Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A Marine Biologist's Story

The air felt thick and heavy in my lungs. As I drove further down the narrow strip of beach, my throat closed and my eyes burned. It wasn't normal sea air - it was toxic. Red tide was hitting the area in full force, killing off thousands of marine animals and filling the air with the neurotoxic compounds the algae Karenia brevis is known for. As the waves crash on shore, they break open the delicate algal cells, aerosolizing the odorless but noxious brevatoxins.

Many people have heard of red tide, but if you haven't experienced it, you should consider yourself lucky. A few years ago I was driving an ATV on Casey Key late at night looking for nesting turtles to tag during one of the worst red tide seasons in recent history. Everything was dying. You couldn't go near a beach without coughing and wheezing, and you probably didn't want to anyhow, since they were covered in dead fish and marine life.

But there I was, 2:30 in the morning, holding my breath as much as I could and scanning relentlessly for nesting turtles as a part of a summer internship at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, FL. I hadn't slept much in days, and I was going to be out there until sunrise. I was exhausted. I couldn't breathe. And it was in that moment that I started thinking about how I ended up in this situation in the first place.
Christie, the Marine Biologist
You know, no one ever asks me why I am a marine biologist. I still expect that people will, and that I'll get to tell these elaborate stories of the great things I get to do as if they had anything to do with my choice to follow this career path. But no one ever asks. I think most people assume that they know why someone becomes a marine biologist. They think "ooo, she gets to be like those people at SeaWorld riding the dolphins" or "she gets to go dive amazing coral reefs all over the world." Everyone has this fanatasy of what a marine biologist is, and they think that all marine biologists have known their whole lives they would end up that way.

Sampling mangroves for
an independent project
in the blazing sun in Florida
First off, they're completely wrong about what it means to be a marine biologist. Being a marine biologist isn't all playful dolphins and spectacular diving. It's driving an ATV up and down a beach littered with dead fish - and spending an hour pulling a 200 lb dead sea turtle high enough out of the water so that the stranding crew could find it in the morning, even though you can barely breathe. It's never, ever being able to look at seafood the same way again. It's getting up at a god-awful hour to make it to your field site for sampling when the tide is at just the right height, where you can pull water from the ground but still count the crab burrows on the surface, then staying out there all day even though it's 100 degrees out with no clouds and you feel like you're being baked alive. It's cleaning the bones of a manatee so that it can be used as a teaching tool, which requires placing the putrid rotting skeleton in a vat of water in the sun to rot, and then going back once a week, dumping the fetid water and pulling whatever decomposed flesh you can off, until the bones are picked clean. It's counting the 53 dead baby sea turles from a nest that was raided by fire ants (who aren't exactly pleased that you're disturbing their hard-earned meal). It's staring into a microscope for hours picking the miniature, formaldehyde-pickled marine life from a mud sample to catalog the fauna in a riverbed. It's always feeling like you smell of dead creatures or harmful chemicals, and being so used to it you actually kind of like the smell.

In other words, it's gruesome. It's a little grotesque. And to be honest, there's got to be something kind of 'off' with you to begin with to enjoy it enough to make a living doing it.

My dad. Enough said.
Secondly, I haven't always known I would be a marine biologist. Looking back it might be obvious to the casual observer, but that doesn't mean it was obvious to me. I didn't really figure it out until I had to pick a college and a major to go with it. Let me explain:

I was born in Boston, Massachusetts in the summer of 1985. I was happy in New England. I liked being a little kid. And I was a smart kid, too, which made being a little kid all the more fun. I didn't really have much of a choice about being nerdy. Just look at my dad, who designed the first computer go program - I was screwed. Neither of my parents, though, were biologists, and in Boston the ocean is cold and unwelcoming. Of course, when I was about four years old, my parents decided they didn't want to live in the frozen northeast any more, and they moved me and my brother to Hawai'i. I know - how awful.

It's in Hawai'i that the first signs of my future career began to show. At the ripe age of 5 years old, my parents decided to send me to a special school for gifted kids (I said I was smart, didn't I?). 

I liked tongues.
To do so, they had to have my IQ tested. I passed. But the most interesting part of my IQ report isn't the score, it's the commentary from my examiner. She said I was a "poised, cooperative young child." I was friendly and quick to talk, and even better, in my chatty childish way, I talked about what I liked:
The student spoke briefly about her interest in animals and bugs, noting that she likes to "find dead geckos and open their mouths to see their tongues."
Me, admiring the seals
Oh yeah. I was a biologist when I was five - not that I knew this until much later. I loved animals of all kinds, and couldn't get enough of museums and zoos. I also fell in love with the sea. I loved tide pools and whatever creatures I could find in them. I thrived in the ocean, learning to swim at a very young age and spending as much time as I could underwater instead of on land. Hawai'i became my home, and I felt like I had lived there all my life (I still say "Hawai'i" and certain Hawaiian and Asian words with an accent that never ceases amuses my non-local friends).

Then my parents divorced. My mom moved to Vermont, of all possible places. So I spent most of the year in the artic world of New England, and only my summers back in the wet and salty world I loved. But being in Vermont gave me the opportunity to explore a whole range of interests. Being an outgoing person, I took well to the stage, and loved every facet of the theater. I loved art and painting, and always had a creative streak in me that I still nurture. I learned to play guitar and sing, and wrote my own songs. By high school, in fact, you probably would have expected me to end up a starving artist of some kind.

In high school, I was a jack of all trades. I took the highest level courses in math, science, theater, art, history, and english. My senior year I was granted independent studies in History, Theater and English. I took all kinds of AP courses, walking away with APs in English Lit, English Language, U.S. History, Calculus BC, Physics B and Advanced Physics. Note, for the record, that not one of the things I just mentioned has the word "biology" in it.

Socializing future guide dogs
You see, I loved animals - I had cats and dogs and odd pets like hedgehogs my whole life, I loved searching the woods for living creatures, adopting anything injured or sick - but I didn't think of myself as a biologist. Not yet, anyhow. I was an actress, musician, artist, writer, historian, and even physicist, but I wasn't a biologist. Then, of course, I had to think about where I wanted to go to college. There was one thing I wanted above all else - I wanted to live in Hawai'i.

I missed it. I missed the water and the waves. I missed the sun and the beach. I missed everything about the islands. I felt like a fish out of water in New England - all I wanted was to go home.

Somehow, in my homesick, 16-year-old mind, I came up with a brilliant idea. I would study the physics of cetacean (whale and dolphin) communication. I could double major in Marine Biology and Physics, ending up in Hawai'i for graduate school, and I would get to be where I belonged. So I found out which colleges had good science programs, particularly marine ones (the whole getting back to Hawai'i bit hinged on me being a marine-centered physicist), and applied. And through a twist of fate, I ended up in Florida at Eckerd College (apparently, I wasn't smart enough to just apply to the University of Hawaii).

After my first semester of courses at Eckerd, though, I knew that I wasn't a physicist. I loved physics, but the advanced, theoretical stuff just wasn't my cup of tea - I liked the hands on, applied physics. I did, however, adore my marine science classes. I liked learning about the physiology of marine inverts, and playing with them in labs. Once, I spent an entire hour flipping an upside-down jellyfish upside-down then right-side-up again until my hand actually went numb. I met my undergraduate mentor, Dr. Nancy Smith, who I quickly came to aspire to be like. And from that time onward, there was no doubt in my mind that although I didn't know it until then, I was a biologist all along.

I believe the phrase is, "duh"
In truth, I should have seen it earlier. Heck, I was never squeamish or easily grossed out by things. When I took freshman biology in high school I was the only person who actually got a bit of a kick out of dissecting the fetal pig. I stayed after class to carefully remove its brain so that I could look at it close-up. I loved the natural world. I really, really loved animals, often to my parents' dismay when I would attempt to make "pets" out of every creature I could get my hands on. When I was writing my PhD applications this year, I asked my dad when he knew that I would end up in biology. "Are you kidding me?" he responded. "You've been like this since you were born!"

But I didn't become a marine biologist because I wanted to since birth. I didn't even want to since I was in high school. In some ways, I became a marine biologist by accident. Or maybe it was fate, if such a thing exists.

Now, I can't imagine a life other than this. I love what I do. You see, it was that thought, not some self-doubting "why am I doing this?", which went though my head as I breathed in the thick, noxious air while riding that ATV. It was a thought of wonder, asking the world how I got to be so lucky as to do what I do. In truth, I was barely paying attention to the toxic fumes. I was too intrigued by the fact that the dead fish I drove over started to glow after my tires crunched their bones - the beach, in fact, was glowing bluish-green. Some kind of bioluminescent algae or bacteria was all over the rotting corpses and in the water, and it glowed whenever it was disturbed. It was one of the coolest things I'd ever seen. I remember stopping just to step on dead fish and watch them light up (I did say you have to be a little sick to do what I do, right?).

Of course, the best part was tagging the turtles. That night I sat quietly and watched massive female green sea turtles dig their nests and drop hundreds of eggs into the sand. While they did, of course, I calmly checked their flippers for tags and tagged any that didn't have them already. They didn't run or flee as I touched them - once a female sea turtle has begun laying her eggs, she's intent on finishing the job, and just about nothing will deter her from that task. To this day, the sight of those beautiful girls laying their precious eggs is still one of my favorite memories.

The point, I guess, of this long and self-indulgent monologue is that you should always follow your passions, and eventually, you'll end up where you want to be. Or where you want to be will be where you end up - as Douglas Adams says, "I may not have ended up where I intended to go, but I know I've ended up where I'm intended to be." For me, in the end, I even get to fulfill my 16-year-old me's dream - in the fall, I start my PhD at the University of Hawaii.

This story is also in part to explain what it means to be a marine biologist. It's not all cliches and playful creatures, and we're all a little weird to even like what we do. And in part, I wanted you all to get to know me a bit better.

But mostly, it's because no one ever asks why I'm a marine biologist. I have all these fun stories and anecdotes about being nerdy. And, damn it, I really wanted to tell some of them.


Todd Oakley said...

Congratulations on Hawaii. I agree about following what you really love. As a professor, often I am faced with helping students figure out what they want to do. The best advice I've come up with is to do what you did - try a lot of different things and see what feels best. In my experience, it is very difficult for undergraduates to separate what it is that they want from their life from what it is others want from their life (parental expectations, societal expectations, etc). Oh, also, your comments about the lack of glamor in marine biology struck a chord with me - I wrote a post about one story a few months ago:
The glamour of marine biology

Stephanie B said...

No one ever asks why I'm a rocket scientist either (even though it's as accidental as your story - and I was even more surprised and am still not convinced I belong here) and even less glamorous (but also less gross) than your job.

And the Texas Gulf Coast isn't exactly Hawai'i - but it's better than New Hampshire (where I was born).

I loved your story.

Stephanie B said...

Although, "rocket scientist" sounds much cooler than "applied physicist" or "safety engineer" which is more what I really am, so maybe that's why no one asks me.

Miriam Goldstein said...

Congrats on Hawaii! Do you know who you're going to work with?

But hey, no hating on New England marine biology. I might be in SoCal exile now, but I have Ascophyllum in my BLOOD.

cougar555 said...

UH is a fantastic place for marine biology. I should know - I'm an alumna who has surveyed Coconut Island by land and sea more times than I can count. Have a great time, and don't forget to smell the flowers.

The Cheerful Atheist said...

I get asked almost every single day "Why did you become an archaeologist?" It is usually accompanied by at least one bad joke (eg. "Find any gold yet"? or "Will you dig up my garden for me"?). Also, seemingly every single person I have ever met wanted to be an archaeologist as a kid.

Sometimes, I wish people would be more original. But I can relate to having stories to tell and wanting to tell them. I strongly agree that you have to do what you love, even if it takes a long time to get there!

I enjoy your blog and I am pleased to learn more about you as a person. Keep it up!

Anonymous said...

Everyone: Please do make blog entries such as this. I love reading about why people picked their profession. I tend to ask IRL, but online it's a bit too much of a random comment to bloggers one has never interacted with before...

The Cheerful Atheist, I don't know about the others, but archaeologist and paleontologist were but two of thousands and tens of thousands of different professions I wanted while growing up. I even wanted to become weird things like a stuntman, or a hermit (what do you mean it's not a job?! ;-D ). I loved science, art, and so on, had a lot of books about different fields in science. If you're in the USA though, I'm going to presume people were influenced by Indiana Jones, and possibly Tomb Raider, and hence the ridiculous amount of people who once wanted to join your profession.

The Cheerful Atheist said...

I admit that I was definitely influenced by Indiana Jones. I'm not sure which came first though - whether I loved the movies because I had my eye on becoming an archaeologist or whether I wanted to become an archaeologist because I loved the movies. I'm honestly not sure. Rest assured, we do not regularly fight Nazis or hit booby traps.

I just posted a bit of my own story on my own blog. More of a "day in the life of a real archaeologist" type thing rather than my journey to get there, but my post was inspired by this blog.

I love hearing about all the many different jobs people have tried or thought about trying. Personally, I have gone through quite a few (and I also wanted to be a stunt woman at one time!) and don't regret a single one!

Also, thank you for recognizing the difference between archaeology and paleontology. I always get asked about dinosaurs. They are just off by quite a few million years. :)

Christie Lynn said...

Aw, thanks all of you for your positive comments!

Stephanie - Why are you a rocket scientist? I'd like to know!

Cheerful Athiest - well, I'm glad you enjoyed my post! I loved yours! :)

Stephanie B said...

Short answer, I always wanted to be a writer, but not the starving kind. I also need scholarships (and they didn't offer genetic engineering at the university I was going to). If I went in Engineering Physics, I could get a scholarship from the engineering department AND the physics department. Didn't want to work defense or count sneezes as a QA for Texas Instruments (and I wanted to live somewhere warm), so I went with NASA at Johnson Space Center, twenty years ago today.

And here I am.

Want to know what's funny. My dad is a biologist (or was before he died). He was about plants like you are about slimy marine critters.

Eric Heupel said...

You're so right. I took a heck of a detour. Followed everything but the passions. It was a good ride, but there was little satisfaction in the jobs I did. I earned money. But the cost was high.

Now I'm following those passions. The money's pretty poor, but the satisfaction is a heck of a lot higher.

Congrats again on Hawaii!
Save me a spot for 2011.

Penguin collector: I keep the wounded... said...

As your mom...

Just take one look at our bookshelves and you will see the multitude of science books relating to nature at all age levels - they were yours. We went to the science museum often.

Still, I wouldn't have guessed at your passion, but I did support individually all of the passions you had and have and knew you would choose well.

Nerd runs in the family, gross .. that too. I have always wanted you to be exactly what you wanted to be (no not a marine "scientist" --sorry wouldn't resist -- but whatever that turned out to be). I am so delighted that you are who you are. I was blessed to have had those years to cultivate and support and delight in watching you engage in your interests, never needing to know where any of it would lead.

I remember all the sticky notes tabs attached to pages about all sorts of animals, and the dozen encyclopedias you had opened as you followed your search for related information -- I wanted to pissed about the mess --but instead I was delighted by a seven or eight-year old who would do that. I relish the memory.

In college, I thought you would be a vet -- Yet, your love of the nasty time-consuming, nitty-gritty love of the details of research oddly surprised me - perhaps as it is everything I have always hated (Experiments ruined my pleasure of science ... dropping physics and chemistry, so fell into math by default - the abstract fascinating me).

How more unlike me could you be ... the slimy icky stuff you like to touch, not to mention studying microscopic stuff for hours for minute details.

Unless of course we start talking about the quirky and nerdy .. we both get engrossed in the detail ... we both know how we much are alike and I know how blessed you are in the ways we are not.

I do suspect, however, whatever you call yourself, you will always so much more than you may realize. Because by your nature, you pursue your passions, outspoken, and without reservation ... and your talents and interests are as abundant as they are diverse.

I am one of the most lucky and blessed people in the world as I have had two children as different as night and day (the detail of your chosen passions, being the least of your differences) whom I have had same delight in who you each are -- blessed and delighted in seeing and being a small part of your lives as you each grew into who you are .. and you have both just begun.

Drove you both crazy, but I have always had a favorite daughter and favorite son ... I was never lying ... how can you compare infinity and answer which is greater.

Eva said...

I just finally read this whole thing. What an awesome story! And congratulations on Hawaii!

(I like this post better than the one you have on the 16th place of the Quarks semi-finals, by the way. It doesn't matter at this point, of course. And I didn't vote for you because I voted for myself, but you know, other than my own post (hehe), this might be my favourite.)

Anonymous said...

hey I want to get into marine biology how should I start since im just a kid and i don`t live near the ocean and my parents think think im insane

Christie Lynn said...

Anonymous: Start by doing well in school, particularly in science! If you truly like biology, you can pursue an undergraduate degree in it (when you get that old) at a school with some kick-butt marine bio classes and you'll be well on your way :)

Anonymous said...

I'm almost 14 years old and I really want to be a marine biologist. The problem is: I live in Iowa. No oceans. No aquatic animals. And no sea turtles. :( My parents don't know what kind of education I need and NO ONE in Iowa knows either! I need help I don't know what to do from here