Interview: Biologist Rhian Waller
Rhian Waller has advice for students like her, who struggled in school—especially math. “Enjoy what you do and be enthusiastic, which will help you through the tough spots.” At age 26, Rhian has become a doctor who studies deep-sea organisms living in exotic places like the Galapagos Rift.
You are British, but you grew up in Saudi Arabia, and now live in America. What were the circumstances?
My parents are both microbiologists who do medical research in hospitals. When I was two years old, we moved from Britain to Riyadh, the capitol of Saudi Arabia. We stayed until I was 12, when we returned to England during the Gulf War. I came to the U.S. nearly two years ago to work at WHOI with biologist Tim Shank.
How did spending your childhood in Saudi Arabia influence your career?
Saudi Arabia has two gorgeous, mainly undeveloped coastlines, and my parents both scuba dive, so my brothers and sister and I spent a lot of time in the water and on boats, swimming, snorkeling, and playing. I think my interest in oceanography stems from seeing all those wonderful coral reefs as a kid, learning all the names of the fish and corals, and seeing octopi, dolphins, whales, and sharks up close.
Why did you study biology?
I was always impressed by the diversity of species that live on the planet, both on land and in the oceans, so it made sense to pursue biology. I actual enjoyed all aspects of biology as I went through school, and even toyed with the idea of becoming a medic at one point. But I finally decided that I enjoy working with and learning about animals. Since I enjoy the ocean, it made sense to pursue marine biology.
What was your formal education?
I completed my undergraduate work at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, in marine and freshwater biology before moving on to a doctoral program in the ecology of deep-water corals living around Europe. I finished my doctorate from Southampton University (in England) in 2003, and I have been working at WHOI ever since.
Why did you study corals?
When I was studying in England there was a huge European initiative called the Atlantic Coral Ecosystem Survey. It involved scientists from all disciplines and numerous institutes around Europe who were trying to figure out the ecology of deep-water corals and the effect of widespread fishing and pollution of coastal areas of Europe.
Today, you continue to study corals, in addition to other deep-sea organisms, such as tubeworms and giant clams. Why?
I’m now using corals as a way to learn about climate change. We can look at the genetic material of coral, the DNA, from fossilized skeletons to see how the organism has changed, and how the populations have changed with the warmer and colder cycles of Earth’s climate. But I do study other organisms as well. I like to think of myself as a benthic ecologist, rather than a coral biologist. Like many biologists, I’m also enthralled by the diversity of life to stick with one type of organism.
What is your role on this cruise?
I am part of the team of biologists collecting tubeworms, clams, and other organisms for molecular research. This research will look at many aspects of the species’ ecology, from how they have evolved through time to how they disperse across the wide expanses of ocean ridges.
What advice do you have for young people considering a career in science?
I never got great grades at school, and I’ve always had a hard time with math and numbers. But I knew that science was what I wanted to do, and I knew that I would be good at doing it because I love it. My advice? Don’t be put off by average grades or by people discouraging you, especially people telling you how hard school is. If you enjoy what you do and you are enthused about it, other people will notice and help you through.
It seems like in addition to working hard, networking helped to put you into a good spot for your career. How did that work for you?
I’ve had amazing advisors. My undergraduate advisor, Simon Creasey at University of Wales, Aberystwyth, steered me towards doctoral studies in the first place. Without him I don’t think I would have even considered it. My graduate advisor Paul Tyler at Southampton Oceanography Centre was also wonderful in taking me on; my enthusiasm in my interview apparently won over my average grades. A fortuitous cruise to the Galapagos Islands in 2001 led me to (WHOI geologist) Dan Fornari. He’s been wonderfully supportive of my career to this day. He also introduced me to (WHOI biologist) Tim Shank. I think the instant I met Tim, I knew I wanted to work for him. Luckily he wanted me to work for him too, and so he worked really hard to get me here. I am lucky to have met all these wonderful people and am grateful to them. They made my hard work pay off.
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