IFLScience Meets: Open Ocean Explorer Rebecca Helm On The Voracious Appetites Of Jellyfish

'It takes a village to raise a marine biologist!' Image courtesy of Rebecca Helm

If ever there was a Twitter account to inspire a love and appreciation for the open ocean and its many bizarre and wondrous inhabitants, it would be Rebecca Helm’s. An Assistant Professor of Biology at the University of North Carolina Asheville, part-time science communicator, and full-time salp appreciator, Helm regularly blesses timelines and scientific journals with the diversity and complexity of marine life. Having recently taken on a NASA-funded community science initiative looking at life at the sea’s surface, Helm’s work continues to shine a light on undiscovered and poorly understood niches of ocean ecosystems. However, as she tells us here, the road to success is paved with seasickness and accidental jellyfish snacks.

What do you do?

I am an Assistant Professor of Biology at the University of North Carolina Asheville.

What did it take to get here?

I grew up in Arizona and loved the ocean even though I almost never went. I went to college at Eckerd College and then moved to South Africa as a Fulbright Fellow. After that, I went to graduate school at Brown University where I got my PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. From there I moved to Woods Hole Massachusetts to work as a postdoctoral researcher at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and then to Washington D.C. as an NSF Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

How would you describe what you do?

I study life in the open ocean.

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What's the most common misconception about your line of work?

That marine biologists are constantly on ships and diving in SCUBA gear. For better or worst most of our time is spent onshore, at a computer, or in a laboratory.

Picked up any unusual skills in your line of work?

I get super seasick and I’m proud to say I can puke overboard in the middle of a conversation without missing a beat! In fact, tons of marine scientists get super seasick, so there’s always a little crowd of us on any ship when we first hit the big swells that are sick and wandering the deck and talking and occasionally throwing up. You get very close to people you work with very quickly when you go to sea! It’s taken a long time to get used to it, and medications does help, but I now see it as just another part of the job. Definitely not the most pleasant part but going to sea definitely makes up for it!

Memorable missteps on the job?

Oh, we’ve had all sorts of mishaps on various ships. But one of the more memorable happened in a lab at shore. I had a big tank of jellyfish and one night a stack of paper towels tipped over into their tank. When I came in the next day you could see all these perfectly folded paper towels just floating around INSIDE the jellies! They’d eaten all the towels and were happy as could be. They eventually spit up some very slimy towels and went about their jellyfishing while I tried to collect all their snotty towels from the tank.

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What do you never leave the house without?

I’ve got a mini microscope that I bring with me everywhere I go.

What’s one piece of advice you'd give to someone wanting to embark on the same career?

It’s hard, and the road isn’t always easy, so find good people who will support you inside and outside of science. Make sure they know how much you care, and don’t be afraid to ask for help and advice if you need it. It takes a village to raise a marine biologist!


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