From Fishing With Mom To Becoming A Top Fisheries Official

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Mamie Parker, a fish and wildlife biologist with a doctorate in ecology, remembers a janitor at work once telling her: "No African-American woman has been in here except to clean this office."

Mamie Parker, a former assistant director of fisheries and habitat conservation at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was the first African-American to head a regional office for that agency. But when she started out in the field, she says, she "did not see anyone that looked like me doing this type of work."

When she was in ninth grade, Parker says, "I heard the song by Marvin Gaye, 'Mercy, mercy me. Things are not like they used to be.' He talked about the pollution in the air, and the wind that was blowing poison and radiation and all of that." She decided she wanted to do something about it.

She met a recruiter for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who was looking for interns. "He wanted me to leave Arkansas and head off to Wisconsin," she says. "That was quite frightening for a Southern girl like myself that had hardly been north of Little Rock." But he told her something that made sense, and kicked off a decades-long career: "You can get paid to do what you like to do best," she says, laughing.

On a somber note, Parker also points out that "pioneers are very lonesome people." She has spent her career feeling a responsibility to do well. "As you know," she told me, "to whom much is given, much is expected."

Interview Highlights

On working to honor her mother

My mother was an avid angler, a sharecropper, had 11 children. I'm number 11. The rest of the boys and girls did not want to be outdoors, but she wanted a companion, and taught me life lessons out there. She passed away when I was fairly young, and I decided to do this in her honor.

On being the only African-American female expert in the building

I remember my first job here in the D.C. area, and the janitors in the building, they just kept coming and peeking in, and I thought "What are they looking at?" And finally I saw one in the bathroom, and she said, "I've been here for almost 40 years," and she said, "No African-American woman has been in here except to clean this office." And for her it was a proud moment.

On whether having a distinct profile has been a help or a hindrance

If I had to really think hard about it, it's been a help to me, because of being unique and different in the field. On the other hand, I think the standards for women and minorities are still very high, and therefore, I feel like I had to work really, really harder than most to be successful in this field.

On the challenges of increasing diversity in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields

I think people from communities of color really suffer a lot from isolation, from feeling the need to prove themselves. And over time it becomes very difficult to continue to work at a pace like that, and you have to really believe that the benefits outweigh the cost. And then also, mentors are so important — having the right individual there for you when you think about quitting or you want to cry. A lot of times, I had to cry on the shoulders of those janitors in that building. You know, they were the ones that were there for me, telling me to get up and get back in the race again.

This week, you can share your stories and follow the digital footprint of Native Americans, Latinos, Asians and African-Americans on the cutting edge of innovation on Twitter using the hashtag #RaceOnTech.

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