On Cape Cod, the Gills Club inspires the next generation of female shark and ocean advocates.
Summer’s official curtain call might be just around the corner, but shark season remains in full swing in the waters surrounding Cape Cod. A group of girls on this iconic sandy peninsula are working to help others better understand these often stigmatized, misunderstood creatures.
A first-of-its-kind study released in July of this year shows that Cape Cod — the idyllic hook-shaped peninsula known for clam chowder, buttery lobster rolls, and frolicking Kennedys — is one of the largest hotspots for seasonal white shark gatherings in the world. Maddie Poirier is Community Educator at the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy (AWSC), in Chatham, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod’s “elbow,” and she’s noticed that the media’s portrayal of the people working to study and preserve shark populations is inaccurately skewed toward males.
“I think the media kind of portrays the wrong idea of the actual truth behind shark science,” she says, “because you don't see a lot of those female scientists on TV the same way that you might with some of the more popular male scientists.”
The AWSC’s Gills Club has been working since 2014 to change that perception by inspiring girls to become the next generation of shark and ocean advocates, and today, the club is stronger than ever. Leveraging multimedia platforms like social media and podcasts, the club allows girls to connect with and be inspired by female scientists around the globe — and by each other. In addition to fostering positive attitudes towards sharks, the club aims to jump-start girls’ interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects, boosting their chances of entering careers in science.
“The reality of working in shark sciences [is] there's a lot of diversity, and there's a lot of female role models that these kids just don't know about,” Poirier says. She notes that the AWSC was founded by Cynthia Wigren, who now serves as its Chief Executive Officer; the research team is led by Megan Winton, a Fisheries Scientist; and the organization’s staff is predominately female. “They have been some strong female role models for me, and I really feel like we are a perfect representation of what The Gills Club stands for.”
The club is tailored to middle school students (fifth through eighth grade) and meets monthly throughout the school year, with girls participating in in-person programs, STEM-related activities, and on-the-water experiences. Often, activities highlight the work of a particular female scientist. While a majority of in-person attendees are from Cape Cod, a number reside further away, and digital platforms allow girls to join and learn from anywhere.
Case in point: The Gills Club Podcast, an extension of the program. It has more than 50 episodes to date and has reached thousands of listeners in multiple countries. Best of all, it’s accessible to anyone. “We're not just reaching young girls; we're reaching anyone who wants to know more about science, and providing a platform for sharing that information,” explains Poirier, crediting the podcast’s host, Kristen Kibblehouse Smith, the Conservancy's Community Engagement Manager, with its success. This year, for the first time, the club awarded scholarships to two members pursuing a career in STEM.
With students in the Northeast back in school, Poirier is excited to dive back in and introduce the girls — girls like her — to a world of possibilities in the sciences.
“Beyond that touch point of the education, and the science, and all that, we are building a community and a safe place for these kids,” she says. “I remember being a kid and loving nature. It's not always the most popular thing, and being a girl who loves sharks when you're young, there's still that stigma: “Oh, that's for boys.” You know, these kids can get bullied. They can kind of be an outcast in their school. But we've gotten feedback from parents that this is their kids’ favorite thing to do, and their favorite place to be, because of the safe community where they're surrounded by students just like them.” And sharks.