It’s a funny thing how something so seemingly mundane, so unimportant can change your life forever. We think that these life-changing moments are accompanied with cacophonous music and big red carpets, but in reality, for most of us, it’s something small. Something seemingly insignificant. For me, it was a documentary. A documentary that would shatter my preconceptions about our oceans and forever send me down a trajectory I could have never imagined.
It was over 10 years ago that I watched The End of the Line, which catapulted me on a road from veterinary science to one of marine chemistry. Although these past few years have not been explicitly “marine” related, I have been forming a foundation in a science that is quickly becoming essential in the field of ocean conservation. But this summer I wanted to see if I could begin to apply these skills in an environment more closely related to what I want to do. So after emailing marine research institutes across the globe, and getting responses ranging from downright scams to ghosting, I came across and institute in Bremen, the ZMT. After looking through their various groups, I stumbled upon Dr. Henry Wu’s junior research group, Coral Climatology. They were looking to reconstruct past ocean climate around several different ocean basins by using the coral record.
This was a concept I had never encountered before, and I thought if we are ever going to understand our present predicament, what is more important than understanding the past? I never could have imagined just how much I would learn when Henry accepted me as an intern this summer.
The first shock came in the form of realizing this was a field I had almost no direct experience in. The data, once reconstructed would have to be applied to ocean biogeochemistry, to interpreting climatic changes in terms of the El Nino Southern Oscillation, monsoon seasons, the Intertropical Convergence Zone, and the major ocean currents. Although I had taken a brief course in Oceanography, interpretation of the data I would eventually get would require a much deeper understanding of these concepts. At first it was overwhelming, to say the least, but slowly, without even fully realizing it, everything began to come together. Getting to grips with a completely unfamiliar concept may seem daunting at first, but with each paper and each new definition you start getting a fuller picture. This was probably one of the most valuable things I learned, because it showed me that I was capable of applying myself to something new and given time, I could get to grips with the content without the need of someone holding my hand and guiding me through a series of neatly packaged lectures.
The second lesson I learned was, research does not go how you plan it, or as I like to describe it, “nothing is working, and no one has a clue why.” I think this is something we don’t always get a clear picture of as undergraduates, the experiments are planned to work (for the most part), and the protocols are all full-proof (once again, for the most part), but even if something does fail, it has little effect on us, and the week after we’re on to a new experiment or a new project, but here I was really forced to problem solve. I think inadvertently finding a young research group to intern with ended up being more valuable than starting off somewhere where the project has been going on for years, and all the problems have been ironed out. By joining a project still getting on its feet I was able to be an intricate part of “troubleshooting” stages, and I was forced to problem solve and think outside the box using the chemistry skills I had acquired over the years. This provided me with a much more intimate knowledge on the protocol and the running of the two machines we were using the ICP-MS and the ICP-OES. Although this meant that I wasn’t able to get any data during my stay, it provided me with something much more valuable than that, it taught me about perseverance and problem solving. Our degree does a fantastic job at teaching us how to interpret data, how to get data, and the background chemistry, but what is difficult to teach is how to problem solve. How to modify protocols, again and again, even when the last thing you want to do is edit another calibration row.
I came to Bremen thinking I’d learn what it was like working in a real research group, and that’s exactly what I learned. But it turned out to be so much more than I thought it would be. Research is so much more than answering your research question writing up a paper and moving on, it’s about problem solving, collaboration, creativity and most of all perseverance.