Monday, 21 May 2012

How to chose an ill-fitting profession

I essentially stumbled into being a coral reef scientist. If I had properly thought about things ahead of time, I would never have ended up here. Why am I an unlikely candidate for this job? Why, I’m glad you asked!

I get horribly, horribly seasick. As an undergraduate, I had the opportunity to travel on an oceanographic research vessel from Hawaii to San Diego on a fieldtrip. According to the crew, it was the smoothest crossing they had ever experienced. I spent the first 5 days puking my guts out until the medic gave me a scopalomine patch. (I was too ill to learn much on that trip, but I somehow managed to snare myself a husband).
Stop moving, ocean!
Sadly, over time “the patch” has lost its effectiveness, and I spent my last expedition both stoned from the scopalomine and seasick for a glorious 5 weeks. The only way I survive is that a few minutes after being underwater on SCUBA, I feel fine. The major downside: when perusing the (painfully bleak) job listings for marine scientists, I have to veto any jobs that require time at sea. This is, unsurprisingly, rather hindering my job hunt.

I am afraid of sharks, poisonous creatures and slimy things. This covers quite a lot of marine life. I intellectually know that my fears are unfounded—people purposefullykill more than 70 million sharks a year while sharks accidentally kill about 10 people. Poisonous things tend to advertise themselves as such (like the lion fish) so can be avoided, and sea slime is really quite clever and useful. But I still get a jolt of nerves before a dive.

Too close, buddy.
So long as someone else jumps in the water first (unless they are being too slow and my seasickness above water overwhelms my fear of being alone underwater), I can buck up and get to work. Once underwater, I remember why the ocean fascinates me, and I get down to business. I have even been known to do things, in the name of science, that no right-minded person would: shove my feet into crevices (potentially housing sharp-toothed eels) to gain traction against the current, dutifully turn my back on a swarm of 15 nosy reef sharks to inspect and identify corals along a 20-m long measuring tape, and even “boot and rally” for the afternoon’s dive.

There are 13 sharks in this view. It was slightly difficult to focus on the reef with these guys around.

I am not naturally meticulous. I am a horrible baker; I refuse to measure accurately and I usually have to substitute for ingredients because I didn’t make a list, forgot something, and don’t feel like going back to the store. I usually don’t plan things out ahead of time: I often start driving before I realize I have no idea where I’m going. I have booked flights for the wrong month. I have flown to Canada without a passport.

This is not a good way to do science, but the first step is acceptance, right? I accept that I’m supposed to be meticulous and that I suck at it. But really, I’m getting better. You should check out the amazing spreadsheets I’ve been producing lately. They even have metadata and everything! Hot damn. 

Despite all of this, I love my job. It is difficult, can be either tedious or dangerous, and the career prospects make me cry; but it is intellectually stimulating, often fun, always surprising, and I feel like I might be making oh-so-small of a positive difference in this great big world.

A big THANK YOU to everyone who has helped me sustain this crazy and exciting career path (there are a lot of you). I’m going to keep on trucking along it as far as it goes, which might be, if Adam gets his way, to an organic farm on an abandoned stretch of coastline swarming with dengue mosquitoes. But hopefully not.

Ok, this is pretty rad. The essentially untouched Kingman Reef, one of the more ridiculously amazing places on earth.


  1. Just as a side note, you were the best cabin mate ever. I think we spent all of one night in the same room together over the course of your very first cruise. The rest of the time you were either searching for fresh air or, as you so cleverly called it, snagging a husband ;)

    So despite the negative, you made some pretty cool first impressions and, most importantly some friends for life :)

    So cheers to random career paths!

  2. As a paleontologist who works with mud and dead fish, I certainly picked the wrong field... I have a massive phobia of dead fish (to the point where when I see a dead fish floating in a tank or something, I shake uncontrollably and often can't look at it) and I HATE getting muddy. Funny how things work out, isn't it?

  3. You poor scientists! I picked the most appropriate possible career for my characteristics: I physiologically can't work before 10am, I fear structure, love libraries and arguments and excel at procrastination. A career in humanities "research" was the obvious choice.

    1. Ah Lizzie, we really should have met ages ago. You are now my official mentor, and life-plan-coordinator. Hope you don't mind.