Jennifer McClain-Counts is a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who uses chemistry to understand food webs in the ocean. Read the full text of Jennifer's interview below to learn more about her job.
What is your title?
My job title is Biologist, but I am also the Laboratory Manager for Dr. Amanda Demopoulos.
Where do you work?
I work at the United States Geological Survey Southeast Ecological Science Center in Gainesville, Florida.
Do you travel often? To where?
I travel a fair amount, but it varies every year. My travels are contained within the United States, from conferences in Oregon to workshops in Massachusetts to research cruises out of Texas. The majority of my field work takes place in the north central Gulf of Mexico and in the Atlantic off the southeast United States.
What are the educational requirements for your job?
My specific job requires a master's degree; however, having laboratory experience was an important detail for obtaining this job. A college education gives you the foundation, but volunteering and working in the lab gives you additional skills needed to apply your education to real ongoing science projects. My laboratory experience also improved my organizational skills and ability to manage multiple tasks in order to meet deadlines.
What is the salary range for someone with your type of job?
The federal government uses the General Schedule (GS) pay scale for employees. There are 15 grade scales, with each scale separated into 10 steps. Employees are hired based on their education and experience. I was hired at a mid-level position, GS-09, and the salary range is roughly $45,000-60,000.
How many hours do you work per week?
A “typical” work week in the laboratory is 40 hours a week; however extra hours are normal since it is hard to stop in the middle of a task. Field work is a completely different story. When at sea, work can range from 12 hours up to 20 hours a day for the entire length of the cruise. These intense work hours last the whole cruise, which is often 2-3 weeks with no weekends or days off.
Tell us about your research and the types of things you do.
The main focus of my work is stable isotope analyses. Stable isotopes are non-radioactive atoms of the same element with different numbers of neutrons. Carbon and nitrogen isotopes are the two that we use to identify trophic relationships among fauna. Carbon values reflect their source with little change, meaning a fish that eats marine phytoplankton will have a carbon value similar to the phytoplankton, whereas a fish that eats mangrove leaves will have a carbon value similar to the leaves. Nitrogen, on the other hand, undergoes a significant change known as “trophic fractionation” with every step in the food chain. The fractionation occurs in a predictable manner (about 3-4 permil increase per trophic level) and helps determine the general trophic level at which an animal feeds.
In the field, I collect tissue samples from various plants and animals. Back in the lab these samples will be dried, crushed, and weighed out into tin capsules. Depending on the organisms, these samples may be acidified and redried. All samples are then crushed and placed into an Elemental Analyzer attached to an Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometer (basically a machine that vaporizes the tissue and sends it to another machine with a big magnet to separate the different atoms by weight). Although I’ve done all these steps, it is more efficient for us to prepare the samples and mail them to another isotope laboratory for analysis on the mass spectrometer.
As a Laboratory Manager, I am also in charge of keeping the lab in order. I ensure that all personnel complete the required laboratory safety trainings, the lab remains clean and organized, and all necessary supplies are in sufficient quantities. Data management is another task related to my job. Since I started, I have created databases for our various projects, which also includes entering data and performing quality analyses and quality control checks. Once the data are in the databases, it is easier to pull subset or pool samples for data analyses. I assist my supervisor, Dr. Amanda Demopoulos, with data analyses, writing papers, and making presentations.
What is the most fascinating thing you have ever seen or done?
The most fascinating thing I have done was to dive in a submersible. It was during those dives that I witnessed the amazing bioluminescent light show. Amazing colors and images of sea creatures flash before your eyes. The amount of diversity astounds me. Every time was different and I am always in awe of what is living in the deep-sea. It was one of my life goals and I felt very privileged to accomplish it so early in my career.
What are the personal rewards of your work?
There are lots of personal rewards with my work. There is the simple fact that I love my job, so it often doesn’t seem like work. I am also privy to seeing and learning new things every day. On research cruises, I often observe animals few people have witnessed, especially in their natural habitat. Every time the submersible, remotely operated vehicle, or trawl goes in the water, there is potential to discover something new. You never know what you are going to find.
How does your work benefit the public?
My work benefits the public by providing data to help government officials make informed management decisions. Before we can determine which habitats need protection, we need to understand what is there and what types of interactions are occurring (physically, chemically, and biologically). We can start to understand these habitats by examining the community structure, biodiversity, and trophic relationships.
What else could someone with your background do?
Besides my background in stable isotopes, I have skills identifying deep-sea fishes, particularly midwater fishes, and identifying zooplankton from fish stomachs. With these skills you could pursue work as an environmental consultant or a biological technician in a variety of marine laboratories. You also have the option of going back to school for a PhD.
What sparked your initial interest in ocean sciences?
Biology was always something I was naturally drawn to. I remember getting a microscope for my birthday as a kid and examining various objects underneath it, such as pond water, dirt, or even my hair. The natural world fascinated me! I was also a water lover. As a kid, my grandfather used to call me his “Jennie-fish” and I enjoyed our family vacations to the beach where we would go clam digging, crabbing, kayaking, sailing, or beachcombing. There was something in that salty air I just loved! I think my fate was finally sealed when I became SCUBA certified at 12 years old and discovered a whole new world under the water.
Who influenced you or encouraged you the most?
Growing up, I was greatly encouraged by my parents. Throughout grade school and high school, my parents looked up marine-related college programs and my mom found a marine-based summer camp for me. They taught me to work hard and encouraged me to do what I love.
Looking back, was there anything you would have done differently in your education or career journey?
Looking back, there isn’t really anything I would have done differently. Every experience, mistake, and encounter helped shaped my life and career. I wouldn’t be who I am today without them.
What obstacles did you encounter along the way?
I think one of my biggest obstacles is scientific writing. It is different from the English papers you learn to write in high school. Scientific papers are concise and are almost written in a language of their own. I still have trouble organizing my thoughts in a clear, concise manner, so I often end up writing quite a few drafts. It is an important part of science and I am slowly getting better with everything I write.
What are your hobbies?
My hobbies include SCUBA diving, kayaking, and surfing. I also enjoy cooking and baking. I like trying new foods and experimenting with herbs and spices. I never know when I’ll find my new favorite food! Currently, I am getting into crafting with some friends, which includes sewing and making frames or other home décor. It’s a nice break from science. I am also an avid reader and like curling up with a good fiction novel when time allows.
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