Plunging into the ocean and feeling weightless in the deep blue sea ignited an inescapable scuba diving passion for a 12-year-old girl. The aquatic environment surrounding her seemed endless, boosting her adrenaline. Although she routinely encountered elusive, camouflaging frogfish and large barracudas with menacing teeth, it was a familiar face concealing a proud smile behind a snorkel mask that inspired her to lead the charge – her grandmother's.
These early adventures helped shape Kristina May's desire to pursue biology and environmental protection to inspire other imaginative little girls and women with similar interests. As a part of Women's History Month, May shares her story and pays tribute to the women who've courageously reimagined the possible to accomplish this goal.
"It's important to acknowledge the perseverance of women leaders in the past because it inspires current and future leaders," said May, a biologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Baltimore District, who is responsible for ensuring that USACE civil works projects comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and other environmental laws. "Women leaders of the past gave us shoulders to stand on to achieve our dreams and have personally inspired me to face challenges and rise above barriers."
According to May, her grandmother, who's also an 8th-degree black belt in Taekwondo, and her Wittenberg University Professor Dr. Kathy Reinsel, serve as shining examples as those who've helped her consistently rise above the occasion.
Additionally, Amy Guise, USACE Baltimore District, Chief of Planning Division, had a keen interest in May’s stellar performance, providing valuable counsel to raise the bar even higher. Guise presented this challenge by nominating May to become an environmental lead for the USACE South Atlantic Coastal Study.
"I encouraged Kristina to consider serving this opportunity outside of Baltimore District's region because I had great confidence in her skills and ability, said Guise. I observed her gaining significant experience with Corps processes and exposure to teams across the nation. She grew in her leadership roles and can now share what she learned and lead others in new and innovative ways.
“She is a shining example of how to step outside a comfort zone and not only grow, but contribute to the diverse Corps mission,” Guise added. “We are proud of Kristina and her work on the South Atlantic Coast Study, where she established herself as a nationally recognized environmental subject matter expert across USACE."
Leading the Charge
"It was an honor being selected for the [SACS Environmental Lead] position and receiving recognition as one of the best in USACE among our respective disciplines," said May. "The most challenging aspects of this position involved leading a team of biologists and archeologists across five districts throughout USACE South Atlantic Division."
The SACS is comprised of USACE experts that help establish a common understanding of risk from coastal storms and sea level rise to support resilient communities and habitats. This collaborative effort will leverage stakeholders’ actions to plan and implement cohesive coastal storm risk management strategies along the South Atlantic and Gulf Coast shorelines, including the territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
"SACS is a large coastal study that doesn't involve drafting the typical NEPA documents I normally do – presenting a challenge for my team,” May added. “We had to start from scratch on developing ways to assess environmental effects over a large study area. In the end, however, we ultimately worked hard as a team and put together a great environmental product for the SACS, which includes the southeast coastlines of seven states and two territories."
Hard work has consistently grounded May with a pinpoint, laser focus. While she states she's never been discouraged from pursuing her passions, she acknowledges the pitfalls women may encounter in STEM career fields.
"I feel that women are well represented in biology, but I do think the overall STEM field is still overwhelmingly male-dominated," said May. "My favorite aspect about STEM is the curiosity it sparks. There are many discoveries to be made and research to be done. Including more women in this field would allow for more perspectives and viewpoints to lead to valuable discoveries and innovations."
"When I was a student, it was understood that other STEM fields such as technology, engineering, and math were fields designated for men," May added. "Students were pushed into the ‘traditional gender stereotype’ careers. I believe this is why many women in my generation didn't enter those fields. I believe that is changing now."
A Change is Going to Come
While career trajectories have historically been impacted by outdated gender norms, parenting roles, and cultures that have discouraged women from possibly seeking workplace advancement, May is pleased to see a seismic shift in the attitudes towards women in STEM.
"I believe women have made progress, but more work needs to be done," said May. "In male-dominated career fields, it can be intimidating for women to speak up and contribute, which unfortunately holds us back. Women may be less likely to ask for challenging projects or ask for raises and promotions. Women shouldn't have to feel afraid to speak out and make contributions – it takes time to change this culture of hesitancy and fear, which everyone must acknowledge and change."
Women Empowerment: More than a Catchphrase
While there are resounding efforts and multiple initiatives, hashtags, and campaigns honoring the plight of women to navigate the workplace, there are many that may feel they're still traveling through uncharted territory. May encourages these women not to give up.
Finding a mentor in the workplace, such as a woman in a leadership position, can help provide guidance.
"Here's my message to women – never give up!" said May. "Give yourself some credit; you can do more than you think! Finding a workplace woman mentor in a leadership position can help provide the guidance, confidence, and comfort for you to succeed."
For May, continuing to dedicate herself to protecting the environment so that future generations have a chance to experience her childhood adventures remains at the top of her list. As Women's History Month concludes, she hopes to see other groundbreaking women recognized throughout the year to help achieve women's empowerment.