Celebrating Women in Oiled Wildlife Response – Julie Yamamoto

Julie Yamamoto is currently the Deputy Administrator for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Her fascination with wildlife began at an early age. “As a kid I watched every episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, Jane Goodall TV specials, and read all the books about animals at my local library. My parents probably thought my obsession a little odd but (luckily for me) encouraged me, nevertheless. Fast forward 20 years-ish, I finished an MS in Avian Biology, then pursued a Doctorate in Environmental Toxicology from UC Davis, for which I studied pesticide impacts in raptors. Wildlife toxicology is a very cool blend of physiology, pharmacology and even ecology, and I thought I could do some good for the planet by pursuing a career in studying and trying to fix pollution issues. Once out of school, I worked for a time as a scientist at CalEPA and found it was not a good fit for me; I struggled to feel that my work was making a difference. I was fortunate to 1) realize it was not the job for me; and 2) to have been recruited by a supervisor that I knew at CDFW OSPR, Dr. Rob Ricker.”

OSPR’s mission to provide the best achievable protection of California’s natural resources by preventing, preparing for, and responding to spills of oil and enhancing affected resources really spoke to Julie’s passion for conservation, and she could not pass up the opportunity. “So, I jumped into a career in oil spill response in part because the opportunity presented itself, and it seemed exciting, but also because it allowed me to blend both my toxicology and wildlife expertise. It was also neat because most of my wildlife work had been in terrestrial systems (mainly birds) and at OSPR I had to learn about marine systems, seabirds, sea otters, etc – a whole new frontier for me!” So, in 2000, Julie was hired on with OSPR and began her career as a toxicologist supervisor. 

Seven years later, she accepted an executive appointment and has been filling that role with several different titles ever since. “I directly oversee the scientific and technical program in OSPR but also do a lot of work on fiscal, interagency coordination and legislative/policy issues. I have to say – when I was initially thinking about promotions, I had my doubts about whether I was cut out for management; but my early experience as a staff scientist with the state made me think about how important it was that the work of scientists be applied and used in decision making and policy. So that, plus some encouragement from colleagues, changed my mind. Even though I gave up the hands-on science, which was a big consideration for me, it has been a really rewarding path and I love the great variety of work I have on my plate every day. Some of the best times I can recall in my work are during big spill responses, admittedly exhausting and stressful affairs, working alongside really excellent professionals from inside and outside my organization, pushing ourselves to our limits, having each other’s backs, in pursuit of a common mission. You just can’t beat that!”.   

I asked Julie about what kind of struggles she faced as a young professional, and as it turns out she was quite lucky. Throughout her career she has been able to avoid discrimination. “I have felt, for the majority of my career, respected and able to do my work. I am aware of course that this has not been the case for a lot of women and some of my own colleagues. Still – there have certainly been times, especially starting out, when I have felt like a bit of an outsider, sort of not ‘belonging’ in the oil spill response, or even my own Department’s, culture. Also, I am a natural introvert and I think that can exacerbate feelings of “invisibleness” in certain situations.” In reflecting on what helped her overcome those things, she said “I think one of the biggest factors has always been the great colleagues that I have had. I came to be good at, and happy in, my work in large part because people around me supported me and were good teammates, mentors, and friends. Everyone feels self-doubt, fear, and frustration at some point in their jobs – having supportive people to turn to, and supporting them as well, is crucial to dealing with these feelings and to developing resilience. Also, I always focused on what my contributions could be to a specific incident or other problem, tried to bring the best science and creative thinking that I could. In other words, I tried to be very competent! And in the end, this allowed me to be a valuable contributor at work and find my place as a team member. It gave me confidence to push myself further.”  

Photo Credit: Julie Yamamoto

Other things that aided her in overcoming obstacles she faced were her persistence, dedication, and having examples of other women scientists and leaders along the way to inspire her. “Early in my career, there were not many such examples, but fortunately that’s changed for the better over the years. I hope by being where I am that I can help the women in my program and elsewhere envision themselves working at this level and beyond. As someone before me has said, ‘If you can see it, you can be it!’” In regard to what it is like to be a woman with a strong career, lots of responsibility and a family, Julie says that she has seen “definite improvements in workplace policies and cultures that promote greater diversity, the right to a respectful workplace for ALL, and accommodating the needs of various groups. I am a mom of 2 with an aging parent, so I know firsthand that family demands of all kinds are a factor for women and their careers. Workplaces with policies and investments that accommodate this reality is critical.  I was listening to a podcast about the challenges for working women during the pandemic and loved this quote: “Your job doesn’t understand you have kids, and your kids don’t understand you have a job”.  Which ties into a recent global poll of scientists I saw recently that was done by Nature and showed that there are declines in research activity across the board but most acutely for women researchers, early into their careers, with young kids.” I think this speaks volumes about the challenges working women face in their everyday lives, makes us grateful for the changes that have occurred in recent years to support working women, but also shows how much more work needs to be done to allow for the balance of work, family, and children.  

-Jennie

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