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Environmental specialist: How I got my job and where I'm going

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Growing up I always loved the ocean. It was where we spent almost every summer vacation, had to be by the beach. My parents told me one time that they found me throwing jellyfish back into the ocean because I was trying to save them and I didn't really understand that they would probably like sting my hands. I loved being at the aquarium, being at the ocean. I was gonna be a dolphin trainer. I was gonna be a marine biologist. I was gonna save the world and save all the sea turtles. In high school I did an internship at a hospital and briefly thought that I wanted to be a physical therapist so I went to college as a physical therapy major and spent two years studying, kind of getting a feel for it, and at the end of my second year I broke my arm and I had to go to physical therapy and that process made me realize it was not in fact the right field for me, and in my heart I think I knew it all along, that I had to go back to biology. So I switched majors and graduated on time, even after switching, with my bachelor's in biology. I had two great advisors who helped me line up all my course work and make sure that everything applied where it could. After I graduated I spent the summer offshore of New Hampshire on an island doing life guarding and volunteering at a small marine lab out there. I came home in the fall and just started applying to jobs and internships everywhere, wasn't picky, I just had to find something. And ended up at Mystic Aquarium in the winter doing an internship with their marine animal rescue program, so that was my first taste of working with stranded seals, dolphins, doing necropsies, doing data collection, working with animals in rehabilitation that are getting released. After my internship ended I went back to New Hampshire to work on the island and I managed the marine lab that I had been volunteering at the year before. So we did daily tide pool walks and education programs with groups that came to visit, managing their fish tanks and their live animal collection for the summer, which was a lot of fun, and when I came home I was hired at Mystic full time. So I was an aquarist, which is someone who takes care of the aquarium fish in our tanks and I was in charge of our sea turtle, our sharks and our rays, and some of our tropical fish. So I did that for two years, working with our vet staff and our education staff, making sure animals were well-fed, well-cared for, healthy. We did education programs with field trips and school groups and summer camp programs that would come to learn about our animals. VIPs would come and have, you know, a special behind the scenes day and we'd get to take them around and show them all the fun stuff and it was a really great experience but I always knew that I wanted to go back to school and I wanted to keep doing more and to specialize in my field. After two years of working at the aquarium, I applied to grad school and I was accepted at Duke for my Masters of Environmental Management with a focus in coastal management and it's a two year program so I moved down to North Carolina and I did one year at the main campus in Durham and my second year was at our coastal campus in Beaufort, North Carolina, at their marine lab, and in between I got a scholarship to move out to San Francisco for the summer where I worked at the Marine Mammal Center doing rehabilitation and marine animal rescue for a couple of hundred miles of the California coastline. So it was a much different scale than working at Mystic in our small little Connecticut and Rhode Island zone, but really fantastic experience working with some top people in our field. So after I finished my master's degree in 2013, I started applying to jobs. I had been all of spring semester and did a couple of interviews and a couple went well and a couple didn't go well and they weren't really going anywhere for me so I stayed in North Carolina and i worked for a professor on a research project and continued to just dig deeper into volunteering with marine mammal stranding and necropsies and sea turtle stranding and was able to work on some sea turtle releases and satellite tag some turtles and get really valuable hands-on experience through that while also still working a little bit and trying to survive and be a new professional working. After a couple months of that, I moved down to Charleston. At that point I was dating my future husband so we moved down to Charleston together and figured we'd take a stab at a fresh start and I didn't have much luck getting started down there so I had to swallow my pride. I had the option of starting to waitress or starting to work at the South Carolina Aquarium as a very entry-level position in guest services. I made nine dollars an hour, which is very hard to swallow your pride and come back from grad school and I'm gonna save the world and all of a sudden I'm back in a position that I could have done fresh out of college when I didn't have all this great experience, but I knew I had to be in the field and connected to marine biology somehow so I stuck it out and while I was doing that I was still doing sea turtle patrol before work and volunteering for their NOAA office on the weekends and whatever I could do to just keep my foot in the door somewhere. And after a few months of working at the aquarium, I was interviewed for a position at South Carolina Department of Natural Resources through a contact that I'd met in grad school and I never thought I'd see him again and bumped into him at a winery at Charleston one day and suddenly reconnected again. So he helped me get an interview and I was hired that summer to work for a fishery's research project so we were doing sampling of the snapper grouper complex in South Caroline offshore waters. So we would go out on a research boat for five days, a week, 10 days at a time, and fish in these traps that you would deploy 300 or 400 feet deep and we would take the fish up, we would put them on ice, and then take samples of their ear bones, of their reproductive organs. We would measure everything, note any unusual species that were there, and bring this information back to the biologists who were seeing how fast these animals were growing, how well they were reproducing out there, and what the health of those fisheries was. Especially in marine biology, it is a very small field, even smaller within sea turtle biologists or marine mammal biologists on the east coast, so so much of what we do is who you know. On our floor right here I think we have about 10 other people that are graduates of my degree program at Duke who have similar experiences and similar backgrounds. So so much of what we do involves alumni meetings. Since I've been here, I've taken student phone calls from current students asking how I got here, and I've also been on the other end of that, calling alumni and setting up lunches and saying how did you get to where you are? How did you do this? How can I do this too? What can I improve on? Seeing who they know in different cities and who they know in different fields that are similar and they might have something or they might know someone else, so so much of what we do is involved in networking and connections that you build. So while I was in South Carolina, my boyfriend, to-be husband, was offered a position overseas and we talked about it and we decided that it was really exciting and had a lot of potential for him as well as a very promising salary and some benefits that would really help us get going in our future. So he decided to take that and he moved to Egypt, which was not the easiest decision, but in the end it absolutely was right for where we were at that time. So I was still in South Carolina and my family is from western Massachusetts so I started thinking about what could I do to be closer to my family while he's gone. He was planning to be away for 18 months to two years. When I was in grad school I got onto three different listservs, one for a sea turtle biologist, one for marine mammal research and stranding biologists, and one in the DC area that's called DCMC, the DC Marine Community, and they do job postings, internship postings, research papers and articles that have come out, and that was a huge lead on who's hiring, what types of positions are out right now, what salaries are being offered right now, who might have something, even just names of companies to start looking at. And I got an email from a listserv I'm on that said that NOAA's Protected Resources was looking for a new contractor to work on these projects that I was very interested in and species that I was interested in. So I applied and I did one interview and I thought it was just the preliminary, you know, sort down your top 10 candidates, and it turns out that was it. I sent it a writing sample and my references and they called back just maybe two weeks later and said that they made an offer. It was much faster than I expected it to happen, but once all the pieces were in motion here I was. I had my parents come up and look for apartments for me because I was still in South Carolina and they're about two hours away from Gloucester so I sent them a list of things and said, help me find something. I'll come home but you know what I need. Here's my budget. Here's where I think I want to be. I knew I didn't wanna be in Boston, having a long commute, not knowing too much of what the area would be like or what traffic conditions would be like, so they picked out an apartment in Gloucester that was about three miles from the office and then they flew down and my dad drove me back up with our apartment full of stuff and dropped me off in Gloucester and here we are. (laughs) A lot of contractors do end up becoming federal employees. It's just a matter of funding and being in the right place when a position opens up. So I've been a contractor for about two and a half years and I'm applying to full time government spots at this point. I'm hoping that in the next year or so some funding will be open in either the protected resources division here or down at the science center in Woods Hole or potentially even another NOAA location around the country. Federal employees have a lot of flexibility. They can then move to other regions or other divisions. Sometimes people move over to Fish and Wildlife Service to work on other species as well. So once you move up and become a federal employee you do have more options that way. Within the government full time employees, there are different pay bands and it's a complicated process to understand but they're different ways of being hired at certain levels that have more promotional potential to them. Each division here has a division head and then there are supervisors for each of our four teams and then within a team there are people who are on higher pay bands who have worked their way up through those different bands who had maybe started as contractors or entry-level biologists and after a couple of years they've been able to move up within the system and have raises and promotional potential that way. Some great ways to get started planning your career as a biologist, you could volunteer at an aquarium or a stranding facility or an animal care facility to get that hands-on experience. There are a lot of conferences that are about marine mammal health or sea turtle health or stranding. I did a lot of networking with alumni, especially through grad school, because so many of our alumni in our field are employing other graduates from our program so it's a very close-knit group. So I did a lot of reaching out to alumni and asking them how they got there and what else I could be doing that they had already done. Joining listservs was a great way to hear about new opportunities and what fields were hiring and what organizations were hiring and what research was coming out that I should know about and stay on top of as well as just what conferences or events were happening as well that I could participate in.
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