September: Meet Sophie Pierszalowski

Sophie Pierszalowski currently serves as the Program Coordinator for the Oregon State University (OSU) STEM Leaders Program, a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded program aimed at improving the success, retention and persistence to graduation of under-represented minority students in STEM disciplines. As Program Coordinator, she serves as the primary contact for program participants. Some of her duties include monitoring academic progress, making referrals to campus support resources and ensuring that each student is placed in a research lab on campus by his or her second term at OSU. She is also responsible for recruitment, overseeing a team of undergraduate peer mentors and coordinating efforts with an external evaluation team. Prior to joining the faculty at OSU, Sophie completed her M.Sc. in Wildlife Science at OSU during which time she studied the genetic and demographic population structure and feeding ecology of humpback whales in southeastern Alaska. She has eight years of experience with research on the conservation and ecology of various marine mammal species.

I was raised along an annual migration. At the end of every school year my family and I packed up our belongings, closed up our home and traveled from California to Kodiak, Alaska where my father has worked as a commercial salmon fisherman for over 40 years. Spending the summer months in Alaska was enormously influential in my early years. I was always astounded by the natural beauty and wildness that could exist in the world. I was especially mesmerized by the whale species that migrated to the Island. I wanted to know everything about them from an early age – what they ate, who they associated with, how many were hunted, their current threats - everything.

This passion carried over into my college years. I sought out numerous experiential opportunities during my undergraduate degree at the University of Washington that would help me arrive at answers to these questions. I developed skills that propelled me forward into a career in marine mammal research. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Marine Mammal Laboratory hired me as a marine mammal geneticist for a few years right out of college. I joined numerous other organizations after working for NOAA that took me to exciting, remote places. I moved to Fairbanks, AK to work for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game preparing Steller sea lion tissue for stable isotope and contaminant analysis. This job found me living in a tiny, toilet-less cabin in the woods in temperatures that dropped to -60F. I spent several summers working for the University of Alaska to help analyze foraging overlap of marine mammal species on a geographically restricted scale. At one point during this job, I was tasked with shooting a humpback whale with a modified (non-lethal) rifle to get a biopsy sample while dangling over the front of a fast-moving skiff in the Gulf of Alaska. I was also hired as a whale biologist by the Baranov Museum (Kodiak, AK) to summarize data from an old whaling logbook that was discovered in the ruins of a whaling station on Sitkalidak Island, AK. I was responsible for developing lesson plans to disseminate my findings to local public schools and museum visitors. Finally, I decided to invest in my next degree and attend graduate school. I pursued my M.Sc. in Wildlife Science at the Oregon State University, Hatfield Marine Science Center. 

Over the course of my research career, I developed a passion for engaging students in science education. My background allowed for many diverse teaching opportunities, including lectures in high school and undergraduate courses and seminars in museums and visitor centers. These teaching experiences demonstrated to me the value in extending beyond the didactic model and employing empirical evidence from relevant research to encourage students to think critically about the world and the environmental issues we face. These realizations inspired me to take a 90-degree turn in my professional trajectory after graduate school and enter the field of STEM education and research.

Making this transition in my career was one of the most frightening things I’ve done in my adult life. It was difficult not to focus on all those years of learning, analyzing data, writing and networking that would lose relevance. I’ve had to make new professional connections and re-build my reputation in a different context. However, I know now that my time in marine mammal research was not wasted. Being involved in research from the ages of 18-26 was indispensable to my development as a student, a writer, a traveler, a communicator and a collaborator. As a young professional who devoted many years to a career in ecology and genetics, I hope to inspire incoming freshmen and transfer students with the countless opportunities available in STEM. I can say with complete conviction that my experience in STEM laid a strong foundation for my personal and professional journey.

Being hired as the Program Coordinator of the STEM Leaders Program was like coming home for me. There are two aspects of my job that I value the most. First, I love being able to interact closely with a group of first-year students and to help them develop the skills they need in professionalism and communication to become successful young adults. Each year, the OSU STEM Leaders Program admits a new cohort of 40-60 first-year students from traditionally underrepresented groups in STEM disciplines at OSU. The Program aims to increase the success, retention and persistence to graduation of this student population through research-supported, high-impact methods including an orientation course, a cohort-based workshop series, peer mentoring and early involvement in undergraduate research. I am responsible for coordinating these efforts and ensuring each student has access to the tools he or she needs to succeed at OSU. 

Second, I am grateful to be in a position where I can provide support for students but also learn from them. My research interests have changed since becoming involved with the STEM Leaders Program. As I watch freshmen and transfer students traverse their first year at OSU, I want to understand the role that undergraduate research plays in retention for this student population. Do students develop a sense of identity through involvement in undergraduate research that encourages them to continue in STEM? How do positive role models in STEM affect student success? Does the research experience offer career clarification that drives the student to graduation? Does undergraduate research build confidence and empower students so that they become more successful in other aspects of their academic/social lives? I look forward to continuing to learn from students at OSU and ensuring that their journey in STEM is as smooth as possible.


1. “Always be sweet and always be on time”. This is something my grandmother used to say to me over and over again when I was a little girl and I have always taken this advice very seriously. I have found that expressing empathy and practicing fundamental acts of professionalism are invaluable when navigating a career path. 
2. Honor the people around you. Giving acknowledgement, even for the smallest accomplishments, can build confidence in others that will propel them forward in their work, promoting future successes. Never underestimate the power of praise.

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