Gillian Rhett

Gillian RhettHometown: Northern California

Undergrad education: UC Davis, Bachelor of Science with a double major in Anthropology and Biochemistry & Molecular Biology.

Work Experience: My first job after I completed my undergraduate education was in the molecular anthropology lab at UC Davis, where I worked on primate genetics and helped with work that led to publications on new genetic markers to distinguish between Indian and Chinese rhesus macaques.  I was recruited by two scientists I knew from that lab who were starting their own company and I worked for that company for about two years doing genetic testing.  Then I decided to go back to school and get a Master’s degree.  In amongst that, I’ve done a wild variety of short-term jobs, including organic chemistry, accounting and working in a pet store.

At MLML, I was a TA for statistics and I worked for the Marine Mammal Stranding Network in the Vertebrate Ecology Lab, before I switched thesis projects and therefore labs.  Now I work in the Invertebrate Zoology & Molecular Biology lab on various genetics projects and I’m a TA for MLML’s Teacher Enhancement Program.

Some Questions for Gillian:

Q: Why did you decide to pursue marine science?

A: I always knew I wanted to do biology.  I still have a paper from kindergarten where I said I wanted to be either a scientist or a cook (I still enjoy cooking too).  I narrowed it down to biochemistry when I discovered in high school how awesome chemistry is.  I’ve always loved the water and been interested in marine science but I was more focused on biochemistry and being strictly in the lab as an undergrad.  After I’d been working for a few years, I decided I wanted to try something with more field work.  Now I’m finding that although field work is great, I’m a lab rat at heart.

Q: What experiences and opportunities have shaped your path to where you are now?

A: My parents were always supportive of my academic pursuits and my love of science and the natural world, and that helped tremendously.  The most important single experience that put me on the path to marine science was when I spent three weeks doing environmental conservation volunteer work in New Zealand.  It reminded me of how much I love working with nature, and meeting people who made a career of that showed me it was a viable career option for me as well.

Gillian on a cliff with binoculars

Q: What are you studying, and why is it interesting/important to you?

A: My thesis is about finding out what kinds of organisms live on sunken whale carcasses (“whale fall”) and how they’re different from organisms that live on the rest of the sandy sea floor.  It’s interesting because the whale carcass is like an island or oasis of food in an otherwise relatively nutrient-poor environment; there are other types of these “islands” such as hydrothermal vents and cold seeps, and I want to find out if the fauna in these habitats have anything in common.  I’m working with researchers at MBARI who are generously helping me figure out methods and collect samples using their Ventana ROV.

This project is important to me because there is still a lot we don’t know about the deep sea environment and I’m thrilled to be able to contribute a bit more information.  It’s also important because the fact that whale carcasses provide habitat for these unique organisms underscores how all living things exist as part of incredibly complex ecosystems; if whales went extinct then so would all these organisms that depend on them.

Q: What are you planning or hoping to do when you finish?

A: The job market being how it is, I’m keeping my options open but my first choice will be teaching at community college.  It doesn’t require a PhD, which I might do someday but not immediately, and I think community colleges are a hugely important educational resource.  Working as a TA and just talking with other students has shown me that I’m well suited to be a teacher and I would enjoy it.  I like explaining how things work.

The backup plan is to apply for lab jobs, preferably involving molecular biology.

Q: What advice do you have for someone who wants to get in to marine science?

A: Get some experience doing field work, lab work and computer stuff (for management and analysis of data – computer skills are really useful and pretty uncommon).  If you find opportunities to try all these things, you’ll have a much better idea of what kind of work you want to do.  You need to be proactive about finding projects you can work on and finding people to be your mentors.  Don’t be afraid to bug people about that.  Ask questions; people you’ll work for know that asking questions doesn’t mean you don’t know enough, it means you’re paying attention and you want to learn.  Take notes!  Come prepared and be reliable.  …I guess that last one is good advice for anyone but I think it’s especially true in science.  Our resources are limited so the more you can be efficient and useful, the more people will want to have you working on their projects.

Gillian SCUBA diving in MontereyGet out on the water as much as you can.  SCUBA and boating are great.  Get SCUBA certified if you can; if you’re an undergrad, you might be able to get certified through your school without having to pay too much.  Experience with driving a small boat is also good; you can look into getting certified by your state’s Department of Boating and Waterways.  None of these is likely to be a requirement for admission to a graduate program but it’ll look good on your application and you’ll find out now whether you’ll really enjoy a career involving the ocean.  Don’t worry if you get seasick, there are medications available and there are a lot of marine science jobs that don’t involve spending too much time on a boat.  I get seasick but it’s OK because my work is mostly in the lab and I can take medication when I do need to go out on a boat.

Keep reading marine science blogs (like this one *cough*) and you’ll see there’s a huge variety of careers you can get into with a marine science education.  You can be like me and come into marine science from another field or you can take the skills you learn in marine science and apply them to other fields too.

Q: What are the most rewarding and challenging aspects of graduate school?

A: The answer to both of these is the same thing: being totally responsible for my own project.  The most important thing for us if we’re going to finish our theses is to be organized and self-motivated.  I’ve found that I’m improving in both of those areas since I started here.

It’s also rewarding to learn other skills, like being a better public speaker, working on projects with other people, and taking advantage of networking opportunities.  I used to resent that we had to network and I resisted it, but I’ve learned that it’s just necessary because science is about working within a larger community of scientists, and that’s a good thing.  I discovered my thesis project when a guest speaker from MBARI came to the lab and I approached her about helping with her project and now she’s one of my mentors.  Having the guts to do that type of thing used to be hard for me but I’m so much better off now that I’ve learned how to do it.

One Response to Gillian Rhett

  1. Pingback: What happens to whales after they die? « The Drop-In to Moss Landing Marine Labs

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