This week we are moving out of the world of plants and cells, and into the world of marine biology. Oceans cover a whopping 71% of our planet, but despite this we actually know very little about what lies in its depths. And, even though our oceans are extremely important for millions of different marine creatures, as well as ourselves, we have taken our oceans for granted.
Thankfully, there are hundreds of Marine Biologists across the globe working hard to help conserve our oceans, and understand the goings on in the big blue. One of these marine biologists is Melanie Jackson, a current PhD student at the University of Maryland center for Environmental science.
As you will soon find out, Melanies’ work is super interesting and diverse taking her out to sea, and into the lab! Carry on reading to find out more about Melanies life as a marine biologist…
E: You are a marine biologist, for those of us who know nothing about this area of science, could you tell us what a being a marine biologist entails?
M: When I entered my undergarduate degree in marine science at the University of Miami, I wanted to work at Sea World with dolphins and whales. Once I took my first introduction to marine science class, I learned that there were a lot of other subject areas within marine science that I could study and that in the end, very few people end up working with charismatic marine mammals. As a marine scientist, you can study anything from marine microbes to corals. My path from my undergraduate degree to my PhD has in itself covered a wide range of topics. As an undergraduate, I studied zooplankton (similar to shrimp) in the open ocean and realized I wanted to solve more locally relevant coastal issues such as harmful algae blooms during my master’s degree. My master’s work introduced me to the fact that oysters can help remove nitrogen pollution which causes algae blooms (I’ll explain this a bit later). I found this fact so interesting that today, I’m pursuing my PhD in a realm of marine science called “biogeochemistry” focusing on oysters. This means that I get to study how oysters influence the chemistry, biology, physics, and geology of coastal sediments/mud.
E: What are you currently researching?
M: The Chesapeake Bay has too much nitrogen pollution from fertilizer runoff and other sources, which fuel algae blooms and can result in dead zones . My research determines if some of that nitrogen pollution can be removed by oyster restoration and aquaculture. Oysters remove nitrogen by eating algae and storing the nitrogen in their tissues, but my research focuses on a different way that oysters remove nitrogen, called denitrification.
Oysters create the ideal environment for denitrification, where bacteria convert nitrogen pollution to a nonharmful gas (N2) that goes into the atmosphere, which eliminates the nitrogen from the water completely! Yay Denitrification!
E: What made you want to pursue a career in marine biology?
M: Growing up I always loved going to the beach and learning about all of the critters I would find. My grandpa would tell me stories about when he went snorkeling in the Carribean and that inspired me to learn anything I could about marine life.
E: Your PhD is made up of both lab work and field work- can you describe the typical things you do in both of these settings?
M: First, I have to say this is a great question. I’ve had undergraduate students ask me about life as a graduate student and they’ve said that they only want to do field work and never work in a lab. It is really rare to find a position where you only work in the field. My days are spent going into the field on an oyster farmer’s boat to collect oysters and sediment cores.
This sounds easy, but this involves almost a day of packing supplies, labeling vials, checking that I’ve packed everything, and then traveling to the marina to meet up with the boat. After collecting sediment cores from the boat, I go back to the laboratory, where I store the cores in an environmental chamber which keeps them at a constant temperature and bubbling with oxygen.After letting the cores sit in natural conditions overnight, I collect water samples from the cores about every hour for 8 hours. Most of those samples are preserved with a reagent or frozen and then analyzed within a month. I’ll have at least a thousand samples that need to get analyzed in different ways at the end of the day. These samples will take me about a month to process in the lab and understand the data. The water samples will tell me how oysters impact water quality. My winter is spent turning this data into comprehensible figures and writing up the results for publications.
E: What are your favourite things about being a marine biologist?
M: My favorite thing about being a marine biologist is getting out on the water. I also love getting to see peoples reactions when I tell them about how oysters remove nitrogen pollution. When I first learned about the process I thought, “more people need to learn about this because it is too cool!”
E: What would you tell someone reading this, who would like to get into marine biology?
M: I would say try to get any experience you can in the field and lab to learn about what you enjoy and what you don’t. I didn’t know anything about zooplankton when I first volunteered in a lab as an undergraduate. After a year, I was skilled in identifying zooplankton and typical lab duties. Even though I realized this was not what I wanted to do forever, many of the skills I learned in the lab were transferable to my PhD laboratory.
E: You are really interested in science policy, and science communication. What got you interested in these areas?
M: I’m a part of a collaborative project, where our data on oyster nitrogen removal is combined with aspects of oyster biology to predict what type of oyster management will be most successful in the future. This experience has given me the opportunity to interact with a diverse group of stakeholders ranging from local fishermen to state and federal government officials. This is an incredible opportunity because in the past many of these stakeholders would disagree about what is best for the oyster population and most of the oyster management was only determined by scientists and agencies without any input from fishermen.
Following a presentation to the stakeholders at the start of my research, I enjoyed getting feedback on how my work could be more relevant to current oyster management issues. Despite the stakeholders’ differences of opinion, I’ve learned that sustainable decision-making requires facilitating a dialogue and building relationships. I’m excited to incorporate my research and communication skills in #SciPolicy (Science Policy) more this February when I start a Knauss Fellowship in Washington D.C.
E: If you could go back and speak with yourself before you started your PhD, what advice would you give?
M: Don’t have imposter syndrome, don’t be too hard on yourself, and don’t compare yourself to others. I think a little bit of all of these are healthy and normal in graduate school, but if any of these take over and start hindering your research/productivity you are in trouble.
Thank you so much Melanie!
If you have been inspired by Melanie, and want to find out more about her research and life as a marine biologist make sure you check out all of her social media:
If you like the sound of Science Policy here are a few links where you can find a bit more information about what it is: