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.
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.
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.
The personal rewards of my work. First off is I’m always learning. I love learning new things and I feel every day I get to see or do something that I haven’t done before. And that to me, that constant increase in knowledge, is just an amazing reward. And then getting the chance sometimes to pass that on to other people. We get a lot of student volunteers in our lab, so training them with the isotopes and then a lot of them get intrigued and want to do projects with that. And so passing on that kind of knowledge and enthusiasm is just really rewarding.
It’s hard to say what sparked my initial interest in ocean sciences. I was always drawn to biology as a kid. I remember getting a microscope and collecting water samples, leaves, dirt, anything I could just to put it under the scope and check it out.
And then as far as the ocean goes, my family always vacationed in the Carolinas or Florida and so we would go crabbing and clamming, sail boating, so a lot of water activities. And I was always loved the water and so in my mind, well, I liked biology, I liked the ocean, why not be a marine biologist? And I think the deal was sealed when I got SCUBA certified at 12 years old and just discovered everything under the water.
I got most of the encouragement from my parents. They were very supportive early on. I lived in Ohio, there weren’t that many marine biologists, but in grade school and high school, they would look up colleges and ask me, “have you looked up the marine science program here?” My mom found a marine science camp in Florida and told me if I could raise the money, her and my dad would help out with the plane ticket and send me there. So they were supportive throughout my entire career.
I think the most fascinating thing I’ve ever done was go down in a submersible. It was a goal of mine early on as a kid, and I kind of felt privileged to have accomplished that. And it’s really hard to even describe what you see going down. The lights are off and the amount of bioluminescence – flashes of light, creatures drifting by – it really is an amazing light show. And that me, I was in awe of how many animals and the diversity that live down in a place that is so dark and just foreign.
Our work benefits the public in kind of a management perspective. A lot of the environments that we’re looking at are in the deep sea and in order for you to protect any type of habitat, you kind of need to know what’s there. And so our work is looking at the trophic relationships, community structure, and once we can kind of establish this baseline, we can pass it on to government officials and managers to figure out how to protect these areas.Return to profile