Catarina Pien

 Catarina Pien

Lab webpage:

Hometown: Cherry Hill, New Jersey

Undergrad: B.A. in Biological Sciences, Wellesley College, 2010.

Work experience before MLML:  After I graduated from college, I spent a year studying Chinese in Taipei, Taiwan, with the hope I would eventually be able to apply my Mandarin skills to marine science in Asia (where we know there is a big problem with shark finning and the seafood trade). The next year I worked at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, where I helped catalog and photograph freshwater fishes from South America, and also at the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, NJ.

Q: Why did you decide to pursue marine science?
Living in New Jersey, I was close to the famed Jersey shore, which doesn’t quite live up (or down) to its poor reputation. Although the main biological specimen on those beaches are masses of people, the occasional dolphin was always a rush of excitement,  and I enjoyed combing the beaches for signs of present or past life. Being on the east coast, my family liked to explore the Caribbean, and snorkeling was always the highlight activity. I didn’t know from a young age that I wanted to be a marine biologist, I only know I wanted to explore some sort of natural phenomena, but eventually I gravitated towards the oceans, because I was curious about every aspect of how it worked, including the oceanography, and the biology of all the organisms. The work that I did in the field was actually enjoyable, compared to some of the other areas in which I was academically interested, but that didn’t necessary involve hands-on work that was exciting to me. It also didn’t hurt that working in marine science usually involved a trip to the ocean. After participating in and enjoying several internships, I decided I wanted to subsidize my marine science knowledge (my major was not in marine science) and pursue my own research. I have not regretted my decision.

Q: What experiences and opportunities have shaped your path to get you where you are now?
I had a variety of experiences that led me to where I am, mostly in the form of internships and independent studies. I wasn’t sure what aspect of marine science I wanted to study, and have explored fields involving aquatic invasive plants, marine molecular ecology/ microbiology, museum taxonomy, marine mammal stranding,  and mangrove and coral reef ecology.  I really enjoyed the field research I did in Central America (Panama/ Costa Rica for study abroad, Utila, Honduras for an internship) – the water surrounding mangroves is one of the most beautiful sites to me, the intricate red roots covered by invertebrates and fish weaving in and out of the roots. The experiences made me want to understand organisms in their environment, and how characteristics of organisms (life history traits) were an important part of understanding their behavior in the environment. I am excited to be working in wetland environments again, and studying sharks and rays and their use of/ dependence on various types of habitat. The work I did in the museum (Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia) introduced me to taxonomy and the intricacies of naming and organizing species, which is something that I will study in my lab as well.

Q: What are you studying and why is it interesting and important to you?
I am in the Pacific Shark Research Center, and am interested in the ecology and life history of sharks and rays (elasmobranchs). I am studying the elasmobranch assemblage on Elkhorn Slough (a central California estuarine embayment located in Moss Landing), and how it has changed in the last few years. Natural and anthropogenic changes have dramatically altered the evolution of the slough, and the habitat composition, which is important for many biological organisms. I will use these changes to explain changes in the elasmobranch assemblage. There were shark derbies and surveys done in the past few decades, so I will compare my results to these studies. I will also use GPS mapping and GIS analysis to show when and where different species of elasmobranchs are clustered.

I am interested in this topic because I have worked on estuarine systems in the past, and have a great appreciation for their beauty and diversity. They are rare in California and rapidly disappearing, despite their biological and economic importance. However, we still have a lot to study regarding the types of habitat that are beneficial to different species. Many organisms are attracted to the habitat structure of wetlands (which are often suitable for nurseries). Recent changes have influenced the structure of biological communities, but some of the changes could potentially be beneficial to certain species. I would like to study the changes to determine which changes might be potentially positive, and how, and to better understand the preferred habitat by elasmobranchs so they and their habitats can better be protected.

Q: What are you hoping or planning to do when you finish?
I am hoping to either work for a government agency (NOAA/ DFW), a nonprofit, or, if the right opportunity presents itself, a PhD. However, my preference is to work in the marine science field immediately after graduate school.

Q: What are the most rewarding and challenging aspects of graduate school?
I enjoy our field trips and lab work – we go to some of the most beautiful places (Point Lobos, The Pinnacles) and have a lot of fun on trips (climbing through caves, being followed by sea otters and being peeked at by harbor seals, fishing for rockfish). I have also received unique opportunities by being affiliated with Moss Landing, such as trawling for alien-looking viperfish and lampreys on a NOAA cruise, and watching bioluminescent plankton swirl in the ocean late at night. In my coursework, I enjoyed discussing and attempting to fully understand the scope of conservation issues that we as scientists are attempting to tackle.

My major project has been elucidating my thesis methods and topic, which continues to be a challenge as I figure out what is possible, and how long I will need to obtain all the equipment, funds, permission, and background knowledge to carry out my research. I didn’t come in with a strong elasmobranch life history background, and am still teaching myself a lot. It has also been challenging to prioritize between coursework, outside work, thesis, and additional projects. I want to make the most of my experience here – get work experience, gain professional skills, publish papers, and carry out novel, useful research. It is a challenge, though to be able to do everything I want to do! 

Q: What advice do you have for someone who wants to get in to marine science?
Talk to people, read, be open-minded, try any experience that interests you. Even if something seems difficult, it will most likely be rewarding, or at least have given you perspective towards what you are interested in. If you are lucky and know what you want to focus in, that is great, but if you don’t, try out different fields! Don’t force yourself into something that does not interest you.


1 Response to Catarina Pien

  1. Pingback: a bridge, some boats, and a boom! | The Drop-In to Moss Landing Marine Labs

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