Photograph by Charles Littnan
Photograph by Dash Masland
Birthplace: Wilmington, Delaware
Current City: Newcastle, Maine
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
For as long as I can remember I have wanted to be a marine biologist. I grew up on the coast of Maine and spent a great deal of time exploring the tide pools, beaches, and islands. In the summer months, I think I spent more time in the water than out! It was here that I also first fell in love with seals. My family would pack a lunch, climb aboard our little boat and go explore Casco Bay. I can remember as a little girl being beside myself with excitement when we would spot the seals basking on the rocky ledges in the warm summer sun.
How did you get started in your field of work?
My love of the water inspired most of the opportunities I had as a young adult, from snorkeling camps to exploring the Great Barrier Reef to a high school Sea-mester.
I knew that in order for this way of life to be sustainable, I would need education that would allow me to work in the field. I completed my biology degree at Colorado College and then went straight into my master's degree marine science program at the University of New England in Maine. I wanted to get back to the place and work with the same seals that inspired me as a young girl.
What inspires you to dedicate your life to the oceans?
Because I love the ocean so much, I also recognize that it is in great danger. We overfish, destroy habitat, and put many other pressures on species that make it hard for them to survive. The ocean's ecosystems are fragile and the ocean is one of the most important habitats on Earth. Not only does it support a huge percentage of life on this planet, the ocean also provides over half of the oxygen we breathe through photosynthetic microorganisms. Incredible! I want to help preserve this amazingly diverse, vastly unexplored, and absolutely essential habitat. I am particularly drawn to studying marine mammals because I find their evolutionary strategies fascinating, and as top predators they are a critical part of the ocean's ecosystems. It also happens that a great number of marine mammal species are struggling to survive and currently listed as endangered species.
What's a normal day like for you?
Each day is quite different for me because I have a couple of projects going on right now. If I am not working with my husband to help launch his new business, then I am in the lab where I am working on my project for National Geographic Channel's Expedition Granted. I am looking into the diet of Hawaiian monk seals using DNA taken from seal scat, or seal poop! This involves anything from extracting DNA from fish tissue or seal scat to working with computer programs to analyze DNA sequence data. I also spend a lot of time reading scientific papers, writing proposals, preparing presentations. and planning the next phase of my research project.
Do you have a hero?
My answer to this question is always the same: my mom. She is an amazingly strong and capable woman who frequently pushed boundaries to take me on my first adventures and show me the world.
What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?
My favorite experience in the field so far was when I was in Honduras studying devastated stretches of coral reefs. We were on our way out to a dive site in a little skiff with about six people aboard and we came across a pod of pilot whales. We quietly got in the water with our snorkel gear on well away from the whales. They must have sensed us and curiously swam over our way. I remember being the most still I have ever been in the water and watching these beautiful animals approach us. A mother and her calf swam by and she looked me right in the eye as they slowly drifted past me. I will never forget the feeling of connectedness to marine mammals that I had at that moment.
The most challenging moment I have had in the field was being at a field station on an island off the coast of Massachusetts in the middle of January studying gray seal breeding behavior for two weeks. It was me, one other scientist, and 3,000 seals! Within the first couple of days I managed to get a horrible case of poison ivy all over my chin and neck and it was the worst! Did I mention there was no running water or electricity?
What are your other passions?
I love my dogs and am a huge animal lover. I also love to travel and experience new places, new cultures, and to meet new people!
What do you do in your free time?
I enjoy taking walks, sewing, and reading. In the summer I love going to the beach and swimming in the lakes where we live. In the winter months we like to go skiing, ice skating, and snowshoeing. I also love to cook! We live in an area with a large number of local farms and have so many great choices for fresh, local fruits, veggies, and meats. It's really great to learn to cook and eat with the seasons.
If you could have people do one thing to help save the oceans, what would it be?
If I could ask people to do one thing, it would be to try and be conscious with your everyday decisions. Little things can make a big difference for ocean health. From recycling everything you can so that debris does not end up in the ocean, to using safer household products so that toxins don't enter our waterways, to picking up trash off the beach for a cleaner marine environment. Every little bit helps. Also, be aware of organizations in your area that have programs on ocean health and try and participate in one. Knowledge is our best hope for changing the fate of the ocean and helping preserve all the biodiversity within.
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