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Yaamini Venkataraman

Graduate student, University of Washington

 

The best advice I ever got was to keep writing.

What do you do?

I study how ocean acidification affects shellfish using “-omic” techniques. Ocean acidification is “the other CO2 problem”: greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere are absorbed by the ocean, making it more acidic. This can be stressful for the animals that live there! Marine calcifiers, like corals and shellfish, use calcium carbonate in the water to build their skeletons and shells. This calcium carbonate becomes less available to marine calcifiers as the water becomes more acidic. By examining molecular responses to ocean acidification (genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics), the shellfish themselves “tell” me how ocean acidification stressors affect them. This also allows me to discern if shellfish can acclimatize or adapt to future ocean conditions.

Why did you choose this field?

As a California Bay Area native, I grew up going to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I was always floored by the intricacies of the organisms themselves, but also how complex their environments were. However, a career in environmental science wasn’t a common aspiration for a first-generation Indian-American. I was unsure if I was betraying my heritage and my immigrant parents’ struggle by exploring marine science instead of conceding and pursuing something “safe,” like medicine or engineering. I continued to pursue opportunities in marine science, hoping that by learning more about my passions, I would be able to convince them of their importance.

 

In high school, I volunteered at the Monterey Bay Aquarium to understand if my interest in marine science was a deep enough passion to pursue as a career. Getting my B.S. in General Biology and B.A. in Environmental Policy at the University of California, San Diego, I studied several different species-environment interactions, including copepods and copper toxicity at the Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies, marsh plants species and increased carbon inputs at the Smithsonian Institute for Environmental Studies and limpet-surfgrass interactions under acidified conditions at UCSD. Wanting to study climate change impacts on marine life, but also wanting my work to have tangible ecological, social, and economic impacts, I decided to study how ocean acidification affects shellfish at the University of Washington.

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

I was never a competitive kid, which meant I never won anything. My insecurities about losing carried over to graduate school — I didn’t want to be the only student who could not get a paper accepted or successfully obtain funding. When I wrote my first grant application in graduate school, I was pretty sure my losing streak would carry over. Finding out I was selected for the first grant I ever applied for reminded me that I was capable of being a successful scientist.

Why do you love working in STEM?

"At its core, climate change is a human rights issue."

The aquaculture industry and native communities rely on shellfish for people’s livelihoods and food. Climate change, including ocean acidification, enganger these benefits. I love that my job is to ask and answer questions I find interesting, but most of all, I’m thankful I have the opportunity to research topics that others find important.

Best advice for the next generation

The best advice I ever got was to keep writing. I always thought STEM careers solely involved conducting experiments or data analysis, but I find myself spending a significant amount of time writing. I kept my science communication skills sharp as a journalist in high school and biology journal editor in college, and now I write for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of National Marine Sanctuary. Find a way to write that’s fun for you and keep at it. You’ll be thankful when you’re writing a paper or grant proposal!

Fun fact

I love food. I spend most of my time in Seattle looking for new restaurants to eat at, or trying new recipes in my own kitchen!