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?
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.
Tell us about your career at NOAA.What is
your job title? What are your duties?
Paula Whitfield collects
lionfish data onboard the R/V Seward
Johnson. (Photo credit:
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.
What kind of educational
background would someone need to get a job like yours?
Paula Whitfield waits
to dive. Note her deep-water diving gear, and the underwater
videocamera she carrys. (Photo credit: Christine Addison)
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.
Besides your work with lionfish,
what other research projects have you been involved in as a NOAA
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!
What are some other career
options for people with a background like yours?
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
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
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)
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?
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!
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!