Stephanie Plön is a marine biologist at the Bayworld Centre for Research and Education in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Her research interests focus on whales and dolphins (cetaceans), specifically their natural history, trophic ecology, anatomy, population genetics, strandings and health. For this she uses a diverse array of research methods and also collaborates widely with colleagues in related research areas to gain a more holistic picture of variations in the populations found in our local Eastern Cape waters in South Africa. Over the past 25 years that she has worked there, she has trained numerous students, the majority of which were women.
Stephanie is a Member of the IUCN/SSC Cetacean Specialist Group, the Intersessional Task Force on Sousa for the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and the International Relations Committee of the Society for Marine Mammalogy. She is the Stranding coordinator for IndoCet for the Indian Ocean region and Associate Editor-Marine Mammal Science.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
I think I would have to say I am most proud of my accomplishments in underwater hockey, particularly the silver medal I won with the New Zealand Women’s team in the Southern Hemisphere Championships, which I took part in while I completed work towards my PhD (which I was awarded by Rhodes University). It was a great experience to achieve something like that as a team, while in science it often feels like you are struggling on your own. It provided the perfect balance for me while writing up my PhD thesis (i.e. being active versus being stuck behind a computer).
What would you change about how women are perceived in science and ocean governance careers?
I think women are just as capable and intelligent as men and contribute amazing new ideas and discoveries to the science field. But unfortunately, I often see particularly young women discouraged due to the continuing perception that science is a “male-dominated” profession. I think there has been a lot of progress in changing this perception and more women are choosing science as a career, but I believe a lot more can be done to encourage young women to follow their passion in science. This is the reason why I have trained so many young women as I am a firm advocate for women in science. And I wish we could overcome this mental hurdle fast. I have a lot of male colleagues I respect and value very much and I would hope they think the same of me and my work. So, I would hope that in future we would not have to talk about gender differences in science any more, but rather how we can complement each other and work well together – that is going to be the key in solving the really big questions humanity will face in the near future.
Who has inspired you in your career?
I have been lucky in that I have been exposed to a number of inspiring people in my career. When I think about them (and they were mentors, colleagues and students alike), it has always been the warmth and passion they exuded when talking about their work that has been most inspiring to me. I do not want to discount the importance of the data, results and conclusions we as scientists live by, but what counts and keeps us going at the end of the day is our passion and the inspiration we give to others who follow and hopefully make this world a better place.
What is your dream research project? Where would you work and with whom?
I was fortunate enough to be able to develop my dream research projects here in the Eastern Cape over the past 15-25 years. It started with my MSc/ PhD, which I was privileged to do on two little known species (pygmy and dwarf sperm whales), so it ended up being very new and exciting research. Although it was not easy as there were little previous research carried out on those species, I enjoyed the novelty of the work so much that I decided to be based here after the completion of my PhD- and I found a way to make that happen. Since then I have tried to re-establish research on whales and dolphins here in the Eastern Cape, both using stranded and bycaught animals as well as data collected during boat studies. This hasn’t been easy, but it has always been exciting and interesting as there is still so much to learn about our whale and dolphin populations here off the Eastern Cape coast. I have also benefitted from the assistance and input from international colleagues who were happy to come and visit and share their experience to help build capacity here. I believe that collaboration is vital to aiding our planets oceans and I enjoy working with colleagues from different research fields as this is creating interesting and new research needed in South Africa.
On a very personal note, the most enjoyable project I have done to date was examining the phylogeography of the dugong (Dugong dugon) using museum samples. For that I was privileged to visit most of the natural history museum collections in western Europe, which was truly amazing. I love natural history museums, so being able to combine the detective work of tracking dugong samples down in various collections in Europe with being able to visit these museums and places like London, Paris, Vienna etc. was truly amazing. Plus during the laboratory phase of the project I even managed to extract DNA from a piece of the now extinct Steller sea cow!!! And I hope the results we obtained on dugong populations can help the conservation of the species in the Indian Ocean.
What would you say to your fifteen-year-old self about your career choices?
I would like to have told my fifteen-year-old self to believe in herself and that she is capable of great things. Women are stronger than they give themselves credit for, and in my career, I have been told many times that the work I was doing could either not be done or that it was not good enough and that I was doing a bad job. This has always just motivated me to push harder and do better, but I think we would be wise to lift each other up to do great things together, rather than tear each other down – we will need to learn that, especially in the face of the climate crisis.
What secret talents do you have?
Hmmm, I am still developing those. Besides, if they are secret and I share them with you they wouldn’t be secret any more… ;).
What do you miss most about the pre-Covid19 world?
What I miss most are my early morning swims at the gym. Swimming has always been one of my favourite hobbies and it also helps me relax and clear my mind. I love having an active lifestyle as I feel it is very important, both for physical as well as mental well-being.
What is your quote to live by?
I have a quote that I liked so much that I decided to frame it and put it on a shelf in my study:
‘Courage is not the absence of fear, it’s taking action in the face of it.’
This has often been assigned to Nelson Mandela, but I am not sure whether that is correct. Regardless, it has always been inspiring to me, because facing your fears and dealing with them is often the key for moving forward.