I’m a marine biologist, but…

…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:

This is what most of my friends think I do at work (from http://bit.ly/waMItn)

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’.

No, I’ve never resuscitated a sea-turtle… please stop asking!

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”.

A diatom made from glass

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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12 thoughts on “I’m a marine biologist, but…

  1. Oh boy, I totally understand this. When I say I’m a marine biologist, it’s usually met with awe and excitement, and it buys me some time to look cool for a few minutes. Once I mention the word “plankton” though, that’s it. I feel this need to defend it, some kind of duty to justify why plankton are important, or even interesting! Having spoken to friends and family, one of the main difficulties is that many people don’t even know what they look like, and I think they become something of an abstract concept. I have also watched my plankton under the microscope and thought how amazing they are. When the light shines through my giant Thalassiosira cells, they look beautiful! I wish I could take a photo and show anyone I talk to about my PhD who rolls their eyes at “plankton research”.

    Also, I would also love giant huggable plankton to have in a fish tank!

  2. You’ve hit the nail on the head with the whole ‘buys me enough time to look cool for a few minutes’ thing. I used to try and delay mentioning the P word for as long as possible, in order to revel in their excitement, but now I just blurt it right out at the begining of the conversation before they have the chance to become too excited. That way you avoid the anticlimax and I think it’s easier that way to get people interested when they start with a lower opinion of your ‘coolness’.

  3. I must admit, I sometimes just go with the dolphin-riding thing and see how many obviously wrong facts I can fit into the conversation before they catch on.

  4. One thing you didn’t touch on is field work. Even phytoplankton ecologists occassionally are out sampling in some really interesting places. I have found that bringing this up in the description of your work tends to back fire as Joe Public now doesn’t care about what you work on & resents you for what he assumes is are all expenses paid holidays on cruise ships.

  5. Curvaceous and doe-eyed young lady: “Wow, you’re a marine biologist!? You must do lots of diving on coral reefs, right?”

    Me: “Er, no. Never dived in my life, don’t intend to start now. In fact I spend most of my life surrounded by death, wading through decaying fish and seaweed in the ar*e end of a nuclear power station… Oh, right. OK, no worries, see you later, then…”

    C&D-EYL wanders off to talk to mortuary attendant, Nazi, accountant, or in fact anyone at all less depressing…

  6. Sounds tough! If I was you I would treat myself and go with the ‘dolphin-riding’ thing next time. Why should the mortuary attendants, Nazis, and accountants get all the girls!?

  7. Plainly I’ve been doing *something* wrong 😉 It reminds me of the Seinfeld episode “The Marine Biologist”…

  8. Couldn’t agree more with this post! On the subject, I’d highly recommend the illuminating films about phytoplankton made by Cytographics, whether for the few who already appreciate the beauty of these tiny organisms or the masses who don’t yet know what they’re missing…

  9. Well being a girl i get this question ” So after you phd what next ?” ” research ” “so your really going to swim with that dolphins and all that ” ” no no I want to work with this species of ………” “Is that a fish ?” ” no its not ” ” oh nice to meet you ,be careful with all those sharks and all” sigh!

  10. I’m an aspiring Marine Biologist going into my senior year of high school, and don’t get me wrong, I love the sharks dolphins whales turtles and all those guys death. But in 6th grade I stared dumbfounded at Bill Nye when I learned there were mini organisms in the ocean that swam around. How crazy was that! He was holding a cup with mini little buggers SWIMMING that I couldn’t see! and I desperately searched for zooplankton and phytoplankton for 3 years (before realizing I had spelled it wrong all along). And than when i found out about dinoflagellate oh don’t get me started!!! My brother has already asked me why the heck I’d want to sit there staring at coral all day. Someday they’ll all learn.

  11. im in the 7th grade and ever since i was little i have ALWAYS wanted to be a marine biologist i REALLY REALLY love turtles so i hope i get to work with them if i choose to become one in the future :))

  12. Be less pessimistic! Maybe students will join in the fight if they see it as a less-bleak alternative

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