North Carolina Sea Grant
Coastwatch Currents

Coastwatch Currents

April 15, 2015 |

By CARTER SMITH

Posted April 15, 2015

Carter Smith is a doctoral student in marine sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She took a rather circuitous route to academia, starting with a bachelor’s degree in theater arts from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. She worked as an educator for several years at the Catalina Island Marine Institute, where she fell in love with the ocean and with teaching. At UNC, Smith studies how coastal development affects critical habitats and their associated fisheries. She is passionate about science communication and takes any opportunity to dust off her teaching skills. She also is a 2015 N.C. Coastal Policy Fellow.

Whale bones and the community surrounding them on the sea bottom

Carter Smith talked about whale falls — deep-sea communities that form around whale carcasses. Photo by Craig Smith, University of Hawaii.

It wasn’t until my 20s that I had any interest in being a marine biologist. As a kid, I hated how the ocean made me sticky and sandy, I was terrified of waves, and I was fairly certain that I was going to be eaten by a giant squid.

In contrast, the Junior Curators at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences are a group of highly motivated 8th- through 12th-grade students who all seem to know exactly what they want to be when they grow up.

In January, I participated in the Researcher Educator Exchange Forum, or REEF, outreach workshop designed for scientists interested in communicating their research to the public. The workshop, which is sponsored by the Center for Ocean Sciences Education Excellence SouthEast, connected researchers with formal and informal educators to brainstorm and collaborate on an outreach event in classrooms or at science centers. I was paired with the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences and was asked to make a presentation to the Junior Curators at the museum.

Junior Curators are selected through a rigorous application process. Once invited to join, they get to participate in all sorts of museum activities “behind the curtain.” They also attend a weekly informal seminar series designed to educate them about different natural science fields.

Instead of presenting on my personal research, I decided to present on a topic outside my specific field: whale falls. They are deep-sea communities that form on dead whale carcasses. I find this subject inherently fascinating, but I also chose this talk because it was this topic that captivated my imagination and convinced me that I wanted to be a marine scientist.

I was so impressed with every student who could easily answer all of my toughest questions. Even more so, I was struck by their willingness to approach me afterwards, to tell me about their lives and to ask specific questions about how I got to where I am today.

All and all, it was a wonderful way to spend a Friday night. This event was a nice reminder that academia is about more than writing grants and publishing papers. It’s about sharing what we learn with the public.

And, in particular, it’s about sharing what we learn with the next generation of scientists who just might get inspired by what we do.

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