Hometown: San Jose, California
Undergraduate education: B.S. in Biological Sciences (emphasis in Marine Biology) and a minor in English, UC Davis (2007)
Q: Why did you decide to pursue marine science?
A: I have been fascinated by the ocean since I was young – watching PBS programs like Reading Rainbow and Kratt’s Creatures really got me excited about wildlife and the environment in general, and the ocean in particular. I fell in love with manatees when my
third grade class adopted a manatee one through the Save the Manatee Club. I dreamt about becoming a marine biologist, but for a long time I didn’t think it was a viable option because people told me it wasn’t a “practical” career field – too few jobs, too little pay, etc. So I put marine biology on the shelf for a while.
I entered college wanting to do something involving biology and conservation, but my varied interests pulled me in many directions – did I want to do education? policy? writing? My parents, who are both scientists, encouraged me to get a broad background in science to keep my options open, some very valuable advice for anyone trying to figure things out! While taking the time to really know myself, I decided that it was very important for me to pursue a career where I could dedicate my time and energy to something that I had a real passion for. So I revisited my love of marine biology and started exploring in earnest during my junior year of college – and realized there were amazing opportunities at my disposal. After completing such a broad undergraduate degree, I decided to come to graduate school to further develop my training as a scientist and to focus my education on the marine environment. I hope that by studying the ocean, I will one day be able to inform decisions about this ecosystem I care so much about.
Q: What experiences and opportunities have shaped your path to where you are now?
A: I feel very fortunate to have taken advantage of many different opportunities and new experiences. Studying abroad played a huge part in helping me grow, develop confidence outside my comfort zone, and recognize as options things I didn’t previously think possible for myself. I spent a month in Scotland, and three months in Australia. Although I’m a bit of a homebody by nature, each subsequent trip to a new place got easier. I worked for a summer as an interpretive intern for the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Massachusetts, where I enjoyed putting on programs and talking about nature with the public. My internship was sponsored by the Environmental Careers Organization with the goal to encourage minorities to explore conservation careers. I am half Vietnamese, and see a real need for people of diverse backgrounds in the field of marine science and conservation. I hope that I might be able other minorities to explore this “untraditional” career path.
I volunteered in an ecology lab at UC Davis for a few months studying the behavior of water striders, but the experience almost convinced me that I didn’t want to do more research! Although the science was interesting, I realized I wanted to study a system that really mattered to me. I got my first taste of marine research during a summer course at the Bodega Marine Lab, where I learned to schedule my life around the tides to do fieldwork in the intertidal zone, and the challenges and uncertainties of designing my own research project. My study-abroad in Australia gave me some more hands-on marine biology experience, including a ten day research trip to the Great Barrier Reef. Snorkeling and diving on the GBR was a childhood dream come true, and reinforced my passion to study and protect marine life. After I graduated from UC Davis, I did a research apprenticeship at Friday Harbor Labs where I took my first stab at studying fish diet. Its an experience that will serve me well as I start my thesis on fish diet!
Q: What are you studying (the short version?) and why do you find it interesting?
A: I am studying the diet of gopher rockfish (Sebastes carnatus) from inside and outside of new marine protected areas (MPAs) in central California. These MPAs are marine reserves that do not allow fishing within their borders – they act like national parks on land, with the goal to protect the ecosystem and wildlife inside from degradation. I cut open fish stomachs and look at their guts, which may not sound very glamorous, but I find it interesting because it shows how food webs connect all the different animals and plants in an ecosystem. Things eating each other is a basic relationship found everywhere on earth! By studying what these gopher rockfish are eating, I hope to learn more about how the marine reserves (and the absence of fishing inside their boundaries) affect the marine food web. I wanted to do research that informed conservation, and involved fishing, a major relationship between people and the ocean.
Q: What do you think are the most rewarding and challenging parts of being in graduate school?
A: Learning to “be my own boss” is probably the most challenging, but also one of the most rewarding parts of being a graduate student. Although we take classes, a lot of the time it’s up to me to structure my own time. Taking responsibility and initiative for my work, staying organized, staying focused, and setting my own deadlines to stay on track are all skills that I am still perfecting! Finding the right balance between work and play is also a challenge. There will always be more papers I should be reading, but I think it’s important to find time for fun things in my life too so I don’t burn out. One of the great rewards of being in at a marine lab is that I get to spend time around and on the ocean, especially during the summer field season – and that, to me, is inherently fun. Although I may have to wake up at 4 in the morning, work long days and spend time wet, smelly and slimy, I get to see some beautiful scenery and amazing wildlife. I also find it extremely rewarding to share these experiences, as well as the cool things I’m learning about, with other people, such as through this blog!
Q: What are you hoping or planning to do when you finish?
A: Besides marine science, my other big love is writing. I explored both passions during my undergrad, and when I finish my Master’s I hope to combine them through the UC Santa Cruz science communication program. I want to use writing to open up the world of the oceans to others, to help people connect with and better understand with nature, and to make smart decisions to help protect the environment. I hope to use my science background as a voice for conservation. I also love working with kids, so I would enjoy a job with an element of outreach and education. The field of science communication is really growing and expanding – we shall see where the path takes me!
Q: What advice do you have for someone who wants to get in to marine science?
A: My big advice for students in any field is to explore, try new things take advantage of opportunities, especially ones that allow you to travel! One advantage of marine science is that there are so many amazing marine environments out there, from tropical to polar. I am a big proponent of choosing a field of study you are passionate about. Spend some time figuring out what you are interested in, what really excites you and motivates you, and accept that your interests might change. When I was younger, my love dolphins and whales, and other marine mammals initially sparked my interest in the ocean. But my interests evolved, and I realized I wanted to do research that would benefit people and the environment, such a studying the impacts of fishing. But I still get to spend time on the water, and that often means seeing dolphins and whales!
Don’t be afraid to take a different path than the people around you. In high school and college, I felt a lot of pressure to have everything figured out, to have plan like my friends who knew they wanted to be doctors. I do think it’s important to have goals to work towards, but one of the big things I learned is that there is no one correct path to success or fulfillment. Take some time to figure out what your goals are, and why they are important to you. You can learn from all your experiences, even the bad ones – finding out what you don’t like is also just as important! Be proactive – if opportunities don’t come to you, seek them out.
Talk to as many people as you can who are involved with the field you are interested in. These “informational interviews” are a really valuable way to learn about a type of job. Ask them how they got started, what they do and don’t like about their job, what advice they have (kind of like the questions I’m answering here!) As long as you’re respectful of people’s busy schedules, you may be surprised to discover how willing people are to share their experiences. When I was interviewing for grad school, a current student told me “Grad school is a long haul, and no one will motivate you except for yourself.” I’ve realized the importance of recognizing and overcoming my mental blocks, such as being afraid of not getting things right the first time. You have to be your own biggest supporter to face down challenges. Overcoming my self-imposed limitations about studying abroad helped me break down those same reservations about pursuing marine biology.