Elliott Professor and Chair, Department of Biology
Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, 1992
teaches many undergraduate biology courses (anatomy, physiology,
marine bio, evolution, etc.), supervises student research
projects, and conducts research, primarily on the form,
function, and evolution of dolphins, whales, and other marine
truth is that the best things in life require a lot of hard work, so
students should pick something they enjoy doing. Follow your passion.
Follow a career professional around too -- not just the skewed version
you see on TV."
fields of biology do you work in?
Evolutionary biology and marine biology.
When did you know you wanted to become a Biologist?
I always loved animals, and in third grade when I
read a book on whales that explained their vestigial pelvic bones were
remnants from ancestors that walked around on four legs, I was hooked. I
did an elementary school science fair project on whale evolution, and I
never looked back!
What was your college experience like?
I love to read and learn new things, so college
was a wonderful experience for me. Plus, it was the first time I got to
meet actual professional biologists. I especially loved the hands-on
field work and lab exercises, and I loved exploring the huge library
Did you incorporate work experiences while you were an undergrad?
I worked first at the library (of Duke
University), then I worked as a research assistant for a professor. That
was particularly helpful because I could see the sorts of things she did
as a biologist, plus she gave me advice on how I could become a
How did you get your first job?
When I finished my Ph.D. I looked for a job at a
small college where I could find the right balance of teaching and
research. I spend most of my days explaining biological concepts to
college students, and I try to make it fun and interesting. I found my
job by looking through the job listings and picking the best fit for me.
What's the most rewarding thing about being a Biologist?
Two of the things I like best in life are spending
time in nature and figuring out how things work. As a biologist I get to
combine these things: I ask questions about living organisms and
ecosystems, then put my education to work trying to answer these
questions. Plus, I spend my days sharing ideas with young people.
Seriously -- what could be better?!
Is there an example you can provide that shows how something you've
worked on has positively impacted the world?
I spent a sabbatical in the Maldives, a tiny
country on the equator in the Indian Ocean, helping researchers there
study the health of their coral reefs, especially after the terrible
tsunami of December 26, 2004. Some of my work on whale feeding
(specifically, how bowhead whales near Alaska filter tiny food items
from the water) has had important consequences in limiting offshore
activities by the oil industry off the North Slope of Alaska, which I am
quite proud of. In fact, every finding in science has the potential to
improve the world. But I think the biggest impact I have is as an
educator. I want young people to become informed, contributing citizens
of their locality, state, and country, and of the world, and they need
to understand science to be educated citizens in the 21st century.
Do you spend a fair amount of time traveling?
I get to travel all around the world by myself and
with students. I like to take students to the Galapagos Islands and
other tropical habitats so that they can see, firsthand, how nature
Do you have a mentor? Or did you in your college years?
I think my parents, by encouraging me to read and
ask questions, had the biggest impact on my becoming a scientist. Then I
was fortunate to have lots of good teachers. The best teachers were
always the ones who didn't just fill my mind with answers, but who
stimulated it with questions, then spurred me to think things out for
Do you find yourself working more in a team situation, or more alone?
Science is really a communal activity. Sometimes I
find myself collecting or analyzing data by myself, but sooner or later
it always becomes a team situation. At the moment I am involved in a
dozen different projects with scientists from institutions all over the
Do you find you are able to balance work with social/family life while
working in your current job?
Sometimes it's a challenge, because I have to
travel to distant places or work at odd times, since it's not exactly a
typical 9-to-5 job. But my family has enjoyed traveling with me and my
children love to come to the biology department where I work and see all
the animals. One of the things I'm most proud of is that my kids love
nature and love to read (like me), though I never pushed them in that
direction. I just brought them along with me, and they got interested. I
think they see what makes me happy too.
If you had to do it all over again, would you still become a Biologist?
No question -- I would do the same thing all over
again. I tell my children and students that I still want to be a
biologist when I grow up.
Did you think that school prepared you for the way the work gets done in
the real world?
The "real world" is a place where things change
all the time, and that's the way scientists are trained to see the
world. Learning how to read critically and ask the right questions, plus
how to be patient and organized, have definitely helped me to succeed
not only in science but in everyday life.
Where do you see jobs for Biologists in the future? What should students
be doing to prepare themselves to take on those roles?
Biology is going to play an even bigger role for
coming generations than it does today. Think of how important our
studies of the environment, the genome, and the human body have been.
Now imagine that these things will impact many aspects of society in the
next few decades. There will be lots of jobs for biologists who are
specialized but also those who are broadly trained and who can see
connections between seemingly distant fields, like math or chemistry and
biology. It's all one world; everything is connected.
What other advice do you have for precollege students?
Too many young people are attracted to careers for
the wrong reasons -- they see what looks like lots of money or a
glamorous, prestigious lifestyle. The truth is that the best things in
life require a lot of hard work, so students should pick something they
enjoy doing. Follow your passion. Follow a career professional around
too -- not just the skewed version you see on TV. Contact someone who
does something you'd like to do to see what they really do all day long.
Finally, because you may change your mind (most people do), be sure you
gain a broad background with many skills, so that you will be positioned
to follow various career paths. My last word: when someone speaks,
always listen. It never hurts to gain advice. But in the end, don't take
someone's word for it. See for yourself and decide for yourself. Only
you can live your life.