Interviews With Fantastic People: Julia, Marine Biologist

Welcome to Interviews with Fantastic People!  How often have you heard of someone who’s having a great adventure or accomplishing an amazing task and thought, “Well, that’s great that they can do it, but I definitely can’t”?  Guess what – you can.  These interviews will give you a glimpse into how they did it and hopefully inspire you to chase down your own amazing accomplishments.

This week, I’m talking to Julia, marine biologist, seal wrangler, world traveler, Fulbright scholar, and much more!

Photo: Claudia Babirat

First of all, tell us a bit about yourself. What’s your name? Where are you from? What other places have you lived in/visited? What else would you like readers to know about you?

Hello, readers! My name is Julia and I grew up in a tiny town in a forest in Oregon. I’m a wildlife biologist by trade and have a knack for getting myself marooned on small, mostly-uninhabited islands where the native critters and I take turns chasing each other around. At the moment I’m living on an Australian subantarctic island where my typical work day involves hiking 10+ miles over hill and dale and through bogs in some pretty ornery weather, clambering up a slope that most sane people would call a “grassy cliff,” and checking on some beautiful albatross that build nests and raise chicks there. Ideally I end the day with a cold pint of cider, my guitar, and maybe a movie involving the delightful Hugh Jackman.

If you were like me, you wanted to be approximately eight things “when you grew up” that changed periodically. What were yours? Did any of them stick?

The first thing I can remember wanting to be was a paleontologist, as I was absolutely in love with Jurassic Park. I even had an imaginary friend that was a quail-sized velociraptor.

I can’t recall ever thinking I wanted to be any sort of field biologist, which is funny, because from the age of 6 I was obsessed with the movie “Born Free” and then the books it’s based on. They were written by Joy Adamson, a wildlife conservationist who rehabilitated big cats back into the African bush in the 1950s. She was a major heroine for me, and Jane Goodall as well (thanks to In the Shadow of Man, which I read in high school).  I chuckle thinking about it, but it just never even occurred to me to think “Gee, you could do that.”

What are you doing right now and how did you wind up there?
At the moment, I’m living and working on an Australian subantarctic research station for six months. We’re on an island three days’ travel by ship from the nearest landmass and there is no airport. You’re pretty well stuck once you’re here. We have a total population of 38 people, all of whom are either scientists or support staff (doctor, electrician, plumber, chef, hunters eradicating invasive pests, etc).

Winding up here was kind of a crazy surprise for me, a whirlwind process that resulted mostly from networking and lucky timing. Like any job, I had to prepare a resume and interview for the job. I hadn’t done a lot of work with sea birds in the past, or work that was quite so physically demanding, but I had the confidence to say “I can do that, no problem. Here is what I’ve done in the past that shows that I have the skills you need, or, more importantly, the ability to acquire those skills.”

Giant petrel with a 6' wingspan (R) versus a wandering albatross (L).

How, if at all, did college help you figure out your career goals?  What do you recommend to students interested in following in your footsteps?

It’s hard to imagine where I would have ended up if I hadn’t gone to my chosen college (Linfield), taken certain classes, or walked into the right study abroad fair. Those keystone, “two-roads-diverged-in-a-yellow-wood” sort of moments, you know?

I was in the midst of a crisis when I wound up in the study abroad fair.  I had a registration slip in my bag to change my major from biology to anthropology because at the time I was overwhelmed by difficult classes and I just had no idea why I was doing it anymore. And then I walked into the study abroad fair and someone said, “You’re a biology major? You can be our first student to go and live in the Galapagos Islands for five months on our brand-new program!” and suddenly I had this big, honking, giant-tortoise-of-a-reason to stick through some tough times.

This tortoise.

Choosing to study abroad totally rerouted my life.  It was like electroshock therapy for my passions. When you’re already so far out of your comfort zone it’s much easier to say “yes” to scary, challenging, new things – I ate strange foods, I danced the salsa, I fell in love, I learned to scuba dive, I lived around gross scary bugs (gasp), I started working with animals. When I returned to Oregon for my final year of college, one of my favorite (and wisest) professors described me as having “burst into bloom like a tropical flower,” and it did feel something like being newly awakened and enlivened. There are so many times when we’re so worried about failing and have so little confidence in ourselves that we won’t even try. So I did my best to stop worrying about my comfort zone or all the “what if”s and just started thinking “Sure, why not?”

I really have no idea where I’d be if I hadn’t gone to a small liberal arts college that encouraged study abroad opportunities and made them academically feasible. Most science students I know didn’t have that opportunity, since science curricula can be so overwhelming, but Linfield made the effort to fix that. If I had two things I could shout to the heavens and hope all college students hear they are:

1) Take classes that you enjoy and choose a major because you enjoy it, and
2) FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY, STUDY ABROAD!

Water fight during Carnival

You were also a Fulbright scholar after college.  What made you want to pursue a Fulbright?  What research project did you use the scholarship for and how did that work impact your career path?  Do you have any tips on the application process for potential Fulbrighters?

Mostly I was just really excited to move abroad again after having such a great time in Galapagos.  I felt like the Fulbright program was a huge long-shot, but it was another one of those “Sure, why not?” moments.  I found a professor in Melbourne researching Australian fur seals (I’d already fallen in love with Galapagos sea lions), and he was keen to take me on as a Master’s student if I could wrangle it.

The biggest thing was that a project on fur seals was something I could get really excited (try ecstatic) about, and that enthusiasm and passion came through in my application.  And then they said “yes” and I think I fell out of my chair.  Career-wise it was huge – the work experience, the degree, the connections I made.  I got a job in Hawaii researching endangered monk seals just after that, which never would’ve happened had I not worked with fur seals.  Plus I only found out about this subantarctic albatross job because of some aussie mates.  So, it was amazing in many ways, and I consider myself very very very lucky.

The Fulbright application process can be both intensive and intimidating.  An academic advisor at my college and a number of my professors were really helpful.  Every sentence (nearly every word) of my essay and proposal was scrutinized by at least three people multiple times, tweaked, agonized over, and rewritten at least twice.  Finding the right project is also key – yes, something you can be really excited about, but also one that contributes something back to the community, environment, etc.  You don’t have to set out to cure cancer, I was just looking at how tour boats affect a few seal colonies.  The first step is to reach out to some researchers/professionals in the country and field you’re interested in, explain your interest, and find one that’s willing to help you develop a project.

King penguins and an elephant seal.

Earlier you mentioned the interview process – how exactly do you interview for a job at a subantarctic station?  I’m assuming you don’t throw on your fanciest suit and fly to New Zealand, but I could be wrong.

Haha, no, unfortunately I didn’t get a free flight to New Zealand, it was just a phone interview. I find phone interviews for jobs in other countries less stressful, actually, because listening to their accents is kind of fun and distracting. Though I don’t recommend breaking into a fit of giggles because of the way they pronounce “aluminum” or “basil” or whatever.

Related to the interview process – you experienced a pretty common situation in which you didn’t have the exact experience for the job, but you had similar skills which made you suitable for the job anyway.  The key to success in situations like that (for me at least) is dredging up the confidence to convince an employer that you have what it takes.  Any advice on that?

Confidence is really the crux of it, and it can be so hard when you’re feeling all jittery and nervous and doing something that most of us don’t practice much. My best advice? Figure out how to manage your nerves the best you can. It might mean going for a run or having a beer just before your interview (though I don’t advise going in your running shorts or bringing a bottle with you!). If you can con a few of your friends into helping you practice for interviews, just learning how to answer questions on the fly can be really useful, especially when you’re figuring out how to describe your skills and experience in a way that’s most relevant to what interviewers are looking for.

You mentioned several people who have acted as inspirations or advisors – Joy Adamson, Jane Goodall, and your professor.  Is there anyone else who’s been a key player in your journey? 

My family has certainly been a big source of support and inspiration for me. They couldn’t care less whether I end up being the President or flipping burgers so long as I’m happy and healthy doing it, which provides a strong sense of balance and stability in my life. When taking risks and making bold choices (or just going out for a cup of coffee), it certainly helps to know that when you fall, someone’s going to be around to help pick you up, dust you off, and shove you back up into the saddle.

Photo: Claudia Babirat; Tasmania DPIPWE permit TFA11228

Have you ever had a feeling of “destiny” in terms of your fieldwork/research? Any moments of feeling like you were where you were supposed to be in the universe?

I mostly try and accept that where I am at the time is where I’m supposed to be, but with no holds barred in terms of my right to create change.  Discontent can be one of our greatest motivators, really, because it forces us to reconsider what will actually make us happy and hopefully gives us a reason to work towards it.  It doesn’t always have to be a big change – it could mean picking up some books on a new trade or hobby, taking a night class, setting aside a few hours a week to write that novel you’ve always been meaning to or to apply for interesting jobs just to see if you get an interview.

There are definitely still times when things don’t work out – opportunities are missed, I don’t get certain jobs – but that’s okay too. I shrug my shoulders, tell myself “Right now, that isn’t where you’re meant to be,” and I find something new to get excited about or another angle to tackle the problem from. Sometimes I get incredibly lucky, and I end up sitting on an uninhabited Hawaiian beach watching this beautiful little newborn seal pup touch noses with its mother for the very first time, and all I can think is “Holy hell, how did I get here?”

Like anyone pursuing a dream, you’ve had moments of self-doubt and moments where things just didn’t work out the way you wanted them to.  How do you get yourself through those moments?

Those times are tough for all of us, whether you’re a seasoned professional or applying for your first job. It definitely helps to have been through the ringer a few times because it gives you a bit more perspective, particularly in terms of rejection (from jobs, although I suppose the same kinds of advice can apply to relationships). Deep down you have to be able to tell yourself (and believe it) that what’s happened is not a reflection on your capabilities or your worth as a person. Which can be really hard sometimes, I know. We are so good at being our own worst critics, it’s easy to get focused on all of the things we think we did wrong, or the things we think are “wrong” with ourselves.

And yet if we were sitting down to comfort our best friend or our sister in a similar situation we would never even think those things, let alone say them. If they criticize themselves or feel bad about themselves, we tell them, “Hey, cut it out. You are a beautiful, strong, amazing person just the way you are. And whoever it is that turned you down? It’s their loss.”  So why shouldn’t we respond to our own self-criticism the same way?

One thing that has made a huge difference in my self-confidence and in my life has just been working towards treating myself with the same sort of respect, kindness, and love that I would show to that friend or sister. When I start obsessing over a failure, or looking in the mirror and focusing on a supposed fault, I give myself that same stern but kind “Hey, cut it out…” At first it seemed silly, or sounded hollow, and it took awhile before I started trusting that kindler, gentler internal me. Now I just wish I could go back in time and teach my 14-year-old self the same thing. If only I had a TARDIS and David Tennant, mmm….

Do you have questions for Julia? Ask in the comments!

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7 thoughts on “Interviews With Fantastic People: Julia, Marine Biologist

  1. This needs to be a regular thing – I loved it! And what a fantastic person to chose to profile.

    Julia’s living the life I imagined I would as a child, before I realized I’m a much better storyteller of science than I am an actual researcher. And I look forward to the day she follows in Adamson and Goodall’s footsteps and writes her own books – I’ll read them, for sure!

  2. Truly a perfect articulation of the awesomeness of the small private liberal arts model we got at Linfield and how that has been a springboard into some awesome experiences! Now if we could just get Julia to be home for 2 seconds so she can visit her friends…. 🙂

  3. Pingback: Thankful Thursday | Ruby Bastille

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