Centennial Story 22: Fran Solomon (PhD, 1980)

In 1980, I became the second woman to earn a PhD in fisheries at the UW.  My program focused on water pollution ecology, emphasizing impacts of toxic chemicals on aquatic biota. I want to thank my dissertation committee, especially the late Dr. George Brown, who was the chair and a wonderful mentor, and Dr. Frieda Taub, who was also a wonderful mentor and an inspirational role model. I continue to keep in touch with Dr. Taub.

Although I had a supportive committee and congenial colleagues in Dr. Brown’s lab, I felt isolated as one of the few women at the then College of Fisheries (now SAFS). The atmosphere for women was chilly and unwelcoming. I felt pressured to continually prove myself and to always be “perfect” so that doors would not close for women who came after me. Mentors, friends, the Association for Women in Science, and my determination kept me going. I am happy that there is now good gender balance among graduate students at SAFS and that there are more female faculty than in the 1970s. I hope that the number of female faculty will continue to rise.

Fran giving a hands-on demonstration with two Seattle University students

After earning my PhD, I was drawn to environmental problem-solving and embarked on a satisfying 25-year environmental agency career. As a fish biologist for the Washington Department of Fisheries (now Fish and Wildlife), I was especially proud of contributing to preventing the Northern Tier Pipeline Company from constructing an oil pipeline that would have crossed every major salmon-bearing river and stream in Washington  state. The oil spill risks were huge. Other rewarding projects were leading an interagency team in developing and implementing an action plan to control pollution sources and clean up contaminated sites in Sinclair and Dyes Inlets for Washington Department of Ecology, and managing salmon habitat restoration and improvement projects for King County.

In 2004, my career and life took an unexpected turn when my husband and I had the opportunity to teach at Northwest University in Xi’an, China. I created and taught a course about the impacts of urban environmental pollution. In addition to having a fabulous cultural experience, I discovered that I love teaching. After returning to Seattle, I sought regional teaching opportunities that included “Biology, History and Politics of Salmon in the Pacific Northwest” at UW Tacoma and “Impacts of Metals on Aquatic Ecosystems and Human Health” at the University of British Columbia. In 2007, I resigned from my agency job to focus on teaching. The results have been positive and exciting! I am having a wonderful time bringing my work experience and knowledge to the classroom, educating current and future environmental scientists and environmentally aware global citizens. My academic homes are Western Washington University on the Peninsulas and The Evergreen State College Tacoma campus. I also teach courses and give lectures for environmental professionals and the general public about water quality and the impacts of toxic chemicals, especially metals and endocrine disruptor chemicals, on aquatic biota and human health.

I recently presented at a Gordon Research Conference on Endocrine Disruptor Chemicals, which took place in Switzerland. My poster, titled “EDuCation about Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals: Bridging the Gap between Scientists and the General Public,” encouraged colleagues to do similar teaching and outreach on this important topic.

Fran & her poster at the Gordon Research Conference on Endocrine Disruptor Chemicals

My graduate education at SAFS prepared me well for my environmental agency and teaching careers. Congratulations to SAFS on its 100th anniversary, and best wishes for the next 100 years!



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