"So What Do You Study?"

A lot of people ask me if I’m a marine biologist, or refer to me as one when they talk about my work. There’s nothing wrong about it, exactly, but I don’t really identify as one. My PhD will technically be in biological oceanography, and while the two disciplines are similar there are some key differences. The distinction between the two isn’t codified by anyone, as far as I know, and there is probably a lot of overlap. This is how I was taught they are different. Feel free to comment with your (constructive) thoughts.

Marine biologists study the biology of organisms that live in the ocean: things like anatomy, physiology, behavior, disease, etc. A marine biologist knows the ins and outs of marine organisms. Because there is a huge amount of diversity in the ocean, marine biologists usually have a specialty, such as fish, cephalopods, mollusks, seaweeds, sponges… 

These jerks…

A biological oceanographer, on the other hand, studies the relationships between marine organisms, and the relationship between these organisms and the ocean. In other words, they are more concerned with things like food webs, predator-prey interactions, and nutrient availability than they are with the anatomy of an octopus, for example. Of course anatomy and behavior and things like that are important to ecology, but we’re less concerned with the details than we are with the overall outcome. Biological oceanography is also called ocean ecology, a term I think is WAY easier to understand, but that’s not what will be written on my degree, sadly.

More this, less dolphins.

To complicate the matter further, I specifically study the ecology of marine microbes, which makes me a marine microbial ecologist (or a microbial oceanographer). But I also work with DNA a lot, so you could call me a marine molecular ecologist. These terms mean absolutely nothing to most people. I can wax eloquent about how there are more microbes in the ocean then there are stars in the universe, but at the end of the day, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s work is going to be way more accessible than mine. The ocean, to most people, is a big blue mystery full of dolphins and Sharknado. Even when people do talk about all the amazing life in the ocean, microbes aren’t even on the radar. Vampire squid and mantis shrimp are relatable. You can’t teach a dinoflagellate to do tricks at Sea World. They are, however, watching you while you swim.

Maybe not as scary as this guy, but definitely creepy.

Anyway, this is why I experience a tiny rage every time someone asks me if I want to work in aquarium. Marine biologists work in aquariums, right?

P.S. I also cannot give you superpowers, develop a zombie plague, or cure your herpes. Please stop asking.


Frank Hurley :: Hamilton hand-netting for macro-plankton from Aurora, ca. 1912. Silver gelatin print / src: State Library of New South Wales
Oceanography: marine biological programme and other zoological and botanical activities. Photographs from the first Australasian Antarctic Expedition, 1911-1914

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I’m a fifth year PhD student in biological oceanography, and my research involves a group of microorganisms that were discovered in the ocean just twenty years ago: the mesophilic (“moderate-loving”) archaea. Archaea are single-celled organisms that may belong to the most ancient evolutionary lineage on earth. It was once believed that archaea could only be found in extreme environments: hydrothermal vents, hot springs, extremely salty environments, and the guts of ruminant animals such as cows. However, we now know that archaea can be found in a variety of environments, from the deep ocean to soils. I’m interested in studying how the archaea make a living in the sea, and how they interact with other single-celled organisms. How do they obtain carbon and energy? How fast do they grow? What roles do they play in the environment? I use a variety of molecular techniques and bioinformatics tools to try to answer these questions. The picture above was taken on my latest research cruise. I’m getting ready to filter the biomass out of some seawater to take back to the lab for analysis.