Sandra Brooke is Director of Coral Conservation at the Marine Conservation Institute and Research Associate at the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology. Sandra's job allows her to study marine life deep in the ocean, while also helping to protect these critters and the places they call home. Read the full text of Sandra's interview below to learn more about her job.
What is your title?
Director of Coral Conservation (Marine Conservation Institute) and Research Associate (Oregon Institue of Marine Biology)
Where do you work?
I have two affiliations, one at the Marine Conservation Institute (MCI), and I also have an adjunct Research Associate position at the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology (OIMB).
Do you travel often? To where?
Yes, too often really, about once a month. Mostly I go to meetings, but also scientific conferences and symposia to present my research. I go to sea on average once a year, but some years have multiple cruises.
What are the educational requirements for your job?
For my research position, I need to have a PhD and the Marine Conservation Institute prefers their science positions to have a PhD, but a Maste'rs degree plus relevant experience is also acceptable.
What is the salary range for someone with your type of job?
Between $65,000-85,000 per year.
How many hours do you work per week?
I’m not sure, I don’t keep count; however, in addition to my regular hours, I work most evenings and usually some of each weekend. When I am at sea, I start at around 7: 30 am and don’t stop until 10:30 pm or later.
Tell us about your research and the types of things you do.
My work at the Marine Conservation Institute involves providing science support for our policy department, to ensure our proposed policy amendments are scientifically defensible. I also work with Fishery Management Councils to attain protection for ecologically important ecosystems such as deep-sea coral reefs. In addition to my coral conservation role, I provide guidance to our cruise line collaborators to ensure they serve only sustainable seafood.
My work at the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology involves research into various aspects of deep-sea biology, with an emphasis on deep corals. I spend several weeks per year at sea gathering samples and data, then come back to OIMB to process them.
My work focuses on life histories and physiology of deep corals and characterizing deep reef ecosystems. My most recent project is located in the Atlantic deep-water canyons and includes three research cruises over a period of four years.
What is the most fascinating thing you have ever seen or done?
Diving in the DSV Alvin (four times) to study hydrothermal vents off the East Pacific Rise was probably the highlight of my field experience, but I have also been fortunate to have used submersibles and remotely operated vehicles to study deep slope communities in the Bahamas; cold seeps in the Gulf of Mexico; and deep coral ecosystems in Alaska, Norway, the southeastern US and Gulf of Mexico.
Another experience high on my list was spending eight days in the Aquarius underwater habitat off the coast of Key Largo, Florida. It was eerie and lovely living in a blue world, with muted light and coral reefs outside the windows.
What are the personal rewards of your work?
I like being at sea and exploring new ecosystems; my absolute favorite thing to do is dive in submersibles and be down on the seafloor seeing the incredible life in the deep ocean. The animals that live in these environments are remarkable and beautiful and often have unusual traits that allow them to survive in a hostile world. I usually bring animals back alive to the laboratory to conduct experiments, which allows us to understand their biology and ecology.
Apart from the exploration and science, I find it rewarding to help protect ecosystems such as deep coral reefs that are vulnerable to human activities. My position at MCI allows me to do this.
How does your work benefit the public?
My scientific publications hopefully contribute to our understanding of how deep-sea animals live and function. Science also informs management decisions, although not as much as it could at times. My work on the southeastern U.S. deep coral reefs contributed directly to the establishment of a large coral protected area (~ 23,000 square miles) that will prevent the reefs from being damaged by fisheries and energy development. Good management preserves common resources for the benefit of the general public, rather than allowing them to be overexploited by a few.
What else could someone with your background do?
There are lots of career possibilities for someone with a strong background in biological sciences. They could teach at a school or university; work for a State or Federal Government agency as a scientist, research coordinator, or in science outreach; work for an environmental consultancy organization; or a non-profit; or even pursue scientific journalism.
What sparked your initial interest in ocean sciences?
I moved to the Cayman Islands to work for the CI Government on mosquito control and learned to scuba dive. I started volunteering with the Natural Resources Department and decided to change career paths.
Who influenced you or encouraged you the most?
The most encouragement has always come from my Mum, but several people have influenced me along the way. Probably the most important was Phillippe Bush, a marine biologist in the Cayman Islands. We dove almost every weekend, working on his research projects. He was outspoken about poor management decisions and cared deeply about the degradation of his island’s marine environment.
Looking back, was there anything you would have done differently in your education or career journey?
This is a difficult question to answer as I don’t know how things would have turned out had I made different decisions along the way. I would say, however, that my path to marine science was a meandering one, which means I am almost a decade behind where I could have been on a direct route. I had some wonderful and useful experiences along the way, and don’t regret any of them, but I wouldn’t advise a new graduate to do what I did.
If I had graduated with my Bachelors degree, gone straight into a PhD and started a marine science career, I could have been higher up the ladder than I am now. On the other hand, I have had a rich and varied life, and the timing of my career steered me into deep-sea biology, for which I will always be grateful.
What obstacles did you encounter along the way?
My first chosen career was veterinary medicine; I wanted to be a vet from when I was very young. However, there were only five universities in the United Kingdom that offered vet medicine and competition for places was extremely high. The grades required were a lot higher than for human medicine and I was devastated when I didn’t get in. Apart from an unresolvable clash of perspectives with a supervisor while I worked for the State of Florida, I would say that was my only real career obstacle.
What are your hobbies?
Scuba diving, hiking with my dogs, running, and I like to draw and paint but don’t seem to have time any more.
Interests in Elementary School:
I was fascinated by Africa and decided when I was five that I wanted to be a bush vet over there. I used to draw a lot, always animals, mostly African.
Beginning of Interest in Marine Sciences:
I moved to the Cayman Islands and learned to scuba dive, then started volunteering for the Natural Resource Department.
First Marine Science Class:
When I started my second Masters degree, at the ripe old age of 28.
BSc (Hons) Biological Sciences (UK)
MSc Bio-aeronautics (UK)
MA Marine Science (USA)
PhD Oceanography (UK)
First Career-related Job:
After graduating with my first Masters degree (which focused on pest and disease control), my first job was with the Cayman Islands Government Mosquito Control Division. My first job in marine science (apart from research assistantships during my graduate training) was a post-doctoral research position at the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology.
Employment Journey/Career Transitions:
After my BSc in the UK, I completed an MSc (also UK), and moved to the Cayman Islands to work in mosquito control. After three years, I went to Honduras to work in pest and disease control in banana farms, but left after two years to start a Masters degree at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. After that, I completed my PhD through Southampton Oceanography Center (UK), but I lived and worked at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Florida. This is where I started deep-sea work with the Johnson Sea Link submersibles. After completing my PhD, I moved to Oregon for my post-doc and continued deep coral work in Norway, Alaska, the southeastern U.S., and Gulf of Mexico. After my post-doc I took a position as project manager for the Coral Research and Monitoring Program in the Florida Keys, but only stayed there a year. After this I obtained a courtesy position with OIMB and also started working with the Marine Conservation Institute. My career, like many others I suspect, has been driven more by timing of opportunities than planning.
South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council Coral Advisory Panel Science Seat (current)
Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council Conservation Seat (current)
Emergency Medical Technician (not currently active)