This is what it’s like to be a marine biologist

If you thought scientists were all geeky men in lab coats, think again. There’s a whole new wave of young female scientists taking the field by storm.

With more opportunities than ever geared towards women, there’s never been a better time to go into science. But what’s it really like?

Erica Ross, 24, is a marine biologist in the making, conducting PhD research on lobsters off the coast of Florida. When she’s not working in the lab, she spends her days out on the water, snorkeling and soaking up the sunshine while studying tropical marine animals.

We spoke with Erica about women in science and what it’s like to be a marine biologist.

1. When did you know you wanted to be a marine biologist? What attracted you to it?

I grew up by a lake, but living by the ocean has been my dream since childhood. I originally started a general biology degree at Boston University, but switched to marine biology after trying a few classes and seeing the programme there. It was a really small course so I got a lot of hands on experience in the field and absolutely loved it. I wanted to do something where I could be outside and work with animals. Marine biology is perfect because you get both of those things – and also get the sun and water.

erica ross

Image credit: Erica Ross

2. How did you get started? 

Because so many science jobs are connected to academia, I took advantage of all the opportunities possible at uni. In addition to regular modules like oceanography, I did several research projects in the field. I got experience working at a local marine sanctuary in Massachusetts, and our course also did field work in Belize for a month. I also took on some independent research on catfish.

From my catfish project I made contacts and worked with a professor on his research at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute [in Cape Cod] after I graduated. Then I decided to apply for a PhD fellowship at the University of Florida and head toward warmer waters!

3. What does a typical day look like for you? 

Most of the work we do here is our own independent research, so my day usually starts with going to a yoga class or spin class. Then I usually go into the lab, where all my research animals are kept and check on all of them. We feed the lobsters and crabs every other day, but will go in and check water conditions every day. Then I usually do a lot of work from my desk in the lab building. Most of that consists of reading – lots of reading.

During the field season we go down to the Florida Keys for three to four months and a typical day there is much different.  We usually get up early around 6am each day, so that we can get in a full day on the water. We operate all of our own boats, and field work can range from running surveys (counting things and making observations) to catching animals to visiting the reef. We usually snorkel because Florida bay is so shallow, but we get to dive a lot as well. Then our day usually ends with group dinners followed by fishing or having a beer on the dock.

tim hunt sexism

Image credit: Erica Ross/Facebook

4. When Tim Hunt made sexist comments about women in science, you were one of the many women who responded with a #distractinglysexy photo on social media. Have you personally experienced any sexism at work?

Marine science is a lucky field because most people are really friendly and the mix between men is women is usually pretty even. The hardest thing I have had to deal with usually involves driving the boats or work trucks – the boys tend to be a little pushy. To be successful in so many science fields you have to be very assertive, which doesn’t always come easy for me.

5. What do you think are the biggest misconceptions women have about going into science? Why should they go for it?

I think a lot of women think that science can be a boys’ club, or that the topics are boring, but I love my job. Science has opened a lot of doors for me and really changed the way I view things and interact with my environment and with other people.

Science can also be really fun. I love being able to say I get to go to work in places that most people just visit on holiday.

There are definitely some barriers women need to overcome in working with men in science, but there are also a lot of opportunities. I think it’s important to show young girls that women can do the “hard” or “smart” things too.

6. What’s been your proudest moment so far?

My proudest moment was probably winning the Guy Harvey Scholarship Grant to fund my own research on spiny lobsters this semester. Spiny lobsters are Florida’s most valuable fishery, and are also really valuable throughout the Caribbean.

erica ross

Image credit: Erica Ross

My research focuses on how a lethal spiny lobster virus is affected by climate change. I really wanted this grant and winning it was a little bit unexpected because it usually goes to scientists working with large open ocean fish, not to smaller organisms like lobsters.

7. Have you ever had a moment of self-doubt? What happened?

Moving from Boston to Florida was a big change. I lived by myself and didn’t know many people. I didn’t do a masters before starting my PhD programme, so I had a bit of a hard time getting some momentum and was even thinking about transferring or dropping down to a masters.

My tutor was really helpful and just gave me the extra push I needed to stay with it. I eventually started meeting new people and becoming closer with my lab mates, and my research has come a long way. I just finished my dissertation proposal and really excited about some of the things I am going to be working on.

8. What’s the best advice you could give to other women thinking about getting into marine biology?

I would say just go for it. I went into it having never gone snorkeling or scuba diving in my life. When I first started I wasn’t even that comfortable swimming! If you love it just don’t give up. There are always gonna be obstacles, but just try to work with them and turn them into something great.

The best advice I can give to field scientists is to be flexible. Things never go perfectly since we aren’t in a lab with controlled conditions. Just be flexible and open to new ways of doing things. Zip ties and cinder blocks will become your best friends.

erica ross

Image credit: Erica Ross

Don’t be afraid to get things wrong, just be open to learning and you will figure it out. I hadn’t driven a boat or trailed anything before I went to the Keys this summer. I actually didn’t know much about boats at all, but now I know a good amount, and feel fairly comfortable dealing with a boat problem if one arises.

Do lots of internship and offer to volunteer in people’s labs; everyone needs help and free help is hard to deny. Make connections with people you work with and stay in touch with them, as marine biology is a small world and you will probably need them later.

9. What are your biggest career goals? Where do you see yourself next?

I really do like teaching and I wouldn’t mind being a professor, but ultimately I think I’d like to work for a conservation organization or marine sanctuary. I want to continue doing research, but not have that be my main focus.

My tutor’s wife, who is also a marine scientist, works for the Museum of Science. She recently invited me to talk at the “She’s a scientist” event they had going on there, and a bunch of girl scouts and younger students came and got to hear about women in all different fields. I never thought I would be interested in outreach, but I really had a great time. So I wouldn’t mind doing something that allowed me to also give back and teach younger people about the ocean.

By Reenat Sinay