Weis, Judith

Areas of Interest: 
Estuarine ecology and ecotoxicology; effects of stressors such as contaminants, invasive species and parasiteson development, growth, and behavior of estuarine & marine organisms.
My Story: 
Weis, Judith
Judy examining Sargassum seaweed during graduate school, 1966.

Although I grew up in New York City, my parents rented places in the country during the summers. When I was seven, we were at the seashore, and I loved looking at shells and other things on the beach. One day I found a hermit crab crawling around in a whelk shell that was covered with barnacles, seaweed and boat shells; I thought it was a marvelous thing, though my mother and cousin did not share my enthusiasm. Another summer we lived near a pond, and I collected and raised tadpoles to watch them metamorphose into frogs. My parents encouraged my interests and put no limitations on my goals. This was rather unusual in the 1950s, when so many girls were told that they should become nurses, schoolteachers, or housewives, and I think it was probably due to my being an only child. My scientific interests were fostered by frequent visits to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), and later by attending the Bronx High School of Science, where it became clear that my major interest was biology. The school offered many advanced courses in the sciences, though most students who attended did so because of the general high quality of the school, rather than a strong interest in science. Having an atmosphere where the other students are bright and interested in learning was very important. Speaking now with contemporary female graduates, none of us can remember any incidents of put-downs of female students or any disparaging remarks by teachers or guidance counselors that were common back then in other schools.

I attended Cornell University, where the freshman Zoology course seemed designed to “turn off” as many students as possible, and where female scientists were non-existent; I, nevertheless, persisted in my interests. After my sophomore year, I planned to volunteer at the AMNH doing research and found myself being interviewed by a female (!!) scientist who would be spending the summer at Woods Hole and needed a part time lab assistant and part time baby sitter. So I didn’t spend my summer in the city after all. I studied fish schooling at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Inst. in the mornings, and babysat at the beach in the afternoons. I saw that women could indeed be biologists, although she was a rather “tough cookie,” and not an ideal role model. She was from a generation that had faced even more barriers entering science. I hoped that I would not have to become like her. I spent the following summer at Woods Hole also, taking the Marine Ecology course. I met many other young people with a similar passion for marine biology, including one who eventually became my husband and frequent collaborator.

We got married right after my graduation, so rather than attending graduate school at Yale, I settled for NYU, so as not to have a commuting marriage. The NYU Biology Dept. had one “fish guy” who was the only suitable mentor for someone with my interests. He had never had a woman student in his lab before and didn’t know what to do with me - he apparently thought I’d melt if I got wet or pulled nets in the water. Not being able to confront him on this, I agreed to do lab-based research, and since the lab was full of fish that were breeding, got interested in fish embryology. So I ended up with a dissertation on fish development with most coursework in ecology, oceanography, marine biology, and fisheries. I defended my thesis while seven months pregnant, and our daughter was born the day after graduation - planned parenthood in action.

Weis, Judith
Judy and a student (rt) studying fiddler crab behavior in Indonesia, 2002.

I had been job hunting that semester, and in 1967, interviewing while obviously pregnant was not an advantage! Nevertheless, I was hired at Rutgers Newark (as a developmental biologist), given a salary that turned out to be far lower than others, a lab that was far smaller than others, a small start up package, and told “Welcome to Rutgers. Publish or perish.” Nevertheless, I was happy, used my time efficiently, published and succeeded. There were already three women in the department, all supportive. We had our second child a couple of years later who was planned to come during intersession, although he came early during final exams. Being able to balance work and family was due to my husband Pete playing an equal role at home, and having a wonderful “nanny.”

In the early 1970s I got involved in the Women’s Movement at Rutgers, and in the outside world through NOW. A women’s faculty organization at Newark obtained data from the Dean showing that women were getting lower salaries and slower promotions than men with comparable seniority, productivity, etc. The group filed charges, using the names only of tenured women in public documents. This protective action, led by the late Professors Helen Strausser (Zoology) and Dorothy Dinnerstein (Psychology) probably saved the jobs of those who were untenured; women at other universities involved in similar activities, often found themselves out of a job later. Eventually, we won the case and got salary increases plus back pay.

After a few years, my research moved back into a more marine ecological/environmental direction. Learning about harmful effects of contaminants, I became interested in policy, particularly after seeing distressing environmental policies of the Reagan administration. I spent a year as a Congressional Science Fellow sponsored by AAAS and American Society of Zoologists, working for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on issues including drinking water, pesticides, and hazardous wastes. That experience opened my eyes to the fact that science is only a small part of what goes into decision-making. Since then, I have spent additional years in Washington at NSF and EPA. I thought briefly about a career switch, but opted to stay in academia and influence policy through advisory committees. I have served on many advisory committees to EPA, to NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), and the National Research Council. Some of my greatest satisfaction comes from participating on advisory committees. They always expand my horizons and breadth of knowledge. I also became involved in professional organizations, and as President of AIBS (American Institute of Biological Sciences) in 2001 initiated efforts to combat the increasing influence of creationists in the schools. At Rutgers I particularly enjoy mentoring graduate students, many of whom have been female.

Science is not my whole life. I am very interested in music and participate in choral societies and light opera groups. I also love swimming and traveling. I am particularly happy spending time with our eight-year old granddaughter, who also has a love of biology (particularly insects) that seems to have skipped a generation. Snorkeling with her in California’s Channel Islands in the summer of 2007 was an absolute delight.