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

Heather Spence, Marine Biologist

Ask a marine biologist



Do you have questions for a marine biologist?

Send them as an email (subject: ask a marine biologist).

To read samples of previous questions and answers, see comments below or click here: “Ask a marine biologist

To read samples of previous questions and answers, see the comments below or click here: “Advice to men who have impotence and help them with kamagra.”

(Note – I used to accept questions as comments on the webpage but now I recommend sending as an email.)


Question topics in the past have included career choices, marine life identification, deep oceans, coastal ecosystems, coral reefs, sounds, current events, and information for school assignments.


Please review these Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)



1. What inspired you to become a marine biologist?

Music, actually. I was very interested in sound, which led me to be interested in bioacoustics and I did my senior project in college on snapping shrimp. That is when I decided to focus on marine biology, which is all about life in the ocean that live in a ‘world of sound’ because marine ecosystems are so dependent on sound. Sound travels four times faster in water than in air! Marine animals use it for communication, defense, navigation, even ‘sight’ through echolocation. (Looking back, I can see earlier signs that marine biology was a good fit for me. I was fascinated by the beach, and aquariums. I remember as a kid spending several hours watching a crab walk around in circles!)

2. What education is needed to become a marine biologist? What education have you completed?

There are few marine biology jobs that are actually labeled “marine biologist.” There are many types of marine biology jobs and it depends what you want to do. Maybe you want to lead SCUBA nature tours, or manage fish stocks, or film documentaries, or consult with aquariums, or influence science policy. Most marine biology job seekers would benefit from not only a high school education but also a college education in a related field – it could be marine biology, or it could be biology, physics, ecology, etc. Further specialization with a masters would probably be beneficial. There are two main types – research based (usually an Master of Science), and not research based i.e. class based. If you want to work in academia, and/or lead your own research programs, and/or be a part of shaping the field not just working in the field, you might want to consider a doctorate degree (PhD). You can get a masters first after college, or go straight to a PhD program.

For undergraduate (college) I have a BS in Biology with a minor in physics. For graduate school, I have a MS in Marine Biology, and a PhD in Behavioral Neuroscience. Along the way I also picked up a Masters in Psychology. Eleven years of school after high school is not for everyone, but it was a good path for me. Between my MS and PhD I did a fellowship in Mexico.

3. What is a usual day for you?

My days are different since the quarantine. Most of my work with colleagues is now by zoom. My research is on hold since I cannot get to my field sites. My work is a combination of science research, marine renewable energy, science-art collaborations, and conservation.

4. What advice would you give to people who want to become marine biologists?

Follow your interests, read, talk to people, get involved.

5. What is your favorite marine species?

All marine species are interesting, and within species, every organism is an individual. It’s truly amazing to work with creatures of all kinds. Snapping shrimps are real characters and so are dolphins.

6. What research would you love to conduct?

My dream research project is to (continuously) record the sounds of the reefs of the world.

7. What is this thing I found on the beach/in the water?

Feel free to email it to me, I may or may not be able to answer it myself and may ask a colleague. If you think it is or was alive, you can also try the app iNaturalist which is a citizen science tool for identifying and tracking sightings of different organisms.


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68 Responses to “Ask a marine biologist”

  1. comment number 1 by: Heather

    Hi Matt,
    Thank you for contacting me. I am glad you are interested in Marine Biology. The squid in the dish you refer to, Odori-Don, is undoubtedly both dead and alive. Without a head, it is dead as a squid, however many of its cells are still alive and various parts of it are still able to react to stimuli. And of course there are plenty of living microbes. Don’t be confused. The essence of life as we know it, is that it exists everywhere, on many levels.
    I hope this helps.

  2. comment number 2 by: Heather

    Sure Sarah, send me your questions.

  3. comment number 3 by: Sarah Bradley

    thank you!
    i was just wondering, what is the future of the great barrier reef if the state that its at keeps getting worse, and pollution keeps effecting it?

    what are people doing to help the barrier reef and its marine life?

    Is there a place i can send money that i have funded from a fundraiser?

    and lastly, what is causing the most damage to the reef, is it pollution, the animals or even divers? or tourism?
    also what marine life is in danger?

  4. comment number 4 by: Heather

    Dear Sarah,
    Thank you for your interest! The Great Barrier Reef and the Meso American Reef are the two largest reef systems in the world. These amazing natural wonders are now threatened by various kinds of pollution. The future of reefs depends a lot on the countries that are closest, so it is especially important for people to learn about these precious resources. My work in Mexico includes talking to students about the coral reefs and helping them understand how to respect the reef and live in harmony with it. Healthy reefs protect the coast from storms and provide plentiful fish for food, so there are many ways that caring for the reef is rewarded. Most of the damage is done because of ignorance. People don’t want to harm the reef, but they don’t know appropriate ways to protect it. My research is to discover more about how to keep reefs and marine life healthy, so we can find ways that humans can adapt our behavior to keep from doing harm.

    We always need money! My research involves many people donating their time and expertise but we still need to pay for equipment. I work with Michelle’s Earth Foundation, which is a 501c3 non-profit founded to honor my friend Michelle who was killed before she could realize her dream of helping the Earth. I would be honored if you wanted to contribute to my work. Checks can be made out to Michelle’s Earth Foundation, and mailed to 801 S. 25th Street, Arlington, VA 22202.

    The most damage to the reefs all over the world is caused by pollution, from human carelessness. We wash everything into the water! And just as on land, when air is dirty and trash accumulates, the more delicate animals and plants die; invasive species and diseases overwhelm fragile ecosystems. Humans also do direct damage by removing natural features to make room for development. Reefs are home to many species (shrimp, fish, lobsters, octopuses, crabs…) and when the reef is compromised, the life that depends on it is also threatened. Humans and birds may not live under water, but we interact with and rely on the reef.

    Certain things that humans do are so thoughtless, they deserve special mention. Many people do not know that exploring for oil on the ocean floor involves making huge noises. We are trying to ‘hear’ where there is oil, but we cause terrible pain and suffering to marine life which is very sensitive to sound. Dolphins can be killed by loud noises.
    It is important for people to understand the effects of their actions. Perhaps if people realize the harm they cause, new methods can be found that are more benign.
    This is why I work in Marine Biology research – because I believe we can find solutions and learn to live in harmony with our ecosystems.


  5. comment number 5 by: Adam

    In college, do you want to try to get a marine biology degree right away, or do you want to go for biology and then marine later?

  6. comment number 6 by: Heather

    Hi Adam,
    Both are fine paths to take. I chose to majore in Biology, and then get a Masters in Marine Biology. This has the advantage of having a broad base, and can give you flexibility. As long as you get a solid science degree, with whatever prerequisites you need for the job/program you want to go to, you should be fine.

  7. comment number 7 by: Brooklyn

    Amazing blog!

  8. comment number 8 by: Rebecca

    Hey, im doing a project at school on marine biology and i would like to find out more if that is possible so if you could contact me on my e-mail that would be great of help i would just like to ask you some questions t wont be much i just need a little more information to get a good grade on my project thank you:)

  9. comment number 9 by: Morghan


    My name is Morghan Pereira, and I am currently in 10th grade at Berean Christian High School in California. I am doing a research project on the career of Marine Biology and i would really appreciate it if i could interview you over email. Thank you so much! I look forward to hearing back from you!


  10. comment number 10 by: Heather

    Hi Morghan,
    Sure, just send me your questions,

  11. comment number 11 by: Emma

    1) What education did you have
    before, to get this job?

    2) What was you very first job in this

    3) What’s a typical day for you?

    4) Why did you choose
    Marine biology?

    5) What is your job satisfaction?

  12. comment number 12 by: Roger Gray

    Ms. Spence,
    I hate to bother you. I took a picture of a fish in Lembeh Strait Indonesia. I have not been able to identify it form any fish book. If you have time would you please help me identify this fish. If you do not have time, you my know someone who does. Let me know the email address to download the picture to. Thanks.
    Roger Gray

  13. comment number 13 by: Christine

    Hello Heather,
    My name is Christine and I am a senior in high school, and I was wondering if you could answer some questions I had about a marine biologist for my project Im doing. If you could get back to me asap that would be great.
    1. Whats the greatest difficulty about being a marine biologist?
    2. How many years of college did you go through and what was your major? What college did you go to?
    3. Are there job opportunities available in this field?
    4. What do you enjoy the most about this career?
    5. What are you currently working on?
    6. Do you work with marine life or is most of your time spent in a lab?
    If you could answer 3 or 4 of these questions, I would appreciate it. Thanks for your time

  14. comment number 14 by: Heather

    Hi Christine,
    Thank you for contacting me. My work in Marine Biology is very interesting and I enjoy telling people about it.
    The greatest difficulty about being a marine biologist is having many important things to do and not enough money or time for all of them.
    My studies were fun because I took classes about subjects I wanted to learn. So far I have 9 years of undergraduate (at george Washington University, Biology) and graduate school (at University of Massachusetts and Hunter College, Marine Biology).
    There are a lot of job opportunities available in this field, especially if you consider finding the work yourself and convincing someone to pay you to do it.
    What I enjoy the most about this career is that I am doing work that I love and think is important.
    My research is on dolphin communication. I am also doing bioacoustic research on how sounds indicate ecosystem health.
    My work is with marine life, both in the ocean ands in an aquarium. Of course I also spend time on a computer in a lab.
    Good luck!

  15. comment number 15 by: Heather

    Hi Roger, you can send it to me at my email address posted on the contact page. If I don’t know what it is I can send it to some colleagues of mine who might.

  16. comment number 16 by: Hannah

    My name is Hannah and I am really wanting to be a marine biologist but am curious about many things…like what GPA do you need? What are some physical, emotional, and mental obstacles?…and a ton more questions if you could email me so I could ask you all the rest of the questions I have for you that would be great.

  17. comment number 17 by: Kat

    Hi Heather,I’m Kat and I’ve been trying to figure out what type of tube worm this is for over a month. It’s stumped me, and my college marine bio teacher, and his colleagues, and anyone else I’ve asked. http://imgur.com/a/sejPs#0
    I found it in Avalon bay on Catalina island in mid november this year. I’ve lived on the island all my life and go tidepooling a lot but never before have I seen that. The first time I saw it there was only one fairly large one. Then when i came back a week or 2 later to see I saw them everywhere and was able to collect a lot of empty ones. Do you know what it is? Thanks!

  18. comment number 18 by: alexaweidanz15

    Hi my name is Alexa, and I am a freshman at GWU. I was researching GW’s program for biology because I am interested in marine biology. However, I am also interested in political science and history. I don’t know whether to pursue the obvious GW political track or try my hand at something I’m very interested in, yet know little about. I know I have a passion for marine life and I would want to be involved in researching sharks and orcas. I do not know the best way to go about this. Do you have any tips on how to go about becoming involved in marine biology at GWU and what I can do to know it is the career I want to pursue? Thank you!

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