VENUS — “It all seemed too good to be true. Hither and thither through the meadows (Mole) rambled busily … finding everywhere birds building, flowers budding, leaves thrusting – everything happy, and progressive, and occupied ... The clear sky ... seemed to pulsate with promise; today the unseen was everything. The unknown, the only real fact of life … and still, as he looked, and still as he lived, he wondered ...” — “The Wind of the Willows” by Kenneth Grahme.
Hilary Swain, the executive director of Archbold Biological Station since 1995, wasn’t born or raised along the soft, rural Thames River where the best part of life still means “messing about in boats” and the wind still blows through the willows. She was born in Scotland and grew up near the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in Northumberland, a harder country but no less beautiful.
Surrounded by meadows and marshes, a working farm nearby, Swain’s mother locked her and her two brothers and sister out of the house, rather than lock them in, ensuring they discovered the subtle, often hidden, always surprising details of the world around them.
“I was very observant, but not a short-walk-and-look-at-one-thing observer. I’d take long walks and see 50 things,” Swain said. “I always got the big picture. Having an analytic brain, I loved the way science explained what was going on around me. Organizing what I could see made things make so much more sense.”
Two things made Swain’s choice of a scientific career as natural as the world around her. First, of course, came her interest; second came her parents, both of whom were medical doctors and strongly supportive of her dreams.
Her mother’s advice to her at the time, as true to today for everyone, Swain said was, “Study things you’re interested in. Find something you’re passionate about. Do what you love and it will work out well.”
Her father set an unusual example for his generation, with whom he fought in World War II, by respecting working women, supporting his wife’s career and, “having high expectation for all four of us.”
Because of her parents, it never occurred to Swain that women didn’t work, despite the fact she was one of two women in her undergraduate class of 40, and the university as a whole had fewer than 10 women in the graduate program.
“I was always one of very few,” she said, adding, “I can say I was never discriminated against. I never saw myself as breaking barriers. It never occurred to me that I couldn’t do something.”
It took the passing of time and hindsight to see how her family background and own personality had led to self-confidence and the ability to focus on the positive, seeing opportunities rather than impediments.
Her parents have given Swain and her siblings another gift: the understanding that education is not about learning a trade, but learning how to think — how to synthesize, compare and contrast, play with ideas, mix disciplines, write a powerful argument, pay attention to details, and nurture a continuing hunger for learning and the ability to teach herself.
All of this was to prove crucial as her life took twists and turns.
Having earned a Bachelor of Science and Doctor of Philosophy in zoology and done post fellowship work in conservation, Swain remained in Northumberland and built a career in the field of environmental scientific research gaining respect and a leadership role in her work.
Unexpectedly, her fiance was offered a professorship at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne. Suddenly she was starting from the bottom all over again, in a strange country without a job, contacts or network of any kind. She began by adjunct teaching and doing short-term contract research for various schools and agencies until she was hired by FIT to teach biology. “I had to prove my worth all over again,” Swain said. It took her about four years.
She was in her mid-30s with two young children when Archbold’s board of trustees selected her to follow the retiring director. She remains deeply grateful for the trustees confidence in her.
“They liked that I was passionate about what Archbold does, and had a good background in conservation. While I had none in administration or finance,” here she smiled, “I could learn.”
In the two decades since, Swain, the board of trustees and their scientific colleagues have continually built on Archbold’s foundation and smoothly running operation.
Archbold’s mission remains research, conservation and education. A cutting-edge institution from its founding by Richard Archbold in 1941, now a respected leader in conservation and ecological research, acknowledged worldwide.
More than 2,000 scientific papers have been published by scientists based at work done at the station. Nearly 500 student interns have completed research at Archbold. Eighty-eight new species have been described by the station’s scientists. The station is a leader in introducing new technology into conservation and agricultural science. Its outreach and elementary school programs are growing. Thousands of young students have benefited from classes and camp experiences.
Beyond breaking new ground, the station has seen a blossoming of interest among young women as well as men. The majority of research interns are women, a far cry from the world where Swain’s mother was prohibited by one of her professors from attending classes and had to rely on other students’ notes.
“Looking ahead,” Swain said, “ (our) vision assumes we’ll continue to have a stream of women coming into science, providing opportunities for all. Now that a critical mass of women exists in the profession, it’s more likely we’ll be measured by the value of our work.”