Meet A Scientist: Invertebrate Marine Biologist

We are starting the new year out on a high note:  an interview with Invertebrate Marine Biologist, Ellen Kosman. Ellen was gracious enough to take some time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions about what it takes to become a scientist.

1. What is an invertebrate marine biologist?

It’s someone who studies animals that don’t have a backbone and live in the ocean.  For example, crabs, octopus, worms, sea jellies and sea stars are just some of the animals that I would study.  About 95% of all animals are invertebrates, so my field covers a lot.

2. Why did you choose to become a invertebrate marine biologist?

Mostly because they are so interesting and diverse.  Most animals with backbones are pretty similar in the way that they eat and look, 4 limbs, 2 eyes, food goes in one end and out the other.  With invertebrates, its not so simple, some have no eyes, others hundreds, some only have one opening, so the food goes out the same way it goes in, and others explode when they want to reproduce.

3. What classes did you take/ what kind of schooling was necessary?

It really depends on what kind of job you want.  It can range from a high school diploma to getting a PhD.  Most of the time, you need at least a bachelor’s degree.  You need to take a lot of biology courses, chemistry, math, and a little physics.

On the other side, it’s just as important to get experience.  A lot of times, your potential employer or scientific adviser wants to see that you have some practical knowledge.  Science is very hands-on, its good to take the courses to gain an idea of what everything is, but most of science work is designing and performing experiments.

4. Where do you work?

Right now, I work at an aquatic nursery at the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium.  This part of the aquarium is dedicated to raising baby animals.  I’ve helped raise many creatures, including Red Rock Shrimp, Garibaldis, and Pacific Sea Horses.

5. Do you wear a lab coat, like is the stereotype for a scientist?

Heh, that’s a funny question.  When I teach classes to kids, I am supposed to wear a lab coat as a way of showing the kids that I am a real scientist.  However, I generally don’t wear one, because it does re-enforce that stereotype, and most of the scientists I know don’t wear or even own one.  Lab coats are just not practical when you are wading through tide pools or the mudflats.  Generally, I wear jeans (rolled up so they don’t get wet), and some sort of water-proof boots (or diving booties).

6. What has been your most exciting job/class?

That would be a field methods and ecology class that I took.  I got to go and live at a marine lab for the summer, and it was the first time that I had gone ‘out into the field’ and seen many of the animals that I would be working with.  It was also  the first time that I got to design and conduct my own experiment, and had to present the results to the lab.  It really gave me a taste of being a ‘real’ scientist.  The other scientists at the laboratory treated me as a colleague, even ones I had not been introduced to.  It really made a big impression on me.

Job-wise, I enjoy working at Cabrillo the best because working in the nursery means that every day you come in there is something new.  Either the babies are bigger, look different (new colors, fins, etc.), or something new has been born during the night.  It’s exciting.

7. What has been your worst job/class?

I hate math, so probably calculus.

Job: Burger King night shift.

8. Any advice for kids interested in marine biology?

Be curious and observant.  All of your ideas for experiments are going to come from things that you see.  Science is “I wonder why this” or “I wonder how that”.

Be flexible and creative.  If half of science is curiosity, the other half is doing.  You need to be creative in figuring out how to answer your burning question.  And you need to realize however carefully you plan it out, whatever perfect piece of equipment you have, once you get into the field or laboratory it’s not going to work.  On-the-spot adjustments are almost mandatory, and can yield better results.

Work on your writing skills.  Very important!! (I wish somebody had told me that.)  Knowing the answer to a question is useless, unless you share it with others.  As a scientist you are obligated to adding to the general knowledge of your area.  You also get your funding from convincing other people that your question is worth it.  This means lots of writing.

Work in a laboratory (with someone you like).  Getting experience is critical.  As I said earlier, people will decide hiring, and funding, based on previous experience.  It will also help you decide if you want to continue to work in the sciences, and what you want to work on.  Working in a laboratory is just like working at a job, except you work much more closely with your boss.  So, working with someone you get along with will help lots (this goes triple for applying to grad schools).

Finally, if you are passionate about the ocean and about learning, if you feel inspired or alight by a new question, then this is for you.  Don’t give up!  Sometimes it can be rough, you’ll run into projects or people that you’ll hate, but it is worth it.

Wow, what good advice. Thank you so much for sharing this.

For more about the reality of being a scientist, visit Real Science at Adventures of a Free Range Urban Primate.


  1. Sandra Foyt

    Great post! I’m sharing this with my son so he can learn about one possible science career.

  2. Roberta

    All the kudos should go to Ellen. She really did a wonderful job.

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