Amy Baco-Taylor is a deep-sea biologist who studies deep-sea corals and deep-sea whale falls. Read the full text of Amy's interview below to learn more about her job.
What is your title?
Where do you work?
I work at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
Do you travel often? To where?
Yes. I travel to go on research cruises and to go to scientific meetings. It is rare that a month goes by without me being on an airplane or a ship or both. I have been to Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Japan, Chile, Antarctica, Hawaii, and several places in Europe. I have also been to many places in North America. The best places I have traveled though are down in submersibles. The deep sea is an incredible place!
What are the educational requirements for your job?
Getting involved in marine biology only requires an interest. We have had summer volunteers in the lab who were in high school. The level of education required is determined by how involved you would like to be and how much of a leading role you would like to take. A Bachelor's degree is a good start. Most positions require at least a Master's degree. If you are interested in becoming a Professor of Marine Biology or writing grants to take the lead in research, you will need a PhD.
What is the salary range for someone with your type of job?
I am currently just past the postdoctoral stage of my career. The postdoctoral stage is the time after you finish your Ph.D. Postdoc positions can last one to three years and because of the shortage of academic jobs for PhD marine biologists, most people will do two or more postdocs before they find a tenure-track position. Postdocs can make between $25,000 per year up to about $60,000 per year depending on the institution. Like being a graduate student, many postdoc positions do not come with benefits, or if they do, it is only limited health insurance. Many universities and research institutions are now making efforts to provide better salaries and benefits programs for postdocs and for graduate students.
How many hours do you work per week?
Scientists work long hours. About 50-60 generally, but during crunch times, like before a meeting or a cruise, it can be as many as 80 or more hours a week. At sea we work 7 days a week for 12-16 hours per day.
Tell us about your research and the types of things you do.
In general I am interested in the ecology and evolution of marine animals. Right now I have two main lines of research. One area of research focuses on the communities of animals that live on the skeletons of dead whales in the deep sea. Rotting whale bones develop a community of organisms that are dependent on chemosynthetic production, similar to the communities found around hydrothermal vents and cold seeps.
My other area of research is on deep-sea corals and seamount communities. I am studying the distribution of corals and other invertebrates on seamounts, how these invertebrates disperse between seamounts, and how they evolve. I am also studying how the corals reproduce and what types of invertebrates live on the corals.
What is the most fascinating thing you have ever seen or done?
That's a tough one. Every time I see an animal alive in its natural habitat doing its own thing, I am in awe.
What are the personal rewards of your work?
I feel very fortunate that I get to see things that other people don't usually get to see. The natural world is very different when you experience it first hand. I also have a fair amount of freedom and independence in my work, to decide what questions interest me and to seek opportunities to address those questions.
How does your work benefit the public?
Ocean ecosystems are affected by human behavior, but managers cannot make informed decisions about managing reserves without scientific data. For example, my work on coral population genetics will help managers to design the most effective strategies for conservation of precious corals. I have also contributed to outreach efforts to help educate the public about the oceans by contributing to television documentaries and newspaper and magazine articles.
What else could someone with your background do?
I have a strong background in molecular methods, so there are several options a person with my background could pursue. These include careers in biotechnology, bioinformatics, pharmaceuticals, or genomics.
What sparked your initial interest in ocean sciences?
I have wanted to be a marine biologist for as long as I can remember. We didn't live near an ocean, so my interest came from reading books and from nature specials on TV like Jacques Cousteau and Nova and other PBS specials.
Who influenced you or encouraged you the most?
My parents set a good example of how to be a nice person, how to respect others, how to respect all living things, and how amazing nature is. They also provided a lot of encouragement and support making it possible for me to pursue my dreams. I also had great support from my chemistry and physics teacher in high school and from my guidance counselor who helped me find scholarships to apply for.
What obstacles did you encounter along the way?
I am incredibly shy and that is something I always have to work on. Financing my education was also not an easy task.
What are your hobbies?
I love to do just about anything outdoors. My favorites are SCUBA diving, hiking, camping, canoeing, bike riding, and gardening. I also enjoy wildlife and nature photography, reading, and quilting. This past winter I started snowboarding, too, but I don't know if I'm good enough at it yet to call it a hobby!
Interests in Elementary School:
I remember doing a lot of reading. Besides marine biology, I was also interested in ancient civilizations, like the Egyptians and the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas. My father was a general contractor, so I really liked to go work with him in the summer and either helping him or going exploring around the woods with my brother near the houses my dad was building.
Beginning of Interest in Marine Sciences:
For as long as I can remember, all I ever wanted to do was be a marine biologist. I didn't live near an ocean though, so my interest came from books and television.
First Marine Science Class:
I went to a two-week "Marine Science Summer School" at Long Island University the summer between my junior and senior years of high school. It was the first time I saw the ocean.
1995– B.S. Marine Biology – Florida Institute of Technology
1995– B.S. Molecular Biology – Florida Institute of Technology
PhD. Oceanography – University of Hawaii
First Career-related Job:
As a work-study position as an undergraduate, I worked for one of the biology professors. My job was to go through the "Current Contents," sort of an index of all the journal articles that have come out each week, to find articles related to the professor's research and send out requests for copies of the articles. There were mountains of issues. Occasionally, I also got to help a little with field work and do some sorting of invertebrates from mud samples. The field work and sorting were fun, but I have to admit I fell asleep on more than one issue of Current Contents.
Employment Journey/Career Transitions:
I had two other work-study positions after that, one was sorting larval fish samples and the other was proofreading an invertebrate zoology CD-ROM tutorial written by one of the professors. Through all my work-study experiences, I learned a lot about marine biology, invertebrates, and field work. I also got to do a lot of field work as part of my undergraduate classes. My undergraduate experience provided me with a lot of background for my graduate studies.
I went on my first cruise for my Ph.D. research during the week I was supposed to graduate from undergrad. I did my first sub dive on my graduation day. The first few years of graduate school are something of a blur. I averaged about five to six research cruises per year and had to squeeze my lab work and class work in between. During my third year of graduate school, I wrote my first research proposal (on deep-water corals). The proposal was funded and so I had my first research cruises as lead scientist that same year using the Pisces V submersible. Deep-sea corals were not part of my Ph.D. research though, so I had minimal time to work on them until I finished my Ph.D. research, which I also found really interesting. Even though getting my Ph.D. seemed to be taking an excruciatingly long time already, I made time to go on additional cruises that would provide me with good experiences. I also took a field class in Antarctica and spent some time teaching part of my advisor's graduate class while he was at sea.
After completing my Ph.D., I moved to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), where I had a postdoctoral fellowship. The WHOI postdoctoral program has the advantage of allowing the fellows to be much more independent compared to other postdoctoral programs and allows their postdocs to be principal investigators on the grants they write, which is also rare for postdoctoral programs. So in this position, I was able to work on all the deep-sea corals I had collected on cruises during my graduate studies, as well as continue to develop my research on both deep-sea corals and whale fall communities. I was also able to write more proposals to develop my research program on deep-sea coral and seamount communities. My current position as Visiting Investigator at WHOI allows me to continue this research while I search for a more permanent position as a professor or researcher at another institution.
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Dispersal and Reproductive Biology of Deep-Sea Corals
Exploring Alaska's Seamounts - July 7, 2002 - Cold Corals
Print and Web Resources
Friday, November 7, 2003 - Voyage yields some deep-sea delights
Whale Fall Mussels
Tuesday, February 22, 2000 - Mussel family's missing link may have been found University of Hawai'i scientists and others make the discovery studying dead whales on the sea floor.
Monday, February 21, 2000 - Oceanographers Say Dead Whales Provide Deep-Sea Living Legacy Whale corpses reveal volumes about the evolutionary biology of the deep sea.
Baco, A.R. and C.R. Smith. 2003. High biodiversity levels on a deep-sea whale skeleton. Marine Ecology Progress Series 260: 109-114.
Baco, A.R. and C.R. Smith. Food-web structure on deep-sea whale-falls: successional changes inferred from stable isotopes and biomass analyses. In prep.
Baco, A.R. and C.R. Smith. Structure and succession of whale-fall communities on the California slope. In prep.
Baco, A.R. and T.M. Shank. 2004 (in press). Population genetic structure of the Hawaiian precious coral Corallium lauuense (Octocorallia: Coralliidae) using microsatellites. In Cold-Water Corals and Ecosystems (eds. A. Freiwald, JM Roberts), Springer Publishing House, Heidelberg, Germany.
Baco, A.R., C.R. Smith, A.S. Peek, G.K. Roderick, and R.C. Vrijenhoek. 1999. The phylogenetic relationships of whale-fall vesicomyid clams based on mitochondrial COI DNA sequences. Marine Ecology Progress Series. 182: 137-147.
Baco, A.R., D.L. Distel, G.K. Roderick, and C.R. Smith. Rotten stepping stones in the deep-sea? Evolutionary relationships of hydrothermal vent, cold seep, sunken wood and whale fall mussels. In prep.
Baco, A.R., T.M. Shank, and G. Clark. in prep. Isolation of six microsatellite loci from the deep-sea precious coral Corallium lauuense from Hawaii.
Baco-Taylor, A.R. 2002. Food-Web Structure, Succession, and Phylogenetic Affinities on Deep-Sea Whale Skeletons. PhD Dissertation. Department of Oceanography, Honolulu.
Dahlgren, T.G., A.G. Glover, A.R. Baco, and C.R. Smith. 2004. Fauna of whale falls: systematics and ecology of a new polychaete (Annelida: Chrysopetalidae) from the deep Pacific Ocean. Deep-Sea Research in press.
Distel, D.L., A.R. Baco, E. Chuang, W. Morrill, C.M. Cavanaugh, and C.R. Smith. 2000. Do mussels take wooden steps to deep-sea vents? Nature 403: 725-726.
Feldman, R.F., T.M. Shank, M.B. Black, A.R. Baco, C.R. Smith, and R.C. Vrijenhoek. 1998. Vestimentiferan on a whale fall. Biological Bulletin. 194: 116-119.
Smith C.R. and A.R. Baco. 2003. Ecology of whale falls at the deep-sea floor. Oceanography and Marine Biology Annual Review 41: 311-354.
Smith, C.R., A.R. Baco, and A. Glover. 2002. Faunal Succession on replicate deep-sea whale falls. Cahiers de Biologie Marine 43:293-297.
Smith, C.R., and A.R. Baco. 1998. Phylogenetic and functional affinities between whale-fall, seep, and vent chemoautotrophic communities. Cahiers de Biologie Marine, 39: 345-346.
Smith, C.R., H.L. Maybaum, A.R. Baco, R.H. Pope, S.D. Carpenter, P.L. Yager, S.A. Macko, and J.W. Deming. 1998. Sediment community structure around a whale skeleton in the deep northeast Pacific: Macrofaunal, microbial, and bioturbation effect. Deep-Sea Research. 45(1-2): 335-364.
Williams, A.B., C.R. Smith, and A.R. Baco. 2000. New species of Paralomis (Decapoda, Anomura, Lithodidae) from a sunken whale carcass in the San Clemente Basin of southern California. Journal of Crustacean Biology. 20 Special Issue 2: 282-285.