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Profile of a NOAA Scientist: Paula Whitfield

Pauls Whitfield looks for lionfish

Paula Whitfield looks for lionfish! Paula is a NOAA fisheries biologist studying and tracking the lionfish invasion in the Atlantic. Click on image for larger view and further details.

Paula Whitfield is a fisheries biologist at NOAA’s Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research in Beaufort, North Carolina. We talked to Paula about how she came to be a scientist, her career as a scientist at NOAA, and how she came to study lionfish. Here is what she had to say:

Interviewer:
Can you tell us how you became interested in a career in science? Can you trace your interest in science back to a childhood experience, a favorite teacher or a favorite course?

Paula Whitfield:
I first became interested in the ocean when I was a kid. I couldn’t get enough of “The Undersea World of Jacque Cousteau.” It sounds kind of corny because this Cousteau show influenced so many of today’s marine scientists, but it’s true! It was my favorite TV show and I never missed it. It was today’s equivalent to the Discovery Channel. The underwater footage was something very new when I was a kid—it was cutting-edge and exciting. I loved the water as a kid, too. I loved to swim, and I grew up on an island in Puget Sound in Washington State. So, being in the water and working around the water came naturally to me.

I didn’t get interested in pursing a career in marine science until I went to college. I took Biology 101 during my freshman year at George Mason University in Virginia. From the start, I thought studying life was very cool. I also had the opportunity to go on an extended field trip to Costa Rica, a country in Central America that has nature reserves with amazing biodiversity. I saw how science was done by observing scientists in the field collecting data and interacting with each other and with students. It was great! I thought, “This would be a great life.” That’s when I decided to pursue a career in biology.

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Interviewer:
Tell us about your career at NOAA.What is your job title? What are your duties?

Paula Whitfield collects data

Paula Whitfield collects lionfish data onboard the R/V Seward Johnson. (Photo credit: Christine Addison)

Paula Whitfield:
I started at NOAA even before I graduated with my bachelor’s in biology from George Mason University. While in college, I was a part-time biological technician at the National Marine Fisheries Service. Most of my time was spent in the field assisting senior scientists with their research projects. I collected data, but also was in charge of making sure we had the proper supplies and equipment on hand, entering and analyzing data, etc. This got my foot in the door, and when I graduated, NOAA hired me full-time. Over the past 10 years, I have climbed the ladder to a professional biologist position and now have much more responsibility. Being promoted to a scientist position required that I have a master’s degree. While I worked as a technician, NOAA allowed me time to go back to school to earn a master’s in marine science from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

Now, I am a fisheries biologist with the Center for Fisheries and Habitat Research, an office of NOAA’s National Ocean Service in Beaufort, North Carolina. My job is to design and carry out ecological studies on marine fish and their habitats. So now, instead of working to help others with their research projects, I get to design, plan and carry out my own. This involves a lot of responsibility and requires much more creativity on my part. Now, I am very much in tune with the “big picture”—I can see how my research makes a difference—and that is very satisfying. Sometimes I get to choose my own questions (in the context of the NOAA mission) and sometimes my bosses assign me a question.

On a day-to-day basis, my work might seem fairly mundane. I actually spend most of my time behind a computer entering and analyzing data, planning research projects and logistics, writing grants to obtain money to do my research, and writing scientific papers. For me, the most difficult aspect of my job is writing. Although I find writing grants and research papers difficult, taking a research project from it beginning to its culmination as a publication that other scientists read is quite enjoyable. But, the 25 to 30% of my time that I spend in the field collecting data is why I am a scientist. It’s what I enjoy most, and it happens to be the most glamorous and fun part of science, too.

In my work, I mostly use observations to try to answer questions, but sometimes I’m able to do an actual experiment. Doing experiments (that is, manipulating variables) is preferred, but often very difficult, so we count our lucky stars when an experiment is possible. As you might imagine, it is difficult to find ways to do experiments in the vastness of the ocean, so sometimes we are left with doing more observational research until more is understood about the system.

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Interviewer:
What kind of educational background would someone need to get a job like yours?

Paula Whitfield waits to dive

Paula Whitfield waits to dive. Note her deep-water diving gear, and the underwater videocamera she carrys. (Photo credit: Christine Addison)

Paula Whitfield:
To work as a technician requires at least a bachelor’s degree in a science related to the work you are being hired to do. A master’s degree would make you even more competitive for these types of positions. However, these days, most professional scientists have PhDs in their fields. The exceptions are people like me who climbed up the ladder over many years. I am actually considering returning to graduate school to earn a PhD, which is required for me to get any further promotions. More importantly, a PhD would help make me more competitive for grants I wish to apply for to fund my research projects.

Interviewer:
Besides your work with lionfish, what other research projects have you been involved in as a NOAA scientist?

Paula Whitfield:
Until I began studying lionfish, most of my research had to do with the disturbance and restoration of seagrass beds. I ask questions about how seagrass beds are damaged or disturbed by human activities or natural processes, and how they recover from damage. On a practical level, I try to find ways that damaged seagrass beds can be repaired so that their function in the ecosystem can be restored. Seagrass beds suffer from numerous types of insults from human activities, including poor water quality, severe damage from motorboat propellers, etc. Actually, I’m still very much involved with the restoration ecology of seagrass beds, but lionfish have been taking up most of my time lately!

Interviewer:
What are some other career options for people with a background like yours?

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Paula Whitfield:
There are many career options for someone with a bachelor’s or master’s in biology. The opportunities may be more limited for someone with a more specialized degree (especially a bachelor’s) in marine science or marine biology. Even though I eventually went into marine biology, I’m glad that I decided to get the more general biology degree, because it gave me a broader perspective and opened up more avenues for me in the end.

One option for someone with a bachelor’s or master’s is to start as a technician, like I did—assisting scientists in carrying out their research. All kinds of institutions hire research technicians, including universities, state and local governments, agencies of the federal government like the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Park Service, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). There are also private research institutions like Moss Landing Marine Laboratories (CA), Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (MA) and Mote Marine Laboratory (FL).

With a master’s degree, there is also the option of teaching high school or community college. High school science teachers are in great demand and supply these days. Many school districts are willing to give bonuses and other incentives to attract young people to their schools.

Another option is to work as a professor at a university or college. This usually requires a PhD in your area of expertise, but it depends on the institution. Most professors spend part of their time doing scientific research and the rest teaching classes and supervising the research of graduate students who are working on their own masters and PhDs.

Paula Whitfield and Jay Stryron after a dive

NOAA scientist Paula Whitfield and NURC diving specialist Jay Styron after a dive during their August 2004 expedition to study lionfish. (Photo credit: Christine Addison)

Interviewer:
What advice would you give to a high school student who would like to pursue a career similar to yours, say in biology or marine science?

Paula Whitfield:
I advise students to take as many science and math courses as they can, including biology, chemistry and physics. Not only will it prepare you for what is to come in college, it will help you figure out what you like and don’t like, and what you are good at. I have found that my broad background in the sciences has benefited me tremendously in my career—and that started back in high school. What I didn’t learn in high school, I had to learn later anyway, and believe me, it will be much harder when you are older.

I wasn’t a very good student in high school. I wasn’t focused on my schoolwork because I didn’t understand how important it would be later on. Also, I was very intimidated by math, or at least I thought I was. I encourage students to get help at the first sign of problems in a math class—get a tutor, a study buddy, or ask the teacher for help. Doing nothing and just trying to struggle though is a big mistake. I know from experience!

For a while, I let my anxiety about math discourage me from pursuing a career in science. When I got to college, I thought I couldn’t do math or anything that required working with numbers. Later, I realized that I would need to overcome my anxiety if I was going to be a scientist. In the end, I overcame my shaky background in math by seeking help from others and keeping my eye on the goal. Don’t let a fear or deficiency in math or any other subject discourage you from pursuing a career in science!

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