Don’t Just Go with the Flow
The stingray, 6-ft wingspan, emerged from beneath the sand and zoomed off, leaving a trail of sand behind it. The feather star took an uncertain leap, gently falling to a coral outcrop below. A squad of inch long green squids drifted past my mask as I rushed back to the dive boat, returning late after distractedly following a green sea turtle on its leisurely stroll of the reef. I was immersed, physically, mentally and emotionally, in the dynamic beauty of the Great Barrier Reef. I was happy. It was that simple.
But how could I make the ocean a significant part of my future? The obvious answer, the one I kept being told, was to pursue research and academia.
* * *
“11 rock, 2 shore”
“7 rock, 4 shore”
“12 rock, 3 shore”
I called out the crab composition as I flipped over rocks along the Tasmanian shoreline. Understanding that my new career-goal was marine research, I volunteered to help a UTAS graduate student collect data. He was attempting to quantify the impact of the invasive shore crab on the endemic rock crab population. I went through the motions. I collected the data, filled in the line on my resume, and thought little about the act of conducting research and how it made me feel. Was I enjoying what I was doing? Did the impact of invasive crabs on native populations excite me? Was this my passion? If only I had stopped to ask myself these questions.
* * *
Up, up, up, cannonball! I watched as the lobster postlarvae played in the continuous flow of bubbles trickling from its airstone. Yes, this lobster was enthusiastically playing in the minute currents of its tank. However, this lobster’s enthusiasm for water skydiving was no match for my advisor’s vigor for her work. The New England Aquarium had a lobster research and husbandry program that hired interns to help study the impact of temperature and diet on lobster shell disease, and it was managed by an amazing woman, Anita. She pulled me in on numerous projects, taught me new skills, encouraged me to design my own research, and she did it all with a bubbling energy in which it was impossible not to find yourself jumping. I loved working for her, and honestly owe her a long overdue email.
I was blinded by her fervor. Much like I was caught up in the dynamic beauty of the Great Barrier reef, I was completely immersed in her emotions for lobster research, seeing the work through her eyes. I wish I had asked myself, “What do I enjoy about this work?”. “What characteristics from my internship should I look for in future work?”. But I didn’t. And I barreled on ahead with my plans of pursuing marine research and adding lines to my resume, lacking the self-awareness to recognize the importance of having an Anita in my life.
* * *
“Well, what’s more important to you? Pursuing scientific questions and conducting research geared towards your interests, or working with an advisor that supports your research?” a grad school friend inquired as I struggled to make an important decision. And she asked the critical question, though she framed it slightly differently. Do I care about research? Do I have the unfailing desire to pursue my research interests above all else, as so many of my graduate school friends seemed to have?
What was I doing? No. No. No. No. No. I needed support. I’m interested in asking questions about our world, but not more than having a life beyond my work. Than having peace of mind. If research isn’t my passion, what is? I hadn’t found it. What if I don’t have a passion? What if I’ve been wasting my life preparing for the wrong type of work? Why didn’t I take more diverse classes at Hamilton?!
* * *
The air was hot and muggy aboard the KAUST Explorer’s deck. I embarked on my first outing as a participant in the KAUST Red Sea Laboratory summer program. Pulling out to sea, we glided past the fishing fleet of Thuwal, Saudi Arabia: dozens of twenty-foot, single-engine skiffs. I turned with surprise to my professor. I had just learned about Saudi fishermen damaging the coral reef and open water systems of the Red Sea. “This fleet is decimating the Red Sea fish populations?” I inquired. Thuwal is one of the major fishing cities along the western coast of Saudi Arabia, yet this fleet seemed so small. My professor explained that although it’s small, the fishermen dock at an unregulated port. There are neither catch nor size limits. Later that day, as I swam “Shark Reef,” I was baffled again. The reef was spotted with small fish: clown fish, butterfly fish, trigger fish, hawkfish. Where were the coral groupers, the nagel, and the sharks? I found them later. In piles at the Jeddah Fish Market. Despite a royal decree banning shark fishing, the sharks were sold openly.
That feeling I experienced 6 years early at the Great Barrier Reef came rushing back. I was excited. I wanted to learn more. I wanted to explore the intricate relationships that drive this system. I wanted to help Shark Reef rediscover its name. And more importantly I started to discover something about myself. Finally! Not only could I hear my inner whisperings prodding me towards marine management, but I also reflected upon them.
* * *
“You’ve been matched.” Those words had never been so accurate.
Hamilton has a long history of connecting students with alumni and parents whose advice, expertise, and resources help talented young people achieve success for themselves and in their communities.
I had just participated in a week-long matching workshop for the NOAA Coastal Management Fellowship. We were repeatedly told by the workshop organizers, to follow our hearts and select the organization that we felt truly matched us. For once I knew what I wanted. My work had to be applied; I am motivated by a sense that what I am doing will matter. I wanted to be doing work that would, for instance, restore the fish communities of the Red Sea. I needed an Anita, or two. I wanted to work for and with people who were collaborative, supportive, excited, and interested in expanding my experiences.
I listened to my gut, wrote down Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and I am now working as a NOAA Fellow on a project and with people that match my interests and needs.
* * *
An Atlantic sea nettle drifts past my C1 canoe. It’s 5 pm on a Tuesday and I am paddling in the creek near my house. I’m working off some of my anxieties from a stressful day, and reflecting on my new position at MD DNR. I’m happy. I’m tackling an issue I never thought I would, figuring out how to beneficially use dredge material to restore marshes and coastlines. I have a job that fascinates me and I work with people who inspire me. I wish I had the self-awareness to reflect earlier and often rather than let my experiences passively drift by. I may have found myself on this creek sooner.