For the second post in our “How I Became A Marine Biologist” series, we will be hearing from our Research Director Dr. Cindy Elliser:
People often ask me how I became interested in marine mammals. The truth is I don’t know. I just know that I have always loved dolphins. I can’t remember a time, place or event that was the epiphany, the ah-ha moment that some people have when they decide what they want to do in life. Dolphins have always been a part of my life.
I grew up in both Virginia and New Mexico (NM), with most of my elementary and teenage years in NM– a land-locked desert state. But despite that, marine mammals (particularly dolphins) have always been my favorite, and working with them is always what I wanted to do. Proof of this comes from my 6th grade class: our teacher had us write entries into our journals. He started us off with a few words and we had to finish the sentence. This was my entry in 1989, when I was 11 years old:
Well, that never changed, but I did learn about what I did and didn’t want to do. I was in NM during high school, so volunteering or doing internships with marine mammals wasn’t an option. So I volunteered at the zoo working with tarantulas, vinegaroons, Madagascar hissing cockroaches, hermit crabs and more. I enjoyed it, but it emphasized that I did still really want to work with dolphins. But I came to realize that experiences like these, even if outside your main field of interest, are very important in moving forward in your career. So even though I wasn’t working with dolphins, it helped me get there.
I was a rare case going into college knowing what I wanted to do. Many people assumed I would change my mind, as most do, as you navigate your classes and experience and figure out those important lessons. But I knew what I wanted, and it never wavered, though exactly where I ended up was something I hadn’t planned on. There in itself is a lesson: you can know where you want to go, but don’t be surprised if you end up taking a turn you didn’t expect to.
I went to college in Florida, and there I was able to do a couple of week-long classes at the Dolphin Research Center, getting to learn about and work directly with dolphins at the facility. One of the classes was a research focus – but in captivity.
This was an important point in my life – I learned that I didn’t want to do THAT type of research, creating and conducting experiments in captivity (even though I very much enjoyed getting to work directly with the animals). It emphasized that I wanted to conduct research on wild animals, observing their behavior and learning about their lives. Now as a researcher and teacher, I remind students that getting a variety of experiences is important, helping you learn one of the most important lessons: finding out what you want to do, but just as equally important is finding out what you don’t want to do.
I was lucky to find a professor that took me under his wing, and when I wasn’t sure if I could do dolphin work for my master’s degree, his response was, ‘why not’? Through him I ended up doing my master’s research with The Wild Dolphin Project (WDP, www.wilddolphinproject.org), getting to swim with wild spotted and bottlenose dolphins, observing their behavior and conducting research.
I was at the right place at the right time when the research assistant left and I was finishing up my master’s. I was lucky to be the research assistant for the following 10 years, working as a dolphin researcher. My brother joined us on the boat on a few trips and he commented that he always remembered me talking about working with dolphins when I was young, and there I was taking photographs (that we used to identify and track individuals) from the bow of a dolphin research vessel, doing just what my 11-year-old self wanted to do so many years before.
Now here is where my story changed direction: I never wanted to run my own project. I planned on doing my master’s and that was it. But as I was at WDP I wondered, why not get a PhD, if I am doing the research anyway (and I loved it)? So off I went, completing my PhD with WDP and the dolphins I had known and grown with for so many years. Eventually, as many good things do, my time with WDP came to end. I ended up teaching full time for a few years – and that emphasized that I did not want to do that full time, I loved research with teaching on the side. An opportunity came up for us to move from Florida to Washington, and in 2013 my family and I took it. Long story short, I ended up at the point where I realized that I did want to run my own project, and because I had my PhD (which I hadn’t planned on getting in the first place!), that was a possibility. So in 2014 I founded Pacific Mammal Research (and teach a few classes on the side as an adjunct at Skagit Valley College), able to use the skills I learned at WDP to study different species, harbor porpoises and harbor seals.
I have been lucky to be able to follow my dream, working with marine mammals for the past 20 years- all of my experiences (from tarantulas to dolphins) have lead me here. And although where I ended up is not exactly where I thought I would, it is the right place and I am so happy I am here.