Dr. Caitlin O’Connell of Harvard Medical School: “Stronger female mentor programs that have real impact and accountability”

It was during one of my classes that my professor, Rick Mills imparted this word of advice that has stuck with me ever since. -“Invest in yourself, because if you don’t, how can you expect others to?” If that wasn’t the most important statement and guiding principle of my life as a scientist, author and […]

Thrive Global invites voices from many spheres to share their perspectives on our Community platform. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team, and opinions expressed by Community contributors do not reflect the opinions of Thrive Global or its employees. More information on our Community guidelines is available here.

It was during one of my classes that my professor, Rick Mills imparted this word of advice that has stuck with me ever since. -“Invest in yourself, because if you don’t, how can you expect others to?” If that wasn’t the most important statement and guiding principle of my life as a scientist, author and artist…thanks, Rick!


As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Caitlin O’Connell.

Caitlin O’Connell is on the faculty at Harvard Medical School and has studied elephants in the wild for the past 30 years. She has written numerous books about her scientific research including both fiction and nonfiction for children and adults. Her new book, Wild Rituals, highlights the importance of ritual in our lives and how nonhuman animals engage in rituals for the same reasons that we do.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I grew up spending a lot of time outside in a natural environment, whether in my backyard that had a pond, stream and woods, or on family camping trips. In the summers, I spent a lot of time underwater, wishing I had been a mermaid. I loved animals — frogs and horses being my two favorites — and this love of animals and passion for nature led me down the path of becoming a field biologist. My curiosity about how other animals communicate with each other led me get both my M.S. and Ph.D. in the area of behavioral ecology and animal communication.
 
 Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

It isn’t easy to be disruptive in a field that is similar to law, where advances in science are based on precedence, building off of what had come before. Early in my career, I was trying to establish that elephants had a way of communicating that hadn’t been thought of before — by detecting vibrations through the ground. Because I couldn’t reference previous papers in this area, it took almost a decade to build the body of research necessary to prove my discovery. It was exciting but also an exhausting process that fortunately had a happy ending.

It takes a lot of confidence, persistence, and even endurance to disrupt the norm. In my case, it took believing in myself and my experience of a repeated pattern to carry me through the drudgery of repeated experiments in order to show that the pattern was real. Having done this once gave me the confidence to do it again, most recently with my book, Wild Rituals. I had spent years watching how other animals engage in rituals and decided to sit down and draw the often surprising parallels between human and nonhuman animal rituals and how we engage in ritual for the very same reasons that nonhuman animals do — even down to the most basic act, such as greeting in order to keep the peace. Or, just as the saying “fences make good neighbors,” — and even better if you build that fence together — the ritualized roaring of lion prides at dawn and dusk create an acoustic barrier between prides on the open African savannah for the same reason — to ensure that their neighbors will not invade their territory. This is true for the howler monkey in the jungle as well.
 
 Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

In the early days of my elephant field research within Etosha National Park, Namibia, I was told that I had to protect my very expensive low-frequency microphone from being stolen by lions. At the time, it seemed like an incredible prospect that a lion would have any interest whatsoever in a microphone, but I trusted our field technician. Having grown up in the national park, he was never wrong in his predictions of how animals might react to certain foreign elements placed in their environment. The black fuzzy windsock would be irresistible to a lion. So, as to his first suggestion, I purchased a plumbing T-junction and placed the microphone and windsock within it, cutting out either side of the arm of the junction to allow sound in, while protecting the whole apparatus from the jaws of a wily lion. Next, we found dead thorn bushes in the area and piled them on top of the rock cairn, within which our microphone rested — all further instructions from our technician that we secretly thought were perhaps overly cautious. He did the final placements of thorns as he knew how expensive our microphone was and had been worried for us.

Everything was going well with our sound recordings of elephant vocalizations over the next few weeks, while the resident lioness and her cubs enjoyed frolicking around the waterhole showing no interest in our recording set up next to the waterhole. One morning, I noticed that the battery that ran the microphone was running low after a long night of recording and needed to be swapped out. My husband Tim and I drove out to the microphone set up after breakfast and before elephants tended to start showing up.

We carefully removed the thorn bushes and lifted off the rock that covered the microphone cairn and replaced the battery. All the while the lioness and her cubs eyed us from across the clearing with great curiosity. When everything had been replaced, we rearranged the thorn bushes, making sure that there were no gaps that a lioness could fit her paw into, and returned to camp.

Late that same afternoon, as a large group of elephants were leaving the waterhole, we noticed the return of our resident lioness. She was approaching the microphone recording station with particular purpose. At first, we thought that she must have been attracted to our scent, and she that was coming to inspect the new smells near the waterhole. Very quickly, it became clear that that was not the case. She lay down next to the pile of thorns, rolled onto her side and deftly stuck a paw through a small hole in the thorn bushes. We couldn’t believe our eyes. From that position, she fished around with her paw, somehow loosening the wires and releasing the black fuzzy windsock from its protection from within the rock cairn.

Within seconds, she held her price in her jaws and ran off to present her cubs with their new toy. As the cubs batted our microphone around the waterhole, we engaged our research volunteers to bang pots from our tower in the hope of distracting the pride from playing with their coveted new gift from mom. Meanwhile, Tim jumped into the truck to retrieve our single-most important scientific instrument.

As Tim approached the pride in the truck, the lioness took action. She snatched the microphone away from the cubs and ran off, disappearing into the forest. Tim was determined that this not be the end of our recording device and pursued her into the forest. We heard the banging of shovels that were left on top of the truck after some recent digging of trenches to lay more recording wires, then loud scratching of branches down the sides of the truck, as Tim kept the lioness in his path. After we lost sight of him, we could still hear the cursing all the way from the tower and couldn’t help but laugh at the lioness’s determination, despite the horrible implications for the rest of the field season without a recording device. But Tim’s persistence paid off. The lioness eventually dropped the microphone and circled back to retrieve her cubs and disappeared into the bush as Tim returned with his prize.

Lessons learned? 1. Never arrive in the field without a duplicate of everything, no matter the expense. 2. Expect the unexpected (or even the anticipated but unlikely) at every turn and have five backup plans for when the previous back up plan fails. 2. Never underestimate the addictive properties that a windsock has on a lioness and the lengths she will go to steal it — and covet it!

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

One storytelling mentor in particular, Margaret French Issac, helped my husband and I develop our amazing science fiction time travel television series, and after several heady meetings, the pitch for the show was gaining serious traction in television circles. Just as we were about to go out with her agent to pitch to networks and streamers, it was the week of Upfronts — where networks unveil their pilots for the upcoming season. It just so happened that four networks had commissioned shows involving time travel. Overnight, ours was dead in the water. It was a moment of terribly timing and bad luck. Undeterred, Margaret quickly helped us regroup and develop a second pilot, and from there, a feature project that we are currently developing. The moral of this story is to never give up and to constantly move and shift and run with the prevailing wind, wherever it may take you, because you never know when the wind might blow again and holding on to something in the doldrums, waiting for the wind to return, isn’t going to get you where you need to be. Margaret’s confidence in us as storytellers and her perseverance, positivity and determination to see things through has been a huge source of inspiration.
 
 In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

This question made me think about classic storytelling, and the ritual of passing along information through stories, as many traditional societies had done, and some still do for generations. There is something about the structure of a story, particularly a hero’s journey, that has withstood the test of time. The protagonist has to face themselves and enter the belly of the beast to face down their darkest fears, and then come out the other side stronger for it. No matter the particular details of a particular version of the tale, if that classic story arc is not there, the audience will most likely come away feeling dissatisfied. So, being disruptive in storytelling means needing to find that new twist on a classic theme. Shortcuts won’t work. The journey must be undertaken and must be felt and endured. The writer is tasked with finding ever new and disruptive ways to tell that classic tale.

Can you share the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example.

Invest in yourself, because if you don’t, how can you expect others to?” When I was getting my M.S. degree at the University of Hawaii in Ecology, Evolution and Conservation Biology, I took a glassblowing class — having minored in art in college, I always looked for opportunities to keep the creative side of my brain challenged. The only problem was that I absolutely loved sculpture and three-dimensional art to the point of distraction. I had a hard time managing my time with such an addictive medium of expression — time that was supposed to have been dedicated to finishing the writing of my thesis so that my boyfriend (now husband) and I could take a year off between degrees to travel in Africa. I did manage to finish my thesis in time, but I also spent a heck of a lot of time in the glass lab, blowing glass. It was during one of my classes that my professor, Rick Mills imparted this word of advice that has stuck with me ever since. -“Invest in yourself, because if you don’t, how can you expect others to?” If that wasn’t the most important statement and guiding principle of my life as a scientist, author and artist…thanks, Rick!
 
 We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

There are many more patterns in nature to reveal. I just need to keep my eyes opened to the possibilities. Biomimetics is application of nature to human solutions. I am confident that more natural solutions to human problems in engineering, medicine and physics will emerge. For myself, those solutions may come in the realm of improving human hearing aids, or elsewhere, depending on where my research journey takes me. In my writing, I enjoy finding a new way to approach scientific understanding through fictional characters and nonfiction narratives. I look forward to discovering new ways to educate the public through entertaining science narratives.
 
 In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

If you do a search on why it’s harder for women to get ahead in business, there are a number of Harvard Business Review articles describing studies showing how the “old boys network” is alive and well and how women don’t have the same access to these networks. This is partly because they have responsibilities at home after work when a lot of the networking happens, especially with senior-level management. HBR highlights another study indicating that women managers are not doing as well at supporting female employees in getting ahead as men do for other men. All of the factors that go into why it’s harder for women to get ahead in business are at play for women disruptors. I would say that they face a bigger hurdle due to the fact that their networks are not as strong, and therefore there isn’t as much trust, and as such, their ideas are less likely to be taken up at the onset. Women don’t have as much of a history of forging and maintain strong relationships and teams, which is why it was particularly exciting to see Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna win the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work on the technology of genome editing.

If you think about it, we are coming out of a long period in history, where, not only was it harder, but sometimes not even possible for women to become celebrated artists, scientists or authors — the disruptors of the past were almost exclusively men — or in a few cases, women taking on a male pseudonym in order to publish their work. Fortunately, it is not like that today, but there are still lingering biases from those dark days for women and we still have a long way to go toward breaking down the barriers that would make it possible for women to be leaders in their fields, much less disruptors.

What are the solutions? Today, although the number of women in positions of power is growing, there are still only 5% at the CEO level within the U.S., according to a 2019 study of women in the workplace. However, I learned recently from a very successful fund-raising entity that many women are or will be coming into large amounts of wealth over the next decade — wealth that could partially facilitate promoting other women and building stronger female networks based on trust and a commitment to seeing more women disruptors across all fields. Women investors need to demand that more women be placed in C-level positions. Women donors need to seek out female-led nonprofits and support entity that help empower women and female networks. We need more female mentors to take the next generation under their wing. This is certainly happening, but we have a lot of catching up to do, especially considering that women tend to shoulder more of the burden at home and are not as free to give additional time in their schedules to support others. This just means that we have to find more creative ways be mentors, perhaps in ways we hadn’t previously considered. We need to find ways to be disruptive at supporting women disruptors. During the pandemic, I found myself supporting young female scientists between degrees through my nonprofit intern program, where they have been able to build their resume of elephant research at a time when there have been very few job opportunities to help them be more competitive to enter graduate level science programs. In this way, we all helped each other. Coming out of the pandemic, we will all have more publications under our belts, so it was a win-win.

In general, when I go into the field to conduct my elephant research, I try to select as many young female scientists that I can. It is hard for young women in science to gain field experiences, particularly in a remote African setting with many logistical, environmental and cultural challenges. Providing them with an experience that is somewhat “protected” in the sense that I am there to manage all of those challenges, allows them to have an experience that will expose them to the challenges without making them responsible for them, which would then allow them to compete for other such experiences and eventually run their own field studies in the future, if that was their goal. Other female leaders should be making the same conscious effort to provide female mentees with such opportunities to learn from them.
 
 Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

My husband and I go to a lot of art and science museums for inspiration. We have developed several of our science narrative storylines based on these experiences. There was a quote that I read at one of these exhibitions a few years back that I found particularly inspiring. It was buried within a modern art exhibit at the National Museum of Modern Art in the Pompidou Center in Paris by Pierre Soulages for one of his exhibitions. The simplicity of the quote struck me, then the complexity of its meaning snuck up on me and has stuck with me ever since. “It is in doing that we realize what it is that we are looking for.” I think there is an incredibly powerful message in these few words — i.e. don’t wait for inspiration to strike. We make our own inspiration by getting out there and doing things. 
 
 You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-).

Stronger female mentor programs that have real impact and accountability. I was involved in a female CEO mentor program as a mentee, at a time when I was trying to raise money for my nonprofit in order to take it to the next level a few years back. The mentor that was assigned to me never had enough time to even schedule a phone call with me and the whole thing collapsed. Well, to be fair, one phone call had been scheduled after much back and forth, but then she couldn’t make it, and then never responded to my follow up queries to reschedule. That was a disappointing demonstration of the fact that women have so much more responsibility in their lives, juggling family and profession that it is always going to be harder for them. That was my generous explanation at the time. It was especially disappointing, however, considering that this woman actually signed up and committed to being a mentor within the program and then just bailed. I since heard that this had happened to others in the program as well. How can we hope to afford change if we don’t invest in it ourselves? Seriously, women in positions of power need to step up to the plate!

I had another interaction with a woman who headed a foundation and promised to fund my nonprofit after seeing the documentary ELEPHANT KING about my research on male elephant society. She was so impressed with the film that she invited me out to lunch, saying that I shouldn’t be shy about my programmatic needs, and that I should expect a check within a week. Then, she disappeared from my life — no check, no word — radio silence. I was left wondering whether it was because the waiter had forgotten to remove the goat cheese from my salad and I had eaten a little of it (she was a devout vegan). I spent a number of years thinking that that was the most expensive few crumbs of goat cheese I will ever eat, only to learn from another nonprofit friend that said person had found herself in a terrible divorce and left the country within a few short days of our memorable lunch. I tell this story because it speaks to the vulnerability of women in every aspect of their lives, even those who may have substantial positions of power, and how that vulnerability can also impact the women that interact with her within that position of power. We need to build stronger infrastructure to support women, including those in power, so that they can remain in power.
 
 Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite life lesson quote is from Henry David Thoreau — “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” This says everything to me. It speaks to preconceived notions that we might have about others. It’s a reminder that even though you think you understand something, there could be an entirely different meaning or interpretation. It’s a reminder to try to see a situation from all angles to make sure that you really understand it. It’s a reminder to seek the opinion of as many as you can in order to formulate an opinion. It’s also a reminder to pinch myself when I’m out in nature experiencing a particular elephant behavior, to make sure that I am taking in as many parameters that I can in order to really understand the influences and motivations surrounding a particular behavior. And even then, I can’t rely on my own experience without informing it with the data that I collect and the video recording to revisit to see if there was anything that I had missed in the moment.
 
 How can our readers follow you online?

www.caitlinoconnell.com

ElephantSkinny-twitter

@elephant_skinny-instagram

Like Caitlin’s Facebook author page: caitlineoconnell

elephant skinny-Tumblr

www.utopiascientific.org

Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

You might also like...

Community//

Tips From The Top: One On One With Caitlin Crosby

by Adam Mendler
Community//

Caitlin Iseler of Happyly: “Women are amazing problem solvers”

by Ben Ari
Well-Being//

Morning Rituals: How I Failed and What I Learned

by Anastasia Sharova
We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.