UMaine Alumna strives for gender-diverse representation in bioenergy and forestry fields

Growing up, kids are often asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Some have a simple answer of “I don’t know” and others may have their dream career set in stone at a young age. In most cases, that vision is inspired by another individual who represented the idea of success. 

Abigayl ‘Abby’ Novak ’20 studied ecology and environmental sciences at the University of Maine, but there was one factor that drove her mission in a different direction. Although she had many female professors and advisors, she noticed there weren’t many women studying alongside her. 

That’s when Novak decided to pursue her master’s degree in forest resources in the Bioenergy Lab of the School of Forest Resources (SFR). She later conducted a study with other colleagues on the importance of representation of women in this male-dominated field.

“I never really planned to be in this field,” Novak said. “I hadn’t realized that because environmental science is such a huge topic, forestry didn’t have a lot of representation in some ways.”

A New York native, Novak moved to Maine during her sophomore year of high school, finishing up her studies at Hampden Academy. Unsure about what exactly she wanted to focus on for undergraduate studies, Novak sought the best opportunities available and UMaine was the perfect fit. 

“I didn’t really know anything in Maine so I thought maybe I want to stay here for college,” Novak said. “I was the one paying for it so I had to consider how much I was going to spend on school.”

After Novak was accepted to the ecology and environmental sciences department, she quickly branched out and made connections.

“When I was in undergrad, I filled my schedule with so many different clubs and opportunities,” Novak said. “I wanted to meet people, I wanted to do things and I wanted to make a change.”

Novak wanted to see more women studying with her. She wanted to prove that gender diverse workforces can benefit companies and also drive more women to study bioenergy and forestry. One undergraduate course, Women and Climate Change, helped Novak shape her vision to assist other women in the field. 

“I’ve never been in a class where you talk about science and also women,” said Novak. “We talked about how in natural disasters, women are usually the caretakers and how that impacts them the most. So when hurricanes and natural disasters hit, they’re not able to take care of their kids or the people they need to take care of and I never thought of it that way.”

Many discussions in the course shifted Novak’s way of thinking. She credits her mentors at UMaine who inspired her to not only stay in the field but inspire others. After Novak decided to stay in Orono to pursue her master’s in forest resources, she became a mentor for others.

“I would say being a mentor to other women and being a woman in this industry is really important and helpful because if you don’t see someone of your gender or however you identify as, it’s harder to see yourself in that position,” said Novak.

Although she was unsure of where her path would take her, adopting the role as a leader in the department came naturally. 

“I’ve always been someone that’s really motivated and passionate,” Novak said. “My family is very into fighting for what we believe in and being someone that is Asian and a woman, it’s really important to recognize those things and also take initiative for myself.”

As Novak wraps up her graduate studies at UMaine, she will receive her degree knowing that she trailblazed a path for countless others yet to enter the field.

“I’m really looking forward to seeing more women in forestry and us supporting each other in this industry,” said Novak. “I want to continue being a mentor to people and I want them to know they can do this and it doesn’t matter who you are. If it’s something that you want to do, there should be a way to do it, there shouldn’t be any obstacles.”