Susan Smith

PhD graduate student in Oceanography at the University of Connecticut, Department of Marine Sciences


If you like it, you're halfway there.

What do you do?

Although many people might think that being an Oceanographer or a Marine Biologist means you study whales or sharks, much of the biological research on the ocean is on very tiny organisms, called phytoplankon or zooplankton (plant or animal plankton). I study a kind of zooplankton called a ciliate, which are single-celled eukaryotes (so they're not bacteria, they're more like us). Ciliates live basically in every Earthly environment, and are used in all different kinds of science, from the study of soil biology and outer space, to medicine and human cancers. I study ciliates that live in the ocean, and most of my work involves genomics, or the study of their DNA, but I also got to discover and name a new species of ciliate, so research takes you in all different places. Most of my work involves using awesome microscopes, going on sampling cruises, and working in the lab using pipettes and tiny volumes of reagents/chemicals to study ciliate DNA.

Why did you choose this field?

I loved studying the ocean when I was a kid, flipping over rocks and catching (and probably terrifying) crabs and other tiny critters in the intertidal(rocky shore) zone. I always wanted to be a marine biologist, and even got to meet people like Sylvia Earle (the queen of ocean conservancy) and Bob Ballard (found hydrothermal vents...and the Titanic). I was into science when I was in elementary school, but by high school my grades dropped super low and I barely graduated. I wasn't able to get into any school, and ended up working at a bunch of different jobs before I got into a community college...for journalism. I loved writing but going back to school (and a biology club I joined at the CC) made me realize "if I'm going to go to college, I might as well try to get that oceanography degree." My grades in community college got me into the University of Connecticut as a transfer undergrad. I was horrified of the math at first, since I gave up math back in middle school (I took algebra in high school twice, never showed up to either class). But I stuck with it, started in Intro Algebra courses, and by the time I graduated I had an A in my Calculus II with Physics course. Most people are actually decent at math, it's just a hard thing to get into, but you can certainly get through it if you want it enough.

What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?

As a senior PhD student, I get a lot of questions from younger students, or from other scientists that need help with a subject that I know. Even as a senior in my undergraduate degree, I assumed people "like that" were exceptional geniuses that were picked out and hired for their rarity. In reality, working hard and being interested in the sciences can get you to that point. And it went by in the blink of an eye.

Why do you love working in STEM?

I love the conversations I find myself in. I'll be out with friends and we'll get into a crazy conversation about the evolution of crabs, or I'll be asked by a friend outside of my field to explain ocean acidification or climate change to them.

In a daily sense, I wake up looking forward to looking in the microscope at something weird, or going on a boat to sample the ocean, or I look forward to finishing a paper or finding the answer to a question I've had.

Best advice for next generation?

If you like it, you're halfway there. The rest of the issues with getting a STEM degree are easy compared to having the drive and interest. People will see that. That school or that lab internship/job that seems so far away from reality, is actually looking for people exactly like you. If you are serious about it, your GPA or math scores or SAT scores can be overcome.

Inspo quote / fun fact / role model

"How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it is quite clearly Ocean." Arthur C. Clarke

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