Heather Spence, Marine Biologist
Orchestrating Coastal Marine Ecology Investigation and Outreach

Heather Spence, Marine Biologist

“Ask a marine biologist” response (whaling)

Are whale populations endangered by whaling? – Could they become extinct?

Whales are endangered due to many factors, and whaling is one of them. With the populations in such a delicate balance (due to low numbers and environmental pressures, among other things), even small-scale whaling could lead to extinction. One of the issues is that we do not understand the balance and how resilient the populations can be.

What effect does a reduced whale population have on their ecosystem?

When a population – whale or otherwise – becomes very small, there is less diversity which can lead to less adaptability to changes in their environment. Whales are top predators, and so changes in their populations affects their usual prey. Also, they interact with the environment in other ways – making sounds, migrating, serving as hosts for other organisms – and these interactions will also change and consequently the rest of the ecosystem. Again – we do not know the extent of the role that whales play in the ecosystem, and have no way of predicting short or long term changes, except that there are many.

Do you think Wailing is cruel and what can be done to stop it?

Whaling does not necessarily have to be considered cruel in order for it to be a good idea to stop it. Whaling is bringing whales closer to extinction and disrupts ecosystem balances – that is enough. That is also a kind of cruelty. While we shouldn’t have to put it this way, also, humans will be negatively affected by it.

Scientists are generally against the measures being considered by the International Whaling Commission – this includes the IWC’s own scientific advisers. Science magazine recently published an article about this, including interviews with scientists who discuss how the new proposal to allow commercial whaling is not based on scientific information and is a bad idea. So what can be done? Science is a great tool, and can help in finding win-win solutions. Scientific outreach, education and research are very important. As Sylvia Earle says, you can’t care about what you don’t know. Scientific perspectives should be taken into consideration in addressing whaling policy. Scientists should continue to speak up and contribute. Non-scientists should inform themselves, and speak out. Concerned, knowledgeable voices, even or especially from young people, can actually make a real difference.

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“Ask a marine biologist” response (career)

1) Why did the study of marine biology even start?

In one word, curiosity. :) The history of marine biology is linked with the history of science in general, and with ocean exploration and observation. Aristotle is sometimes cited as the father of marine biology. I particularly like this quote of his – “The investigation of truth is in one way hard and in another way easy. An indication of this is found in the fact that no one is able to attain the truth entirely, while on the other hand no one fails entirely, but everyone says something true about the nature of things, and by the union of all a considerable amount is amassed.”
For a brief historical description check out: http://marinebio.org/Oceans/history-of-marine-biology.asp .

2) Since I live in Iowa and I can’t go out of state for college, what kind of college would be the best choice for me?

If you want to be a marine biologist, I would recommend an undergraduate school strong in the sciences, and particularly with a good foundation in general biology. This is what I did – I went to George Washington University for my BS in Biology, and I minored in Physics. GWU is landlocked, but I got a good foundation in Biology, science in general, and a well-rounded education. Most of my classes were with pre-med students, and I got interesting scientific perspectives I might not have had if I had specialized sooner. I did my senior thesis on a marine topic and had a marine biologist for my biology adviser. I specialized further in my Masters degree, in Marine Biology.

3) How long does it take to become a marine biologist? How much training would someone need?

It depends a bit on what you want to do. Four year undergraduate degree in Biology or related is pretty much a must. A masters degree (2-3 yrs typically) will get you pretty far, if you are interested in government jobs, or non-profits. If you want to design and direct your own research, you are going to want a PhD (3-7 yrs). You do not have to get a masters before getting a PhD, though many do. Additionally, you will need experience working on research – sometimes you can get this through school, sometimes you may need to organize this yourself and find internship and research assistant opportunities. And, keeping a full and varied life outside of science is important as well.

4) If I was a marine biologist, where would be the best place to live?

You do not have to live near the coast in order to be a marine biologist, though it doesn’t hurt :) You could live and teach in one place, and travel to a field location for research a month or more out of the year. Living and working near the ocean does help though, even if you are doing only lab work. It also depends on your research interests.

5) Lastly, do you like your job as a marine biologist?

Definitely! Probably the most common response I get when I tell people what I do is “oh, I was going to study marine biology, but…” and they are wistful. However I’ve never heard anyone say, gee, I wish I hadn’t become a marine biologist!

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Sonic Weapons used against protesters

Sonic weapons were, in fact, used against G20 protesters in Pittsburgh, PA.  As reported in the New York Times article “Protesters are met by tear gas at G20 conference”:

“The police fired a sound cannon that emitted shrill beeps, causing demonstrators to cover their ears and back up… City officials said they believed it was the first time the sound cannon had been used publicly. ‘Other law enforcement agencies will be watching to see how it was used,’ said Nate Harper, the Pittsburgh police bureau chief. ‘It served its purpose well.'”

The debate over the use and impact of sound will surely be fueled by this event.  Stay tuned.

In this video you can hear the sound cannon, however it is unclear how far away it is and the decibel level.

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Respect, Restore, Replace

Consider whether it is better to say “Respect, Restore, Replace” rather than “Protect, Restore, Replace,” to describe a hierarchy of appropriate environmental action.

For the original discussion of “Protect, Restore, Replace,” click here.

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Visit Cancun!

How can you help Cancun and its natural resources?  Go on vacation!!!  What with the media buzz on drug traffic and swine flu and the global economy, tourists have been avoiding Cancun. I’ve been there, though, and I can tell you that I didn’t have any problems at all. I’d still be there if I didn’t have these conferences. The big problem is actually the resulting economic downturn. People are losing their jobs, drastic measures are being taken, and the beaches are empty.  So go for it, there are deals, it is a great time to visit Cancun. Let me know and I’ll suggest places and people to visit. And send us pictures!  :)

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Decision Against Asian Oyster!

On Monday, Virginia, Maryland and the US Army Corps of Engineers made the decision against using the non-native Asian Oyster as a replacement for the depleted native oyster population.  While the door is not shut entirely, they have officially committed to working to revive the native species first. This is the right decision, scientifically speaking (protect, restore, replace), and the only possible one in terms of global sustainability.

Here is an article from the Washington Post about the decision – “Plug is pulled on Asian Oyster”

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Marine Biologist Career

Good evening. My name is Vanessa and I was wondering if you could help me out by answering some questions. I am a high school student taking a few college courses and one of my college classes wants us to write a report. I am writing a report on a person in a career field of my interest so I was wondering if you can help me out. I would greatly appreciate any help or any contact information to other marine biologists. I would be glad if you can get back to me as soon as you can so I can turn my report in. Here are the questions that i need to ask:
1. What is the training involved in the job?
2. What is the starting salary?
3. What is the stress level involved?
4. What are the physical requirements/demands?
5. What are the downsides of the job and why do you feel the way you do about them?
6. What are the working conditions?
7.Is the job/field constantly changing? How?
8. Is there any opportunites to grow within this field?
9. Do you have any specific advice for anyone entering this field?
10. What are your specific job responsibilties?
11. What are the personal qualities necessary on the job?
12. What is your background (length of time in this field)?
13. What tasks do people on this job do?
14. What are the professional and other skills necessary to perform the job?
15. Is this field developing?
16. Are there any related occupations?
17. Are there opportunites for personal growth?
18. What is the work enviroment like?
19. Is there a lot of traveling or away from home time?
20. Is speaking a forgein language important in this field?
Thank you for all your time. I appreciate any help you can give me.

Hi Vanessa, glad to hear from you and good luck in your class and on your report. To answer your questions:

1) My training is a B.S. in Biology and a M.S. in Marine Biology, however there are some jobs that only require a B.S., or a B.A., and some that require a PhD.

2) Starting salary for Marine Biologists varies greatly depending on where you are working, and your academic background, and can range from volunteer to 50,000

3) There is a high level of stress in being a marine biologist. In research, a lot of things turn out in ways you least expected and if you have to quickly make adjustments. There is quite a bit of competition, as well. Also, my focus is in conservation biology, and this is a politically charged area. Another thing is, if you work in something you care about – and nobody would become a marine biologist for any other reason, certainly not for the money! – there is stress due to that, as well. But it is all worth it.

4) It depends on the type of work, and there are some Marine Biologists who mostly work in the computer or lab. However, field work does require physical demands, especially if you are diving, lugging heavy equipment, and spending long hours on boats or in the water.

5) Sometimes the job is discouraging, because progress can be slow and frustrating, and it seems like you aren’t getting anywhere and everything is going wrong. Also, a lot of your time is spent on administrative tasks and grant writing.

6) Working conditions vary depending on the stage of the projects – there are times in the field, working from boats, diving, gathering data. There are times analyzing the data, on the computer and in the lab. There are times presenting at conferences. A lot of time is spent on the computer, writing up results, proposals, etc.

7) The job and the field are constantly changing as new discoveries are made, and new technologies are developed. We know so little about the oceans, new discoveries are made every day.

8) There are as many opportunities to grow as you make them, you have to take the lead to determine where you want to go with your career.

9) Talk to as many people as possible to get different viewpoints and see what the options are. Then get a research assistant position to try out research and see if you like it. Also, don’t get discouraged if you find that one type of research isn’t for you, there are many different areas within Marine Biology.

10) Research (including methods development), educational outreach, fundraising, presentations

11) Organization, creativity, logical thinking process, passion. and a resilient sense of humor!

12) My last year of college I began working specifically on marine biology research, so I guess you could say I have 5 years in the field.

13) design research, meet with collaborators, write reports, write proposals, present to schools….

14) solid foundation in the scientific method, skills in communication

15) absolutely, see 7

16) sure, there are people in all kinds of marine biology fields, and related fields, such as aquaculture, physical and chemical oceanography, professional diving, underwater videography, science writing, etc

17) Definitely, you really get to know yourself and expand your abilities through working through the challenges of the research and the outreach to other scientists, policymakers and managers, and the community

18) see 6

19) Depends, but there can be if you are working in a field site away from where you live, and also going to conferences

20) In my case, yes, since I am working in conservation marine biology in Mexico. However, it is not necessary if you choose to only work in your country. However, I will say that English is the main language of scientists at meetings, and so even if it isn’t your first language, it is probably best to speak English in order to best participate in conferences, and to read the majority of articles about your field.

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Protist Project


Ms Spence,
I was wondering if you could help me with a biology project.  I need to find the common and scientific name of a protist, but I searched the web for hours, and i could not find one.  If you could help me, it would be greatly appreciated.
Thank you,

Hi Steven, nice to hear from you. Protists are a very interesting group, and an important one for marine biology and reef ecology, because members of this group (more specifically, the group “dinoflagellates”) are responsible for ‘red tide’ which is also called harmful algal blooms, and others form symbioses with corals. Protists, including dinoflagellates, are tricky, though, because they are small, diverse, and not clearly classified. Many of them don’t have common names. You might check out this site  http://zipcodezoo.com/Animals/C/Conus_marmoratus/

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Support Native Oysters? Duh!

Still no decision has been made on whether asian oysters are going to be introduced into the Chesapeake bay. This would purposefully introduce a non-native species. All of the computer models in the world can’t negate that this is a BAD IDEA. You only have to look at the real issue at hand – support restoring the native oysters and protecting those we have, or try and “replace” them with something else?

FIRST of all, protect.  Then restore. Replacing is an absolute last resort, and we haven’t tried the first two yet!

For more on the oyster issue, check out The Nature Conservancy

And, for how to prioritize decisions like these, check out Protect, Restore, Replace

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Protect, Restore, Replace

How should we prioritize and make decisions about our use and care for natural resources?

In the phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle,” the order is not arbitrary.  The first step is Reducing – which saves energy, money, and resources. The second step is reusing – which lessens the need to take new resources. The third step is recycling – which takes energy, turning something into something else, but can be a good option, again, to lessen the need to take new resources.  A logical progression, yet it is usually recycling that gets the most attention.

In the case of ecosystems and natural habitats, there is a similar progression – “Protect, Restore, Replace.”  Protecting is the utmost priority and the best option.  Second best is restoring, third, replacing. We know so very little about the funcioning of the environment, do we really think that we will be able to “replace” it? An artificial reef is NOT the same as a natural reef. An artificial wetland is NOT the same as a natural wetland. One of the biggest differences is that replacing the natural habitat, and to a smaller extent restoring as well, requires constant maintenance and human effort to keep it going. Even then, it may not sufficiently fulfill the natural ecosystem’s role to prevent complete instability of the area.

1) Protect

2) Restore

3) Replace

Where are you putting your priorities?


For the handout and info on the presentation about this at Unicaribe, click here.

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