Dr. Sarah Oktay Named 2020 President of the Society of Women Geographers

Dr. Sarah Oktay elected as President of the Society of Women Geographers




Sarah Oktay, PhD, is the Director of Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve and the Director of Strategic Engagement for the UC Davis Natural Reserve System which is part of the John Muir Institute of the Environment.  She was inducted into the Society of Women Geographers (SWG) in 2009 for her work on climate change and the environment and has been a member of the board for two years. She served as President Elect in 2019 and will serve as President for 2020. Before joining UC Davis in April 2018, Sarah was Director of Institutional Advancement at Rocky Mountain Biological Lab, after 25 years at sea level researching, teaching, fundraising, and communicating with the public. She received her B.S. in Marine Science and a Ph.D. in Chemical Oceanography from Texas A&M University – Galveston. From 2003-2016 she was the Executive Director of the University of Massachusetts-Boston Nantucket Field Station, a biological field station on Nantucket Island.

SWG was founded by four women who had spent their lives as explorers, scientists, writers, and adventurers: Marguerite Harrison, Blair Niles, Gertrude Shelby, and Gertrude Emerson Sen. Despite their travels and accomplishments, their research and adventurous exploits were unrecognized, unlike their more famous male peers.

“Over the previous decades, the women—Harrison, Blair Niles, Gertrude Shelby and Gertrude Emerson—had collectively covered hundreds of thousands of miles across five continents. Between them they spoke nearly a dozen languages. Niles was a travel writer and novelist who traveled by ox cart through Colombia; Shelby, an economic geographer, who had lived by herself in a small village on South America’s “wild coast”—a region that includes modern-day Suriname—studying the folklore of the indigenous inhabitants; and Emerson, the youngest of the group at 34, an editor and budding activist who had traveled with and interviewed Mahatma Gandhi in 1921. Each, like Harrison, had written extensively about the cultures, geographies and economies they had encountered in their work, but their contributions went under-appreciated by the public, which saw the woman explorer as mere novelty.” (From https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/society-of-woman-geographers)

The founders wanted to bring together women who shared ambitions and interests in exploration and achievement, exchange knowledge derived from field work, and encourage women pursuing geographical exploration and research. At the time, there was a society for men for this purpose, called “The Explorer’s Club” but women were not welcome. They decided to forge their own path.

In the Society’s early years, there were still many unknown places and populations to be visited and studied, and Society members were in the vanguard of courageous explorers. Air transportation was just beginning when one of the first SWG members, Amelia Earhart, made her solo flight across the Atlantic. Margaret Mead pioneered much of modern anthropology. Mary Douglas Leakey helped discover the earliest humans at Olduvai Gorge in Africa.

With time, as communication and transportation have made the world a smaller place, and opportunities for women have expanded, there is still a place for an organization devoted to multidisciplinary intellectual exchange and support among women. Today the 500 SWG members are connected in ways the founders could not have imagined. Today’s SWG includes not only scientists from every corner of academia, but also polar explorers, politicians, astronauts, activists, artists writers, photographers, divers, and poets. Well known members include Sylvia Earle, Kathleen Sullivan, Arlene Blum, and Jane Goodall.

The SWG awards several graduate student fellowships related to geography each year, holds a triennial with world renowned guest speakers, has chapters in the US and around the world and mentors young female scientists. Members carry the SWG flag to the depths of the ocean, to space, to the poles, and to other geographic “firsts” for women on mountain peaks and in remote jungles.

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