Dr. Timothy Shank is a marine biologist who studies the ecological and evolution of communities that live on the ocean floor. Read the full text of Tim's interview below to learn more about his job.
What is your title?
Where do you work?
I work at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the Biology Department.
Do you travel often?
Typically I am away from my wife and two daughters for about three months per year, participating on cruises and attending meetings. This year I have had six research cruises to hydrothermal vents in the South Atlantic, Eastern Pacific, Galápagos Rift, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and seamounts that cross the North Atlantic. So, I have been away for six months so far this year, and I have another cruise back to the Galápagos Rift in December. While it is interesting to see Costa Rica, the Azores Islands, and the Galápagos Islands, it is difficult to be away from my family for so long. Of course, traveling in submersibles to over one mile down on the deep-sea floor is the greatest place of all my travels.
What are the educational requirements for your job?
A doctoral degree is required for most all tenure track positions. Thankfully, in this line of work, the challenges of learning continue long after graduate school. You have to be willing and accepting of educational experiences to be successful in this field.
What is the salary range for someone with your type of job?
This is very difficult to answer, as salary will vary a great deal depending on the type of institution and the cost of living. As a molecular biological oceanographer with four years experience in a tenure track position, salary can range from $40,000 to $90,000 per year.
How many hours do you work per week?
Honestly? I will be a little embarrassed by this answer. On average, I am in my office from about 7:30 am to 6:00 pm, and then again from 10 pm to about 1 am each day. So, I would say about 12 to 13 hours a day (plus approximatey six hours on the weekend). So, about 70 hours per week.
Tell us about your research and the types of things you do.
The goal of my research is to understand the ecological and evolutionary processes that structure benthic marine communities and their diversity. My investigations target chemosynthetic communities, including those animals that live at hydrothermal vents and cold seeps around the world. I study processes that include larval dispersal, colonization, gene flow, population differentiation, and faunal speciation. Specifically, I use genetic relationships among populations, communities, and individual organisms to infer mechanisms of gene flow, larval dispersal, and recruitment. Ecological time-series studies are used to elucidate the key ecological processes that structure genetic diversity in benthic communities through in-situ examination of faunal colonization, interactions, and replacement within the context of temporally and spatially variable habitats.
What is the most fascinating thing you have ever seen or done?
I get asked this question a lot. I could go on about the birth of my children, but the first time I dove in a submersible to the seafloor to be amongst the animals living in thermal vents was absolutely fascinating – watching animals feed and some spawn. I once saw a crab catch and devour a worm, and two worms fighting over a tube dwelling on the side of a black smoker vent, and a giant dumbo octopus swim into the front of the submarine…there are many many stories like these.
What are the personal rewards of your work?
I am extremely privileged to see and experience things that a vast majority of people will never have an opportunity to see or experience. For some reason, experiencing nature’s beauty and learning of its wonders is personally very satisfying for me. I seek those experiences and cherish them when they happen. I also find it highly rewarding to provide (and share) these experiences with students. Watching students as they learn to think on their own is a fulfilling reward.
How does your work benefit the public?
My work benefits the public also through education. My research findings have resulted in a myriad of educational and public outreach activities over the past few years that have reached literally millions of individuals. For example, through NOAA funding for a exploration of the Galápagos Rift, I co-developed a high school and undergraduate educational CD on hydrothermal vents, as well as the web-based teaching modules for the NOAA Ocean Explorer and Dive and Discover websites. I helped to co-edit a children’s book focused on the exploration of our discovery of a volcanic eruption on the Galápagos Rift. My work allows me to work together with the Museum of Natural History to develop their new Ocean Life Exhibit. Results of NOAA-sponsored research efforts have been featured in Science, Discover Magazine, National Public Radio’s weekend edition, as well as on several nationally broadcast television documentaries (e.g., the Discovery Channel, BBC, National Geographic Television). During the recent expedition to a new class of hydrothermal vents called The Lost City, I participated in over 20 telepresence broadcasts to more 5,000 boys and girls clubs around the United States, explaining the importance and excitement of exploring the deep sea.
What else could someone with your background do?
With my experience in molecular biology, there are numerous options for such skills in the pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and human health industries, including drug discovery and cancer research.
What sparked your initial interest in ocean sciences?
My initial interests in the ocean were sparked at the age of four while growing up with frequent visits to Cape Hatteras, NC. My most early memories are those catching spanish mackerel, croakers, and blue fish in the surf, as well as hunting for ghost crabs at night with my brothers. My first interest in science came when my oldest brother would collect intertidal animals to examine.
Who influenced you or encouraged you the most?
The women in my life—or better said, my mother and my wife. Both have encouraged me at different points in my life, to believe in myself and have the courage to follow my greatest dreams, convictions, and commitments. Scientifically, Dr. Conrad Neumann (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) and Dr. Richard Lutz (Rutgers University), one who knowingly challenged me by saying I couldn’t make a career as a marine biologist (he actually thought I could), and one who both gave me opportunities to show what I could do and allowed me to pursue my dream.
Looking back, was there anything you would have done differently in your education or career journey?
I don’t think so. I would likely have become a professional musician (like my parents) or maritime attorney had I not attended a talk by a professor who had just discovered chemosynthetic communities in the deep-sea off of Florida. By the time he finished his talk describing how the animals feed off of material produced deep below the seafloor and his experience in submersible diving, my fate of being a deep-sea biologist was sealed.
What obstacles did you encounter along the way?
If I was hindered by something toward getting on my career path, then it was likely my willingness to be attracted to many diverse interests, including government policy (I was once a marine fisheries intern on Capitol Hill), travel (I once worked in a cannery in Alaska and attended a language training school in Germay), and worked in cancer research (as a genetic toxicologist).
What are your hobbies?
I really like to do things outdoors, especially hiking and observing wildlife. I play the piano when I can, kayaking, revolutionary war history, landscaping, and family geneology.
Do you have an inspirational message or quote?
If you want to go into marine biology, then learn skills outside of the field of “studying marine animals” (like genetics or computer modeling) and apply them to the study of marine animals and ecosystems. Learn all you can about the system you want to work in, listen, respect those who have gone before you, open your mind to possibilities even if improbable, explore your creativity in understanding the world around you, and, if you examine yourself and learn who you are, you will understand that you can attain all you dreams, including being the next generation of leading marine biologists (and explorers).