First woman marine scientist wins Gilchrist medal

07 August 2014 | Story by Newsroom
Crest of a wave: Assoc Prof Coleen Moloney (biological sciences), the first woman to win the Gilchrist Memorial Medal in 27 years. The South African Network for Coastal and Oceanic Research awards it triennially.
Crest of a wave: Assoc Prof Coleen Moloney (biological sciences), the first woman to win the Gilchrist Memorial Medal in 27 years. The South African Network for Coastal and Oceanic Research awards it triennially.

It wasn't long ago that marine scientist Coleen Moloney counted only one woman at research meetings and workshops. It could be lonely, she says, but at least she didn't have to queue for the toilet.

The director of UCT's Marine Research Institute remembers the time a fellow postgraduate student was refused fieldwork in Antarctica because there weren't any women's toilets. It didn't matter that her fieldwork involved camping in a wilderness area.

They're important anecdotes, providing a measure of transformation in society and in science since 1994. Twenty years later, in July, Moloney became the first woman marine scientist in 27 years to win the South African Network for Coastal and Oceanic Research's triennial Gilchrist Memorial Medal.

"It's an accident of history," Moloney says gamely.

There have been few South African woman researchers who've persevered in marine sciences as long as she has, access to toilet facilities notwithstanding.

But things have changed and she's hopeful there'll be more balance in the future, reflecting the changing demographic composition of the country's marine science corps.

Groups like South African Women in Science and Engineering have been instrumental in forging this evolution, adds Moloney.

The medal recognises her research into the variability of marine food webs and ecosystems under global change. This includes the impact of climate change and the influences of fishing and pollution in marine systems.

These research areas relate to the development and use of computer models in marine systems, which cover a range of living marine organisms, from microbes to top predators.

"These systems help us understand how energy and materials are packaged, distributed and transported in the ocean, including the interactions among the different factors that cause variability and change," explains Moloney.

'In the service of others'

It's not all "out there" on the high seas. The citation also lauded her services to marine science; her committee work in particular, which can be time-consuming, with little apparent reward.

The award citation underscored this aspect: " ' many of her activities are in the service of others, rather than promoting her own self-good. Large proportions of her research grants are devoted to bursaries and funding needed to support students, particularly those from a previously disadvantaged background. She is much in demand because of her efficiency and wise counsel. She truly is a team player, dedicated to the promotion of marine science."

Moloney was clearly chuffed: "Many South African marine scientists give selflessly of their time to these kinds of activities and it is gratifying that these contributions are noticed and noted!"

A homegrown UCT scientist (she completed her undergrad and postgrad degrees here), Moloney has been director of the UCT Marine Research Institute since 2012 and has published some 90 peer-reviewed papers, including two in Science and one in Nature.

It's a job that also comes with some perks. She's visited five of the six continents and her passports have been stamped in 30 countries. And because of it's global nature, she has a wide network of colleagues and friends.

But two experiences stand out. One is a trip to the Galapagos Islands for a scientific conference. After meeting up with her husband, Professor Peter Ryan (director of UCT's Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology), they took a boat trip around the islands to see the unique wildlife in their natural habitats.

Inaccessible Island in the South Atlantic

But the most memorable was not about her own research. She accompanied Ryan as his assistant during two extended field trips to uninhabited Inaccessible Island in the South Atlantic; the first for his PhD research in 1989/90, and the second a follow-up activity 10 years later.

These sojourns were four to six months long.

"It was a very physical experience working outdoors in all kinds of weather and living without hot water and other comforts, mostly in a leaking hut. However, I learned to live without some necessities and to appreciate solitude and living close to nature. The memory will be with me always."

The experience provided a stark backdrop for global changes in the oceans, and the ricochet effect in marine systems, as a result of climate change.

"As a parent and scientist interested in global change, it's difficult not to be concerned about the future my daughter will have to face. I'm frustrated by poor and poorly informed leadership that is making little impact in tackling large environmental, and, ultimately, social issues, especially related to climate change but also to sustainability of the Earth's limited resources."

(The Gilchrist Memorial Medal was awarded to Moloney at the 15th South African Marine Science Symposium, held in July in conjunction with the African Marine Mammal Colloquium. Professor Mark Gibbons, head of biodiversity and conservation biology, University of the Western Cape, was joint winner. The friends graduated from UCT (PhD) in 1988.)

Story by Helen Swingler. Image by Je'nine May.

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