University of Maine researchers have devised a roadmap to recruit more women into the forestry industry, and particularly the bioenergy sector.
The team, led by Abigayl “Abby” Novak, a master’s student in forest resources at the BioEnergy Lab of the School of Forest Resources (SFR), found that attracting and retaining women in bioenergy and related fields - including those who are young or from historically underrepresented groups - can be done by offering interdisciplinary research opportunities in higher education, having employers provide ample support and outreach and promoting relatable success stories.
Their study, conducted by Novak, Ling Li, an assistant professor of sustainable bioenergy systems of SFR, and Katherine Glover, a Research Associate with the Climate Change Institute, was published in the academic journal Sustainability.
To determine the possible benefits of university interdisciplinary research, the group hosted a summer programme that involved students and faculty working on projects pertaining to biochar production and multiple applications, which was funded by the AY 21–22 UMS Research Reinvestment Fund (RRF) Grant Programs:Interdisciplinary Undergraduate Research Collaboratives. Eight undergraduate students, three graduate students and six faculty participated. Six out of the 11 students were women. One faculty participant was female.
The programme allowed young students to learn skills that helped them envision having a career in forestry and identify and use their strengths for their projects, researchers said. They also benefited from collaborative work and exposure to mentors — graduate students and faculty — with diverse backgrounds.
At the end of it, two undergraduates, one of them female, produced research findings they were able to present at several conferences, symposiums and workshops. Two female students shared plans to pursue graduate studies in nanoscience and sustainability, and one enrolled in a forestry sustainability-related graduate programme at the University of Maine. Several reports produced by programme participants were featured in the “2021 Wild Blueberry Grower Report” published by University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
“When I participated in this program as a junior in my undergraduate career, it opened my perspective about the depth of interdisciplinary research,” said UMaine graduate student Jessica Hutchinson. “It is crucial in deepening your understanding of what collaboration looks like, as well as broadening the way you question and approach a topic. Now I am a graduate student in plant, soil and environmental science working with native woody species. Having been a part of a bioenergy research project not only prepared me for the skills necessary for graduate research, it has broadened the scope in which the principles of my discipline can be applied. I hope to incorporate and promote interdisciplinary studies within my field, focusing on the wide applications of bioenergy.”
In addition to offering opportunities for their students, researchers say universities with degree offerings in bioenergy and forestry can help create a more gender-diverse workforce in the industry by implementing ambassador programs, apprenticeships, internships and similar activities for nearby middle and high school students, as well as other forms of outreach.
“The need for universities and colleges to implement a more gender diverse workforce in bioenergy/forestry is essential to progressing as a society that fosters diversity and different backgrounds,” Novak said. “In order to create change and new innovative ideas, for researchers and the community, we need to make it a priority to make moves to alter the existing institutional dynamic, especially in a historically white male-dominated industry and sector. Being able to have multiple perspectives can move all voices to be united.”