Interview with Dr. Henry Trapido-Rosenthal: Education & Career Guidance in Marine Science

Interview with Dr. Henry Trapido-Rosenthal: Education & Career Guidance in Marine Science

Dr. Henry Trapido-Rosenthal is a research scientist with the Bermuda Biological Station for Research (BBSR), where he co-founded the BBSR Center for Ocean and Human Health and the Center for Integrated Ocean Observations which has worked on the forefront of environmental change research for many years. To that end, Dr. Trapido-Rosenthal is engaged in research groups and supervises groups of graduate students, undergraduates and non-academics working and studying at the Station.

Dr. Trapido-Rosenthal graduated from the University of Southern California with a B.S. in Biology. He went on to get his Ph.D. in Biology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. At the BBSR, he reviews manuscripts for professional journals, reviews grant funding proposals, and is an advisor for graduate and undergraduate students.

He is also currently an adjunct associate professor for the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, a member of several professional organizations, and is actively researching the chemical interactions between coral and algae. He has a passion for Marine Science, and Molecular Biology in particular.

About Dr. Trapido-Rosenthal & His Career

Please tell us about your career and how it unfolded.

I grew up in the coastal communities of San Diego, California. Surfing dominated my family's recreation activities, and dictated where I would go to school. My undergraduate degrees, from the University of Southern California, were in biology and psychology. I began graduate work at the University of Hawaii, studying biochemistry and biophysics. I completed my Ph.D. at the University of California at Santa Barbara in the laboratory of Dr. Dan Morse, studying the biochemistry and neurobiology involved in the settlement and metamorphosis of abalone larvae. I then did postdoctoral work with Dr. Bill Carr and his colleagues at the University of Florida's Whitney Marine Laboratory, in St. Augustine, Florida. We embarked on a program of research that combined biochemistry and electrophysiology to study chemical communication in the marine environment, using the spiny lobster as a model organism.

During this period of time, the value of molecular biology as a research tool became increasingly apparent, and I spent a summer at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island learning the techniques of this field. The combination of biochemistry, molecular biology, physiology and the spiny lobster proved to be very productive; I have been co-instructing a summer course based on this combination for a number of years. I relocated to the Bermuda Biological Station for Research in 1993, to bring the research techniques that I had acquired to an institution that had a long history of research in various areas of marine science, but that did not yet have, in house, the toolkit of molecular biology. During my time here, I have become increasingly interested in achieving a better understanding of the chemical communication that goes on between corals and their photosynthetic endosymbionts. So, now the tools of biochemistry, molecular biology, and cellular physiology are being applied to the study of this symbiotic relationship that constitutes the foundation of the world's increasingly threatened coral reef ecosystems.

What do you enjoy most about the field of Marine Science?

I obviously enjoy the locales in which work in this field is conducted! I also truly enjoy the intellectual aspects of the field. I'm a bookish person; I enjoy reading the professional literature in marine ecology, cell biology, molecular biology, and any number of other fields. It's always a pleasure to find something in this literature that will enable me to look at my current research question from a new perspective, or that will open my eyes to a new technique that I can employ in my experiments. The occasional 'eureka' moments (which for me usually consist of realizing that there's a new way to address a question) are very valuable. Basically, I enjoy the experimental approach to creating new knowledge.

I also very much enjoy the educational aspects of marine science, especially those aspects that involve immersing students in research. The graduate students who have come to my lab to conduct the research for their theses and dissertations are invariably a source of enjoyment. They are focused, they are energetic, they tend to be brilliant, and they are fun to be around. Even more enjoyable, though, are the undergraduates who I am able to engage in research. These students, participants in either BBSR's summer courses, its marine science semester done in conjunction with Duke University, or its National Science Foundation-sponsored Research Experience for Undergraduates program, often know very little about the practice of marine science (or any other science, for that matter) when they come into my lab. To see them realize that an experiment that they have designed, executed, and analyzed has actually created new knowledge is wonderfully satisfying. Tracking the career trajectories of these undergraduates, into and through graduate and professional schools, or into biotechnology or educational or policy careers, is one of the most enjoyable attributes of my career in marine science.

What are some of your favorite projects you've completed?

All of the research projects are favorites, although it's never going to be correct to say that they've been completed. My participation in the study of chemically-induced settlement and metamorphosis of abalone larvae clearly ranks as one of my favorites. However, an almost inexhaustible supply of research questions having to do with the cellular, organismal, and ecosystem physiology associated with larval metamorphosis remain for people to work on. My participation in the development of the lobster as a model system for the study of the molecular and cellular mechanisms of chemoreception can only be considered a favorite project. But here again, we don't know everything there is to know about chemoreception in the marine (or any other environment); this project can't be classified as completed. My current investigations into the chemical conversations that partners in a coral-algal symbiosis engage in is even less complete, but it certainly ranks as a favorite.

You have published a number of papers in the field. What made you decide to do so?

There's no way to be a research-active member of the marine science (or any science) community without publishing reports on your work. The 'decision' to publish was implicit in my choice of career.

About Marine Science

Describe a typical day of work for you, including your main responsibilities.

In terms of research, my main responsibilities are to provide intellectual foundation for, and the financial feeding of, my research group. So, there's a good deal of time devoted to devising the overall research strategies and the particular experimental tactics that we are pursuing. There is also a lot of time devoted to fund-raising, which means the writing of proposals that are submitted to the various funding agencies that support our work, or lobbying our Director for more equipment, or space, or boat time. In addition, I need to serve as a buffer between the people in my lab and the distractions and disruptions that both the non-science branches of the institution and the world at large can provide. If a technician has a problem with our accounts department, or a student is at loggerheads with his or her home institution, or if a reporter is badgering the lab with phone calls about a recent research finding, it's up to me to deal with these issues. Taken together, this means that I spend somewhat less time in the field and at the bench than I would like to, but I don't see any way around this fact.

Tell us a little about the Bermuda Biological Station for Research. How are researchers and staff there making contributions to Marine Science?

BBSR is an independent U.S. non-profit research organization created in 1903. Very few locations can boast such a diversity of easily accessible marine environments as Bermuda. Within its 21 square mile land mass and 200 square mile reef platform are a wide variety of habitats and faunal assemblages. The surrounding Sargasso Sea provides a protective shield of warm water resulting in a mild climate year-round. Its location in the northwestern Atlantic Ocean is ideal for deep-sea investigations, yet it is within 700 miles of most of the eastern U.S. seaboard and readily accessible to major universities and scientific institutions.

Over the last 100 years, BBSR scientists have made significant contributions to all areas of marine research. Current research initiatives include marine environmental genomics, coral reef ecotoxicology, biogeochemistry, bioprospecting, and studies of global climate change. Educational activities include K-12 programs targeting Bermuda's schoolchildren, summer and semester programs for students, and the NSF-sponsored REU program, which brings the cream of the US undergraduate crop to BBSR for immersion in the marine science research experience. Graduate students from around the world come to BBSR for their thesis and dissertation research. And, last but not least, BBSR hosts a vibrant ElderHostel program, which brings an active and interesting clientele to campus for a variety of educational experiences. So, educationally, we are truly a "K to Grey" institution.

Is it important to collaborate with your colleagues? How have your professional collaborations benefited your career?

Of course collaboration with colleagues is important! BBSR is not a full-service research university, so every area of scientific interest and expertise is not represented here. Fortunately, in this age of email, fax, and federal express, geographic isolation need not be correlated with intellectual isolation. Most, if not all, of our resident faculty are conducting research with colleagues at other institutions. Similarly, our educational offerings are often co-instructed by a BBSR scientist and one or more of his or her colleagues from a North American or European university.

One example of a collaborative exercise is the relationship that my lab has with Diversa, a San Diego biotechnology company. We provide them with access to unique marine environments, along with the personnel and infrastructure that is needed to access that environment. They provide us with funding, with new techniques and procedures, and, potentially, to a royalty stream should any products deriving from the partnership come to market.

Education In The Field: What to Expect

What can students who are starting to apply to schools do to increase their chances of being accepted?

For students with marine interests who applying to an undergraduate college, the same kinds of things that would strengthen any application will be helpful. High grades in solid courses, a reasonable and diverse record of extracurricular interests, careful attention to all the questions on the application form, and a well-written essay, all will increase chances of acceptance. If the applicant happens to have served as a lifeguard or a veterinarian assistant or a tour boat deckhand, great, but being too creative in describing marine-related activities would be a major mistake. Another fatal flaw would be a declaration of undying love and affection for whales and dolphins, seals and sharks, turtles and tuna, or any other charismatic megafauna.

For college students planning to apply for graduate programs, all of the above applies as well. In addition, though, good GRE scores will be needed. Things that can be done during the undergraduate years that will confer an advantage include participation in semester or summer marine education programs, or in extracurricular internships. Such opportunities are fairly easy to find on the web - organizations offering such programs do a good job of web-based advertising. I recommend in particular the National Science Foundation's Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) programs.

Based on what you hear in the industry, what do you think are the most respected and prestigious schools, departments or programs?

I know I'm missing some - no insult is intended. These all have good graduate programs in marine biology or oceanography. However, people interested in graduate school are really best advised to target the individual scientist whose work is most interesting to the potential applicant. Contact that scientist (by email - don't badger people with phone calls), find out if he or she is interested in taking on graduate students, and initiate a conversation on research topics of mutual interest. Once you've identified the scientists that you would be interested in working with, then begin the application process with the university where that person is a professor.

At the undergraduate level, pick a good school where you will be comfortable and can focus on academics. A high-quality four year school (say, Pomona College or Haverford College) may well be a better choice than a major research university. While an undergrad, take an appropriate science major, but be sure to include some courses where you need to read and write a lot. And, avail yourself of internship opportunities. Extramural ones can be particularly valuable, and no better example exists than the REU programs sponsored by the NSF's Division of Ocean Sciences.

Should students get a Master's degree in order to advance in the field? Will a Doctorate degree mean further advancement?

A good Master's degree (thesis, not non-thesis) can make a person a hot property in the biotechnology industry. It doesn't help as much in academia.

Jobs In The Field: What to Expect

What kinds of jobs do recent graduates in Marine Science programs usually get?

The answer to this question very much depends on the aspect of marine science that has been studied, and the level of the degree. At the B.Sc. level, a field-oriented graduate would have access to positions in public and private Environmental Management agencies. A lab-oriented student could well be a hot property for a biotechnology company - this route has been taken by people who have passed through my lab. Students with either orientation would be well-positioned to go into teaching or into graduate or professional schools. People with graduate degrees have essentially the same professional options, with the addition of the possibility of a career in academic research. I think that it's important for students with marine science degrees at any level to realize that there are potentially challenging and highly remunerative career options in fields like law, business, and government. People who combine technical education with credentials in legal or management areas are likely to be highly sought after by various companies and agencies. This is because too many people in such organizations may know how to order and argue, but too often simply don't know what they are talking about.

What range of salaries are entry-level workers usually offered? What do people at the top of the profession make?

Depending on geographical locale, entry-level research technicians with a B.Sc. in either industry or academia are between, say, $26,000 and $36,000. With a M..Sc., starting salaries will probably be closer to the $36,000 mark. The biotechnology industry is particularly interested in people with M.Sc. degrees and good field and lab skills; for these people advancement can be rapid.

Do you think that extracurricular experiences, such as doing research and an internship, will help students in the field?

Here's a short answer for a change. Yes, absolutely!

Is it helpful to have training in areas such as SCUBA diving and boat operations?

For many marine science jobs, the answer to this question is clearly "Yes". If you are involved in monitoring a marine ecosystem, you need to be able to access the environment. You need to be on and in the water to do this. For the growing ecotourism economy, the answer is the same - you've got to get your customers to the aquatic sights that they are paying you to see.

How is the job market in the industry today, and what do you think it will be like in five years?

I think that there is scope for growth in the job markets for people with marine science educations.

Some of my students have entered the field of environmental management, either with government agencies or with consulting firms in the private sector. I think that there will be an increasing number of jobs like these in the next decade, as coastal populations grow, and as the management of coastal ecosystems become more important. A developing job category might be in ecotourism enterprises. Again, this has to do with more and more people living near and visiting coastal environments.

In the biotechnology area, the bursting of the biotech bubble of the '90s has slowed hiring. I think that this trend will reverse, and there will be an increasing need by industry for people with both marine science and biotechnology backgrounds.

The Industry

What are some of the trends that you see in the field which could help students plan for the future?

I think I addressed this above, but people with marine science degrees who go into law, finance (biotech analysis), insurance (global climate change), and environmental policy positions will probably have very interesting careers.

How have the popularity of computers, and particularly the Internet, affected Marine Science?

The same as they've influenced every other area of intellectual endeavor. Computers and the internet have made the acquisition and distribution of information much more rapid.

Closing Remarks

Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the profession that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to enter and succeed in Marine Science?

Should you choose this career path, you will work hard, and you will have fun.

EDITOR'S NOTE: For more information about the educational and career outlook for Marine Science majors, click here.

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