Mostly Water

How One Woman Navigates a Career in Marine Biology

Deanna and her son with a plankton net. Photo by Juan Vasquez, CSUSM

Most people are fascinated by the sea, and, if you think about it for just a moment, it makes sense. According to the latest paleontological research, life, meaning the very first life forms, evolved in the sea at least 3.6 billion years ago. As complex as the diversity of life has become, we all diverged from a common oceanic ancestor. In addition, humans and other living things are all made of mostly water and we rely on water for survival. People often crave information about the unknown, unexplored, or mysterious, and the sea is all of these.

When I meet someone for the first time and the topic of what I do for a living comes up, the usual comment I hear is, “That is so cool! I wanted to be a marine biologist when I was young, but [someone] told me it was a silly pipe dream.” This statement is often followed by a big sigh.

What many people do not know when they dream of a career in the marine sciences is that the work is rarely glamorous, and that the large majority of marine biologists do not spend their days splashing around in the sea with dolphins or sea turtles. Most of us study fish, plankton or other non-fuzzy living things that do not necessarily enjoy the companionship of humans. Some of us don’t even study living things, but instead track the movements of the sea using computer models. These job descriptions are certainly not considered sexy or fun by many people’s standards, but this is what most marine scientists do.

Although I encountered several people during my childhood who tried to crush my dreams of becoming a marine scientist, I was determined to make the dream a reality. Clearly these people did not know me well, since telling me I cannot do something was precisely the fuel I needed to stoke my determination. I think the most memorable incident was when my 11th grade Economics teacher bet me that I would change my major to something like Business within the first year of college. I shook his hand to make that bet, and it was game on.

As a woman growing up in the 80’s I felt that I could do anything I put my mind to. I’d been supported by my family through all of my endeavors and had no reason to believe that being a woman might be limiting to my career. Looking back, this ignorance worked to my advantage. Have you ever thought what it would be like to be the only woman on a research ship for 10 or more days surrounded by male scientists, deck hands, cooks and engineers? Some of the boat crew members are out at sea for hundreds of days each year, away from family and friends and the normalcy of life on land. Some of the captains or even fellow scientists are not accustomed to a woman being in charge in any capacity, and when that woman happens to be the designated cruise leader, challenges can arise.

During one particular cruise one of my colleagues was very disgruntled over the choice of cruise leader (me). He felt that he should have been chosen, but the principle investigators had decided otherwise. Every time I gathered the crew to talk about our plans for the day, he sat in the corner of the galley with his arms crossed, listening, but not participating in the decision making, even when I asked for input. As soon as the meetings were over he would walk away, grumbling about how stupid the plan was and how it wouldn’t work out.

The plans did mostly work out, and the cruises I led were successful. What I started to notice as my ignorance wore off was that I had to work really hard to prove myself as a research scientist. Not only did I need to be reliable and smart, but I felt the need to take on multiple roles, almost like a mother hen taking care of the hen house, which in these cases were a ship, laboratory, or office. Some of my multiple roles included task manager, data manager, the one who wrote the scientific manuscripts, GIS coordinator, and outreach lead. I also found that I was best received by my colleagues and bosses if I threw in some charm and witty humor while multitasking. Why some of my colleagues could sit around being grumpy, negative and really just not helpful, but also be well respected, stemmed from, in my opinion, an “old boys club” mentality. Or maybe I could have done this too, sat around being grumpy instead of useful and helpful, but that’s not who I am.

My mother loved the sea and could never go long without taking my brother and me to the beach for the day. My early childhood was spent in Ventura County, which is a relatively sleepy area sandwiched between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. I remember spending many foggy mornings at the beaches in Ventura or Oxnard, exploring the sand dunes and tide pools, enjoying the salt air, and fearlessly swimming in the chilly water.

Deanna doing a fish transect survey in the Florida Keys (left), and sharing her love of the sea with her son (right)

The first time I snorkeled in warm tropical waters was when I was about 9 years old on the island of Oahu. My father had won a work contest that sent us on a family trip there. We were all ecstatic, as none of us had ever been on an airplane flight longer than 60 minutes, much less across the Pacific Ocean. I will never forget the thrill of observing the diverse sea life. The sea urchins were huge with thick spines, the fish were so bright they almost glowed, and the corals were colorful and thriving. It was while I was snorkeling in the warm tropical water that I decided I was going to be a marine biologist. The only career I could imagine absolutely had to include exploring the sea and studying the strange creatures living there.

Today I teach college biology courses and one of the things I notice is the number of women in my classes. It’s always over 50%, and sometimes as high as 80 or 90%! When I was taking college biology courses 20 years ago I recall closer to 20 or 30% of the lecture halls occupied by women. The tides continue to change as more women are encouraged to pursue the sciences if they choose, and the opportunities seem to be greater for women than they were even 10 years ago.

Though my career as a marine biologist has not always been easy or financially rewarding, my work has proven time and time again to be fulfilling and has taken me around the world to research the unknown, unexplored and mysterious. One of the best job perks is that I am now able to share my passion for the ocean sciences with a new generation of future scientists, my college students, and young budding naturalists, my two sons.