Dr. Kristine Laidre is a marine mammal biologist who works at the Polar Science Center in the Applied Physics Laboratory at the University of Washington collecting and analizing information on marine mammals. Read the full text of Kristine's interview below to learn more about her job.
What is your title?
I am a research scientist with the Polar Science Center, Applied Physics Laboratory, University of Washington.
Where do you work?
My office is located in Seattle, Washington, USA on the campus of the University of Washington. My institute is part of the College of Ocean and Fishery Sciences.
Do you travel often?
Yes I travel very often. At this point in my career, I travel almost every month for a meeting, conference, or some field work. My work takes me wonderful places all over the world but it requires being away from home frequently, and sometimes for long periods. It is rare that a month goes by when I am not on an airplane, train, or a ship somewhere!
What are the educational requirements for your job?
Most people working in my field have a masters or Ph.D. But this is not necessary and plenty of people that study marine mammals hold B.S. degrees. But if you are the lead of a project, or in charge of a field team, you generally have some graduate work under your belt.
What is the salary range for someone with your type of job?
It varies quite a lot, depending on if you work for the government or university and if you have a full-time or half-time position. I’d say someone holding a Ph.D. could make any where between 40,000 and 80,000 USD per year. But when I started my job, I volunteered and was paid nothing!
How many hours do you work per week?
I work a lot! The hours vary depending if I am in the office or in the field and what my deadlines are. I would say I work a minimum of 8 hours per day in the office, but usually about 10. I sometimes work on weekends. It can be as high as 12-15 hours per day when we are in the field and of course that’s 7 days a week.
Tell us about your research and the types of things you do.
Generally my research is focused on the ecology of marine mammals. I study the interactions between whales, seals and sea otters and their environment. Most of my time (about 9 months per year) is spent in my office writing papers or proposals, analyzing data, doing statistics, making models or preparing presentations. The other 3 months per year I am in the field, where I am camping or living on a boat and observing, counting, catching or tagging marine mammals.
What is the most fascinating thing you have ever seen or done?
Probably the most fascinating thing I ever saw was a day in August in the Canadian High Arctic when I was standing on a cliff looking down on a migration of thousands of narwhals, they were passing non-stop for over an hour just a few meters below me.
What are the personal rewards of your work?
I get to see some of the most amazing nature on the planet, work with extremely interesting animals, and travel to places with very fascinating cultural hertories and people, like the Arctic. I also have a fair amount of freedom and independence in my research and get to choose my own directions.
How does your work benefit the public?
My work benefits the public in that the research conducted on the natural world enables managers to make effective decisions about conservation, and in some places, harvest of animals.
What else could someone with your background do?
Someone else with my background could probably study other species of top predators in different ecosystems or different parts of the world—marine, freshwater, or terrestrial.
What sparked your initial interest in ocean sciences?
I was always interested in marine biology, marine animals, and even science as a junior-high and high school student. I grew up in upstate New York so rarely got to visit the ocean, but when I did (usually on Long Island!) I loved it and knew if I could create the opportunity, I'd like to spend more time around the sea.
Who influenced you or encouraged you the most?
Probably my family. My mom encouraged my independence and creativity, while my grandfather always told me I could do anything and to follow my heart. I have many mentors within my field but perhaps my family got me off to a good start.
Looking back, was there anything you would have done differently in your education or career journey?
That’s a tough one. I feel pretty fortunate to be where I am and have had the opportunities that have been given to me, so I probably would not change much.
What obstacles did you encounter along the way?
It was a competitive process to get into graduate school for marine mammals and I had to apply twice. As for field work in the high Arctic, I’ve had to get used to living in very remote conditions, eating whatever is placed in front of me, being cold almost all the time, and living out of a small bag for several weeks! General obstacles include remembering not to work too much and balance life with other things that are important.
What are your hobbies?
I like to run, mountain bike and swim, pretty much anything outdoors. I play the piano and I’m also an artist, so I like to paint and draw.
Interests in Elementary School:
I actually don’t remember being terribly interested in science in Elementary School but I know I liked animals and being outside.
Beginning of Interest in Marine Sciences:
I began to be interested in marine biology when I was about 12. Since I did not live near the ocean, I spent a lot of time checking out books on marine mammals from the public library! I remember being there every weekend on the floor of the marine science section and carrying a bag of books home, to pour over the pictures.
First Marine Science Class:
My first formal ‘Marine Science’ class was in college when I was an undergraduate. My high school did not teach marine biology, and I just took general science classes like chemistry, biology and physics.
1999: B.S. Zoology, University of Washington, Seattle
2003: Ph.D. Fisheries, University of Washington, Seattle
First Career-related Job:
I volunteered at the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle beginning in my freshman year in college. I matched photos of the ventral side of humpback whale flukes in the North Pacific (to track their movements) and made GIS maps of marine mammal sighting data collected during fisheries surveys. That quickly turned into an undergraduate research position, where I studied beluga whales and sea otters, and later several paid research contracts for different scientists at the lab. I continued that until I graduated with my B.S.
Employment Journey/Career Transitions:
After I finished my B.S. degree in 1999, I took one year off and worked as a junior research scientist at the National Marine Mammal Laboratory ageing Arctic seals from layers in their teeth. I started my Ph.D. in the fall of 2000, and studied the ecology of narwhals in West Greenland and Canada. I completed my Ph.D. in 2003. A few months later, I received an international post-doctoral fellowship from the National Science Foundation which funded me to move to Denmark and Greenland and continue my research for 2 years. I worked on that post-doc between 2004 and 2006 and spent many months in North Greenland. I returned to the USA to begin as a principal investigator at the Polar Science Center working on “soft-money”—which means I fund my salary by getting research grants.