ALD23: Dr Marie Poland Fish, Oceanographer and Marine Biologist

Dr Marie Poland Fish

Dr Marie “Bobbie” Dennis Poland Fish was an American oceanographer and marine biologist who founded the field of marine bioacoustics (the study of how marine wildlife uses and produces sound). Her pioneering research saw her record and analyse the sounds of hundreds of species of marine life, enabling the United States Navy to distinguish between enemy vessels and underwater creatures.

Fish was born Marie Poland in Paterson, New Jersey in 1900. She graduated from Smith College in 1921, later receiving a PhD in science from the University of Rhode Island. In 1923, after spending a year as research assistant to the plankton scientist (and her soon-to-be husband) Charles Fish, she was hired to study fish eggs and larvae for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries.

In February 1925, Fish left the US for a six-month oceanographic expedition through the Sargasso Sea to the Galápagos Islands. During this trip, she became the first person to identify the eggs of the elusive American eel by carefully collecting them and watching them develop. Her discovery, she wrote later, revealed “the last secret concerning the life history of the American eel which [the sea had] jealously guarded for so many centuries”.

Fish worked in ichthyology (fish biology) at various institutions from the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s. These included the Conservation Department of New York and the U.S. National Museum, now the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. In 1936, she and her husband established a marine lab at the University of Rhode Island, which still exists as the university’s Graduate School of Oceanography. Such was her renown as a marine biologist that when the US Navy needed help with a long-standing mystery, it was Fish they contacted.

Since the start of World War II, submarine crews and sonar operators in the Navy had been perplexed by strange underwater sounds, from rumbling and beeping to hammering, clanging and clicking. These sounds were sometimes so loud they threatened to detonate mines and sink ships. The Navy suspected that marine life, rather than enemy submarines, could be behind them – and once the war was over in 1946, Fish was brought on to investigate.

She got to work cataloguing the sounds heard by Navy officers, then launched experiments from her base at the University of Rhode Island. Using techniques including lowering hydrophones into Narragansett Bay, she was able to match previously mysterious noises with the sea life that created them. By 1954, Fish had identified the sounds of more than 180 species through what she called her “underwater detective agency”, both in Rhode Island and via expeditions to the Bahamas, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. She had built up a huge acoustic library on recording discs, which the Navy used to train sonar operators to tell the difference between hostile subs or boats and marine life.

Fish was also sent to Europe to train allied Navy operators in France, England and Germany. In addition, her work explored how underwater wildlife makes sound; before the process was formally described, she had correctly hypothesised that whales communicate via echolocation.

Fish died on 2 February 1989 at the age of 88, having written over 200 articles in academic journals and popular magazines and recorded and analysed the sounds of more than 300 species of marine life. She received the United States Navy’s highest civilian award, the Distinguished Service Medal, in 1966.

Further Reading

Written by Moya Crockett, with thanks to Stylist for their support.

ALD23: Jenifer Castillo, Engineer

Jenifer Castillo

Jenifer Castillo is a Colombian engineer. She was the first Latina to lead the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Women in Engineering (IEEE WIE), the largest professional organisation dedicated to promoting women engineers and scientists in the world.

Born and raised in Colombia, Castillo followed in family footsteps when it came to her career path: her father was a computer engineer, while her brother is an industrial engineer. She obtained her bachelor’s degree in mechatronics engineering at Universidad de San Buenaventura Bogota in 2006, pursuing her interest in process automation and robotics.

After university, Castillo joined Parker Hannifin, an engineering company specialising in motion and control technology, as a product specialist in their Bogotá office. She left in 2011 to take a job as an application engineer in Ingersoll Rand’s Colombian team, helping develop compressed-air projects.

Throughout these career moves, Castillo continued to volunteer for IEEE WIE, which she had first become involved with as a student. The group works to facilitate the recruitment and retention of women in technical disciplines around the world; Castillo held several positions including section chair and region secretary, and established the IEEE Colombia WIE group.

In the wake of Hurricane Maria in 2017, Castillo co-led Together We Can – Project Bright, an award-winning endeavour that saw volunteers and IEEE staffers raise donations and supply hurricane survivors in Puerto Rico with solar lanterns. She went on to complete an MBA in business administration at the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico in 2019, setting up the IEEE Puerto Rico and Caribbean Section’s WIE group during her master’s.

Between the start of 2021 and the end of 2022, Castillo was the Women in Engineering Committee Chair at the IEEE, leading the promotion of WIE objectives around the world. Her priorities as chair were supporting ongoing diversity and inclusion initiatives and increasing the number of female IEEE senior members. She remains a member of the IEEE Women in Engineering executive committee for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Castillo is currently a sales and account manager for the worldwide aircraft maintenance company Lufthansa Technik. Previously, she was territory manager and then project specifications manager in Latin America for Parker Hannifin. In November 2020, she was honoured with the IEEE MGA Achievement Award, recognising her “sustained and outstanding achievements in promoting students, young people, and WIE membership development in Latin America”.

Further Reading

Written by Moya Crockett, with thanks to Stylist for their support.

ALD23 Books: The Possibility of Life: Searching for Kinship in the Cosmos, Jaime Green

The Possibility of Life: Searching for Kinship in the Cosmos, Jaime Green

One of the most potent questions we often ask about the cosmos is: are we alone? From the field of astrobiology to the search for exoplanets in the ‘Goldilocks Zone’, Jaime Green’s The Possibility of Life traces our understanding of what and where life in the universe could be, drawing upon the long tradition of writers and artists who have stimulated scientific research through the creation of imaginary worlds. 

Bringing together expert interviews, cutting-edge astronomy, philosophical inquiries and pop-culture touchstones ranging from A Wrinkle in Time to Star Trek, The Possibility of Life delves into our evolving conception of the cosmos to wonder what we might find … out there.

Order the book on

About the Author

Jaime Green is a science writer, essayist, editor, and teacher, and she is the series editor of The Best American Science and Nature Writing. She received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Columbia University, and her writing has since appeared in Slate, Popular Science, The New York Times Book Review, American Theatre, Catapult, Astrobites and elsewhere.

Jaime has taught writing at Columbia University, Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts (The New School), Catapult, and the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop. She also hosts readings and author interviews at book launches and events.

You can follow Jaime Green’s work here:

Twitter: @jaimealyse

With thanks to Synergy for their support.

ALD23: Africa Flores, Earth Scientist

Africa Flores

Africa Ixmucane Flores is an earth scientist, engineer and expert in geospatial technology. Her research uses satellite imagery to identify changes in natural habitats and the climate, with the aim of providing ecological forecasts that can benefit the environment and local communities. She is particularly renowned for her work predicting lake algae blooms and using radar to monitor changes in forests.

Flores grew up in a rural part of Guatemala where intensive agriculture was visibly damaging the natural environment, including by polluting local waterways. A desire to improve and maintain the health of her country’s lakes, rivers and forests motivated her to study environmental sciences, and in 2006 she graduated with a degree in agricultural engineering in renewable natural resources from the University of San Carlos, Guatemala City.

After working for environmental agencies in Guatemala and Panama, Flores moved to the US, obtaining her master’s at the Earth System Science Center at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) in 2013. It was here that she began her long association with SERVIR, a joint initiative of NASA and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Based in Huntsville, SERVIR works to help decision-makers in regions across Latin America, Africa and Asia act on key environmental challenges such as climate change, water security and air quality. It does this by sharing and providing training in Earth observation data and geospatial technologies, which can enable more secure management of natural resources.

Having started out as a graduate research assistant, Flores is now SERVIR’s lead scientist on projects covering land use and land cover. She is responsible for modelling environmental changes in regions that don’t have sufficient science infrastructure or resources, offering visualisations of potential environmental damage so that people can predict risk and make key decisions about funding.

In 2019, Flores received a grant from National Geographic and Microsoft to collaborate with the environmental authority at Lake Atitlán, southwestern Guatemala. The deepest lake in Central America, Lake Atitlán had recently suffered from a harmful algae bloom (a rapid increase in algae that can have damaging effects on marine ecosystems). Using artificial intelligence and satellite data, Flores and her team designed a “lake forecasting system” that gives authorities an early warning if another bloom is likely. The SERVIR team now hopes to replicate the success of the Lake Atitlán project to protect other lakes.

Flores also led a NASA-funded collaboration between SERVIR and SilvaCarbon, a US government programme that works to support tropical countries in monitoring carbon in forests. The project examined the use of synthetic aperture radar (SAR, a remote sensing tool that bounces a microwave radar signal off the Earth’s surface) to detect key environmental changes, leading to the creation of a handbook on using SAR to monitor forests and other ecosystems.

Alongside her field work, Flores is currently a PhD candidate in natural resource sciences at McGill University. She was named one of 11 International Changemakers by the National Geographic Society and Microsoft in 2019, the only honoree to hail from Latin America. She is also a National Geographic Explorer, a title that recognises “exceptional individuals” whose work in science is “illuminating and protecting our world”.

You can follow her work here:

Twitter: @africa_science

Further Reading

Written by Moya Crockett, with thanks to Stylist for their support.

ALD23: Elsie MacGill, Aeronautical Engineer

Elsie MacGill

Nicknamed “Queen of the Hurricanes”, Elizabeth “Elsie” Muriel Gregory MacGill was the first woman to earn an electrical engineering degree in Canada. She was also the first woman in North America – and likely the world – to earn a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering, as well as the first woman to design and produce an aircraft. During World War Two, she led the Canadian production of a key model of fighter plane.

MacGill was born on 27 March 1905 in Vancouver. She began her bachelor’s in electrical engineering at the University of Toronto aged 18, becoming Canada’s first woman graduate in that subject in 1927. Upon finishing her degree, she relocated to Michigan in the US, working as a mechanical engineer for an automobile company.

By this point, MacGill already had a nascent interest in the rapidly-developing field of aeronautical engineering. But she was motivated to learn more when her firm started making planes, beginning graduate studies in aeronautical engineering at the University of Michigan. When she completed her master’s in 1929, she became the first woman in North America (and probably the world) to do so.

A bout of polio put MacGill’s career on hold for several years, but she completed postgraduate studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1934. She was almost immediately hired as an assistant engineer at Fairchild Aircraft Ltd, an aeronautical company in Quebec known for its innovative approach. There, she worked on many aircraft designs, routinely insisting on accompanying pilots on dangerous test flights to assess the performance of her planes.

MacGill’s star really began to rise in 1938, the year she turned 33. In March, she presented a much-praised paper to the Royal Aeronautical Society in Ottawa. She was accepted into the Engineering Institute of Canada, making her the professional association’s first female member. And she was hired as the chief aeronautical engineer at Canadian Car & Foundry (Can Car) in Ontario, the first woman in the world to hold such a position.

Can Car was a major Canadian transport manufacturer, and most of MacGill’s time there overlapped with World War II. During that period, she helped transform Canada into a global hub for aviation construction. She led the design, construction and aerial testing of the Maple Leaf II Trainer (recognised as the first aircraft ever entirely designed and produced by a woman) and had the Can Car plant retooled within a year, enabling it to rapidly manufacture Hawker Hurricane planes. With MacGill serving as designer and leader of production, these aircrafts played a critical role in WWII air combat, flown by Canadian and Allied airmen in the Battle of Britain.

MacGill also designed the first successful winterized version of a high-speed aircraft, equipping the Hawker with skis and de-icing equipment. In 1940, she wrote a paper based on her time at Can Car, “Factors Affecting Mass Production of Aeroplanes”, that was later published in The Engineering Journal.

MacGill left Can Car in 1943 and founded a consulting engineering company. Increasingly focused on civilian aircraft, she joined the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) as a Canadian representative and became the first woman to serve as its technical advisor on aircraft airworthiness in 1946. She died on 4 November 1980, aged 75.

Among many awards and honours, MacGill was named to the Order of Canada in 1971, made a fellow of the Engineering Institute of Canada in 1972, and inducted into the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame in 1992. She was the subject of a Canadian stamp in 2019 and a commemorative coin issued by Royal Canadian Mint in 2023.

Further Reading

Written by Moya Crockett, with thanks to Stylist for their support.