My name is Sandra Brooke and my title, I have two titles, actually. I’m the Director of Coral Conservation at the Marine Conservation Institute and I’m also a Research Associate at the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology.
My work is rather varied. I work for the Marine Conservation Institute and I’m the Director of Coral Conservation which sounds rather grand, but what I do, for the most part, is provide scientific information to our policy department so that the policy amendments that they are requesting from Congress are scientifically defensible.
I also hold the conservation seat for the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council and I work with the Fisheries Management Councils to advocate for and provide scientific information for protection, primarily of deep coral habitats, but also other vulnerable ecosystems.
For my academic position, I go to sea, I write research proposals, I collect data, I go back to the laboratory, and I analyze it. And my research focuses on deep-sea coral ecosystems, physiology, ecology, biology, habitat characterizations, that kind of thing.
On average, I travel about once a month, mostly to meetings, unfortunately, which aren’t particularly interesting most of the time. But I also travel to scientific conferences which are much more fun and rewarding. And, of course, the research cruises. I usually have one cruise a year, maybe two.
The salary range for the kinds of work that I do, the Marine Conservation Institute-type position, the non-government organization, that probably is a little bit lower than academia, between 60 and 80. Academic positions tend to pay a little bit more, 65 to 85, and then upwards from that for senior positions.
I require a PhD for the academic position. For the conservation position, the Marine Conservation Institute likes their scientists to have PhDs, but a master’s degree and appropriate experience is perfectly acceptable also.
Anybody with a strong scientific or biological background has various career options. Academia is one, of course, if you want to choose the PhD route and become a professor. There’s also other options, such as state and federal government research. You can teach anything up to a university level. You can work for a non-profit, like I do. Or you can go in to scientific journalism. There are quite a lot of options for someone with a strong background in science.
My interest in ocean sciences came on somewhat late in life. I couldn’t even swim until I was 21. But I started working for the Cayman Islands Government after my first master’s degree and I learned to SCUBA dive and I became interested in the ocean and started volunteering for the natural resources department on their marine side and then I realized that I was having more fun doing that than my real work so I changed careers.
The most fascinating thing I’ve ever done was diving in the Deep Submergence Vehicle Alvin to the hydrothermal vents on the East Pacific Rise. I got four dives in the Alvin, four separate cruises, I was very fortunate and to be down at 2,500 meters, 3,600 PSI, staring at an ecosystem that shouldn’t exist three inches beyond the plexi-glass was just the most fascinating and moving experience. These animals are amazing, they’re gorgeous, they, like I said, we didn’t know they existed 30 years ago.
So that was probably the highlight of my field experience, but I’ve also been fortunate enough to use submersibles in Hawaii, Samoa, Bahamas, Gulf of Mexico, Southeastern U.S., Alaska, Norway. It’s been a very rich and varied field experience for me.
I’ve also spent eight days in the underwater habitat, the Aquarius underwater habitat in Florida, which was really eerie living in a blue world for eight days with coral reefs outside the world. So that was fantastic as well.
I don’t think I really had any career obstacles, per se. Except for maybe, when I was very young, I decided I wanted to be a vet. And I had a very single-minded track that that’s what I wanted to do and that’s what I focused on. And so I was offered a position at a veterinary college in England, but I didn’t make the grades. It’s extremely competitive, there are only five colleges and the requirements were higher than for human medicine. So when I didn’t make that I was completely devastated and derailed and didn’t really know what I was doing for awhile.
But apart from that, once I got back on track, I don’t think I’ve had any obstacles, it just requires of hard-headedness and hard work and you just gotta stick with it.
Looking back on my career, I had a very meandering route to where I am now. I started off in tropical pest and disease management, which took me to the Cayman Islands, and I can’t say that I would have necessarily changed anything that I did. It’s a difficult question to answer because one never knows how one’s decisions might have been different and how one’s career might have changed because of that.
I can’t say that I regret anything that I did. What I can say is that, had I started on this career track and not taken the first one and then changed, I would’ve been further up the career ladder than I am now. On the other hand, the timing of my career path led me into deep-sea biology, so I don’t think so, but I would say that I wouldn’t advise a graduate student to do what I did. I would take a more direct path, probably.Return to profile