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Sunday, 3 February 2008

Career Guide 1: Marine Biologist

Becoming a Marine Biologist

What is marine biology and what is a marine biologist?

This is a harder question to answer than you may imagine! Marine biology is the field of knowledge relating to marine organisms. But what is a marine biologist? To many, it means being a dolphin trainer but to others it means managing a marine wildlife sanctuary.

There are many answers to this question and I would say that a marine biologist is someone who works in some way in studying, observing, protecting, or managing marine organisms, be they plant or animal. If you study marine fish populations you are a marine biologist. If you manage a marine wildlife preserve and are concerned with protection of marine organisms there, then you too are a marine biologist.

You know you're a marine biologist if you have a notebook or computer in which you record information often about marine organisms. But you may also be a marine biologist if you are collecting sponges, or looking for bioactive drugs that might help people in curing disease. You may be counting marine creatures, doing DNA sequencing of them, observing them in the laboratory or making theoretical models predicting their abundance once fishing is decreased. So marine biologists do many things, but what they have in common is working with marine organisms.

I Want to Train Dolphins and Whales

Here's my advice. Love dolphins and whales. Admire their beauty and their grace as they swim and move through their scores of exciting behavioral maneuvers. Worry about the whales, for many of them are in danger. Support organizations that try to conserve whales.

Okay. Now please keep in mind that there are VERY FEW people in the world who study whales or other marine mammals! Same thing for dolphin trainers. Yes there are many public aquaria in the United States, but the number of people that work with dolphins as trainers are also very few. Most emails I get start with "I have always wanted to be a dolphin trainer." Fine, but you better keep your options open, just the way aspiring rock stars usually have a "day job." If every person who wanted to study dolphins went on to do so, then just about every dolphin would have its own personal observer! You are in a vast company because everyone loves dolphins. The important point is: MARINE BIOLOGY IS A LOT MORE THAN DOLPHINS. There are many important areas that you can study. Dolphins are an important part, but only a part, of the universe of marine biology. (Same goes for you shark fans.)

If you truly wanted to do research on marine mammals you could enter this field through one of two routes. First, you could become a biology major in college, taking courses in vertebrate biology, physiology and evolution. Most marine mammalogists were biology majors in college. As an alternative, you could become a veterinarian, with the ultimate hope of understanding mammalian anatomy, physiology, and biochemistry, and understanding the biology of mammals and their ailments. This would be a very rare route, although an interesting one.

Folks with either sort of training might find their way into aquaria and become dolphin trainers. I have to admit: I do not see dolphin trainers as marine biologists, really, even though some of them may educate the public.

Most marine mammalogists work hard at studying the behavior and physiology (functioning in the physical and chemical environment) of marine mammals, do observations on population sizes and migration routes, devise elaborate population models so that we can conserve marine mammal species, and many other things that involve tedious and hard work. They are trained biologists that might have a degree ranging from a bachelors of science to a doctors degree. If you want to learn a bit more about this, see the Society for Marine Mammalogy career website with some answers to questions.

So...what to do? Become a marine biologist or support your local marine biologist! There is a lot to do if you want to understand and save the ocean's creatures. Get to work!!

I Want to Become a Marine Biologist

Here's my advice on what to do:

If you live on the shore, then explore it! Some places are unsafe, especially rocky shores on open wavy coastlines. But most are filled with wonder. Find some seaweeds and marine animals. Take a look at them. Get a little 2 gallon glass aquarium and fill it with sea water. Then put some creatures in the tank and watch them. You may want to have an inexpensive pump and air stone to keep the tank from losing its oxygen.

If you don't live on the shore, go to a stream or lakeside. Turn over rocks and look at the creatures there. Try to figure out what they are. There are lots of guides to freshwater creatures. Try to identify the creatures. Get a little 2 gallon glass aquarium and fill it with fresh water. Look at the creatures and see what they do. This type of curiosity is what started many biologists on their way to fame and fortune.

Go to a public aquarium. There are lots of aquaria in America. Some of them are simply fantastic and many have fun exhibits including live creatures and lots of information. If you belong to a scout troop or if you have some friends, have your parents take you and your friends as a group. Take a note pad and draw pictures of the creatures you see. These days, many of us have digital cameras. Bring one and take pictures. You will amazed what you see when you get home and look at them on a video screen. The same goes for video.

If this gets you even more excited:

You may really WANT to be a marine biologist! If so, you will become a scientist with a specialty in marine biology. If you really want to do this you will be constantly watching everything out there: stars, creepy crawlies in your back yard, and you will like gadgets. Bring stuff home to your room and look at it! Ask your parents about what is dangerous but encourage them to see what you have found.

If you want to become a marine biologist you will have to learn about science. Ask your teachers for projects to do with living creatures. Don't think that you only need to know biology. Marine creatures are made of chemicals and they are physical things, just like plastic toys and wooden chairs. They have strength and chemistry. If you are a barnacle on a rock, you must be STRONG. If you are a blade of seaweed, you must be flexible.

If this gets you EVEN EVEN more excited:

You may REALLY REALLY REALLY WANT to be a marine biologist. If you are lucky you live at the shore. When you turn about 15 you might be able to work in some way or other at a marine laboratory. Your high school science teacher may be able to get you in touch with a scientist at a local marine lab. If not, you might have a great time participating in one or another program designed for teenagers. Some will put you out on a ship and teach you sailing and oceanography (e.g., Sea Education Association). Unfortunately, these will cost money; quite a bit.

While you are in high school you will want to take as much science and math as possible. Believe me, being a marine biologist requires lots of training. Don't think that you will specialize right away, especially in high school. If your school has a course in marine biology or marine science then of course make sure to take it. But you also need a sound background in biology, chemistry, physics, and math.

If this gets you EVEN EVEN EVEN MORE MORE excited:

You may still want to be a marine biologist when you enter college. So which college should you choose? Here's my advice. Don't just choose a college because it has a marine biology program. Many such colleges are not that great and most of the students in such programs don't really intend to have careers in marine biology. Instead, find colleges that are good in science and writing, but also have marine biology faculty. There are lots of colleges in surprising places. For example, Carleton College in Minnesota is a great place but also has a dedicated marine biologist who will inspire you. Gettysburg College in landlocked Pennsylvania is another example of this. Find the best college in which you can enroll and ask whether this college is good in science and writing/communication and also has some marine faculty in whose lab you can work.

Who will advise me about choosing a college?

This is not easy to answer, because it depends on your grades, SAT scores, extracurricular activities, finances, and lots more. Your high school guidance counselor will be a good person to talk about your realistic chances to get into one or another college. You also have to be realistic with yourself about how far away from home you are willing to go. No matter what you choose, it is a good strategy to get to the coast as soon as possible. But believe me, many of the best marine biologists in America completed their bachelors degree in colleges among fields of corn and grass. My thesis advisor hailed from Illinois and went to college in Cornell, Iowa. He arrived at the coast as a graduate student, not even knowing how the ocean smelled, but still became one of the world's prominent marine ecologists.

Should I major in marine biology at college?

Believe me, college is too early a time to become too specialized in marine biology. DON'T necessarily major in marine biology if you really want to become a marine biologist. I know this sounds illogical but it is sound advice. Basic science is still how you should fill up your course work. Yes, take a course or two in marine science or even a minor, but fill up your time with the basics: biology, physics, chemistry, and math and even engineering. It is easier to learn basic science, math, and computer programming now than to pick it up later in graduate or professional school. This is not to say that marine science and environmental science programs should be completely avoided. Some are extremely good at giving a student critical thinking skills across a number of disciplines, while also making students learn the basics of science. Many marine biology problems today require thinking "outside the box," and therefore linkages between different disciplines can be very rewarding. My favorite configuration would be multiple majors that lead a student into creative areas. For example: what about a double major in science and social science, or a triple major between biology, chemistry and engineering? These combinations will lead you toward a basic science education that still lets you apply your knowledge to real-life problems. As many students know, engineering is a major area of academic growth in colleges today. If you want to be a marine biologist, the training you might get in mechanical engineering, engineering skills involved in hydrodynamics and climate studies, or computer skills can be applied directly to ocean science problems.

So what will I become?

Marine biology is a diverse field. Let me quote the University of Liverpool's web page for their Port Erin Marine Laboratory, to give you an idea of one perspective on the future of marine biology students.

"In addition to undertaking Masters or PhD research, many of our graduates have found successful careers in environmental conservation, fisheries protection, water management and environmental consultancies. Many of them work abroad in Europe, the USA, and in the tropics
Former students are now Directors of both of Britain's national marine laboratories in Plymouth, Secretary to the International Whaling Commission and ex-Director of the marine environment for Greenpeace.

Those who have not continued in marine biology entered such diverse fields as journalism with the Sunday Times and flying with the Red Arrows."

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