Elaine Shen is originally from Houston, Texas and has recently graduated with a BS in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Rice University. She is about to enter her first year as a PhD student at the University of Rhode Island. Elaine likes learning about the socio-ecological aspects of seafood and communicating science. In her free time, she enjoys taking dance classes, attending concerts, and thrifting.
Briefly describe your current work and your research
My current work focuses on utilizing environmental DNA as a tool to measure marine biodiversity and ecosystem health. I’ve worked primarily in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean as an undergraduate, but am excited to begin the next phase of my research studying fisheries ecology and management in Indonesia for my graduate studies.
What do you love the most about your job?
My most honest answer is a bit vague and cliché, unfortunately. After all, I’m barely out of college! The truth is, I love marine science because it is one of the very few things that truly excites and motivates me to get up in the morning. It’s a sense of purpose that’s hard to describe or pinpoint to a specific issue or event; I just know that after trying on other professions for size, this one really stuck.
How difficult was it to get where you are today?
I grew up in Houston, where the oceans are typically conceptualized more for their economic value than they are for their beauty and biodiversity. I’ve been met with skepticism for my desire to become a marine biologist since I first expressed it in elementary school. As a result, I began to tell others (and tried to convince myself) that a career in medicine was what I was truly passionate about just so I could avoid criticism for my choice of profession. It wasn’t until college that I received genuine encouragement and support for pursuing what I was truly interested in.
What was the biggest obstacle in your way before your career reached where it is today? How did you overcome it?
Impostor syndrome. After almost a lifetime of people discouraging me from a career in marine science, I started to take it personally. I truly believed that people from my background and life experiences had no place in the field. It’s easy to get back into these negative thought patterns sometimes, but I like to remind myself that the diversity of thought that science needs can only come from diverse people, and that there’s no one “right” way to become a marine biologist.
What are you looking forward to the most in the future of marine science?
I’m excited for marine science to be more tangible for people to understand and support. In terms of research, I think the push towards incorporating human dimensions into marine biology is allowing for a more nuanced understanding of our relationship to the oceans. In combination with creative science communication and outreach, I believe we can reach larger audiences of people and get them on board with meaningful ocean conservation!
How do you think we can get more women involved within marine science?
Diversity is essential to marine biology and ocean conservation and it needs to be more accessible through dialogue and mentorship. In addition, there are oftentimes huge financial barriers to foundational marine biology research experiences that make it hard for students to justify fully pursuing their interests. For example, only recruiting and thereby encouraging early-career scientists with ample amounts of diving experience attracts only a certain demographic that isn’t representative of the potential out there.
What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring female marine scientists?
Know your worth!!
In one sentence, why do you think a career within marine science is a great career option?
You get to interact with an incredibly intelligent, curious, and hardworking cohort of people who genuinely and unpretentiously enjoy what they do.
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I would like to give a massive thank you to Elaine Shen 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 email@example.com 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 Elaine Shen. All photographs have been used with the permission of Elaine Shen.