“Could you explain the oceanography part of your bio? As an aspiring marine scientist with a passion for games, I’m interested in hearing about your background.”
I always loved science as a kid. In college I decided I wanted to be an oceanographer, and majored in biology. I also picked up a major in philosophy, because biology at the undergraduate level is mostly memorization, and the philosophy at least allowed me to think. I also did internships at the National Aquarium in Baltimore and spent a summer at the University of Maryland’s Horn Point lab.
I was accepted to a few graduate programs, but ultimately went with the one from the University of Texas at Austin. I grew up in Texas (I was an army brat, so I grew up in a lot of places, but Texas had made the best impression). I had also spent some time at the sleepy beach town of Port Aransas, which is the where UT’s marine lab is still located. I hit it off with the professor who eventually became my adviser and found his research on crustaceans fascinating. UT also offered the best package of financial assistance and I was determined not to get buried under student loans.
I spent a year in Austin doing some of the base graduate level classes (evolution, statistics, molecular biology) and then moved to Port Aransas where I lived for 5 additional years. My area of study was benthic ecology, which means things that live on the ocean floor (and is the opposite of pelagic, which means stuff that live in the water like plankton, jellyfish and many fish). Benthic ecology involves some fish, but is mostly invertebrates. I love invertebrates. In the marine ecosystem, it means you are looking a lot at worms, clams and crustaceans. At my peak, I estimate I knew the scientific name of about 3000 species of Gulf of Mexico invertebrates.
My dissertation was called something like “Genetic diversity in harpacticoid copepods exposed to chronic contamination at offshore oil and gas wells.” This was the era where PCR allowed DNA sequencing using very small tissue samples, which was revolutionary for the time. Prior to that, you had to gather huge tissue samples, which made it hard to work on individual small organisms. Oil and gas is of course of major importance to the Texas economy. Despite the occasional news report of a wrecked tanker or oil well blow out, overall the petrochemical industry has a pretty good record of not dumping their product all over the ocean. (That would after all, be giving up the very product they are collecting.) But chronic exposure is another story. Low levels of hydrocarbons and heavy metals such as lead and cadmium can contaminate the sediment around oil wells, and while they won’t kill many animals outright, they can cause smaller, long term effects.
If all of that is too technical, I’ll just say that graduate school was hard and stressful but a lot of fun. I spent a lot of time on boats, including several overnight trips on research cruises (and do not think of cruise-ship comfort when I use the term “cruise”). I spent a lot of time on the beach, or estuaries, or salt marshes, all of which are beautiful environments. I had a pet tank stocked with mantis shrimp and octopus. I saw sharks and whales and manatees and sea turtles. I went fishing a lot. I was quite broke (most scientists are) but I got to meet a lot of really smart people from around the world. I got to teach the occasional course to undergraduates, and I always loved it. I’d still teach today if I had the time. When I retire, I will probably go back to teaching.
When I finished my Ph.D. I was offered a research position at the University of South Carolina, which also has a storied marine science program. This was not a tenure-track position (the holy grail for academia and just as rare) but it was a good job and almost doubled my pay. I ran the lab of a professor who had been promoted to dean. I think I published 5-6 papers, which isn’t bad for the few years I was in science. I still got out in the field some, but less, and I spent a lot of time writing grant proposals and typing up results. Scrounging for research funds even then was challenging, and I can only imagine how much worse it has gotten, and how much harder it is about to get for poor scientists in the USA. You can make decent money in medical research or working for a company, but being a scientist even at a major research university doesn’t pay nearly what it should given the high degree of technical expertise it requires and the ultimate benefit it can provide to society. But anyway.
The thing that ultimately convinced me that I was in the wrong career was that so many of my colleagues would go home, have dinner, and then go back to the lab to work on their experiments. I wanted to play games after dinner. Science is a career where the rewards are largely limited to your own personal passion for the work. I realized I didn’t have the passion that my coworkers had, and it wasn’t fair to them or the industry to keep doing something that I didn’t love. So I switched careers. And never looked back. While I still would rather play games than go back to work after dinner, I am confident in saying that I do love my career now. I still love the ocean too. For me, it makes a better hobby than a career.