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Marine Biologist

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Nick Whitney

nick whitneyWhat is your Job description?

I am a graduate student working toward my PhD in Zoology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.Though my own research is primarily on sharks, I currently pay the bills by working a part-time job as a parrotfish researcher.

What do you study now?

I'm involved in several different studies involving sharks and other large fishes, but my main project is on the movement patterns of whitetip reef sharks. Though many shark species have to swim constantly in order to breathe, whitetips are able to lie on the bottom and rest in one place for long periods of time. Despite the fact that they appear to be relatively "lazy" sharks, you can find them throughout the entire tropical Pacific and Indian Oceans - from Africa and India to Australia, Hawaii, and even Central America! I'm trying to figure out how a shark that seems like such a couch potato has become so widely distributed. To answer this question, I'm tracking individual sharks in Hawaii using electronic tags and photo-matching techniques, and also studying the genetic relationships of sharks in different parts of the world. If
Hawaii whitetips turn out to be closely related (genetically) to Australian whitetips for instance, that would be strong evidence that they move long distances much more often than we previously thought.

Nick WhitneyWhat is the best thing about your job?

Diving with sharks in beautiful places is a thrill that never gets old. I also have a tremendous amount of freedom to set my schedule, explore my own questions, and choose my own path.

What is the worst thing about your job?

The pay for one. Graduate students usually don't make a lot of money. Also the uncertainty. Projects like this one involve a lot of work on the ocean with wild animals that may or may not cooperate with your research plans. They often aren't there when you go looking for them, and rarely do what you need them to do even when you do find them! That means you can work for weeks or months at a time without making any real progress if the animals and the weather conditions are working against you.

What inspired you to first study science?

I've always liked animals and I've always liked the truth. -Not just peoples' impression of the truth but the real, unbiased, truth. Science is the best tool we have to uncover the truth about how the world really is. The fact that I've always been fascinated by the secret lives of animals just makes things even more fun.

Nick WhitneyWhat do you do in a typical day?

There really is no typical day for me and that's one of the fun and hard things about my job. Today I spent nearly the entire day in meetings. Yesterday I spent most of the day working on the computer. Tomorrow I'll be underwater for most of the day. Figuring out the best way to spend your time on any given day is one of the most challenging things about being a graduate student, but you're never bored - that's for sure.

But okay, a typical day in the field usually involves driving a boat to various places on a reef where sharks are known to hang out. At each spot we'll get in the water and look for sharks. Assuming we find them, we may do any number of things including photographing them for our photo-identification study or shooting them with a sampling gun (sounds worse than it is) to get a small piece of tissue for our genetics study. Sometimes we'll even try to capture them in nets and attach special electronic tags that allow us to track the shark from a boat to see how IT spends a typical day.

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

Read, read, write, write, then read some more. Communication skills (especially reading and writing) are the most important skills for nearly any profession, including a biologist. Unfortunately many aspiring scientists think they should focus almost entirely on math and science. You can be a brilliant scientist and have the greatest ideas in the world but if you can't communicate them well, they won't do you any good.

Also focus on getting a well-rounded education, especially in high school and college. Some students are anxious to specialize as college undergraduates and start to focus their course work on narrow topics that they find interesting. That's fine, but your primary focus should be building a strong foundation of basic science knowledge. There's plenty of time to specialize once you're in graduate school

Nick Whitney

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