Dr. Heather Olins’ interest in marine science started in tide pools and aboard a sailing school vessel as part of a program for high school students. As far back as Heather can remember she wanted to study the ocean. She earned a B.A. and M.A. in Earth & Environmental Science from Wesleyan University where she primarily studied macroinvertebrate communities in local streams. Heather also participated in the Williams College Mystic Seaport Maritime Studies Semester where she learned to think about the ocean in an interdisciplinary way.
After a 3 year break teaching (about the ocean among other things) in Dallas, Texas, Heather earned a PhD in Organismic & Evolutionary Biology from Harvard University where she worked on microbial communities at Hydrothermal Vents on the Juan de Fuca Ridge, and got to participate in multiple research cruises aboard different ships using both ROV’s as well as the Alvin submersible.
Heather is about to start her second year as Assistant Professor of the Practice in the biology department at Boston College. Shes teaches courses such as Introduction to Ecology & Evolution, Deep Sea Biology, and Microbiomes: Invisible Ecosystems, and does microbial ecology research with undergraduate students. Heather also involves her Deep Sea Bio class with research at sea via telepresence technology.
Briefly describe your current work and your research.
I study chemosynthetic microbial ecosystems. I describe which microbes are present, what they do under different environmental conditions, and try to determine how this microbial activity both influences and is influenced by the surrounding environment. I am particularly interested in microbial communities at deep sea hydrothermal vents: how does temperature influence rates of carbon fixation?; do those microbes come from the deep subsurface or the surrounding seawater?; how does the activity of microbes in vent fluids change as the fluids move away from the vent and mix with seawater?; do specific minerals in vent chimney walls select for certain types of microbes that preferentially colonize them? As I’ve transitioned recently into a teaching faculty position, I’ve been starting a new research program asking many of the same questions of microbial ecosystems in local wetlands.
What do you love the most about your job?
I love the freedom I have to propose and design a completely new course, and the enthusiasm that students have for the type of science that I love to do and talk about.
How difficult was it to get where you are today?
The process of completing a PhD is a long and challenging one. There were certainly many ups and downs. However, I consider myself to have been incredibly lucky to be in a wonderfully supportive lab with amazing students and an advisor who treated us with respect and dignity. I have always worked hard and taken on big challenges, but I don’t feel like I have had to fight for my success the way that many people I know have.
What was the biggest obstacle in your way before your career reached where it
is today? How did you overcome it?
Finding a faculty position was challenging. For family reasons I needed to stay in the Boston area, and so I decided to skip the traditional post-doc step, and look for teaching positions instead. I was applying to a range of jobs, some of which were outside higher ed. I ended up teaching middle school for a year before my current, and thus far ideal, position opened up. I had taught middle & high school before my PhD program, and always knew that I would enjoy that as a backup if the college faculty position didn’t work out. I actually think everyone doing a PhD program hoping for a tenure track faculty position should have a backup plan. Anyhow, when my initial job search didn’t work out exactly the way I hoped, I knew that my backup plan was a good alternative, and happily accepted another position. Luckily for me, a job opened up a few months later and I ended up with exactly the type of job I hoped for.
What are you looking forward to the most in the future of marine science?
I think that the increased use of telepresence and other technologies that are connecting people on shore with the deep sea has huge potential to change the way we do marine science, and engage a much broader and more diverse group of people in marine science. I can’t wait to see how we are accessing the sea virtually in the next few decades.
How do you think we can get more women involved within marine science?
There are many answers to this, and in no way do I mean to equate woman with mother in this answer, but in my experience, having a young child and wanting/needing to spend extended amounts of time at sea is a real struggle. I have had to turn down research cruise opportunities because it simply wasn’t practical for me to leave my family at that time. People without those (or other) care taking responsibilities have an easier time taking advantages of last minute opportunities, for example. I hope that technology will make it easy for people who can’t leave home for weeks at a time to participate in a genuine way in research at sea, but I also think that universities, professional societies, and funding agencies have a big role to play in identifying and implementing policies or programs to make the fields more accessible.
What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring female marine scientists?
Put yourself out there as much as you can. So many opportunities in marine science (and science more broadly) come from connections, chance encounters, being in the right place at the right time – in short things other than your individual qualifications and skills. The more comfortable you become getting to know other people in the field (even via twitter for instance) the more you learn about the field, but also more likely you are to see doors (into grad programs, on to ships, into research collaborations for example) open. It is clichè, and not fair, but so much of it is who you know.
In one sentence, why do you think a career within marine science is a great career option?
We are all inextricably connected to our oceans (food, mineral and other resources, oxygen, climate, weather, shipping, economics/politics…), and yet we have better maps of Mars and the moon than our own sea floors – there is so much to learn, and it is incredibly important to the survival of our (and other) species that we do so.
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I would like to give a massive thank you to Dr. Heather Olins for participating in this interview. I cannot wait to share more of your stories and I hope that you find inspiration in learning of other journeys within marine science.
Are you a woman working within marine science? Would you like to share your story and inspire the next generation? Please get in contact with me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to be involved with the Leading Women in Marine Science Interview Series.
Disclaimer: All responses to the interview questions and the biography belong to Dr. Heather Olins.
The cover photo is inside the Alvin submarine (March 2014) during the initial Science Verification Cruise after the submersible was renovated (credit – Dr. Heather Olins). The headshot belongs to Boston College.
Photograph 2 is Dr. Olins in a ‘gumby’ emersion suit on the R/V Western Flyer (2011) (credit – Dr. Peter Girguis).
Photograph 3 was taken on the Juan de Fuca Ridge and is of Dr. Olins crushing sulphide rocks collected for experiments conduct onboard the ship (credit – Dr. Charles Vidoudez).
Photograph 4 is also of Dr. Heather Olins with the renovated submarine on the same cruise as the cover photo (credit – Dr. Heather Olins).