A Marine Biologist’s Story (#IAmScience)

By Christie Wilcox | January 27, 2012 4:38 pm

In the wake of Science Online 2012, a new hashtag has emerged on twitter: #Iamscience.


I, too, am science. A few years ago, when I was about to begin my PhD, I wrote my I Am Science story. I am reposting it now, in honor of the hashtag. If you’re on twitter, definitely check out all the great stories being told!

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 other 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.” 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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About Christie Wilcox

Christie Wilcox is a science writer and PhD Student at the University of Hawaii, where she studies the protein toxins in venomous fish. She is renowned in the science blogosphere for her delicate balance of contemporary science and scientific perspective seasoned with just the right amount of wit. Her award-winning posts have been featured in The Open Laboratory: The Best Science Writing On Blogs four years running and landed on the pages of major media outlets including The New York Times and Scientific American. To learn more about her life and work, check out her webpage or follow her on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook.

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