What were some of the things that interested you as a child?

When I was little, I mainly wanted to read. I've read ever since I was very small. My mom fed me a lot of science fiction. So I read a lot of science fiction. I also liked to go to the beach.

What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

When I went off to undergraduate school, I was sure I wanted to be a biochemist. But I became relatively distressed that I had to spend all of this time in the lab. Then I went on the Sea Education Association Sea Semester my junior year and absolutely completely fell in love with going to sea and doing science on a boat. I wanted to do science on a boat! That’s exactly what I wanted to do! So I decided okay, I’m going to be an oceanographer.

So here I am, an oceanographer, and I spend all of my time in the lab just like the biochemists. But I have a broader context now, and that’s what excites me. So it was that Sea Education Association Sea Semester that really turned me on to the broader field of oceanography. It inspired me to look at larger scale problems.

What are some of the important things somebody should know about graduate school?

Graduate school is a really interesting experience where you learn how to learn. It’s not that you are taught how to learn. It’s that you learn how to learn. And you do this basically in concert with your advisor. So the most important thing in graduate school is finding the advisor that you can work with well.

I was so lucky. I came to the University of Washington not knowing any of this and I happen to hook up with a fantastic advisor. He has provided me with wonderful opportunities. Opportunities to go to sea, opportunities to collaborate with other people. He has given me free reign and also enough rope to hang myself. I don’t thing I could have had a better advisor. But, I think that people going to graduate school should make the conscious decision to work with somebody in particular. I was extremely lucky.

Has anything about becoming an oceanographer surprised you?
I’m surprised by the phenomenal opportunity I have. The opportunity to go to the bottom of the ocean. I never would have dreamed, never in my wildest dreams would I have actually expected to go to the bottom of the ocean. I didn’t think I would travel the world over when I became an oceanographer. These are opportunities that have allowed me to understand the hydrothermal vent system, the geology and geochemistry. I guess I grew up believing that I was going to become a laboratory scientist. These field opportunities and the wealth of experience have surprised me.
What challenges have you faced in your career as a woman?

I’ve had very few barriers placed before me as a woman. I feel that I’ve been in an extremely supportive environment. My undergraduate degree came from MIT and MIT was an extremely supportive place to be. MIT does the best job keeping you there and seeing you through. I felt very comfortable there. At the University of Washington oceanography department, everybody has treated me like a colleague

Women deal with the graduate experience differently than men overall. It’s because of the style and the way that they interact with other people. It’s all a spectrum of personalities, but in the aggregate, men tend to be more independent whereas women are interested in interacting a lot. And in the graduate experience, you are put in your own little box by yourself to do this work and do it independently. Once you are finished, you will be an independent scientist and they will pat your head and give you your Ph.D. A lot of women don’t react well to this I believe because they want a more cooperative experience. But I think if you recognize that in yourself, you can create a more cooperative environment in graduate school. I was not as interested in my research until I realized how interactive it was with all the other research in the university. There’s a huge vent group here where there are people working on fluid flow in hydrothermal vent systems, and vent chemistry. And when I saw how my work fit in with theirs and when I was active in collaborating with them, I gained much more pride in what I was doing. And I think that has to do with the female style of interaction.

What continues to inspire you about your job?

I love being on the edge of discovering brand new life, brand new habitats, brand new environments that could be analogs to how life evolved, what life on other planets is like. It's like viewing fine art. It’s almost like religion or philosophy in its purest sense where it inspires the soul. Certainly there are all kinds of spin-offs like actual knowledge that can be turned into products and maybe benefit humankind. But it allows me a new perspective on the universe and my place in the universe.

Do you have any advice for people considering a career in oceanography?

The best way to find out what being an oceanographer or any type of research scientist is like is attach yourself to one. It’s relatively difficult for the general public to access scientists because we are shut up in laboratories. But I’ve had a number of people from the outside come in and work with me in this laboratory. I’ve had high school students, I’ve had a lot of college undergraduates. High school teachers have come in to do a little bit of work in the laboratory. Until you are actually here in the laboratory, you can’t get a feel for what it is like. It’s the whole Edison geniuses, ten percent inspiration 90 percent perspiration. Being in the laboratory is a lot of work. You get the occasional discovery and that keeps you excited, and then there are the days where you have to wash glassware. So before you buy, try.

But if you want the experience of oceanography without the pain of graduate school, I would say the Sea Education Association Sea Semester is phenomenal. That’s what got me excited about oceanography. Going to sea in a sailing ship and doing real science. It’s unparalleled, and I try to replicate that excitement every time I go to sea.

Melanie Holland

  • Faculty Research Associate,
  • Arizona State University

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