…I wish that what I did sounded a bit less interesting.
Let me explain: I really do love what I do, but what I dread more than anything else is telling ‘non marine biologists’ about it. You see, there are (generally) only two responses that you get when you tell someone that you are a marine biologist:
1) “So what the hell are you going to do with that?” often accompanied by a look of bemusement suggesting that you are currently in the process of throwing your life away
Or, and I think this is actually worse…
2) “Wow, so do you get to work with (swim with) sharks, dolphins, whales, turtles (etc.) then?”
If you are a marine biologist I strongly suspect you have encountered these reactions yourself. The first response can be combated by an inner smugness that you really are doing something that you love, and that there is no amount of money that would convince you to sacrifice your freedom for the chains associated with many jobs in the ‘real world’.
With the second response, however, you find a sudden sense of dread washes over you because you know that the next thing you have to do is disappoint this person. By ‘disappoint’, I am referring to the point in the conversation where you have to tell them about your research area of choice, which for the majority of us involves something far less exciting to Joe Public than a life resuscitating sea turtles. For me this involves trying to bestow upon them the wonders of phytoplankton. It doesn’t matter what you say (they produce half the oxygen we breathe, they support everything else in the ocean, they will probably replace petrol as a source of transport fuel, or that they produce toxins that could be used to kill cancer cells), this will never make up for the initial image they probably had of you as some sort of contemporary Jack Cousteau figure. Often their eyes begin to wander and you get the distinct impression that their interest in your occupation is fleeing from the scene of the conversation. As it was recently put, by a fellow phytoplankton fanatic (@Phytoplanktonic) on twitter , “I felt [that] if I said I was working on [the] cuteness scale of seal pups the reaction would be different”.
I guess us marine biologists are lucky that our science has a glamorous alter-ego, no doubt helped by stunning programs such as ‘Frozen Planet’ and ‘Blue Planet’. However, in their search for breathtaking footage these programs tend to focus on charismatic megafauna (a term often cynically employed by marine biologists to describe dolphins, sharks, turtles etc.), rarely giving much screen-time to equally stunning and interesting invertebrates and microscopic organisms (check out this diatom, a beautifully symmetrical algal cell that is made of glass!). Sometimes I find myself peering down the microscope and just watching ‘my phytoplankton’; they can be truly mesmerizing! I find it even more incredible when I consider that all of these critters are going about their daily lives in what, to the naked eye at least, is empty seawater. And this I think captures the essence of the problem: most people don’t have any real appreciation for these amazing creatures; they simply struggle to imagine tiny worlds that they can’t directly observe and experience. I think my office mate (@esargent184), who loves algae enough to have a tattoo of them, pretty much summed it up with the following comment: “I wish plankton were big enough to see in an aquarium so that I could keep them at home and watch everything they do.” When I asked her “how big would you like them to be?”, she replied with “big enough to cuddle.” You see, even the most devout phytoplankton fanatic is a complete sucker for charismatic megafauna, so what chance does the non marine biologist have? Perhaps I will just have to start telling people that I’m working on the cuteness scale of seal pups, although I suspect they will then begin to ask, “so what the hell are you going to do with that?”
David Aldridge has a PhD in Marine Science from The National Oceanography Centre, Southampton. He is now planning his escape from academia. He is the founder and editor of Words in mOcean.
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