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Meet Jennifer McClain-Counts

My name is Jennifer McClain-Counts. My title is biologist. I work for U.S. Geological Survey, the Southeast Ecological Science Center in Gainesville, Florida.


About Jennifer’s Job

The type of work I do is primarily in stable isotopes. Isotopes are atoms with different atomic weights—they have varying numbers of neutrons. And we use isotopes like carbon and nitrogen to track trophic relationships in marine environments. For in the field, we’ll collect tissue samples. Those samples will then be dried, crushed, and weighed and then we send those off to a lab for analysis. And at that lab, they basically break that tissue down into how many heavy versus light atoms.

So for carbon, they do carbon-13 versus carbon-12. And the carbon can tell us the general carbon source. So if a fish is feeding primarily on phytoplankton, it’s going to have the same carbon value as phytoplankton. Whereas if a fish was eating some chemosynthetic bacteria, it would have a different kind of carbon signature; it would be more reflective of the chemosynthetic bacteria.

And then we use nitrogen to look at the trophic levels. Nitrogen has this tropic fractionation, which is basically an increase in a predictable manner, an average being 3.4. And for every trophic level, it’ll increase by that amount. So if a fish eats another fish, that second fish will have a value 3.4 higher than the fish that it ate.

In my lab, we do a lot of benthic ecology. And we’ll look at sediment and the animals living in the sediment. So we’ll take push core samples and we’ll slice these cores into different fractions: 0-2 centimeters, 2-5 centimeters, and then 5-10. And those individual fractions will then be sorted to find all the animals living in the sediment. So there’s polychaetes, amphipods, copepods – it’s kind of amazing how many animals live in such a small amount of sediment. But that gives us an idea of community structure and biodiversity in the sediment.


Job Details

The amount of hours I work per week is variable. A typical work week is 40 hours, but I often work a lot more than that. It’s really hard to stop in the middle of a task just to clock out, so I’ll usually finish that up. So I probably work more like 50 hours a week. And then of course when there’s deadlines approaching, I may be working longer hours. But then once those deadlines pass, I might come in a little later to make up for having to work extra.

Research cruises, however, are a completely different story. Those you tend to work 12 to 20-hour days and you get no weekends off, no days off – it’s just straight “go, go, go.” But there’s a lot of work to do and we have a lot of fun out here, so it doesn’t seem too bad. And then of course, when you get back, you might take a couple days off to recoup from that.

I travel around the U.S. a fair amount, mostly for the research cruises. We can have a couple in one year and so they’re two to three weeks. The last one I was out on, we left out of Texas. So a lot of our work is in the Gulf and then the southeast Atlantic. But I’ve had conferences all the way out in Portland and work shops in Massachusetts. So all the travel has been pretty much contained within the U.S.

For my particular job, I was required to have a master’s degree. Particularly also in marine sciences. But you can get a similar type of job with a bachelor’s degree, but the more important part is having laboratory experience. Having an education and a degree is great, but without any actual real-life experience, it makes it hard to apply it. And I had a lot of years in a laboratory which taught me not only the basic biology stuff, but how to manage multiple tasks, deadlines, and how to deal with stress. So it’s definitely really important to get that lab experience in.


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Please note that all OceanAGE Career content was current at the time that interviews were recorded; however, profiles are not being updated to reflect subsequent career changes.