I get a lot of questions about how I got to where I am now, and I thought it would be best to write a few blogs touching on this subject. Today’s post is dedicated to my journey, and what I have done to get where I am today.
Like most people, my journey to becoming a Marine Science PhD student has not been straightforward. I was born in Hawaii and moved to Maine when I was four years old. I grew up in a small coastal town in Maine, where I spent my summers by the frigid Atlantic where I played in tidepools and frolicked in the waves. During middle and high school I was on the swim team, and I think this shaped me in more ways that I knew at the time. I love swimming, even being underwater in the pool is very relaxing to me and a great way to burn off my stress. It also taught me to be competitive, not only against other teams but with myself. I always wanted to beat my personal record and push myself, and I think this later translated to academics. In addition, it taught me leadership. I was the team captain my senior year of high school and this was an amazing leadership opportunity. But one of the most influential aspects was the job opportunities. I was only 14 years old when I got my first summer job being a swim instructor. I worked a lot and really learned to value money, and I also learned to love working with children and got a lot of extra babysitting jobs. In high school I babysat and worked at the pool almost every weekend and every summer. My swim instructing job lead to lifeguarding, and I was certified when I was 15 or 16 years old, around the same time I got my driver’s license so I was able to work without being dropped off by my parents. I even worked before school at 5 am some days, and would work after school or after my sports practice. I saved up enough money to buy my own car which was amazing. Once I was a junior in high school I got an amazing summer job lifeguarding on a beach, where I got some nice nannying and catering positions.
Choosing where to go to university is always a stressful decision, but I have learned that unless you plan on going to an ivy league school, it really doesn’t matter a huge amount where you went to school. So rather than go into massive debt to go to your dream school I highly recommend applying to a variety of schools and seeing what school offers the best scholarship. I think I applied to 15 or so schools (which can get pricey, but in the long run that price is nothing compared to how expensive schools can get). I ended up at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. I know, no ocean at all, but turns out you don’t need a marine biology degree to become a marine biologist. I initially majored solely in Biology, thinking that I wanted to be pre-med. But looking into the requirements of med school I learned that you need experience, so in the summer of my Sophomore year I dedicated my summer to working, taking anatomy classes (not offered at Dickinson but required by med schools) and took an EMT course. Thankfully I did because I learned that I hated the stress of the medical field, blood makes me nauseous, and I can’t deal with the stress of working with sick people. So I had a time of reflection and started researching other programs that I might be more interested in, and that is how I found the School for Field Studies. An amazing school that has bases all over the world focusing on different fields of environmental science. The one which stood out most to me was located in Turks and Caicos where students learn about Marine Resource Management.
All programs are similar and allow for students to take classes, and then at the end of the semester you have about 10-weeks for an independent research project. This experience was incredible, I was able to become Advanced Open Water SCUBA certified, learn so many important methods and techniques in the marine science field, and met so many likeminded students. I had such an amazing semester that while I was there I applied for another semester abroad with SFS, and ended up going to Tanzania to study Wildlife Management. I loved every second of it, and although it had nothing to do with marine science it still offered me valuable experience doing my own research and writing a paper. Another highlight of my college career was becoming a NOAA Holling’s scholar. I knew I wanted a summer internship and ended up applying for 8 programs. The NOAA internship was the most competitive due to the academic assistance ($26,000 total). The benefits included a $9,500 scholarship per year, and then a full time 10-week internship ($700/week). I did my internship in Maui and studied the diversity and abundance of invertebrates on fishpond walls. It was amazing, and now my dream job is to work for NOAA. It definitely was a defining moment in my career when I realized I knew I wanted to pursue a career in marine science. Following this incredible year abroad I returned to Dickinson and was able to add Environmental Science as a second major, work for a non-profit organization Alliance for Aquatic Resource Management (ALLARM), and even become a BAIRD sustainability leader. I highly recommend joining clubs and working throughout college to gain experience.
It is absolutely fine if you have no idea what you want to do after you graduate, I didn’t. I was toying with the idea of graduate school but wasn’t ready for the commitment. I moved home and lived with my parents while nannying (saving up for traveling), and eventually landing a Kupu/Americorps job at the Hawaiian Institute for Marine Biology (HIMB). My primary responsible was leading the educational programs, but I also gained experience leading workshops, going to conferences, and got to participate in some amazing research at HIMB. For example, I helped out in the coral lab, shark lab, and learned my algae species at the Smithsonian biodiversity assessment. It was an incredible job, but I knew it was time to go to graduate school, which is what lead me to studying at KAUST in Saudi Arabia. The Red Sea is an incredible ecosystem to study, and I quickly fell in love with the sea here. You have flexibility on your thesis topic, and I was the first person at KAUST to study sea turtles, which is super cool. In addition, I love KAUST because of all the opportunities I get to work in the field. For example, I have helped on projects in a wide variety of topics such as whale sharks, aquaculture, herbivorous fishes, ARMS biosiversity assessments, and tons of coral and benthic surveys. Also, while at KAUST I can travel way more than I would be able to if I lived in Hawaii. First, because the salary and free housing, but it is also located in a great area for traveling, since it is not too far from Europe, Africa, and Asia. I loved it so much that after graduating with my Master’s Degree I decided to stay on for my PhD.