I get a lot of questions from aspiring marine biologists about what I do and how I got here. So I thought I’d put all the information in one place and let you all know about my journey to becoming a Marine Biologist.
I’ve always been fascinated by the sea. My mother is from the Philippines and every year we would holiday there to my parents beach house, where my brother and I would spend endless hours playing on the beach.
When I was 11, my school (in Singapore) took us on a marine biology field trip to Tioman Island, Malaysia. I remember only two things from this trip:
- We saw a baby shark in the shallows
- The marine biologists that taught us joked that you weren’t a real marine biologist until you had a scar from a marine organism. I took this literally.
However, the entire class came back determined to be marine biologists. As far as I can tell [from Facebook], I am the only one.
From then on, I never wavered from this dream. It was not always and active goal, more like an idea churning in the background, but it did influence my subject choices. I was interested, and therefore did well in biology. I did all the sciences at GCSE, as well as Geography, keeping my options open for further study.
My parents were very supportive and made sure I knew that I had to choose certain educational routes. They pushed me to do extra-curricular activities that would support my end goal. When I was 16, they organized my brother and I to take our PADI Open Water certification.
This was absolute magic. Never again would I be satisfied snorkelling. That rhythmic push and pull of compressed air, the comforting sound of bubbles, the new perspective of a coral reef, the animals you encounter. It was love at first breath. My parents organized a two week “internship” with the dive company, and left me on my own on to do reef check survey dives. I was smitten with the diving ethos, lifestyle, life. My awkward 16-year old self felt like she belonged.
After my return, and my severe withdrawal symptoms to island life, I set to work on my A-levels: Biology, Chemistry and Geography (because I needed 3 sciences to do marine biology and University, and I sucked at Math and Physics), and an AS in English Lit.
I had to push hard for Chemistry. By my last year in school I had been looking at entry requirements for University courses. I looked at other courses as well as Marine Biology. It had been such a long-serving goal, I had to wonder if I actually wanted to be a marine biologist or if I had just settled on it and not looked at anything else. Turns out, it was still the only thing I wanted to do. And I needed a B in Chemistry. So I got a tutor, I did retakes, and eventually got there.
I applied for 5 different Universities [we have the UCAS system in the UK - there are no ‘majors’ and ‘minors’ - you apply for course, and that’s it] all over the country. I had my heart set on Newcastle; a lot of my friends were going, the city was fantastic, and the University was exactly how imagined a University should be. However, my Mum had been told that Plymouth was the place to be to do a Marine science (I think according to the league tables, it’s actually 3rd or something) and insisted that I at least go for the open day.
I was reluctant. It was 6 hours on the train, I’d be going on my own and have to stay over night, and I really wanted to go to Newcastle. But my Mum is a force of nature, and off I trotted…to the most beautiful landscapes I had ever seen.
The sunset view along the coastal railways in Devon are, and will always be, some of my favourite views in the world. The weather on the open day was blissful. There is a reason why that part of the country is nicknamed the British Riviera. The lecturer who ‘introduced’ us to the course and the Uni was Prof (then Dr.) John Spicer, a short, bald, bearded Scotsman, with an energy that is totally inspiring (he ended up being my tutor). It all sounded so exciting and shiny, and even though we were explicitly told that the weather that day was deceptive (i.e. it rains a lot in Plymouth), I soaked it all in.
I was hooked. My Mother was right. I have yet to live that down.
First year was a breeze. We had blow-your-mind lectures, awesome lab work, fantastic field trips to France and Portugal. Brilliant.
Second year I got lazy, and had to work my ARSE off in Third year. The transcript of my 2nd year results put the fear in me, and coupled with the interesting options for my 3rd year, I managed to come away with a First degree with Honours.
** I did my Bachelors dissertation with an external organization - the Marine Biological Association. I recommend anyone to do work with organizations apart from your University - it brings to light different ways of approaching things and makes you valuable contacts**
My friends and I celebrated graduation, but I was plagued with the following:
I was now a ‘marine biologist’ by all accounts. But I didn’t know how to be a marine biologist. My whole life had been geared to achieving this degree, but I had never thought past it. I was stuck, terrified, lost. Thank my lucky stars for my incredible parents. My Dad, having been told by his peers that a bachelor’s degree was held by one and all these day suggested I do a Masters.
So I did. Applied Marine Science (at Plymouth again). It turned out to be everything to do with the marine environment that didn’t interest me (well at least I learnt something). That is, until my dissertation. Again, I went with an external (but affliated) organization - Plymouth Marine Laboratory on ‘The effects of Ocean Acidification on Marine Alpha-proteo Bacteria’. I spent three wonderful months playing God in a lab, with great people, and loved it.
Don’t let anyone tell you lab work is boring. You have to experience it for yourself. Plus it depends completely on your fellow lab inhabitants. Admittedly, it did also help that that summer was fantastic weather, and the sea was easily accessible at lunch time. Then there was the fact that I got to use liquid nitrogen.
I worked my (for want of a more biologically correct expression)balls off and graduated with a Distinction. But once again, I was back to not knowing what to do with myself! I have got to learn to think ahead!
Happily, the same marine biologist who took me on that fateful field trip when I was 11, was a friend of a friend of my parents. Having heard of me completing my studies, asked for me to send my CV. And BOOM, I was employed, by the same company that started it all off.
I was with Ecofieldtrips for four fantastic years. I learnt, I grew, I taught, I made the best friends possible, and I worked my way up to Project Manager.
However, all good thing must come to an end. I decided that I needed to branch out, do something more involved with conservation, and get the hell out of Singapore.
I have since volunteered with the Thresher Shark Research and Conservation Project in Malapascua, Philippines. And again, I learnt more about myself and made some fantastic friends!
Earlier this year, I took my *dream* internship. A company named Zoox (as in Zooxanthellae) is going to train a bunch of us on different skills required for running a conservation project, and then we join Green Fins - a UNEP programme - that studies the effects of dive tourism on reefs and promotes sustainable dive practices.
Since then I have juggled working for the Large Marine Vertebrates Project, Philippines as Principal Investigator for Whale Shark Research in Oslob, Philippines - a town where they feed whale sharks as a tourist attraction, as well as further Project Coordination of Green Fins in the Philippines.
I couldn’t tell you I planned all this. That’d be lying. I didn’t know what “being a marine biologist” meant when I was 11, or 17, or 22. It’s not a narrow field, and mostly it doesn’t involve dolphins. I think all you can do is find your passion and work hard.