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Fish Biologist

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Julie King

Jan Dierking

What is your Job description?

I am currently in a transition period from life as a Ph.D. student at the University of Hawaii to my first “real job” as a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre d’Océanologie in Marseille, France. In particular, after finishing my degree in May 2007, I developed a project together with the group of Mireille Harmelin-Vivien in Marseille, and then spent the past 6 months applying for funding from the European Union, the German and the French Science Foundation, and other institutions. Three weeks ago I learned that my project got funded by the German NGO “Okeanos”. I am thus finally ready to embark on a new adventure.

The description of my life and work as a Ph.D. in Hawaii is somewhat difficult because the work changed so much over the years. In the beginning, coursework was very important. Then came a period during which I frequently worked for non-governmental organizations (The Nature Conservancy and the Marine Aquarium Council), assisting in the attempt to introduce an ecolabel to the marine aquarium fish industry in Hawaii. Yet further along the path, applying for grant money to fund my Ph.D. project on the introduced bluespotted grouper in Hawaii became a priority, before I could finally fully focus on the Ph.D. work itself. Fieldwork (including research dives to obtain samples of the bluespotted grouper by spearfishing and live specimens of this species using barrier nets, as well as doing transect counts of fishes to monitor fish densities on coral reefs in Hawaii over time), tank experiments that required aquaculture and fish handling skills, as well as laboratory work filled my days. Towards the end of my Ph.D., the statistical analysis and the writing up of my Ph.D. thesis and of scientific papers, as well as presentations at conferences and community meetings were main occupations. As you see, life as a marine biologist is not monotone, to say the least.

I expect to maintain this diversity during my postdoctoral work in France. Here, I will again divide my time between fieldwork (though with a stronger focus on work done off research vessels, and less research dives), laboratory work, analyzing, writing up, and presenting results, and administrative work. In many ways, leading a major scientific project is similar to leading your own small company – you are responsible for everything from financial planning and the project strategy, to the actual research, to making the newfound knowledge available to the scientific community. Making things work can be difficult at times, but at the same time, what you accomplish is due to what you put in (plus luck). Due to this, arriving at a new result can be an incredibly rewarding feeling.

What do you study now?

jan dierkingFor my doctoral work, my focus lay on coral reef fishes, in particular the the bluespotted grouper (Cephalopholis argus), which was introduced to Hawaii in the 1950s to create a new fishery. It has become the most abundant reef fish predator in Hawaii, but despite its abundance, a fishery never succeeded because the species turned out to be prone to cause ciguatera incidents in humans. (Ciguatera is a disease caused by ingestion of fish containing the marine toxin ciguatoxin). I tried to better understand the effects of predation of the bluespotted grouper on native fish species in Hawaii, and found that while predation is of large magnitude, prey fish populations where surprisingly resistant to this pressure. A possible explanation may be that the species is filling the niche left unfilled after declines of many native predators over the past century due to overfishing. A second aspect of my work was the analysis of factors leading to the accumulation of ciguatoxin in C. argus.

The system that I will study in France is quite different from the coral reefs of Hawaii: I will work on the Gulf of Lions (the northwestern corner of the Mediterranean Sea, bordered by Spain in the West and France in the North). Here, I will look at the role of small organic particles (particulate organic matter, or POM) carried into the sea by the Rhone river (the largest river flowing into the Mediterranean) for nearshore ecosystems and foodchains. The research group of which I am a part has previously found that the POM supplied by the Rhone is crucial for the health of fish populations in the Gulf of Lions. This is due to the fact that the main food source of many fish species is bottom-living worms that filter the water and live off POM. Consequently, in years in which enough organic material sinks on the bottom, these worms occur in incredible abundances and offer plentiful food for fish able to exploit this resource. In bad years, worms become scarce, which means that fish also have a hard time. Interestingly, one regional effect of global climate change has been an increase in draught periods in the past 15 years over southern Europe, which has caused the Rhone river to shrink (a process that is likely to continue over the course of the 21st century). As a result, less and less POM is carried to the Mediterranean. Based on what I told you above, you can imagine the possible consequences. So this is my study system. In my work, I am particularly interested in temporal and spatial variation in the effects of particulate organic material on populations of the common sole (Solea solea), one of the most important food fishes in Europe.

Kane'ohe Bay

What is the best thing about your job?

For me, the biggest advantage of being a marine biologist is to be in such close touch with the sea – living near the sea, thinking about processes in the sea, being aware of threats and problems facing our oceans, and generating new understanding about the sea that can help to protect it in the future.

On a different level, I appreciate the independence that comes with the job of a researcher. Even though there are advisers or group leaders to whom I have to report and respond, in the end, my Ph.D. project and now my postdoc project are my own responsibility. I have to advance the project, organize my daily work, plan for fieldwork, research cruises, etc. – in short, make the project work. This sort of work may be a problem if you are not self-motivated and independently driven, but if you like freedom, it’s ideal. With the own responsibility for a project comes flexibility to design one’s day, which I really treasure. I am an active person and love sports, in particular windsurfing and surfing – and it is fantastic to be able to get in the water if there is good wind or surf, even if it means that in the evening, you have to work late to be done for the day.

I also really enjoy to be doing something that challenges the mind every single day – clearly thought out experimental or sampling designs, public presentations, statistical analysis, writing papers keep me on my toes, and I can honestly say that I have never spent a boring day at work in my entire life.

What is the worst thing about your job?

The main disadvantage that I see is the incredibly long trajectory until you reach any sort of job security. Nine to ten years can easily pass from the beginning of your undergraduate career until you have you Ph.D. in your pocket – and if you want to work in research, this still does not mean that you can relax. One or two postdoctoral positions of 2 years each, with moves to different countries or at least universities, are necessary before an application for an associate professor position is in potential reach. Many pitfalls await along the way – you need to generate research results fit for publication (which at least in part depends on luck), find enough funding to do your work, keeping you motivation up at times when goals seem without reach. At times it can therefore be hard to keep on going, which is one reason why many biologists enter careers in resource protection, journalism, industry, or consulting (which of course can offer rewarding careers as well).
If you do make it all the way through the labyrinth, another aspect that I see as negative is the increase in the amount of administrative work, time in front of the computer, and paperwork that faces many senior marine biologists/group leaders, and keeps them from being out in the field much.

All this being said, for myself I can say that the benefits of being a marine biologist outweigh the disadvantages by a lot. The lifestyle and working life offer tremendous rewards that I do not want to miss in my life.

What inspired you to first study science?

I love the ocean, and what primarily drove me towards marine biology was the desire to work with the sea and to understand it better. In addition, conservation of our world’s ecosystems and biological treasures is a very important issue for me. Right now, earth is clearly on a downhill slide. I feel that any reasonably thinking person looking ahead by 50 (or even just 25) years will soon realize that things cannot go on as they are. Understanding of natural systems will become one of the decisive issues of our times, and I felt it appropriate to work in a field that may help to address some of the problems that we will face.

What do you do in a typical day?

kayak on coral reefIn Hawaii:
Depending on the period of year: fieldwork: leave at 7:30 or 8:00 am, prepare boat and divegear, go out at 9, two to three dives, back on land at 3:30, washing and storing gear, home around 6 pm. Labwork: Very flexible in timing – usual day: get up at 6 am, go surf, at the laboratory at 10, work till 6 or 7 pm. But it’s hard to really outline THE typical day, because of the variability of the tasks at hand, such as tank experiments, conferences, presentations, classwork, etc., etc. Every day was different, which I liked a lot.

In France:
I am only just setting up shop, so it is somewhat difficult to foresee how exactly working days will pass. There will be times at sea on research vessel, so for weeks at a time life will consist mostly of work – trawl fishing, determining catch to species level, weighing, measuring, marking, and storing samples, as well as helping other researchers with other biological and oceanographic measurements. On land, an important component of my work will be in the laboratory, doing stable isotope analysis, stomach content analysis, and analysis of fish tissue for mercury and PCBs. While not directly part of my own work, I’ll try to help fellow researchers at the marine institute with working dives from time to time. Generally, I expect working days during project start-up to be relatively long, but I have the great advantage to plan my days as I see fit. On windy days, I’ll thus get 2 hours of windsurfing in, be it in the morning, for lunch, or in the evening. On calms days, I usually go running in the evening.

What advice would you give to someone interested in becoming a biologist?

In my opinion, the best way to find out if a job you are dreaming about is really something for you is to do an internship with in the field you are interested. Being a marine biologist is not for everyone. There are definitely other jobs that are better suited if you want to make a lot of money, or if you are interested in a life that is easy to plan. Loving animals or loving the sea may be good reasons to think about becoming a marine biologist, but it may not be sufficient to love the job, since the contact to animals may be much less close than you ever thought, and because laboratory work is likely to be more common than work on ships or diving. If you are already an undergraduate student and thinking about graduate education, I would suggest to look for professors or groups that do work that you are dreaming about, and ask if you can do a student internship there – this may be the best way to get your foot in the door, and will show you if the job you are thinking about is really as great as you imagined. One professional advice for beginning graduate students that cannot be stressed enough: start thinking about the future early enough. For a scientist, this means in particular to publish, publish, publish. Published papers are the currency of science, and your quality as a scientist won’t be measured in grades but in the quality of your publications, so this has to be a focus of your time as a graduate student.

All this being said, in the end, if you feel that marine biology is the field you want to commit to, my recommendation to you is to believe in yourself and to give it a go. Do not let anybody discourage you (and don’t worry, people will try). I haven’t, and I am very happy about where this decision has led me. Good luck!

Jan Dierking Surfing

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