A sixth grade class recently interviewed me as a part of career day. I thought that some of these answers might be interesting to other students. There are lots of different ways that people can work as marine biologists. Some of the answers would be the same, but some of them would be different. I answered these questions as they apply to my specific job.
1. What type of background is required for this profession?
I studied marine science and biology in college. Then I went to graduate school and eventually earned a PhD. I came to Woods Hole for a type of additional training called a postdoc. All of that together took me 16 years!
2. What personal qualities are required to be successful in this field?
I think different people succeed in different ways, but I guess I would say
Determination: You have to work hard, sometimes when you don’t want to, and sometimes you have to keep slogging away at the same problem for a long time.
Creativity: I don’t think people always associate science with creativity, but I think it’s incredibly creative. We are always trying to find new ways to solve problems and to bring together different bits of information. We work to find better ways to clearly communicate our results and ideas.
Discipline: This means a bunch of things to me. Partly working hard (again) but also having a sort of mental discipline to think about problems in a systematic and ordered way. To make sure your experiments are carefully designed, that you are correctly analyzing the data and interpreting the results. The details matter and you have to pay attention.
3. What interests or passions might a person have in this field?
I think many marine biologists really care about the environment and the organisms that live in it. My first scientific “love” was coral reefs. I saw them as complex and beautiful systems. I would say that my scientific passion these days is the diversity of animals. How did they come to be the way that they are? How do they respond to the world around them? There is so much we still don’t understand.
I also care a lot about education. I had excellent educational opportunities growing up, and I like to be able to pass that on.
4. What does an average work day look like in this profession?
That’s a hard question because it really depends. An average day would usually include several hours on the computer, reading, writing or analyzing data. On average days the rest of the time would be doing experiments in the lab, ordering supplies, teaching, meeting with students, attending scientific presentation, talking with other scientists.
But I’ll often spend a couple weeks or months of the year doing intense field work. Those aren’t the average days, but they are the most interesting! In January I was able to go to Israel to meet with another scientist and plan some experiments together. This summer, he and his lab members will be coming to the Cape to visit my lab for a couple of weeks. We’re going to set up experiments together in our local salt marsh. Because we are studying circadian rhythms (daily cycles), we’ll probably be working some unusual and late hours. It will be fun!
5. What types of responsibilities are included?
When I was earlier in my career my responsibilities were mainly for conducting my own research. Designing and conducting experiments, taking detailed notes, applying for funding, analyzing and presenting my data.
Now I have my own lab so I have additional responsibilities. I supervise other scientists (students and postdocs). I help them to design experiments, interpret their data and communicate their results. I review the work of other scientists. I make sure my lab is safe and that we have the supplies we need. I write proposals to get funding for my research. I teach classes and help to administer our education program.
6. What are the hours like?
Again it depends. My job is usually very flexible…except when it isn’t. I can set my own schedule, but I have to do what it takes to get the job done. A good example would be my research during graduate school. I was studying coral reproduction, which was linked to the full moon and new moon in summer. That meant that when the corals were spawning, I had to be there. No matter what. I spent many July 4 holidays by myself late at night in the lab looking at “coral babies” under a microscope.
Most people with a job like mine work more than 40 hours a week. But it’s hard to keep track of it exactly…with laptops and the internet, we do a lot of extra work from home.
7. Does the job involve a lot of moving and traveling?
Not for everyone, but for me it did. That’s a really exciting part of the job, but can also be a very difficult part. I moved to Hawaii for grad school, which was exciting, but was also far away from my family and everyone else I knew. Then I moved across the country to Woods Hole, again away from everyone I knew. Over the years I’ve had opportunities to work in really interesting places – Panama, Costa Rica, Bermuda, Saudi Arabia, Norway, Alaska. It’s a fantastic opportunity.
8. What are the perks and challenges of the job?
The biggest perks for me are independence and flexibility. It’s really up to me to figure out how best to do my job. What questions to answer and how to do it.
A huge challenge is trying to raise money to support the research. Another problem is time…we never seem to have enough time to do everything we want to do. It can get tiring.
9. What would the world be like without this job?
Without marine biologists? Hmmm…I think without marine biologists we wouldn’t understand nearly as much about live in the ocean. And without understanding it we wouldn’t value it as much. I think the oceans would be a darker and scarier place. They would also probably be more polluted, overfished, and depleted of resources.
I also think that marine biology gets a lot of people interested in science. Some of those people might not become marine biologists themselves, but they might go on to become doctors, or medical researchers, or inventors, or engineers, or teachers.
10. Why is it important?
We depend on life in the ocean in so many ways….from providing the air we breathe to the fish we eat. We need to understand our environment so we can make decisions about how best to use and protect these resources. Sometimes we can make surprising discoveries…maybe the next great antibiotic or cancer treatment will come from the ocean.
But more than that. Life is a wonderful and mysterious thing. There are all kinds of secrets still to be revealed!
11. What does the future look like for this job? And What direction will it head in 10 years down the road?
Scientific methods and computers keep getting bigger and faster, giving us more data than ever before. It’s becoming more and more important to develop skills in handling that data.
Our community is slowly becoming more diverse. This is an important and good thing. Our scientific community needs to include men and women from diverse ethnic groups and backgrounds. I hope that students who are interested in science can find mentors and role models that they relate to.
If you are interested in a scientific career, I think it’s important to think broadly. There aren’t a lot of jobs exactly like mine, but there are many different types of science careers.