My journey towards saving the swell has been far from linear. I gave a career talk to 40 fifth graders this week about my research, and let me tell you, having a strong mission statement has never been of more critical importance. When speaking to ten-year olds, if you’re not saving the ocean and personally thwarting all of its inherent challenges, they could frankly care less.
I was met with some blank stares through zoom screens while trying to describe how my research would improve food security through broader access to seafood. When I asked the class who liked seafood, I only saw about five fifth-grade hands raised. When my presentation was over, the majority of questions I received was wether or not I had seen sharks underwater and then my time had ran out.
I didn’t feel discouraged. If talking about sharks was what would garner interest in the ocean, I was on board, and it took me a long time to feel that way over my career. To swallow my ego and realize what matters to me might not matter to others in the same way and there is always more than one path to a shared goal (like I have said before). Interest in the ocean cannot be forced, but I also believe that, with enough exposure, it is inevitable.
When I was in fifth grade I went through a phase of ocean indifference. It was the year that I took a trip to one of the Channel Islands with my entire class where we would be snorkeling, learning about the ocean, and sleeping in bunkbeds with our friends for three days. I figured out early on that, amongst my peers, it was NOT cool to have interest in touching slimy sea cucumbers, or to spend extra time in the cold sea water, counting how many times you could dive to the bottom— so the ocean was ‘lame’ and I adhered to it as a social rule. I spent subsequent summers on the beach as a junior lifeguard, still writing-off the ocean, giving up my place on swim relays and only going in the ocean when it was necessary. I stayed home on the longest open-ocean swim training days and would audibly squeal when kelp rubbed up against my leg. Long story short, if you had known me as an eleven-year-old you would never think I would be a prime candidate for a career path in ocean conservation.
So how did I get here?
On the outside, I might not have been the strongest prospect for becoming a marine scientist, but I have always had a strict allegiance to justice and fighting for causes and individuals which couldn’t fight for themselves. Whether I knew it at the time or not, the ocean which I had grown up next to, was a part of my home and something I had grown strongly attached to. So when I was walking along the beach and accidentally stepped on a dead dolphin washed up on the beach, I was both disgusted and propelled into action. I sought out information about threats to the ocean, and jumped down a rabbit hole I have yet to get back out of (and doubt I ever will). How was nobody doing anything about it? Why hadn’t we figured out how to stop harmful algae blooms? How had I spent my whole life next to the ocean and never heard of these problems before?
I was fortunate enough to have a really cool biology teacher in high school who I looked up to because he told funny jokes and had sports posters on the walls. Every once in a while he would go diving before our 7:00 AM class and catch a few lobsters which he would keep in a plastic painters bucket at the front of the room for the day before taking them home to eat. Though his classroom smelled like surfboard wax and stale lobster water, the ocean was cool again. His influence was enough to convince me to pursue biology in college where I took class after class after class in marine biology and have considered myself hooked ever since.
The knowledge I have gained through my studies, however, is not what makes me a force in conserving the ocean. It was enough to convince me to dedicate my life to learning more about the ocean, but I will end up making the biggest difference because I care. Its the first step to accomplishing anything. Caring is the key to accomplishing anything.
So if fifth graders want to know about sharks, I tell them about sharks.