Why Study This?

Why Study This?

The more education you have, the more fun things you can do.

"Watch this," Paul DiMarco says with a grin. "It's really cool." He uses a net to scoop up several small wriggling fish, which he carries over to the large, half-covered tank. Inside swim a number of sea creatures--each about two feet long and grayish-brown in color. They seem to be made up of big heads, small bodies and several arms. They are cuttlefish.

When Paul dumps the net-full of fish into the tank, the new arrivals barely begin swimming before the cuttlefish attack. They glide quickly, yet almost casually, to their newly arrived meal. Suddenly, one opens its mouth and out darts a pair of tentacles that yank the prey inside. Then, as quickly as it opened, the mouth slams shut and the tentacles disappear.

Despite his years of raising and studying cuttlefish, their grace and speed still delight Paul, a marine biologist at the National Resource Center for Cephalopods. Cephalopods are a class of sea creatures that includes cuttlefish, octopuses, squids and nautiluses.

Although the Center is located just a few feet from Galveston bay, Paul and his team spend most of their time indoors with the tanks of cuttlefish and squids. When asked what he does each day, Paul says that it's up to him to decide, in part because of his Master's degrees. "The more education you have, the more fun things you can do," he states. Like being interviewed for this magazine!

After touring the huge tanks--more like above-ground swimming pools--and getting used to the strong fish odor, we sat down with Paul to discuss his work and his cephalopods.

What exactly do you do?

I raise cephalopods--taking care of them and then selling them to aquariums and other researchers. I travel around a lot to promote the fact that we have cephalopods for sale. I also do research but not as much as I used to. I design experiments, run them and then write professional papers about the results.
Why Study This?

What's the coolest part of your job?

Getting to work with animals.

What's your favorite part?

[Laughs.] Getting to work with animals, which I love.

What surprised you about your job when you first started?

I was surprised by how much I needed to interact with people. I don't spend time with the animals all day long.

Describe something funny that happened to you at work.

One time I was feeding the squids as usual when one of them jumped out of the tank and tried to bite my chest. I wasn't afraid but I was really surprised. It was funny. Normally, they just squirt ink if they feel threatened.

Tell a story about problem solving in your job.

We used to use electric pumps to filter the water in our tanks but they often broke down. In addition, they couldn't remove certain chemicals, called nitrates, that would naturally build up. To keep the fish alive, we'd have to periodically almost empty the tanks and pump in fresh water. It took a lot of time and was very hard work.

To solve these problems, we developed a centralized system that uses an airlift to filter the water. The air bubbles, not the pumps, do the work. And it doesn't break down. In addition, an engineering student helped us design a filter that removed nitrates. We patented both of these inventions and they've made life much easier.

How did you become a marine biologist?

I always wanted to work with animals. I grew up in Long Island, New York, and I had this next door neighbor, a guy from Germany, who had an amazing greenhouse and aquarium built next to his house. He used to teach me about the plants and fish. It was fascinating.

How has your job changed over time?

I used to do more research but now I focus on raising and selling the cephalopods. The university requires us to generate some income and selling cephalopods brings in the money. We don't have trouble selling them because scientists like to study cephalopods.

Cephalopods have a lot of unique features. In particular, their nerves cells are very large and they help us better understand how human nerves work.

What will marine biologists be doing ten years from now?

Still researching. There's so much we still don't know.

What's the next step in your career path?

I'll keep doing what I'm doing. I love it!

How do people react?

Everyone thinks that being a marine biologist is cool. It's romantic. Anyone who's seen a Jacques Cousteau show loves the idea of it.

What do you wish you'd done differently in high school?

I wish I'd gotten better grades; it would've made college and getting into graduate school easier. It's just a basic fact. Good grades grease the skids. They make it easier to get a better life and lifestyle if that's what you want.

Why Study This? What's the part you like least about your job and how do you cope with it?

It can be difficult sometimes to re-create the excitement of the job when you've been doing it for many years. Occasionally, I have to remind myself of how much I love what I do.

If "10" is really tense, what's your average stress level at work?

Maybe a 2 or 3.

Is your workload steady or does it fluctuate?

It fluctuates. Sometimes it's slow and then we'll have to work two days straight writing grants or running experiments.

What disappoints you?

Having to contend with politics and bureaucracy at a certain level. It's not just pure science.

What information do you need to keep up in your field and where do you get it?

I read everything. I like history, novels, literature. You never know what'll be useful. I've even gotten ideas from reading the New York Times magazine book reviews!

What type of space do you work in?

Fish lab.

What's the dress code?


Do you usually work alone or with people?

I spend about 60% of my time working with people.
Why Study This?

What kinds of equipment do you work with?

I work with tanks, filters, pumps. I have to know how to maintain and repair them all.

What role does writing play in your work?

I'm often writing: professional papers, grants and marketing materials.

What role does public speaking play in your work?

I speak publicly all the time. I make professional presentations about my research. Also, I sometimes give tours to the students who visit the lab almost daily.

How do interpersonal skills come into play in your work?

I do a lot of marketing--talking to people about our program, encouraging them to buy cephalopods from us or fund us in other ways.

What You Need to Know

Title: Marine Biologist
Employer: University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston
Description: I raise and research cephalopods.
Travel: About twice a year to places like Italy and the Cayman Islands.
Hours/week: 40
Education: Bachelors of Science in Biology
Masters of Science in Marine and Environmental Science
Masters in Public Administration (MPA) in Environmental Planning
Science: It's everything I do. Every day I work with the animals and assess their well-being--that's science.
Math: I need it for statistics--to identify, for example, how much the animals grow depending on the tank's temperature.
This career: www.marinecareers.com
Cephalopods: http://www.dal.ca/~ceph/TCP/
Paul's work: www.nrcc.utmb.edu

Why Study This?