the Legacy continues…………………….
Gregory R. Mann, Ph.D. {ret.}

Becoming a Marine Biologist

What is Marine Biology and what is a Marine Biologist?

This is a harder question to answer than you may imagine! Marine biology is the field of knowledge relating to marine organisms. But what is a marine biologist? To many, it means being a dolphin trainer but to others it means managing a marine wildlife sanctuary. There are many answers to this question and I would say that a marine biologist is someone who works in some way in studying, observing, protecting or managing marine organisms, be they microbe, plant or animal. If you study marine fish populations, you are a marine biologist. If you manage a marine wildlife preserve and are concerned with protection of marine organisms there, then you too are a marine biologist. You know you’re a marine biologist if you have a notebook or computer that you record information often about marine organisms. But you may also be a marine biologist if you are collecting sponges, looking for bio-active drugs. You may be counting them, doing DNA sequencing of them, observing them in the laboratory or making theoretical models predicting their abundance once fishing is decreased. So marine biologists do many things, but what they have in common is working with marine organisms.

I want to train Dolphins & Whales

Here’s my advice. Love dolphins & whales. Admire their beauty and their grace as they swim and move through their scores of exciting behavioral maneuvers. Worry about the whales, for many of them are in danger.

Okay. Now please keep in mind that there are VERY FEW people in the world who study whales or other marine mammals! You can more easily become a professional sports player than spend your life studying whales. Same thing for dolphin trainers. Yes there are many public aquariums worldwide, but the number of people who work with dolphins as trainers are also very few. Most emails I received over the years and many of the students that I had direct contact with via the program started with “I have always wanted to be a dolphin trainer”. Fine but you better keep your options open, just the way aspiring rock stars usually have a “day job”.

If you truly wanted to do research on marine mammals, you could enter this field through one of two routes. First, you could become a biology major in college, taking courses in vertebrate biology, physiology & evolution. Most marine mammalogists were biology majors in college. As an alternative, you could become a veterinarian with the ultimate hope of understanding mammalian anatomy, physiology & biochemistry and understanding the biology of mammals and their ailments. This would be a very rare route, although an interesting one. Individuals with either sort of training might fine their way into aquarium and become dolphin trainers. I have to admit however, I do not see dolphin trainers as marine biologists, even though some of them may educate the public. 

I want to become a Marine Biologist

Here’s my advice:

If you live on or near a waterfront shore, then by all means explore it! Some places are unsafe, especially rocky shores on open wavy coastlines. But most are filled with wonder. Find some seaweeds and marine animals. Take a look at them. Get a little 2 gallon glass aquarium and fill it with sea water. Then put some creatures in the tank and watch them. You may want to have an inexpensive pump & air stone to keep the tank from losing its oxygen.

If you don’t live near a waterfront shore, go to a stream or lakeside. Turn over rocks and look at the creatures there. Try to figure out what they are. There are lots of guides to freshwater creatures. Try to identify the creatures. Get a little 2 gallon glass aquarium and fill it with freshwater. Look at the creatures and see what they do. This type of curiosity is what started many biologists on their way to fame and fortune.

Go to a public aquarium. There are lots of aquariums worldwide. Some of them are simply fantastic and many have fun exhibits including live creatures and lots of information. If you have some friends, have your parents take you and your friends as a group. Take a note pad and draw pictures of the creatures you see. These days, many of us have digital cameras. Bring one and take pictures. You will amazed what you see when you get home and look at them on a video screen. The same goes for video.

If this gets you excited

You may really WANT to be a marine biologist! If so, you will become a scientist with a specialty in marine biology. If you really want to do this, you will be constantly watching everything out there: stars, creepy crawlies in your back yard and you will also like gadgets. Bring stuff home to your room and look at it! Ask your parents about what is dangerous but encourage them to see what you have found.

If you want to become a marine biologist, you will have to learn about science. Ask your teachers for projects to do with living creatures. Don’t think that you only need to know biology. Marine creatures are made of chemicals and they are physical things, just like plastic toys and wooden chairs. They have strength & chemistry. If you are a barnacle on a rock, you must be STRONG. If you are a blade of seaweed, you must be flexible.

If this gets you EVEN more excited

You may REALLY REALLY REALLY want to become a marine biologist. If you are one of the lucky ones, you live at or near the waterfront shore. When you turn about 15, you might be able to work in some way or other at a marine laboratory. Your high school science teacher may be able to get you in touch with a scientist at a local marine lab. If not, you might have a great time participating in one or another program designed for teenagers. Some will put you out on a ship and teach you sailing and oceanography. Unfortunately, these types of programs will also cost quite a bit of money.

While you are in high school, you will want to take as much science & math as possible. Believe me, being a marine biologist requires lots of training. Don’t think that you will specialize right away especially in high school. If your school has a course in marine biology or marine science, then of course make sure to take it. But you also need a solid background in biology, chemistry, physics and math.

If this gets you EVEN-EVEN more excited

You may still want to be a marine biologist when you enter college. So which college should you choose? Here’s my advice. Don’t just choose a college because it has a marine biology program. Many such colleges are not that great and most of the students in such programs don’t really intend to have careers in marine biology. Instead, find colleges that are good in science & writing, but also have marine biology faculty. There are lots of colleges in surprising places. For example, Swarthmore College is a great place but also has a dedicated marine biologist who will inspire you. Gettysburg College in landlocked Pennsylvania is another example of this. Find the best college you can get in to and ask whether this college is good in science, writing/communication and also has some type of marine faculty in whose lab you can work.

Who will advise me about choosing a college?

This is not easy to answer, because it depends on your grades, SAT scores, extracurricular activities, finances and lots more. Your high school guidance counselor will be a good person to talk about your realistic chances to get into one or another college. You also have to be realistic with yourself about how far away from home you are willing to go. No matter what you choose, it is a good strategy to get to the coast as soon as possible. But believe me, many of the best marine biologists in America completed their bachelors degree in colleges among fields of corn and grass. My special advice is: IGNORE lists of the “best” marine biology colleges. They may be the best for some theoretical person, but YOU are not theoretical. You have special needs that must be addressed individually.

Should I major in Marine Biology at college?

Believe me, college is too early a time to become too specialized in marine biology. DON’T necessarily major in marine biology if you really want to become a marine biologist. I know this sounds illogical but it is sound advice. Basic science is still how you should fill up your course work. Yes, take a course or two in marine science or even a minor but fill up your time with the basics: biology, physics, chemistry & math and even engineering. It is easier to learn basic science, math and computer programming now than to pick it up later in graduate or professional school. This is not to say that marine science and environmental science programs should be completely avoided. Some are extremely good at giving a student critical thinking skills across a number of disciplines, while also making students learn the basics of science. Many marine biology problems today require thinking “outside the box” and therefore linkages between different disciplines can be very rewarding. My favorite configuration would be multiple majors that lead a student into creative areas. For example: what about a double major in science and social science or a triple major between biology, chemistry & engineering? These combinations will lead you toward a basic science education that still lets you apply your knowledge to real-life problems. As many students know, engineering is a major area of academic growth in colleges today. If you want to be a marine biologist, the training you might get in mechanical engineering, engineering skills involved in hydrodynamics and climate studies or computer skills can be applied directly to ocean science problems.  

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