Susan Von Thun

Year graduated from MLML: 2001

Lab at MLML: Invertebrate Zoology

Undergraduate Education: B.S. Environmental Science, University of Delaware, 1997

Current occupation: Research Technician, MBARI

Contact information:

Some questions for Susan:

Q: Why did you decide to pursue marine science/come to Moss Landing?

A: I wanted to become a marine biologist from a very young age. I did my undergrad in Environmental Science to get a more general science background. My parents and high school science teachers encouraged me to have a more general major (instead of marine biology) because they thought that it give me more options for what to do after graduating. So, after 4 years in undergrad, I was still certain that I wanted to go into marine biology and I knew that grad school was the best way for me to do it. I applied to quite a few graduate programs all over the U.S. and got into a few, including MLML. I didn’t have direct marine science experience, so MLML would give me the opportunity to take lots of relevant classes, and get lots of experience in the field. I also liked the feel of a small marine lab versus another large university campus. At 22, I was also up for an adventure, so liked the idea of moving across the country to go to grad school!

Q: What did you do your thesis on? (the short version)

A: I looked at recruitment of a variety of benthic invertebrates in Monterey Bay. I used physical features like water temperature and wind to try to figure out why, when, and where these organisms settle after their larval stage. It is important to know about recruitment and settlement of larvae so that we can understand the population dynamics of things like crabs, urchins, clams, snails, mussels, among other critters. This helps us answer questions like, why are there more mussels in Santa Cruz this year versus last year, or why are there more crabs in Capitola versus Monterey? Here in Monterey Bay, upwelling is an important factor in larval dispersal, so I also used things I learned in physical oceanography to answer some of the questions in my thesis.

Q: What did you go on to after graduation?

A: I briefly worked for Dr. Jon Geller at MLML as a technician in his molecular ecology lab. While there, I extracted DNA from organisms, ran PCRs, and sequenced DNA from organisms of interest. Soon after I graduated, I applied for and got the job where I currently work. I’m now a research technician in the Video Lab at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI). In the video lab, I identify animals, equipment, and geological features that I observe in the video recorded on our two Remotely Operated Vehicles.

Q: What do you do now (if different from above?), and what are the highlights/challenges of your work?

A: Over the past 7 years her at MBARI, I have specialized in identifying midwater organisms like jellies, fish, and squids. I work closely with the labs here at MBARI that study the midwater. I also participate in research cruises on MBARI’s ships. While at sea, I annotate video, help identify animals, help collect animals using the ROV and trawl nets, and even occasionally jig for squid! Going to sea and getting to see the animals on High Definition video as well as from collections is my favorite part of my job. I also really enjoy finding something new or unusual and trying to figure out what it is. The deep-sea is still the final frontier here on Earth, so I see lots of cool and unusual things on a daily basis. Another aspect of my job is to do public outreach. I go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium monthly to talk to the public about MBARI and the deep-sea while showing video highlights from our ROV video. I also do some video editing using Final Cut Pro to make video productions for our scientists, some external audiences, like news programs and television programs, and our sister organization, the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Q: What’s the most important thing that you took away from MLML? How did you time at MLML prepare you/influence you for what you do now?

A: MLML is a great community, where students support each other. I made friends for life there while getting a world-class education. I had lots of opportunities to help people out in the field, and work on a variety of projects (either other student’s projects, or class projects). At MLML, you get lots of experience in the field. I even learned how to operate small boats for a class project! The course work is extensive (some might argue too much so), but for me, was just what I needed to prepare me for work in the field of marine science. My experience at MLML, while very grueling at times, was one of the best times of my life. I was surrounded by other students that were working hard, but we managed to have fun too! The faculty at MLML aren’t the hand-holding types, so you have to be highly motivated to succeed there. They teach you what you need to know and then encourage you to make your own observations and conclusions. I think this prepares you for whatever you may go on to do after grad school, whether it’s a PhD program or a job in the private or public sector.

Q: What would you do if you could do anything differently?

A:  The only thing I might do differently given the chance would be to go on a few more cruises/ field expeditions further afield. I didn’t take Subtidal Ecology and go to Baja, even though many of my friends did and it sounded like an amazing experience!

Q: What advice do you have for someone who wants to go into marine science, graduate school, and/or your field of work?

A:  I did a more general undergraduate degree in science (environmental science). I took everything from biology, chemistry, physics, calculus, to geology and geography. Although this meant that I had to take all of the core classes at MLML, I felt that I was ready for all of the courses there since I had a really substantial variety of science and math classes under my belt. I was really glad that I took stats at MLML instead of in undergrad. Jim Harvey’s stats class is one of the best at MLML. Also, it is really helpful to do internships or take other volunteer opportunities in science as and undergrad. Most internships aren’t paid, but you can often get credit through your university for doing the internship. This will not only help you get into grad school, but will also help prepare you for grad school by introducing you to working in the field or at sea, working in the lab, collecting and analyzing scientific data, and if you’re lucky, maybe even writing or contributing to your first scientific paper!

Q:  What advice do you have for someone who wants to pursue a career like yours?  What skills do you find most important?

A:  Obviously, a strong science and math background is important, but it is also important to have good communication skills. Throughout grad school, I had to write papers, give talks about projects in class, and read, interpret, and discuss scientific papers with other students as well as professors. Scientific writing and communicating your work is just as important as the actual research that you do. In my job, I talk to the public or to small groups at MBARI as much as weekly. Feeling comfortable giving talks takes practice, so start early!

Find out more!

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