'Jerry, at that moment… I was a marine biologist!'

By Chris Mooney | June 4, 2007 11:12 am

posted by Sheril R. Kirshenbaum

Lifeaquaticposter.jpgTell people you’re a marine biologist and they usually react one of two ways.. ‘I wanted to be a marine biologist when I was little!’ or ‘You probably never hear this but, ever seen that episode of Seinfeld with George?’ [Before I go on, for future reference, Yes, I’ve seen it. And on the Seinfeld note, please stop telling me I look like Elaine.]

It’s encouraging that people remember something from pop culture relevant to what I do. I don’t realistically expect friends to reference the 2003 Pew Oceans Report, so this collective interest in my field for whatever reason is something. Folks know and appreciate whales and dolphins, and yes, even my specialty – the majestic sea cucumber.

To the first statement, I like that so many say they wanted to be a marine biologist once upon a time. Leaves me wondering, what happened to make them become salespeople, bankers, and computer engineers? Then again, I probably shouldn’t worry about that too much.. as the job market would be a lot more competitive if all these supposed marine biologists followed through. I’m satisfied knowing mine is a sexy profession and the general public are as fascinated with the field as Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Bill Murray.

As for me, I must admit I’m an accidental marine biologist. I didn’t fall into the group of kids staring up at the big blue whale at the American Museum of Natural History thinking I just had to study those things. Fish seemed to have nothing on dinosaurs, primates, or astrobiology for that matter. I imagined myself as one those khaki outfitted paleontologists in Jurassic Park, or maybe the next Jane Goodall or Carl Sagan. But then, I wanted to do conservation work and you guessed it – oceans are the realm in which one can have the greatest impact right now. Terrestrial landscapes have arguably been studied to exhaustion and dinos, well, they’re extinct already. I still may be an astrobiologist. I’m only 27 after all.

Sein_ep514.jpgSo here I am. Doing my part to keep oceans healthy and manatees swimming. And would you believe it? These critters and the complex dynamics that govern their world turn out to be the most interesting of all. There’s just so much there we don’t know.

Today I’m headed to DC for Capitol Hill Oceans Week (CHOW) – a gathering of the biggest players in the oceans game. Stakeholders from all walks of life converge in the nation’s capitol to discuss current ocean and coastal issues. Members of Congress, federal and state representatives, marine scientists, policy wonks, conservation junkies, fishermen, and on and on. My people. This year, perhaps we’ll learn something new. The important thing is that these discussions keep happening and the dialog continues to roll on as we move toward better oceans governance. Because as George Costanza knows, marine science appeals to everyone. Get all of us on the same page and just maybe, like Kramer said, ‘Wow, a hole in one.’

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Politics and Science

Comments (14)

  1. So, Sheril, have you ever read Kaplan’s Sensuous Seas: Tales of a Marine Biologist? It’s not as funny as Seinfeld, but it is weirder and sexier.

    Click my name for a review.

    Good luck in DC. Perhaps if we were seahorse-like, the Congress would take a different view of reproductive rights. :)

  2. Sea cucumbers rock! But Seinfeld had to go with charismatic megafauna, of course.

  3. Sam Boyarsky

    So, I wanted to be a marine biologist (after I was done wanting to be an archaeologist). I spent many nights in my middle and high school years waiting up hoping to watch a sea turtle lay eggs, or a nest to hatch. I have no idea why I didn’t more actively pursue that when I got to college, but that’s not the turn that my life took.
    I’ll be interested in a report from CHOW, what the hot issues are, and what you learn.

  4. jackd

    You and Chris should get the “Posted by:” line up at the top of the article.

  5. Susan L.

    Enjoyed reading a more personal side of a gifted science blogger. You make everything seem more interesting and fun. Kudos to Chris Mooney for recogizing that!

  6. Chris Mooney

    Sheril’s talents have certainly been recognized and I’m hoping she’ll be blogging under her own name soon enough.

    Meanwhile, a propos of this post are some Frank Zappa lyrics:

    My name is Nando,
    I’m a marine biologist.
    All my friends,
    They call me ‘Do’.
    (Hi, Do!)

    All my family,
    From someplace in this area,
    And they complain if I talk about this horrible pizza
    During the show.


    When I get off, I get plastered.
    I swim till I fall on the jellyfish.
    Then I find me some academic kind of illustrator,
    I describe the little dangling utensils on this thing,
    And tell him to draw it up
    So it looks just like a brand new jellyfish.

    I fuss an’ I cuss and I keep on swimmin’,
    Till my snorkel puffs up an’ turns red.
    I drool on my shorts,
    I do some water sports,
    Then I take the jellyfish back to my house
    And stick it in the bed!

    Um, yeah. Rock on, Sheril

  7. Sheril,

    Send a note and let’s meet. I’m here too, through Wed. mpowell at oceanconservancy dot org

    I agree with you that now’s an ocean moment, and thanks for blogging oceans. Carnival of the blue this Friday at blogfish!!

    Mark Powell

  8. Sheril Kirshenbaum

    I like that both sea cucumbers and I ‘rock’ today đŸ˜‰ I’m in good company then.

    Glad folks seem to enjoy my musings so far. I look forward to exploring new directions here at The Intersection as blogging definitely helps me develop ideas..

    not to mention provides the opportunity to learn something new about Frank Zappa. Thanks Chris

  9. Kassandra

    Can’t wait to see you! And thanks for writing science in a manner that makes all these topics approachable by everyone (not to mention interesting reading for the work procrastinators out there)!

    CHOW has been quiet for us – not a lot of meeting requests. Funny, eh?

    Travel safe and pop in when you can.

  10. Jelena

    Before you, I would never have considered Sea Cuc’s such an interesting under water animal to observe. Now, when I visit aquariums, I like to seek out the little critters and tap on their windows to make them dance.

  11. The “Organic” Intellectual

    Sheril, what are the differences between you and most who dream or daydream about being a marine biologist? Probably skill, talent, opportunity, privilege, luck, inner discipline, internal turmoil leading to a driven personality, etc. etc. Not all unique to you, but unique enough to lead you towards your dreams and into the circles of power at Duke and DC.

    Did pop culture influence you down your path???

    Yes, pop culture makes science more interesting and accessible, but it also takes serious problems and research and blurs the lines between reality and escaping reality?

    As Steven Colbert reported, Bowling for Columbine didn’t exactly get the guns off the street and to add, Fahrenheit 9/11 didn’t exactly keep Bush out of office.

    In a day when the child (Capitalism) has killed the mother (Democracy), profit is king. In a system with no accountability, standing against profit leaves us powerless to impact policy. Cases in point: Iraq war, Bush’s environmental policy, rebuilding New Orleans.

    Pop culture is the retreat into which the truth tellers turn when they lack meaningful access to power. Its not terrible that we do this. We must first climb out of the hole before we can climb up the mountain. Yes, pop culture influences. Bush’s recent announcement on Global Warming tells me that Gore did better than Moore.

    But the real point of this post is to say that this third culture is not the answer. Yes, bridging the gap between the science and literary intellectuals will make science more interesting and accessible. But it will do nothing to change the power structure and make it more accountable, humane or about equality.

    To do that, we need to reach a “fourth culture” or more accurately an “organic culture”. This would be to seek out and listen to the “organic intellectuals” as Antonio Gramsci named them. The intellectuals that are from the people most affected by systems of oppression, violence, poverty, and overall powerlessnees. The answers to society’s problems are found in the experiences of the people who face their harshness directly.

    For example, I would guess that Sheril does not suffer much from overfishing the fisheries (a product of Capitalism and profit seeking itself). But the fisherman do. And if given a democratic process where they could create the rules governing fisheries and overcome the tragedy of the commons, they would create sustainable laws because it is in their best interest in the long term. Same with poverty, and urban education, and Iraqi citizens seeking peace.

    “First, second and third culture” intellectuals should use our privilege and access to listen to give voice and platforms to the “organic” intellectuals. If we did this, we could re-direct our retreating strategy, and begin uniting across class, race and educational boundaries. Maybe we could even form a third political party that truly represents people and peace and the environment and not profit.


  12. Linda

    Seth, what you write certainly gives food for thought. I think it would be a world, given what you suppose, that I would like to take an active part in developing. Less greed, more heart, more humanity.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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