastal marshes change dramatically, whether through loss of wetland area or a change in composition of the vegetation. Wiley uses remote imagery to understand the impacts of increasing sea level rise in reducing populations of trees and other vegetation in coastal marshes. 

In addition to studying connections within ecosystems, Wiley would like to study the interplay between different ecosystems. They’re fascinated by land use changes and ecotones – ecological transition zones. Of specific interest is understanding the dynamics between agricultural regions and natural, undisturbed ecosystems in the tropics. Wiley believes this can be useful in designing more sustainable agricultural practices in order to prevent biodiversity loss. 

Wiley appreciates the various connective threads that are reflected in the field of study – from taking science out of the academic “vacuum” and into the real world where it can inform policy and society, to serving as an example to others of similar backgrounds and life experiences that science and nature are for them, too. Wiley loves studying soils, plants and ecology, so much so that days in the field never actually feel like work. They want others to have that same opportunity to connect with nature, whether professionally or recreationally.

“As a Black, non-binary person, I have experienced less access to the natural world. Some of my motivation for being an environmental scientist is to make a bigger table for people like me to interact with nature in ways they see fit, and to ensure that there is nature for them to interact with at all.”

 What do you do in your personal life to fight climate change? 

“I try to educate people on climate change and the actions they can take to fight against it. That mostly involves holding our government and major corporations accountable for their negative impacts on climate and environment, through protesting, petitioning, fundraising for climate-focused initiatives, and supporting our local communities.”

By Kathryn Christopher


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