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Becoming the type of scientist my childhood self never pictured

Becoming the type of scientist my childhood self never pictured

By: Naomi Lewandowski,
Knauss Fellow,
Offshore Wind Environmental Research and Siting Specialist,
Department of Energy’s Wind Energy Technologies Office

 

For nearly 10 years, I’ve made career choices based on one very sacred metric: would my eight-year-old self be proud of me? Throughout childhood, I gleefully kept a running list of things I wanted to be when I grew up and scientist, especially marine biologist, was always at the top. As I navigated college, temporary lab jobs, and graduate school, I held this metric dear. However, after becoming a Knauss fellow, and starting down an unexpected and, potentially, brand new career track, it’s been more difficult to figure out what my eight-year-old self would think. While the fellowship has been incredibly exciting and rewarding, I’ve still found myself wondering “Would she approve?”

 

I’ve been in love with the water as long as I can remember. My sisters and I are the lucky kids of two teachers, which meant that every summer, growing up in northern Michigan, we went to the beach daily. I’d spend hours snorkeling, following minnows, bothering crayfish and hunting for fossils. On occasional visits to the ocean, my love for water and for marine life grew even further. Though my metric revolves around my ‘eight-year-old’ self, I don’t remember the exact age I voiced my plan to become a marine biologist, but I only became more determined the older I got.

 

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A giant pycnopodia sea star, found on a sampling cruise while at Friday Harbor Labs

When I started my undergraduate education at the University of Michigan, I was incredibly excited to start becoming what I always wanted to be. Things were tough at the beginning, good grades weren’t coming as easily as they had in high school, and I began to question what I wanted. Luckily, I had taken a work-study position in a lab that studied Great Lakes zooplankton. It was there I had my first taste of research science and my first feelings of reassurance that being a scientist would in fact be something that I loved. Still longing to study the ocean, I flew two thousand miles to take a field aquatic ecology course at Friday Harbor Laboratories in Friday Harbor, Washington. I spent one of the best summers of my life scrambling over rocks, flipping over pieces of kelp, collecting every invertebrate we could, and then staying up late to draw and document as many as possible. On the boat home at the end of the summer, I called my mom and told her I wanted to get a Ph.D. studying marine invertebrates. My eight-year-old self beamed. 

 

The time from finishing my undergraduate program to starting graduate school was a chaos of moving across the country, moving across the country again, moving home to work in a coffee shop, and then moving to New York to start my Ph.D. Along the way, I was comforted by the knowledge that I was on a right path, if not THE right path. By the time I began my Ph.D., my childhood alter ego was someone I referenced often. She was proud of my move to New York, my chosen study topic of cephalopod behavior, my love for teaching, and especially my summer spent doing research abroad in Japan. These were things that I certainly felt proud of and that made me happy. However, I also had a deeper satisfaction that maybe they were somehow meant to be because they were linked to what I dreamt of doing for so long. Any time things got tough, I would be comforted thinking about the little girl who loved the beach and told anyone who listened that she wanted to be a marine biologist.

 

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A squid caught to use for lab experiments in Okinawa, Japan

I learned of the Knauss fellowship about halfway through my Ph.D., and something clicked in a way that made me save that email for nearly two years. I loved my lab and dissertation work but the thing I wished for most was a link to marine conservation. Knauss sounded like the perfect way to apply scientific work to immediate conservation problems. When I saw that a friend had been placed as a fellow, I reached out. With invaluable help from him and from New York Sea Grant, I dedicated myself to the application process, and I felt great about the subsequent interview. I also began to realize how very badly I wanted the position. 

 

About a week before my defense, after a particularly stressful day of prepping my talk, I got the news that I had been accepted to Knauss and literally sobbed tears of happiness at my desk. I was overjoyed that not only did I have somewhere to go when I was done but also that I would be doing brand new, incredibly exciting work. However, for the first time in a long time, I really wasn’t sure what my eight-year-old self would think. In my dreams, I envisioned being a scientist with my own laboratory, students, plenty of animals, and my own experimental designs. The Knauss fellowship, it seemed, would take me down a path that looked completely different. 

 

Despite the feeling of venturing into unknown territory, I have happily poured myself into my Knauss position with the Department of Energy’s Wind Energy Technologies Office. Though the department wasn’t initially on my radar, after hearing their great presentation and thoroughly enjoying the interview, it was my clear top choice. However, it wasn’t until after I started that I realized my position was a perfect fit. I’m part of a fantastic team that examines the environmental impacts of offshore wind energy development. I get a lot of job satisfaction working on projects that will protect marine animals while increasing the amount of renewable energy available in the U.S. The best part of my position is learning about animals that are new to me: bats, sea birds, and whales. I also learn about the creative ways scientists utilize animals’  behavior to prevent them from adverse encounters with wind turbines, such as using sonic deterrents to keep bats away. I’m incredibly happy in this position that I never pictured for myself.

 

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The magnolia bloom in the Smithsonian gardens, across the street from DOE headquarters

Looking ahead, I know that post-Knauss I could return to academia but I’m not sure if I want to, at least not yet. The fellowship opened my eyes to a brand new and very appealing career path, where instead of spending time asking and answering my own research questions, I’d be part of a team managing projects that often apply research directly to conservation issues. Lately, my eight-year-old self has frequented my thoughts, and I wonder whether she would approve of this unexpected shift in my work and career goals. Even if I’m not the type of scientist I thought I’d be, I’m still a scientist after all, still learning and asking questions. I think she would approve, but I’m also realizing more and more that maybe my eight-year-old self isn’t a metric that I need anymore. It’s okay to think about what my current self wants and what makes me happy. After all, even at 31, I am still that eight-year-old at heart. 

 

 

 

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