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National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science

Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research


MEET: Mark Vandersea

Fisheries Biologist, Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research, National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science

I am a molecular biologist for the National Ocean Service at the Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research in Beaufort, North Carolina.  In a nutshell, the work that I do could be described as environmental forensics.  Currently, we are studying species of microalgae that produce toxins that cause ciguatera fish poisoning, a disease that makes people sick when they eat contaminated seafood.

My job consists of a mixture of laboratory and field work.  In the field, we collect environmental samples and bring them back to the laboratory for analysis.  Then, I conduct genetic and molecular biology experiments to identify and detect species of toxic microalgae using DNA finger-printing technology.  Our goals are to learn more about the ecology of the toxic microalgae by documenting their abundance and distribution from a variety of tropical habitats.  This information can then be used to warn people of potential ciguatera fish poisoning risks.

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What do you like most about working at NOS?

I enjoy working with a team of dedicated people who support and encourage each other to do excellent science. I really enjoy being able to divide time between conducting field experiments and working in the lab to perform analyses. It is cool being the first to know the answers to questions that we are pursuing.

What is the hardest part of your job?

The hardest part of my job is staying current with the latest in technology and molecular science. Molecular science has expanded rapidly over the past 10 years and it is fun and challenging to incorporate new techniques and equipment into our experimental designs.

What is your educational background?

B.S. Biology, St. Andrews College, Laurinburg, North Carolina

M.S. Marine Biology, College of Charleston, Charleston, South Carolina

What inspired your interest in the ocean and coasts?

With a last name like Vandersea (Dutch translation = from the sea) I was pretty much doomed to be a marine biologist or a fisherman.  As kids, my brothers and I were always obsessed with fishing, crabbing, swimming, and being on the water.  I wanted to read and learn about anything related to marine biology that crossed my path.  Growing up in eastern North Carolina provided access to the coastal environments that we loved to visit and served to fuel my interests.

How did you end up working at NOAA?

The timing was my good luck. Having just finished graduate school, I was looking for jobs. A temporary contract position working as a molecular biologist in Beaufort was advertised. I applied and was hired.  Two years later, I was able to apply for a full-time position.

What advice do you have for young people wanting a career in the "ocean realm"?

Spend time figuring out the part of the “ocean realm” in which you want to build a career.  But don’t be surprised if you get side tracked or you change your mind. One of the most exciting aspects of marine science is the vast number of subject areas.  A good way to get exposure to marine science is to apply for internships at marine labs or look for volunteer work.  Explore Web sites hosted by marine labs and universities to find out what sparks your interest.

What is the most interesting/important thing you've learned while working at NOAA?

Scientific integrity is everything.  As federal scientists, our primary stakeholder is the American public and our science must be the very best that we can do.  I have also learned that I am an algae nerd, and I really didn’t know this about myself until I started working for NOAA and studying algae.  Algae live secret lives that most people overlook and take for granted (ha ha ha).