Science: What the Textbooks Don’t Tell You

Contributed by Ellen Prager, PhD

I am incredibly fortunate. I have a career I love and that has afforded me adventure, intellectual challenge, fun, and the opportunity to meet extraordinary people as well as make a positive difference for the planet and in peoples’ lives. And it’s in science!

Dr. Ellen PragerAs a marine scientist I've done research, taught oceanography, been an assistant dean at a renowned graduate school, run a marine lab in the Bahamas, and had the cool job of chief scientist for the world’s only operating undersea research station in the Florida Keys. I have lived underwater for two weeks and regularly go to the wondrous Galapagos Islands for work. And now, I also write books that make ocean and earth science understandable and entertaining for people of all ages and sometimes appear on television as an expert.

Throughout my career I’ve learned some important lessons on how to succeed in science (and life).

Follow your passion, work hard, and don’t give up. Perseverance goes a long way in overcoming challenges, getting opportunities, and finding success. It can be frustrating when things don’t go your way, but if you truly want to do something, stick with it.

In addition, be proactive and don’t be afraid to ask for opportunities. In my junior year at Wesleyan University I took a semester away to study tropical marine science. At a marine laboratory in St. Croix, we had classroom sessions each morning and spent the afternoons scuba diving or exploring a variety of marine habitats. Add fantastic role models and mentors to the experience, and I was hooked.

One day we took a field trip across the island to visit a small underwater laboratory (Hydrolab). I was mesmerized by the idea of living underwater to study coral reefs. The following Saturday I got on my bicycle and pedaled across the island to the lab, where I inquired about summer jobs. I was questioned about my scuba certification, attitude toward hard work and long hours, and ability to pick up twin sets of tanks. And then—I was hired. When I told the students back at the school about my new summer job as a support diver for Hydrolab, they all asked how in the world I got it. The answer: I asked! Don’t ever be afraid to ask for an opportunity.

As in business, networking is also very important in science. Networking can help you discover new opportunities or people to work with. If you’ve made a good impression on someone, you never know where it might lead. If you meet someone with a career that you are interested in, don’t be afraid to ask for advice, questions, or – again – opportunities. When deciding to go to graduate school, I always asked my professors for recommendations on where to go and who to work with. Then, I did some research and contacted those scientists to let them know of my interest in their work and in potentially working with them. And always be polite, prepared, and dress appropriately for networking opportunities, interviews, and any sort of professional interaction.

My last piece of advice is: Have fun! Even when stuck in mud up to my waist with vultures circling overhead, caught in a hurricane at sea on a tall sailing ship, or when one of my experiments in graduate school became a lost undersea treasure in the Florida Keys, I found a way to laugh. It is much easier to tackle difficult situations, setbacks, or challenges when allowing your sense of humor to shine through. And at least from my perspective, I’d rather work with and hire hard workers that are also fun to be with.

So study hard and proactively pursue opportunities such as internships, volunteer positions, and jobs. Network and don’t be afraid to ask for advice and opportunities. Follow your passion, have fun, be prepared and persistent, and pursue your dreams. Mine have come true and so can yours.

Shark Rider BooksDr. Ellen Prager is a marine scientist, author, and advisor to the environmental-award-winning Celebrity Xpedition, a small cruise ship stationed in the Galapagos. She has appeared on various television programs as an ocean science expert, and her latest book, The Shark Rider, is the second book in a fiction series for middle graders that combines fast-paced adventure, mystery, and humor with learning about the ocean and marine life. You can learn more about her at www.tristan-hunt.com, www.earth2ocean.net or follow her on Facebook and Twitter (@elprager).