Apr 23

Women Who Make an Impact at the Zoo

Earlier this month, the Omaha Zoo Foundation hosted Women Who Make an Impact, a panel discussion moderated by Jane Miller, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Gallup, and member of the Omaha Zoological Society board of directors.

The discussion, which was part of an exclusive series of zoo events for patrons, was the most well-attended in the series to date, according to Omaha Zoo Foundation Executive Director Tina Cherica.

The panel included four women in key positions at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium: Marge From, director of plant conservation, Dr. Cheryl Morris, chief conservation officer, Dr. Elizabeth Mulkerrin, director of education, and Stephanie Huettner, assistant general curator and curator of birds.

Miller kicked off the discussion by noting that women make up 57 percent of the staff at the Omaha zoo. In fact, unlike other STEM disciplines, life sciences have no problem attracting women, who tend to be drawn to professions they find meaningful and mission-driven.

In the case of the panelists, their careers are more like lifelong vocations. From recalls being given a garden plot when she was nine years old. “I was stunned that a little seed could grow into a plant,” she said. And while her career path first lead to advanced degrees in international business, political science, Spanish and history, when she turned her attention to plant science, she knew that was the discipline that had always had her heart. When Dr. Lee G. Simmons, who was the director of the zoo at the time, asked her to set up a lab to work on endangered plants, she jumped at the chance. She has since saved from extinction several species of plants all over the world.

Morris grew up on a farm loving animals, but any dreams she had of being a vet were cut short when she learned she fainted at the sight of blood. Instead, she studied human nutrition until a mentor suggested she pursue animal nutrition – a field she had never considered. She went on to develop and oversee the animal nutrition program at the zoo for 12 years. “When people I respected told me I could do something, I listened to them,” Morris said.

Mulkerrin said that her family knew she was destined for a career in science when she turned her playhouse into a habitat for the garter snakes she found in the yard. Her dual loves of teaching and field biology eventually led to her being asked to establish the zoo’s high school program, which has now evolved into a full-fledged pre-K-through-college education program.

Huettner studied biology and received her diving certification with the goal of traveling the world to save wildlife. But an early job in the aquarium under the mentorship of Kathy Vires, who still works at the zoo today, and a series of promotions made her realize how great her impact could be right here in Omaha.

All four women talked about the struggle to find balance that nearly all professional women face. Mulkerrin recalled working on her dissertation in the car while her children were at sports practices.

From didn’t go to graduate school until her children were in their teens, but she’s not sorry about the delay. “It made me push myself even harder,” she said.

Morris has found balance in her life’s other passion: agility-training her four dogs on the eight-acre farm she calls home; while Huettner, who has a 15-year old daughter and is a dancer/choreographer with a nonprofit dance collective said she only does things that bring her joy. “I say yes to a lot, because I like to do a lot.”

Saying yes is a running theme in each of the women’s careers, and it has created countless opportunities for them.

“Five years ago, the job I have now wasn’t even on my radar,” said Morris. “We’re pulled to do a lot of different things, which has led to all of us acquiring an enormous amount of skills outside our disciplines,”

Huettner added that this has made zoo jobs more competitive than ever. “We receive so many applications for people who are more than qualified for the job. We can really pick from the cream of the crop.”

We can’t wait to see the future generations of scientists and leaders that these women, and others like them at the zoo, are inspiring.