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Next up on our continuing “How I Became A Marine Biologist” series we’ll be hearing from Kat MacIver, Research Assistant at Pacific Mammal Research:

I’m Katrina (Kat) MacIver and I’m the Research Assistant here at Pacific Mammal Research.

My journey towards marine biology began at a very young age – I honestly don’t even remember how old I was when I first told my parents I would be a biologist, but I know I was very young. I was fortunate to grow up right on the ocean in the Shetland Islands, a remote island group off the north coast of Scotland (some of you may know if from the TV crime series, “Shetland”). From our window we watched pods of orcas swimming past, bottlenose dolphins playing in the waves, seals hauled out on rocks or bobbing around in the water; one time we even saw a wayward sperm whale! Because of this incredible first-hand observation, I grew up learning about different marine mammal species and identifying what I was seeing. So it was probably inevitable that, along with my love of animals and wildlife, I would choose to pursue a career in marine mammal science!

I attended The University of St Andrews, Scotland. The small size of the university and town appealed to me, but it also happens to be the home of the Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU and has a world class reputation for its marine mammal research. I spent a fantastic 4 years completing my Bachelors of Science in Ecology & Conservation (with a heavy focus on marine biology), making sure to integrate internships throughout during holidays/time off. Possibly the best advice I ever got about starting out in this field is that “experience is everything”. So for those of you pursuing a career in marine mammal science, make sure you log lots of volunteer hours, internships, whatever you can! It gives you a leg up on your resume qualifications and introduces you to individuals in your chosen field, as well as helping you filter out what you don’t want to do early on.

Graduation Day: the day I received my undergraduate degree at St Andrews

After completing my undergrad I went straight into a 1 year Masters course in Marine Mammal Science, the only one of its kind which is also offered at St Andrews. The MRes (Masters of Research) in Marine Mammal Science is so-called because it is literally a Masters in how to be a marine mammal researcher. (The course name has since been changed to a Masters of Science (MSc) which is more transferable.) This is an intensive 12-month program packed with statistics, computer modelling, field techniques, in-depth study of marine mammal species, and so much more! I would highly recommend this course to anyone seriously considering a career in marine mammal science: it is a huge commitment and a lot of work, but you get an incredible introduction to marine mammal research and connect with lots of big names in the field.

In 2012 after 5 years at St Andrews, I graduated with an MRes in Marine Mammal Science…now what? Well it seemed like a change of scenery was needed, so I headed to Australia to help out with a photo-ID study of the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin population in Bunbury, Western Australia. This is really where my passion for photo-ID was born. I spent an amazing 4 months out there with a great group of women working hard every day to complete boat transects, get pictures of dolphins, and identify them once back in the lab. After this glorious experience was over, I headed back to Shetland where I spent the next year and a half looking for a job in marine biology. Although I was fortunate to get work locally in the meantime, I was getting more and more discouraged by the lack of jobs available and the seemingly endless “thanks but no thanks” from job applications.

As fate would have it, while on vacation with my family in New York I saw an internship posting: “photo-ID of harbor porpoises in Anacortes Washington”. I’d just sworn off doing any more unpaid internship, tired of the cycle of earning money to spend on internships before having to find another job and start all over again. I was ready to be in one place. The internship in Anacortes was unpaid…but something about it drew me. Having spent 4 months interning in the San Juan Islands in 2009 I had fallen in love with the PNW, and swore someday I would find my way back. It all seemed too good to be true (well, apart from the unpaid part!). So I applied…got an interview…and was offered the position! Rather than fly all the way back to Scotland to turn around and head back to the West Coast, I decided to cancel my return flight and head out west from NY. Crazy? Maybe. Absolutely the right decision? Yes.

The internship was a feasibility study on whether harbor porpoise photo-ID was even doable. My supervisor at the time, a certain Cindy Elliser, Ph.D., would be trialing this project and I would assist her. Needless to say, we were immediately fast friends and dove headfirst into this new exciting project. At the end of the internship when Cindy decided to start Pacific Mammal Research, my decision had already been made: I uprooted my life and moved from Shetland to Washington within 2 weeks, where Cindy and I began the lengthy learning curve of starting a non-profit organization! But here we are, 6 years later with two peer-reviewed scientific publications (and several more in the pipeline!), a solid foundation that we’ve built in our community, a citizen scientist program with various individuals and organizations from all over the State, and a successful ongoing photo-ID study that is one of the first of its kind in the WORLD.

I won’t lie, it hasn’t always been an easy road, but my love of animals and a driving need to understand and conserve our planet has always kept me going. And every time I’m out in the field with PacMam watching harbor porpoises and harbor seals, seabirds and eagles, sometimes even whales, I’m reminded why I love my job and how grateful I am to be living my dream!

cindy.elliser@pacmam.org

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