Straddling Two Cultures at Sea

by Johna Winters, M.S. student in Marine Resource Management

Johna Winters supporting OOI mooring operations in small boat off of the R/V Sikuliaq in 2018

As a marine technician, I’ve been to the North Pole, the equator, and the Great Lakes. I’ve worked with many oceanographers, limnologists (scientists that study freshwater systems like lakes), and ship’s crew to accomplish science missions from deploying scientific moorings off the coast of Oregon, to deep sea net trawls in the sea of California, to mud grabs in the deepest part of Lake Superior to look for evidence of invasive mussels. As a technician, my main job was to make sure that the scientists had what they needed to complete their projects: streams of data, sampling equipment, and expertise to deploy that equipment safely. In the process, I also obtained a U.S. Coast Guard rating which qualifies me to work as ship’s crew. 

An improvised science contraption Johna made out of a Tupperware container and spare parts, circa 2014. Photo Credit: Johna Winters.

But sometimes I used “people skills” as much as technical skills. Sometimes my job involved greasing the wheels of collaboration between scientists and crew. This role found me making an effort to communicate with each of these groups in their own language and then translating. Sometimes sampling methods didn’t make a lick of sense to the crew and sometimes scientists didn’t comprehend ship operations. In communicating with both groups, the techs were able to make data collection more efficient and higher quality. I didn’t see one group as superior to the other, only as serving different but important roles in our mission to study the ocean.

From technician to social scientist

It never occurred to me that I would one day be designing a study about research vessels for my master’s thesis work. While my degree in chemistry and my tech skills were useful for gathering accurate physical science data, they did nothing to help me wrap my head around these workplace interactions. I needed new models, frameworks, theories, and methodologies which the social sciences provided in abundance.

Johna on a cruise in the Arctic near the North Pole* aboard the USCG Cutter Healy in 2015. *The North Pole does not have an actual pole. Photo Credit: Croy Carlin

I got an inkling that these things could in fact be studied when an aquatic scientist gave me a paper called “Scientists and Mariners at Sea” (Bernard 1976). I was mystified that someone had written an academic paper about my strange profession. The crux of the paper is a discussion of some statistical methodology that was quite obscure to me at the time, but the other material in the paper was what was interesting to me. Research vessels today are quite different than they were in 1976. For example, alcohol is no longer permitted in the U.S. academic research fleet, there are many more women working in science (unacceptably, the proportion of non-white scientists in the geosciences has changed very little), and legal rights for LGBTQ+ people have advanced, but some of the themes of the Bernard paper are still relevant. Bernard writes about a dual hierarchy and the different cultures and value systems of scientists and mariners that, without the existence of research vessels, would never interact.  

Johna evaluating a sensor for damage on a rosette water sampler aboard the USCG Cutter Healy 2015. Photo Credit: Cory Mendenhall, USCG
A glass ceiling in ocean sciences

The longer I was a technician the more I realized that women in leadership roles were few and far between and it became obvious that I was treated differently because of my gender. Switching jobs did not alter this pattern. There were more women in the science parties that I interacted with, biology in particular, but in deck-work focused science parties, like mooring groups, and in the ship’s crew, not so much. I began to wonder, Did the unique environment of a research vessel have an influence over the cultural and historical momentum of sexism? Policies such as Title 9 and Title 7 had existed for decades, but how did policies designed to eliminate sexual harassment function in this unique environment?

Johna leading deck operations during a mooring deployment aboard the R/V Oceanus in 2016. Photo Credit: Mounted GoPRO

In 2016 or 2017, I came across another paper that has influenced my research direction: “SAFE: Survey of Academic Field Experiences” (Clancy et al. 2014). This study was originally designed for anthropologists but the researchers added other discipline categories when some geologists requested that they be included. The study found that a large proportion of respondents reported incidents of sexual harassment, gender-based discrimination and assault in field sites and identified structural aspects of academia, such as high power differentials between students and more senior academics, as contributors to this dynamic. When I came across this paper, I thought, “Someone should do this in oceanography!” It was two years later that my master’s thesis project solidified around this topic, with the help and encouragement of my committee members.

Expanding Horizons

In order to answer my research questions, I had to break through my past bias against the social sciences. As a younger person I dismissed anything that in my mind was “not science.” I attribute this narrow way of thinking to many influences around me, from my B.S. in chemistry to a comic by xkcd, an attitude that was also perpetuated by my STEM professors during my undergraduate education.

Comic highlighting perceptions of different fields in science. Edits in red are Johna’s. Note that the sociologist didn’t even get a conversation bubble until Johna added one in. Source:

Today I find the notion of a hierarchy of disciplines ridiculous. Different questions require different tools. And the research questions for my thesis couldn’t be answered with the tools that I knew from my B.S. in chemistry or from being a technician, so I applied to the Marine Resource Management program at Oregon State University.

My journey through my master’s course work in Marine Resource Management has included a core of oceanography classes, as well as qualitative and quantitative social science methods and marine policy as well as elective classes in women’s and gender studies, accounting, and environmental politics. It is this combination of approaches and tools that will help me to carry out my research objectives and hopefully offer something of value to the research vessel community, by disrupting the patterns that keep talented women from reaching leadership roles as crew, scientists, and technicians. 

As Johna says, “You can lubricate a winch with a grease gun, but you can’t solve sexism with a salinometer.” Photo Credit: Shannon Zellerhoff