What drives me to be a scientist?: Impacting society through science

“Originally, I was driven by the type of job that I didn’t want to have, but am now driven by the potential impact that I can have while solving marine environmental problems.”

Read on to find out more about what led Stu to his career!

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Contributed by Stuart Goldberg

If you put a label on me, I am a microbial oceanographer. I study the function of microscopic bacteria and phytoplankton in marine food webs. I do so because these organisms support healthy ecosystems and fisheries by transferring energy and nutrients to organisms at higher levels of the food chain. But how did I get to studying microbes in the ocean? Well, thinking back, what drives me to be a scientist has changed over the years. Originally, I was driven by the type of job that I didn’t want to have, but am now driven by the potential impact that I can have while solving marine environmental problems.

One of the first jobs I had was working for Pepsi Cola of the Hudson Valley, NY during summers and holiday breaks in high school and college. My co-workers were great – their good-natured humor help to make the days more enjoyable – but it was back-breaking work. Every day, I went to supermarket after supermarket, stocking shelves with soda and building gigantic soda displays, like the pyramids you regularly see. It was also tough to earn respect from store managers that I interacted with because I was so young. This wasn’t where I wanted to be, or end up.

Once I started college at the University of Maine, I pursued a degree that would help me find a job working outside, preferably on environmental issues. I started freshman year as a forestry major with the hopes of working on conserving New England’s forests for future generations. I quickly discovered that the majority of UMaine forestry graduates went on to work in the paper industry. What really turned me off to this career path was that the paper industry contributes significantly to air and water pollution. Every day, paper mills emit tons of gases into the air, causing acid rain and global warming. They also have discharged pollutants into freshwater ecosystems that can bioaccumulate in fish, contributing to some of the state-issued consumption warnings due to possible health side effects. Although there were other forest conservation career opportunities working for state and federal agencies, I felt the urge to change majors to marine science to live a life near the ocean studying how its processes support our lives.

Being by the sea had always provided a sense of comfort and ease while growing up, so the idea of a career on the water or understanding more about marine ecosystems was enticing. Fortunately, UMaine had just initiated an undergraduate major in marine science. After learning about ocean food web dynamics and nutrient upwelling in my first oceanography class, I knew that this topic area was the right fit because I was very interested in how nutrients are recycled to support productive ecosystems and fisheries. From there, it was up to me to discover a career path in this field. I embarked on undergraduate research experiences in Maine and Bermuda, and eventually began graduate school at UC Santa Barbara where I earned my PhD studying the marine carbon cycle. Soon thereafter, I moved on to post-graduate school research studying a variety of topics including aquatic nutrient cycling and ocean acidification. At this point in my career, I was motivated by the desire to eventually become a professor. As time went by, however, my career interests began to change. I wasn’t enjoying the long hours writing grants and papers, or staying up late at night working in the lab, and a change was needed.

A few years after earning my PhD, my spouse accepted a marine policy fellowship in Washington D.C. I was looking forward to a fresh start in a new place, but I would have to eventually find a job. Although being unemployed for a few months was stressful, it was during this time that I found new motivation for being a scientist at an unexpected event. Every year, the nation’s shellfish farmers come to D.C. to talk to their congressional representatives about their relevant concerns, some of which are focused on things that can improve the productivity of their farms and shellfish sales. For example, the proper training and equipment to monitor changes in salinity, temperature, and ocean acidity can help prevent juvenile oysters from dying, thus enhancing harvests and profitability. On the last evening of their visit, I was invited to an elegant party that was hosted by U.S. shellfish growers associations from around the country. While mingling, I began a conversation with a shellfish farmer from Northern California. Upon hearing about my background in oceanography and ocean acidification, he asked if I could help him predict upwelling events that would bring acidic waters over his oysters. Acidic seawater is harmful to juvenile oysters because it kills them by dissolving their shells. In this instance, I realized that my scientific skills and expertise could be used to help solve real-world problems while informing decisions about marine natural resources.

My newfound drive to work on applied scientific problems to assist everyday people helped me to land a policy fellowship at a non-profit in D.C. My first task was to build trust and collaborations with shellfish farmers, and then talk to federal agency leaders and congressional representatives about ways to help these farmers adapt to the negative impacts of ocean acidification on their shellfish harvests. As a policy fellow, I began to network with other ocean non-profits to advocate to congress and federal agencies on behalf of U.S. shellfish farmers for more resources to purchase and implement ocean acidification monitoring instrumentation at oyster hatcheries. As part of this outreach effort, I organized, facilitated and led a stakeholder meeting between ~20 shellfish farmers from all over the U.S. and representatives from the USDA to provide a forum for farmers to clearly state their concerns about ocean acidification’s impacts on their industry, including discussion about what that the agency could do to assist them in adapting to these changes in ocean chemistry. One of the shellfish farmers and I also met with his congressional district representative from Oregon and her staff to further discuss these issues. The experience as a fellow helped me learn how to better translate my scientific knowledge to a variety of audiences and has helped me become a more confident scientist and person.

Whereas I was initially driven by the type of career that I didn’t want, I now realized that there are endless opportunities for scientists to make an impact on society by learning to use our expertise to help solve real-world environmental problems. In the future, I see my career moving along this trajectory.

Stuart Goldberg is a postdoctoral scholar in the Nelson lab at the Department of Oceanography at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. His research examines the role that microbes play in recycling nutrients in marine and aquatic environments. Recently, he has become more interested in the cycling of nutrients in coral reef and coastal environments. 

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