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The Real Poop

Chances are that if you're reading this unit, your parents took you to SeaWorld as a kid. You probably sat in the "Soak Zone," bought a stuffed whale or dolphin (the cute kind, not the taxidermy kind), and talked your parents' ears off on the way home about how you wanted to become a dolphin trainer.

Now you're all grown up—sort of—and you still like those squirmy dolphins, as well as science, and swimming, and all bodies of water, great and small.

Ever thought of becoming a marine biologist? Why not? It’s one way to get paid to play around with dolphins—even outside of the Splash Zone.

What exactly do marine biologists do? Their official job description is to study the behavior of marine plants and animals and their interactions with the aquatic environment. Pretty vague, eh? But that's sort of the point. There's a whole lot to study in the vast ocean, so the jobs in the field can be just as varied.

Marine biologists work in lots of different places, from underwater in scuba gear to a land-bound office in business casual, where the nearest water source is the water cooler down the hall. Probably the most common career path for a marine biologist is academia, as a researcher and/or professor at a university. Next on that list is a research job at a private laboratory or pharmaceutical company.

Depending on the type of research, these scientists are likely to get ambitious and spend time on both land and sea. They may monitor and analyze whale calls during migration or determine how temperature affects the survival of coral reefs. These researchers become experts in using nets and fancy cameras to complete their research. Some even spend days submerged in the ocean (with the help of a submarine, of course) if their project requires it.

Wow...the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile goes everywhere.

Beyond the bench—or diving board, as it may be—researchers also read and write research articles, and attend scientific meetings in what spare time they might have. While professors at universities usually have a research interest, they spend much of their time doing paperwork, mentoring students, and dealing with academic politics.

Marine biologists who would rather keep their socks dry have plenty of employment opportunities in public policy and at conservation organizations. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington, D.C., is the origin of a lot of that work, but marine conservation agencies at lower levels need managers to generate and adapt resource guidelines, too.

Although they are also likely to employ researchers, conservation organizations  are more policy-oriented in a wide range of specialties. They identify conservation issues, like destructive fishing practices, and develop solutions, such as establishing fishing protected areas. They are likely to advocate aquatic biodiversity and conservation issues at both the local and federal levels or to conduct policy research. A marine biologist may also focus on educating the public while attending the same scientific meetings as researchers, and translate the scientific mumbo-jumbo for the general public.

A hot new field of specialization within marine biology has all the ocean life talking. It's marine biotechnology. The underlying idea here is to use the vast biodiversity of marine life to develop products that will benefit the human population. It takes a number of disciplines to figure this stuff out, so it ends up being a mesh of many different aspects of science: medicine, molecular genetics, bioinformatics, and others. Microorganisms may offer benefits to alternative fuel production, for example. Sponges have led to a variety of pharmaceutical compounds that treat cancer and viruses. The next time you're in the tub, be sure to thank your loofah.

Many marine biotechnologists are employed by pharmaceutical companies in the search and development of new drugs that originate from algae, sponges, and other forms of aquatic life. These marine scientists isolate certain compounds from aquatic life and test them for their ability to treat cancers, pain, inflammation, and other human ailments. Once they've isolated a compound and figured out what it can do, they have to synthesize these compounds in the lab.

As humans continue to overfish and love the meat alternative from the sea, biotechnologists with experience in microbiology, pathology, and genomics will continue to be in high demand. For example, the Pacific Northwest has been relying on the product of marine biotechnologist's research for many, many years. These researchers developed a "triploid" oyster—one who has three chromosomes rather than the traditional two—whose meat stays better longer and doesn't get mushy and yucky as quickly as the normal guys' meat does. These special oysters can be harvested and sold for a longer time than traditional oysters, increasing product availability and company revenue. Because scientists love to push the limits on what they can do, "tetraploid" oysters are in the works. Not just bigger and better, but super-sized and super awesome oysters are coming to your local seafood counter. See here.

Marine biotechnology certainly doesn't stop with pharmaceuticals and freakishly good oysters, though. Research into how micro-algae and other little creatures of the sea synthesize ethanol has aided scientists in developing alternative biofuels.

This one's lemon-lime.

Honestly, what can't these ocean dwellers do? With the huge biodiversity under the sea, the options are pretty much limitless.

Now that you know about this great stuff, from research on freakazoid oysters to squeezing every last anti-cancer compound from hapless sponges, what's not to like about marine biology? Although fish are friends (as well as food), a marine biologist will also recognize that interpersonal relationships with other people count big time. Many research projects rely on the work of many different scientists, so the ability to play well with others is a big deal. You can thank your kindergarten teacher for that characteristic. When scientists collaborate, the results become far more intriguing, have a greater impact, and will ultimately get you greater recognition.

You've also got to be able to communicate—in English, not Morse code with bubbles. Although scientists are often stereotyped as lonely, pocket protector-wearing introverts, communication is a huge part of becoming successful. Communicating with other scientists leads to new ideas, new questions to ask, and greater results.

Here's a career where an open mind and creativity can take you far. Aquatic life is hugely diverse: There are more types of creatures under the sea than on land. Knowing what research questions to ask takes creativity, since learning how tiger sharks show affection probably won't come from your vast experience in the backseat of a dark movie theater.

Oh, we almost forgot to mention one other job requirement. It helps if you can swim like a fish.

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