Hook & Tackle Interview With Sabrina Schneider, Marine Biologist July 31, 2015

What's your name, occupation and title?

My name is Sabrina Schneider and my occupation is a Biologist for Miami-Dade County and my current title is Biologist I.

What does one need to do to become a marine biologist?

First a foremost, a love and respect for the ocean and all associated ecosystems and the animals dependent on them. An undergraduate degree in biology or marine biology (I went for the specialization and got my degree actually in marine biology) and a lot of experience. I started volunteering and working in labs at Florida International University from my first semester there and continued to seize every internship opportunity that came about. A graduate degree is also highly valuable in this field (I’ll be pursuing one eventually), but at every job interview I’ve ever been to, they’ve always wanted to know more about what I’ve done than how many degrees I have.

To what type of people would you recommend this profession?

Anyone who has a personal connection with the ocean and science in general. Anyone who has the ability to think critically and abstractly.

What happens during a day of a marine biologist's life?

For a field day, it always begins with the weather report, the NOAA marine forecast, and wind finder. Then, gathering all my field gear (which I usually keep most of it packed in a dry bag and ready to go), picking up a truck, trailering a boat, making sure I have all gear needed, and headed out on the water. Running transects, electrofishing, catching fish, or whatever fieldwork I’m up to that day then commences with breaks here and there for food, water, and loooots of sun screen.

What types of problems do you encounter?

Oh man, where to begin. Any job where you’re in the field is bound to have a plethora of possible issues. Boat malfunctions, forgetting to put boat plugs in, dead car batteries, deterioration of weather, forgetting to bring containers to hold critters, electronic malfunctions, you name it. At my previous job, I was in charge of fieldwork that involved the use of a sonar. The laptop that we used for the project wasn’t that old, but no matter how often I ran diagnostics and virus checks, that thing just refused to function properly once we got on site. I have a theory that the Everglades make up the western most portion of the Bermuda triangle and instead of blaming myself or others for things we can’t change, I chalk it all up to that.

What type of actions do you take to solve those problems?

My field bag is full of tools. You’d think I was being dropped in the middle of the Amazon for a month with all the things I have in there. I am always prepared; I have an extensive first aid kit, a leather man, extra boat plugs, cable ties, duct tape, extra granola bars, a bug jacket, two rain jackets, pencils galore, a towel, the list goes on. One of the most important parts of the job is to learn how to keep a cool head in unfavorable situations. You have to learn to roll with the punches and either figure out a way to troubleshoot, or get out before the issue gets worse. Out in the Everglades and out over open water, one huge thing to absolutely always be mindful of is the weather.

How demanding and stressful is this field of work?

I don’t think I can put a number or equate it to any scale. At my previous job, which was one of the most incredible experiences of my life, I was in the field 90% of the year. I loved it, but it was demanding. It almost consumes you waking up at 4:30 to be in the boatyard and trailering boats by 6am, on the water by the time the sun is coming up, and getting home after sunset most days. It can be stressful, particularly days that would involve work in the helicopter. Helicopter days and budget were limited, so trying to get the most amount of work done in a safe manner was imperative. When you’re in a position where there is grant writing or report writing (like I’m in now), it can be really stressful. Learning to juggle a lot of projects at once and not falling behind is something I am still trying to get a grasp of.

Does this profession require any traveling?

Absolutely. Whether to conferences, or to field sites, the world of marine biology can be very travel heavy. I spent a few weeks in Mexico in the summer of 2012 doing research, for instance, and my fiancé spends all his summer in the keys diving each day. This week I will be down in the keys for some fieldwork… It’s a tough life, but someone’s gotta do it :]

How have the duties of this job differed from what you had anticipated they would be?

My idea of marine biology when I was younger definitely differed from the reality of the field. It’s not all dolphins and whales. It’s a much broader area to specialize in and it’s a lot more physically demanding than I really had an idea that it would be (at least on the ecology end of things).

Are there any humorous moments?

From getting smacked in the face by a fish, to falling in the water.. there are lots of humorous moments especially when you work with a great, fun group of people like I do.

What skills are needed to be a marine biologist?

For my job specifically; a knowledge and love of marine ecosystems, being a strong swimmer is really important, being able to identify fish, algae, inverts and all of the other creatures you might come across and, when you don’t know a species, knowing the important characteristics to document so when you return from the field you can identify it at a later point.

Is community service an important part of a marine biologist's activities?

It is to me! I try to volunteer and talk at schools for science nights or career days as much as I can. I think it’s important to show that scientists aren’t all older men in white coats sitting around in laboratories. Marine biologists are normal, everyday people who just so happen to join the gap between what they care about and what they do for a living.

Why is chemistry important to know in order to be a marine biologist?

Chemistry is such a pivotal part of understanding the ocean. The chemistry of the water and hot button issues like ocean acidification require an understanding of general chemistry. Having a thorough understanding of chemistry is a must for a person to understand the biological processes that occur in the ocean.

What do you find the most satisfying part of the field of Marine Biology?

Waking up in the morning and being excited to go to work every single day, but knowing that I am working to protect and preserve something that I care about so that my future children and hopefully their children will be able to enjoy the reefs and the ocean in the same way I have.

How does marine biology contribute to society?

The ocean is incredibly important not just in a biological aspect, but socio-economically as well. Here in South Florida, people come here to vacation to be on the beach, enjoy the water, eat the delicious seafood, maybe dive our reefs.. marine biologists seeking to gain a better understanding of the ocean and working to conserve it are also securing a future for the local and global economy. Our beaches provide us with billions of tourism dollars, and the oceans provide us with an immensely important food source. The oceans not only sustain our economy, but they sustain life on earth.

What can we as a society do to preserve our marine ecosystem?

Be conscious of what you’re consuming whether its food, drink, etc. Know where it’s coming from and make sure it’s a sustainable source. When you go out to a restaurant, be sure that when you go to order fish, you’re not ordering fish that are caught using unsustainable practices or who’s populations are on the global decline (see: tuna). The Monterrey bay aquarium has a WONDERFUL application and interactive website that lists fish (and you can even look up sushi) and breaks them down to how sustainable they are and the best fish to order. Most importantly, don’t forget that EVERYTHING is connected. What we do out in the Everglades and the wetlands eventually ends up in our oceans.