University of South Florida

USF College of Marine Science


Celebrating Women’s History Month with Dr. Pamela Hallock Muller

Pamela Hallock Muller, PhD, award-winning geological oceanographer, was the first female marine science faculty member hired at USF.

Pamela Hallock Muller, PhD, award-winning geological oceanographer, was the first female marine science faculty member hired at USF.

Written by Kristen Kusek, Former Communications Director for USF CMS

Content warning: This article includes brief accounts of the personal experiences Pamela Hallock Muller has had with respect to gender bias and discrimination.

For scientists at the USF College of Marine Science and around the globe, Dr. Pamela Hallock Muller, 72, is so much more than a geological oceanographer.

Candid shot of Pam, snapped during a recent “Picture a Scientist” screening event and virtual panel discussion. The film addresses gender bias in science.

Candid shot of Pam, snapped during a recent “Picture a Scientist” screening event and virtual panel discussion. The film addresses gender bias in science.

She’s a Rosie the Riveter, a Notorious RBG, and a manuscript “whisperer” all wrapped up in one. Quietly and not so quietly, she fights for gender equality, shatters glass ceilings, and levels the playing field.  

Pam, as she prefers to be called, was the first female professor ever hired at the USF College of Marine Science, which was a Department at the time. Her specialties include coral reefs, paleoceanography, and environmental management. During her 37-year tenure at USF, which began in 1983, she has become a beloved mentor, ally, and confidante for nearly 200 students and researchers. Many are underrepresented minorities. She estimates that 20 percent of the graduate students she’s advised began their academic careers under the tutelage of other advisors.

“In many cases, especially in those earlier years, the students were intimidated by their professors,” Pam said. “And I think I’m about as intimidating as a golden retriever puppy.”

Pam collecting live foraminifera from reef rubble.

Pam collecting live foraminifera from reef rubble.

It doesn’t take long to see that Pam stands for “all creatures great and small,” whether said creatures are Homo sapiens, furrier members of the Canis or Felis genera (she currently has a ‘full house’ at home – 3 cats and 2 dogs), or the single-celled forams that she has spent nearly five decades studying. Ubiquitous in the world’s oceans and useful as gauges of climate change, it’s possible that forams don’t get the respect they deserve. Pam’s got their backs (er, calcium carbonate shells), too.

A pivotal career moment took place in 1997 when then Dean, Dr. Peter Betzer, asked Pam why she doesn’t stand up for herself and her own work the way she tenaciously had done for so many others for so long. “It was honestly great coaching, and I was grateful to Peter for that,” said Pam, recalling the moment as if it were yesterday. 

Ironically it wasn’t too long after that conversation that she had to make a daunting call to Peter to let him know she was one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the university. Their attorney would be holding a press conference in Tampa at 10 o’clock that morning announcing the action. Pam had undertaken perhaps some of the most profound research of her life in that lawsuit – documenting, often at 3 a.m., that female scientists who were full professors were paid 80 cents to every dollar earned by male faculty. And because the male full professors in Marine Science were paid more than the average for other departments, the two women full professors in Marine Science were making about 70 cents by comparison.

“You don’t sleep well when you’re suing your employer,” Pam said. The lawsuit was eventually settled out of court, and Pam got a 40 percent salary adjustment.

She sleeps a lot better these days, and she’s fun to talk to: thoughtful, quick with a laugh, and speaks with a fearless sense of raw honesty.  

Q: How does a girl who lived on a small ranch and attended a one-room schoolhouse on the South Dakota prairie end up with such a storied career (and healthily stamped passport) in oceanography?

A: You’ve heard of “amber waves of grain,” right? I think it has something to do with my affinity for wide open spaces and early memories of looking at the world from the top of Old Nifty. He was a very gentle horse on our ranch who was my babysitter, starting when I was about 18 months old. Nifty and I watched the world go by! I was always “different” (cue air quotes) and I could see connections that others couldn’t. I just loved walking in the pasture, searching for flowers, and looking up at the stars. (There wasn’t any light pollution in south-central South Dakota in those days!) I did actually become interested in astronomy as a kid but my eyes weren’t good enough for that route, and I figured, well the other thing we know next to nothing about is the ocean!

Q. When did you first set eyes on the ocean?

A: I think the first time was in high school.  When my parents sold the ranch, we moved to Missoula, Montana. I was 15 years old. My oldest brother (two brothers, two sisters) was living and working on the Oregon coast and we went to visit him.

Another powerful experience was when I was an undergrad at the University of Montana. Dr. Royal Brunson was an invertebrate zoologist who had a big impact on my career. He loved taking students from Montana to the ocean, and we’d gone on a field trip to Puget Sound, where I just was mesmerized by the extreme tides and tide pools.  When back in Montana, I took an entymology class. I made myself a butterfly net and got the required 50 specimens for my insect collection pretty easily during horseback rides. That was fun.

Q. Who are your heroes?

A. Aside from Dr. Brunson, two teachers come to mind: my grade school teacher, who was born in Scotland, and my Aunt Elsie. They were the only people I knew as a child who went anywhere. As teachers, every couple of years they would go on trips around the US and sometimes around the world – and they’d bring me back silly things like coins. But I loved their stories and pictures, and I became interested in geography and travel, and decided pretty early on that I wanted to be a teacher, too.

Another hero was my major professor at the University of Hawai’i where I earned my PhD.  She went through a lot more than I did in terms of gender discrimination; she actually had to go to Europe to earn a doctorate. Many American universities didn’t accept women graduate students in the late 1940s through the 1960s. I stayed with her during an extended visit to Hawai’i and saw how she was still being treated as a senior faculty member. Shortly after I returned from Hawai’i, I received the phone call from the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit against USF, asking me if I could join them.

Q. What’s been one of your greatest challenges as a woman in STEM?

A. It’s tough to have a culture where you’re ‘the first, the only, and one of the few.’ I was the only female faculty member for nine looooooong years after I started in 1983.  Now, of course, I’m the oldest! Older men are respected; older women, not so much!

Aside from that, I’ve pretty consistently had trouble collaborating with people for some reason.  You have better luck securing grant funds when you’re teamed with others. And sure, I’ve had NSF and EPA grants and such but honestly if I’m intimidated by anything it’s been my inability to ask for money. Research funding has been hard to come by in the last 20 years, or maybe even the last 37 years. I think it’s because I grew up with one pair of jeans a year. One time I stained my “good jeans” and to this day it just kills me to ask for money. So I have this notion that I should be able to do it on my own and make do with what I have – and that’s crazy in the research world.

But through these challenges I definitely found my niche: As trite as it may sound, I love helping other people. Whether it’s coaching women on how to do this, rescuing students who need additional assistance, and helping students get across the finish line, I love doing it.

Q. You have a healthy digital footprint (Pamela Hallock Muller | USF College of Marine Science) – from your Wikipedia page (Pamela Hallock - Wikipedia) to the story you wrote, Blooming Where You’re Planted (Blooming Where Planted in West Texas | by SACNAS | STEM and Culture Chronicle | Medium), and so much more. What’s something about you that people wouldn’t find online?

A. I really enjoy helping people get their papers into published form. By this point I have the insights to know what reviewers tend to look for, and some papers are quickly rejected – not because the work isn’t good – but because they’ve inadvertently given the reviewers an ‘easy’ reason to reject the paper. It’s not fair but I’m glad I can pick up on those things and help. So it’s not just about helping out with grammar; it’s about those deeper insights and taking the analyses to a deeper level, and it’s very satisfying. Right now I’m working with scientists in Fiji, Indonesia, around the Mediterranean, and even the Middle East. I’ve always said I love to live vicariously through my students’ research and the papers I review.

Q. Are you encouraged by the evolution at CMS regarding gender equity and broader cultural movements of today, such as #metoo?

A. That’s a tough one. Honestly I feel heavy with concern. I am glad we have evolved to understand (chuckles) that women can get graduate degrees and can even sometimes become faculty members! (At the CMS 7 of 25 faculty members are female).  And thanks to computer technology, we don’t share secretaries anymore as faculty members because we can manage much of such work on our own now.

But I just can’t understand what’s going on culturally and politically right now, the endless backlashes. I have a neighbor whose husband is Hispanic and they have three beautiful daughters. It doesn’t make sense to me that they are totally into QAnon, for example. There remains so much blatant racism and misogyny out there, and I find it hard to watch how hard it is for President Biden’s female appointees, especially women of color, to get confirmed. It’s all an assault on my logic. (Author note: Pam once took a personality test and her score indicated that she was more logical than 100% of the other people who took the same test.)

Pam Hallock Muller, Alumna

So yes, I think the #metoo movement is a good thing – and, I’m just torn and concerned we haven’t come far enough. In some ways not enough has changed since my graduate school days when people said I was wasting my time in pursuing a degree because I was married, after all, and why would I take a grad school spot from someone who would otherwise be sent to Vietnam. When Bob, my husband, was in Micronesia doing research and I was going to join him, I was asked, “Gosh, why would Bob bring a sandwich to a banquet?!”  In the 80s, I was at a meeting when someone (later fired) grabbed my butt at a social event. And yes, I elbowed him, hard!  But come on. I also remember in the early days at USF when one female grad student came into my office, just ashen. As if she just got news that she is deathly ill with cancer or something. But no. She was pregnant!  She’d wanted to get pregnant, and she got pregnant, and it was all supposed to be so wonderful but she was terrified of how that would impact the faculty’s attitude toward her getting her PhD. Well, she ended up getting that PhD within 2.5 years and has recently retired from 30 years on the faculty of an east coast university, so that was pretty cool.

Bottom line, you can’t have two X chromosomes and not have experienced some of this behavior.

Q. What would you say has been your favorite moment?

A. [Long pause]. You mean in my life or my career?! Well, the problem is right now I am thinking about how pleasant it is just to fall asleep with my kitten on my chest. [cracks up laughing] Last fall we fostered a litter of kittens for a friend and kept one.

Return to article listing

Mission Statement

Our blue planet faces a suite of challenges and opportunities for understanding and innovation. Our mission is to advance understanding of the interconnectivity of ocean systems and human-ocean interactions using a cross-disciplinary approach, to empower the next workforce of the blue economy with a world-class education experience, and to share our passion for a healthy environment and science-informed decision-making with community audiences near and far.