DEP Women in STEM: Cheryl Swanson

Name:  Cheryl Swanson

Division/Title: Division of Environmental Assessment and Restoration (DEAR) / Program Administrator, Biology Program

How long have you been with DEP: I have been employed at DEP for almost 15 years.

Education/Background: Bachelor of Science in Marine Science from the University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC and a Master of Science in Biology from Florida State University

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?

My inspiration came from the environment in which I was raised and the experiences provided to me. The ocean was an integral piece of my childhood growing up on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. My father loved to watch scientific documentaries on television at night and on weekends. I would read and hear about the science conducted at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, in the neighboring town. Family vacations prioritized travel to natural destinations such as national or state parks, along with zoos and aquariums. From this exposure, I gained an appreciation for and deeper curiosity about the world around me, which led me to pursue a career in science.

What profession did you think you would be when you were growing up?

Honestly, I did not seriously start considering professions until high school, at which time I was either going to be a naval pilot or a marine biologist.

What excites you about your work at DEP?

Although I sometimes miss research, which was the focus of my education, I am excited by the applied aspect of my work here at DEP. I use my knowledge and training to help ensure that the work in which I am involved at DEP is produced in a scientifically defensible manner.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?

If I had to choose just one of the many cool projects I have worked on in my scientific career, it would be participating in my graduate advisor’s work on reproduction in three closely related sea urchins conducted at the Bamfield Marine Station, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. This research project gave me a priceless education on how to plan a research trip, conduct both field and laboratory experiments, how to interact on a research team, how to safely work in cold environments, and how to overcome obstacles and perform precise technical methods underwater while dry suit diving. It didn’t hurt that the location was absolutely beautiful and that I was able to explore the landscape and see animals that I had had only ever read about or seen on TV. It was a very special career opportunity to be able to experience both the land and underwater environments.

At DEP, the coolest project would be collecting stream macroinvertebrate samples to support the derivation of criteria and the revision of DEP’s Stream Condition Index tool. Being engaged in the process of directly linking data with statistical analysis supporting new and improved assessment methods is rewarding.

What is your favorite piece of technology or equipment you get to use in your job?

Although it may sound funny, my favorite piece of equipment is the dipnet because using it means I’m in the field assessing the habitat, plants and invertebrates of Florida’s surface waters to help determine the biological health of the system. I like working outdoors. Ironically, the positions I’ve held at DEP have not required me to use very specialized equipment, other than microscopes and field meters for measuring dissolved oxygen, temperature, specific conductance, and pH. However, in the DEP Laboratory where I work, the chemists and other biologist use some very highly specialized and technical analytical equipment.

Why is it important to get more students, including females, interested in STEM?

I believe that all students should participate in STEM and that STEM should be introduced at an early age in the context of a career because it is a natural extension of who we are as human beings, because scientific principles and skills are directly and indirectly applicable to many areas of life, and because it is our future. For example, watch young children play and you will notice they naturally find enjoyment in experimenting with the laws of physics or playing with technology or creating and building things to accomplish whatever idea has popped into their heads. I view STEM careers as an educationally directed and formalized means of applying this natural creative energy. Furthermore, the scientific method teaches the ability to break complex ideas into specific, manageable questions and provides a logical process for considering information and obtaining a result or answer. This framework is applicable to any career and to making decisions or solving problems in everyday life. When students recognize how much their lives are already touched by STEM then learn the scientific framework and how to apply it, it empowers the next generation to be able to handle whatever future challenges they may face.

What is your best advice for girls interested in science?

My best advice for girls interested in science is to have confidence in your abilities, apply yourself academically, find someone in your field of interest and reach out to them, and then find opportunities to experience or be a part of your scientific area of interest. I believe much of my success, aside from high academic achievement, came from having a clear idea of what I wanted my future to look like, taking advantage of science-related opportunities that I found or were presented to me by teachers, and having confidence in myself that I could do what I put my mind to doing.

I love science because…

…it is fun.


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