Lacey Williams: Our head field specialist on being a woman in marine biology

Lacey Williams: Our head field specialist on being a woman in marine biology

Posted by Maria Geoly on March 31, 2023

Get to know the helm of Oceans Research Institute through our fun and heartfelt Q&A session.

We interviewed our head field specialist Lacey Williams on what it's like to be a woman in marine biology, her morning routine, and much more. 

Q: What animal do you think should not have survived evolution but did? (we all know it’s a sunfish, don’t say sunfish)

A: Fllippin pandas!!!!!!!! We need to let them go already, I mean really. Of all the species that are facing extinction, I personally think we should invest all that time, money and resources into species that actually want to continue to exist! I can’t find a species more unconcerned with procreating and continuing to exist than a panda.

Q: Favorite Internet Trend: 

A: I refuse to get TikTok because I am a loyal fan of old Vine Compilations!  I think they’re hilarious.It might not be a current trend, but I am so out of date with the rest I just stick to my favorites.

Q: How did you start on the path to marine biology?

A: I have always loved animals from a young age and was always reading different animal books (Animal Encyclopedia was a childhood favorite). It was in 2001, when the first Air Jaws documentary came out on Shark Week, however, that my interest in sharks turned into a full-blown fascination and obsession that has lasted a lifetime with no signs of slowing down!


Q: Who do you admire? (historically and interpersonally) Why?

A: Oh gosh, I have a much longer answer to this question than would be appropriate to include here. However, I would be remiss to talk about people that have influenced me professionally without talking about Chris and Monique Fallows. Chris is a wildlife photographer and brilliant naturalist credited with first discovering the breaching/flying great white sharks of South Africa-the very same phenomenon featured in the original Air Jaws that inspired my love of sharks in the first place. I was fortunate enough to meet Chris and Monique at a young age when Chris was giving a talk in the aquarium in the Mall of America in Minnesota, back in 2006. I was lucky enough to meet them again in 2008, when my family and I got to go out on their cage diving boat in Simonstown, South Africa to see the white sharks of False Bay. After sporadically keeping in touch over the next decade, I found myself able to spend two seasons working on that very same boat in my first year out of college. This was my first real experience working with sharks, really any marine wildlife, and I cannot express my gratitude enough for what Chris and Monique and my Apex Shark Expeditions crew taught me during those first years. Chris and Monique have a passion for wildlife, not just sharks, that is unparalleled. I have now worked with Chris and Monique in a variety of different contexts and environments and with a plethora of different marine and terrestrial species. It is their boundless curiosity about and love for the natural world and their uniquely tireless and passionate need to protect it that has shaped me. More than the specific skills, it is the passion, curiosity, and profound respect for our natural world that helped shape the foundation of who I am as a scientist, as a shark advocate, as an environmentalist, as a person. 


Q: Who has (fem) influenced your life the most? Why?

A: Three women that immediately jump to mind are my Grandma Bean, my Auntie Robin, and my Mama. I admire these women for so many different reasons specific to each of them (too many to list), but what I admire most is how they each have shown me, in the unique ways they lived/continue to live their lives, the strength of a woman who lives with authenticity, sincerity, love and integrity. These are women who have forged trails for women, where none were previously. Not only did they stay unapologetically true to who they were/are, but they also stand firm in their identities with compassion. They are not afraid to take up space while also knowing how to make space for others.  As women, we are inundated with messages about what we should or should not do, eat, wear, sing, say, feel…the list of impossible expectations is endless (not to mention those who identify along the gender spectrum rather than just the binary plus those who hold intersecting marginalized identities!). These women in my life, because of the way they lived and/or continue to live theirs, have shown me what it means to be a woman. Put another way, they’ve shown me what it means for a woman to decide for herself what it means to be a woman and how to carve out her own path. 


Q: What is your favorite shark? 

A: My favorite shark changes every day, and I usually have a rotating top 5 so that all sharks can share the love. However, there is perpetually a hammerhead of some species in that top 5 at any given time, so hammerheads are easily my favorite family of sharks.


Q: Which event in your professional life has impacted you the most? 

A: I don’t think there is a specific event that I can point to. There has been at least one or two momentous or pivotal events during each stage or season of my life that cumulatively have shaped me, but I do not think there is one, penultimate event. 


Q: How do you feel about the current demographics of marine biology? The shark sector?

A: Both marine biology, and especially in established shark scientists, the demographic is predominantly cisgender, heterosexual white men. In my personal experience, I have been lucky enough to be surrounded by predominantly female colleagues, but again we are predominantly cisgender, heterosexual white women. In recent years, I have seen more and more organizations such as MISS, BWEEMS, Black Girl Environmentalist, Intersectional Environmentalist, BIMS and more develop and grow. We are seeing a shift towards a more diverse demographic, but the progress is glacial, and we’ve got a long way to go. Again, while I’ve been fortunate enough to be in many spaces with higher numbers of females, every single one of them has been led or controlled by cisgender, heterosexual, white men. There is a very real and very problematic dynamic in shark science that is dominated by male ego, competition, data hoarding, and toxic power dynamics. I have seen several well-respected, accomplished female shark scientists both fall victim to this dynamic and also help perpetuate it. Again, I think we are starting to see the needle move in the right direction, but there need to be some gargantuan changes, from interpersonal to systemic levels (major shoutout to Monique Melton and The Shine Bright School for this life-changing Inside Out Framework!) that occur before we can admit to seeing real, sustainable change. 


Q: When was your first “I love this” moment? 

A: Years ago I asked my mom for help remembering this moment because I was only about six or seven years old. I had always loved animals, playing with stuffed animals, reading encyclopedia books, watching nature shows etc. However, it wasn’t until the release of the original Air Jaws on Shark Week in 2001, and that year’s Top Ten Deadliest Sharks, that my mother noticed an interest turned into a full on passion. However, it took another decade or so before I had my first “I love this moment”, and I can’t even remember if that was simply being in the ocean or if it was with sharks. But what I do know is that there isn’t only one “I love this moment”. They keep happening throughout my life and my career, and it is actually precisely those moments that help “refill my sugar jar”, to quote Yasmine Cheyenne and her book, The Sugar Jar


Q: What is your dream wildlife encounter? 

A: Oh there are a few top events I’d love to experience! I’d love to be able to dive on a large bait ball feeding event during the sardine run, to watch a bunch of white sharks feeding on a whale carcass, to witness coral spawning, to swim with 


Q: If you could trade lives with anyone on earth for one week, who would it be and why? 

A: Does it have to be a human? Because I’d LOVE to know what it’s like to be a wandering albatross and fly in rough seas, or to breach out of the water like a whale or dolphin or shark. I’d also love to be a dog, so I could really know what it’s like to be best friends and communicate with my dog, Charlie. If it has to be a human, then I might want to swap places with someone who gets to dive regularly in either French Polynesia or the Bahamas when it’s great hammerhead season to get as much time surrounded by sharks as possible!


Q: You’ve had a long day on the boat. You’re salty and covered in chum; what do you order at the closest bar? 

A: Oooohhh that depends on if we are also eating and braaing after a day at sea or not. It also depends on how physical the day was. If it was more physically intense, then usually a Tafal.  If it was cold, choppy and windy then a Black Label or a Windhoek draught. 


Q: What’s your morning routine like? 

A: Oh I wish I could stick to just one morning routine. I go through phases of different morning patterns, but one of my favorites is waking up at about 6am and going for a sunrise walk with my friend Dita. We take a seaside walk around The Point in Mossel Bay, we grab coffee when the stand opens at 7am, and walk home to start our day! Waking up with the sun and the sea I’ve found totally changes my mood and how I start my day. I am much more content, patient and/or optimistic if I start my day with the ocean somehow…and a coffee!


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