Dr. Peter Auster is a fish ecologist who uses snorkel, scuba, remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), submersibles, and camera sleds to collect data in the form of underwater photography and video in order to better understand how habitat influences the distribution and abundance of fishes. Read the full text of Peter's interview below to learn more about his job.
What is your title?
I am the Science Director with the National Undersea Research Center and an Associate Research Professor in the Department of Marine Sciences.
Where do you work?
I work at the University of Connecticut.
Do you travel often?
Yes. I am on multiple expeditions each year, in various parts of the world. However, most of my work is right off the coast of New England. Despite being one of the most well-studied parts of the ocean, there is an amazing amount we still don't understand. These trips generally involve using scuba, ROVs, or research submersibles. Working underwater is one of the coolest things in the world to do! I also travel to professional scientific meetings to discuss my research as well as other meetings that are focused on the bigger issue of conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity. These meetings are where science and policy issues meet ... very interesting, if not sometimes scary, stuff!
What are the educational requirements for your job?
In order to be a professor, you need a Ph.D. I greatly enjoy setting my own research agenda (although this also requires that I write lots of grant proposals to get the money to do the work I want) and I have a great time interacting with graduate and undergraduate students who work in my lab. However, there are many positions in the field of fish and fisheries science that require masters or bachelors degrees. These are often the positions that keep people out in the field conducting sampling, running sophisticated equipment, diving, and working up samples in the lab.
What is the salary range for someone with your type of job?
At this stage of my career, my salary is in the $80,000+ range. I started out making about $14,000 a year as a research assistant about 25 years ago with my newly minted bachelors degree in hand.
How many hours do you work per week?
Some weeks 40 hours, many are 50-60 hour weeks. I always tell my students that we have the "privilege" of spending our careers studying creatures in the sea since for the most part we are spending taxpayer dollars doing what we do. We want to make sure those taxpayers get the most for their money. Plus, and perhaps most importantly, deciphering how mother nature works and communicating this to students and the public is just an incredibly challenging and highly rewarding way to spend ones time.
Tell us about your research and the types of things you do.
My research is focused on the role that habitat plays in altering the distribution and abundance of fishes. This work occurs in a wide range of places such as on tropical coral reefs, in outer continental shelf environments, and in the deep sea. I use snorkel, scuba, ROVs, submersibles, and camera sleds to collect data with underwater photography and video. This way I can see how individual fish are distributed within underwater landscapes. I use the same types of approaches that my ecologist counterparts on land use to study terrestrial organisms. Further, I prefer this approach from an ethical perspective because it doesn't require that I kill animals to study them. However, I do admit that sometimes I do use more traditional methods such as trawls and dredges to get at the answers to some questions.
This basic type of research has led me to focus some of my effort on two very applied issues. The first is focused on the effects of fishing gear on seafloor habitats and the second is the role that marine protected areas might play in the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity. These are very contentious issues and research can play a very important role in informing decision makers and the public. Rather than just pass my research along to others, I also spend time bringing science to the public debate about how to balance human uses of the ocean with our ethical obligations to conserve wild communities of plants and animals.
What is the most fascinating thing you have ever seen or done?
This is a tough one. Every dive, whether snorkeling or in a submarine, produces some memorable reward. I guess if I had to chose, I would say that the most fascinating thing I have ever seen was on a research trip to the Great Barrier Reef where I watched different species of predatory fish feeding on schools of fish called fusiliers. This was very special because there are not many places remaining where communities of animals have been left reasonably in tact and where you can see such things with some regularity.
What are the personal rewards of your work?
The rewards from my work come in many small steps, from seeing places and species and behaviors that no one has seen before, to seeing a study published in a prestigious journal, to seeing how our research changes the tenor of discussions about how to approach conservation and management problems. Mentoring students, and seeing them develop careers and impact the way we do things in the ocean, is particularly satisfying. Also, I am a techno junkie so using underwater vehicles and all kinds of cameras feeds my high-tech habits.
How does your work benefit the public?
The oceans are the public commons. Understanding how animals live in the wild ocean, and how human activities can affect these places, can hopefully lead us to better trade offs in terms of conservation and human use.
What else could someone with your background do?
Wow...not much! I'm good at studying fish but not such a great fishermen. I could work directly in fisheries management for agencies that assess fish populations to set management goals or for an environmental group that advocates for environmental conservation.
What sparked your initial interest in ocean sciences?
I was in grade school in the 1960s and grew up seeing the first human adventures into space as well as into the depths of the oceans using research submersibles and undersea habitats. I wanted to be an astronaut, like many kids my age. However, few people ever qualified to do this and, about the time I entered high school, I realized that it would never be like "Star Trek" or the other science fiction shows where people would visit other planets and study other-worldly creatures, at least during my lifetime. On the other hand, I soon realized there was a large part of our planet that was virtually unexplored...the ocean...and it was teaming with life. The other-worldly creatures that I wanted to see and study were living right here at home.
Who influenced you or encouraged you the most?
Clearly, the most influential people in my life were my parents. They set the stage while I was young and encouraged me to learn and to pursue the things that interested me. The woods and streams near my house, and in my town, provided the backdrop for my interest in living things and how they made their living. People like Jacques Cousteau, William Beebe, Don Walsh, Bob Ballard, Eugene Clarke, Sylvia Earle, and others provided my vision for a professional life that included using cutting-edge diving technologies to venture under the sea and study how animals live. Essentially, I wanted to do wildlife biology but underwater.
Looking back, was there anything you would have done differently in your education or career journey?
Not a thing...it's been...and continues to be...an incredibly interesting and wild ride!
What obstacles did you encounter along the way?
No real obstacles, I am very lucky. However, there have been a few bumps. It was always tough trying to explain to my large family what it really was that I was going to do with this education that hardly prepared me for any "practical" kind of job. After all, what kind of career is this for a "nice Jewish boy"? I wasn't always sure myself, but I knew that I wanted to do it. Also, going to sea a lot for a career as a "marine biologist" is not very conducive to keeping relationships together. I have to give great credit to my lovely wife of 17 years for putting up with her wandering (and often wet and salty) husband.
What are your hobbies?
My hobbies include diving, hiking, underwater and wildlife photography, fishing, ethnic foods, gourmet cooking, science fiction and adventure movies, and traveling to wild and exotic places. What a minute...I get paid for doing most of this!
Interests in Elementary School:
Science, but it was more slanted to being an astronaut (preceded by a period of wanting to be a garbage man, and a Viking).
Beginning of Interest in Marine Sciences:
The ocean drew me in during middle and high school. I watched all of the Jacque Cousteau television specials and read every article about the oceans in National Geographic magazine. I also had a brief period of toying with a career in music and it took a bit to figure out that I wasn't that good. But, I was hooked on the oceans and soon decided that I wanted to spend my life doing the things that I was reading about in magazines and seeing on television.
First Marine Science Class:
My first class in marine sciences, by name, was in college. However, marine biology is simply the biology of life in the seas and most biology classes deal with the diversity of life on earth, so they have to include life in the ocean. My first exposure to ocean life in the classroom was probably in elementary school.
I have a bachelors degree in ecology, a masters in biological oceanography, and a Ph.D. in zoology.
First Career-related Job:
I was a fisheries observer for the National Marine Fisheries Service and collected data on Soviet trawlers fishing in the U.S. waters of the Bering Sea. They were the first Russians I had ever met and I was the first American for them. It was near the end of the Cold War, but we toasted to not blowing each up...and to good fishing. I learned a lot about identifying fish when 20 tons of 40 species ended up on the deck.
Employment Journey/Career Transitions:
During my first five years post-bachelors degree, I had a large number of temporary jobs that allowed me to travel and spend lots of time on and under the water. I was a fisheries observer on Soviet, Polish, and Japanese fishing vessels off Alaska on three separate occasions; conducted marine mammal surveys on ships off of the coast of New England; and used scuba and my underwater photography skills on several jobs related to understanding impacts of human activities on ocean resources. Only after all of this experience did I decide to go back to graduate school for my masters degree. Since then I have been with the National Undersea Research Center.
Despite spending many years doing research and traveling around the world, I decided I needed to get a Ph.D. in order to mentor graduate students and help create the next generation of conservation minded ecologists. I finished my Ph.D. in 2000 and was also been appointed to the faculty of the Department of Marine Sciences since that time.
I was greatly honored when I was nominated for a Pew Marine Conservation Fellowship and even more surprised when I got it in 1999. I received a NOAA Environmental Hero Award in 2000 and was a Distinguished Conservation Scholar at Duke University Nicholas School of the Environment in 2001. The American Oceans Campaign also named me an Ocean Hero in 2001. Most recently, I was promoted to Fellow by my peers at the American Institute of Fishery Research Biologists in 2005. Someday, I hope we reach a point where people don't feel the need to give out awards for caring about the environment, because everyone just does.