Degree Fields
State Portals
Industry Options
Precollege Ideas
Academic DegreesCareer Planning
University Choice
Diversity & WomenSCCC Newsletter
Site Search / A -Z


Biology Overview 

Alexander Werth

Elliott Professor and Chair, Department of Biology
Hampden-Sydney College
Sydney, VA


Ph.D., Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, 1992
Alexander Werth 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 mammals.
"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."

What fields of biology do you work in?
Werth: Evolutionary biology and marine biology.

Q: When did you know you wanted to become a Biologist?
Werth: 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!

Q: What was your college experience like?
Werth: 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 too. 

Q: Did you incorporate work experiences while you were an undergrad?
Werth: 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 biologist myself.

Q: How did you get your first job?
Werth: 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.

Q: What's the most rewarding thing about being a Biologist?
Werth: 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?! 

Q: Is there an example you can provide that shows how something you've worked on has positively impacted the world?
Werth: 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.

Q: Do you spend a fair amount of time traveling?
Werth: 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 works.

Q: Do you have a mentor? Or did you in your college years?
Werth: 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 myself.

Q: Do you find yourself working more in a team situation, or more alone?
Werth: 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 United States.

Q: Do you find you are able to balance work with social/family life while working in your current job?
Werth: 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.

Q: If you had to do it all over again, would you still become a Biologist?
Werth: 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.

Q: Did you think that school prepared you for the way the work gets done in the real world?
Werth: 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.

Q: Where do you see jobs for Biologists in the future? What should students be doing to prepare themselves to take on those roles?
Werth: 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.

Q: What other advice do you have for precollege students?
Werth: 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.


 Atmospheric Science
 Science TechniciansTechnology


      AboutContactsCopyrightMedia SupportSubscriptions