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Life is like a box of… oysters

By: Kaitlyn Theberge, Seafood Resources Knauss Fellow, National Sea Grant Office


Recently I listened to a webinar featuring a panel of women who have worked for a long time in the federal government and have collected pearls of wisdom to share. They spoke of owning your story by understanding yourself, expressing yourself, and knowing the difference between how others see you and how you understand yourself. So I would like to pass on that wisdom by sharing my own story as a Knauss Fellow and the path I took to be here. To honor the wonderful time I spent working on an oyster farm prior to being a Knauss Fellow, I tell my story by presenting four “life lessons from oysters,” which I learned by interacting with these amazing animals day after day working on the oyster farm.  


Lesson #1: Is it a rock with sharp edges?

I love how oysters resemble living rocks. Their shells are tough and protect them from the elements and the rough handling by oyster farmers like me. When part of the shell breaks, the oyster instinctively grows more shell to recover. They are resilient because of the morphology that they evolved over a long, long time. Humans have a similar capacity for resilience, cultivated over generations of blood, sweat, and tears.  

Growing up in small-town coastal Maine, I identify as a first-generation college student. Many people are unimpressed when I tell them that some of my greatest accomplishments are completing not only a Bachelor’s degree but also a Master of Science degree. While I am glad that a college education can be easily accessible and taken for granted by some, for many of us it is challenging to complete as well as a monumental achievement. Sometimes I have no idea how I survived, but I found a way by honing my own resilience to challenges, and sharpening my edges like an oyster.


Lesson #2: Oysters are best enjoyed in months with the letter “r.”

Oysters prepare themselves to survive through harsh winter conditions and have incorporated it into their annual cycles by storing fat and flavor into their maturing, meaty, little bodies within their shells. Ironically, this also means that for humans, September to April is prime time for enjoying delicious oysters!

After going through a period of wild growth in college, much like an oyster’s summer, I went abroad for a year to teach English and take time to recover by also building my fat reserves. France is well known for its food and culture, so I spent this time sampling pastries and reflecting on what my next steps should be. After a glorious year of teaching, traveling, and eating, I was energized for another period of growth in the world of marine science.


Lesson #3: Oysters take on the flavor of the water around them.

While it may be tempting to say that all oysters resemble snot in appearance and taste, oysters actually have different flavors depending on where they are grown, much like wine. Oysters are filter feeders, which means that they pick out tiny food particles from the water as they slurp it in and push it back out. They become a part of their ecosystem, cleaning it up while nourishing themselves.

New experiences for humans provide opportunities for growth, as we know, but we also have an effect on the spaces we occupy throughout our journey. Both of these things help us understand who we are and what our story is.  For me, working as a marine science educator, aquaculturist, graduate student researcher, and more, helped me see multiple perspectives of how we, as humans, interact with the aquatic world and each other. Taking on the flavor of these different perspectives showed me the importance of communication and inclusivity to optimize the impact of the work we do in the marine world and beyond.


Lesson #4: Connect with each other as a natural process.

In the wild, oysters will cement themselves to things like rocks or other oysters. Farmed oysters are usually prevented from attaching to solid objects and instead resemble those loose rocks mentioned before. Tiny baby oysters all bunched together actually resemble a cuter, living version of sand or gravel. Sometimes, even farmed oysters will still attach to each other or grow into the nets that contain them, and they are like sticky razor blades when you try to detach them! 

Similarly, humans need social interactions to survive. Forming connections can also help foster empathy, which enables us to understand other people whose life experiences may be different from what we’ve previously been exposed to. We all understand the importance of connection, but sometimes it is really challenging to put yourself out there to connect with new and wonderful people.


And that brings us to my first month as a Knauss fellow, where I was invited to attend a huge conference where I knew maybe a small handful of folks that I had met only a week and a half prior. The primary goal was to learn new things and meet as many new people as my introverted self could handle. Storing up some fat for the winter–I mean… forging a plan of attack for making the most of my time there–I connected with more people than I could have dreamed of talking to. This experience ended up being a fantastic way to kick off my fellowship year, especially since the focus of my time here will be on connecting with new people and building new professional relationships to increase aquaculture education and research. While I actually feel a little daunted by this task, I am trying to remember my little oyster buddies whose resilience, cycles of efficient energy use, integration into their environment, and connection to each other inspire me every day. And now I hope they inspire you, too!



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