I feel the need to write this down because the self-doubt and denial are a bit overwhelming at the moment. There’s a PhD opportunity in South Africa to study right whales that I want to apply for. But why? Well duh, because I love whales. That would literally be my dream job – something I’ve waited my whole life for. To live in a beautiful country, by the ocean, and study whales each and every day. Working my butt off to make a difference in the scientific community. Bless Tom’s heart, he told me to go for it. But what if I happened to be accepted? What would Tom and Marina do? We’d be thousands of miles away from family. Grandparents. Tom might be able to teach, but we’d have no friends initially. Everything would be foreign. New. And we’d take a significant income drop. Would I be ok leaving photography and my wonderful clients behind? And working so hard for very little money? And then what would Marina do for school? What if my program went longer than I wanted? And then what happens when I graduate, assuming I do. Do I teach? Work for a university? Continue doing what I’ve been doing and traveling on my own and performing self-funded research, but then risk not being able to get back into photography or have any remaining clients or any favorable income? And if I just go back to what I’m doing now, was it worth it? All of that change, just for a little more education? I mean, I love the idea of learning. I want to have as much education as possible. And I want to be taken more seriously. But is that the right path, and is that worth it?
I’m at a loss. I don’t know if a PhD will change anything. But on the other hand, I feel worthless where I’m currently at. I’ve wanted to be a marine biologist since I was 3. Just about everyone who knows me or who knew me in school knew that was my dream. I was the “orca lady” and the “whale person”. I even painted an ocean mural at my high school in the biology classroom. My teachers and professors all worked hard to encourage me, and just about every single paper or project I did revolved around whales, dolphins, or the ocean somehow. My high school senior project was about becoming a marine veterinarian. My bioethics project as a freshman in college was on the systems of language and communications in animals, with emphasis on the highly intelligent capabilities of dolphins. For invertebrate biology, my main project studied the chromatophores of various octopi – my professor even got approval to get a saltwater aquarium and an octopus tank for our lab – for me! My senior capstone project in undergrad was on marine biology. On our May term trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, I was the first one that got to jump in the ocean with sharks and sea lions because everyone knew I was “the ocean girl”. And my photography professor was so passionate about encouraging me that she helped arrange a behind-the-scenes tour and whale shark swim for me at the Georgia Aquarium – while we were in town for a photography conference! In graduate school, every single journal article I presented on was on killer whale genetics. I also worked as a fisheries biologist at a local hatchery. I’ve been a marine naturalist. I was a gray whale research intern and helped with photo identification and documentation of Oregon’s resident gray whales. I’ve led trips in Hawaii, California, Washington, Oregon, Mexico, and Norway and studied in both the arctic and the Caribbean. I founded a research and educational outreach company to self-fund our projects and to reach out to schools and teach about my passions. AND, I’ve built a 6-figure business from the ground up. I married my best friend. We have an amazingly beautiful daughter and three dogs. We just bought our first house, designed a brand-new studio space, and we live in a truly beautiful area. But why do I feel like I’m still missing something? Isn’t all of that enough?
I think I feel like I’m missing something because sometimes people don’t take me seriously. And I know that’s going to happen with every field and every job. But when I tell people I’m a marine biologist, the first question is always: “Oh, where’d you go to school?” And when I tell them, they always seem a little bit disappointed. I even had one lady tell me “oh so you’re not a REAL marine biologist”. Do I really need a PhD to make me a REAL marine biologist? I have literally read books about the ocean since I was THREE! I study textbooks for fun. I travel to the ocean almost monthly (in non-covid years) and learn as much as I can. I’ve had internships and jobs working with marine life. I’ve met scientists and experts in my field from literally all around the world and we’ve shared passions and knowledge. I’ve attended conferences and presented my research. No, I didn’t go to school directly for marine biology, but my goodness, my teachers and professors sure worked hard to make sure I had the background I needed to succeed. I’ve studied in-depth on ocean invertebrates and marine biodiversity. I’ve focused on ecological fundamentals and the anatomy of cetaceans as well as genetic implications and the importance of keystone species such as sharks. I talk about the top-down effects of ocean ecosystems. Since I was 11, I’ve studied the population structure and social relationships of endangered orca pods. I even made ethograms from watching the KeikoCam (Free Willy) when I was 8! I talk with other scientists about how bleak our oceans look if any more fisheries collapse as well as the acidification and long-reaching effects of coral bleaching due to the warming of our oceans. On top of all of that, I’ve helped conservation programs with animal exploitation work on shark finning, overfishing, and dolphin captivity. What more do I need to prove myself? A PhD studying whales, apparently.
I also feel like girls in science have it so rough – we either continue education and significantly decrease our window of opportunity to find a spouse and potentially reproduce, that is, if that’s an important goal. Or we pause along the way to find new goals – i.e. get married, have kids, and somehow try to keep alive that childhood passion without feeling like a failure because you don’t have 3 more letters to add to your name. I’ve even had people tell me that once I have kids, there goes my job. My dreams. “Good luck traveling again!” Everyone seems to have an opinion, and I almost think it’s because deep down the people who are making those comments are miserable and full of regret. They see their lives lacking something meaningful, so they want to make a point of bringing others down. I’ve lived my entire life being told I couldn’t do marine biology because I was from the Midwest, and now that I’ve accomplished most of that goal via Plan B’s and alternate routes, I have a desire to teach others that they CAN do it if they put their minds to it. I love reaching out to the younger generations and inspiring them to help save our oceans and to protect marine life. I’ve helped connect middle school, high school, and college students to professors, internships, and graduate programs to help them be a little further along than I was in the beginning, all because of my marine biology background that I now have. Doesn’t that count as making a difference to the scientific community?
I remember one day early on during my freshman year of college when I told one of my favorite professors that I never saw myself in a lab. I wanted to do hands-on learning and work with animals directly – he politely chuckled and told me that was a pretty tall order. Most scientific positions had some sort of lab component, and definitely writing components. I didn’t like his answer but thanks to college, I eventually learned to love lab work. I even learned to love scientific writing (for the most part). My master’s program was in genomics and it was definitely a challenge for me – my mind works on an ecological level more than a cellular level, but I’m so thankful for my background and my schooling. Ironically, at this very time, I have a career as a photographer with a side gig as a marine biologist studying marine animals “hands-on” so to speak (well, we almost always discourage touching marine animals, but you know what I mean). I get to study marine life above and below the surface – I have been underwater with hundreds of sharks and face to face with whales. I’ve been stung by jellyfish and almost attacked by a sea lion. I’ve swam with a pod of orcas in frigid waters and a very rare beaked whale on a chance encounter. I’ve had dolphins echolocate at me and my unborn child, and I had a very aggressive oceanic whitetip shark show a little too much interest in me. But nothing beats being out on (or in) the ocean. And after defending myself on all levels, I feel accomplished yet also eager for more.
Which I guess leads me to the here and now: do I apply for my dream job/dream schooling? Or continue with the way things are now, which is pretty darn good? If you’ve made it this far, thanks for listening to my slightly scientific, overly dramatic ted talk.
We are husband & wife biologists traveling to make a difference while studying the ocean and its inhabitants.