The Marine Biologist (Part 1)

By Clayton Manning

In this four-part blog series, Project Seahorse MSc student Clayton Manning ponders the question: "Hey, I'm in Australia doing seahorse research - How did I end up here?"

Back in April 2013 when I made the decision that I wanted to go to grad school I had no idea that I'd end up going to university in western Canada, or doing field work in Australia. The only thing that was truly clear is that I wanted a Masters, and I wanted to do field work. Since then I've researched, deliberated and eventually crossed out a list of universities in four different countries, and field work in another six. And all of that was after the not-so-easy-for-an-Alberta-boy decision to study marine biology and conservation. Although at times it's been stressful not knowing where I'm going, what I'm going to do, or who I'll be doing it with, sometimes it's this uncertainty that makes the final destination so rewarding, and the road there so exciting.

The journey starts in Japan, where I was living, working, and consuming copious amounts of ramen. After a grand total of about two months at a real job in this ancient land, I decided that I wanted to go back to school. After a research hiatus of less than half a year, I was already yearning to do more cool science. Plus, I'm more of a shorts and t-shirt all-year kind of guy, and the suit-and-tie thing really wasn't doing it for me. I wanted out; not out of Japan, but the Japanese working world. So after Google translating 'graduate school' into 'daikakuin' on my phone, I immediately started searching for grad programs in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. I had no idea what I wanted to focus on, so I looked far and wide for anything under the (land of the rising) sun.

Turns out, not so surprisingly, that to study anything in Japan you need to speak some Japanese... and at the time I wasn't even good enough to read the damn eligibility website to find out that my language skills made me ineligible! Learning a second language seemed like a challenge, and I was up for it. I had about 16 months to learn as much of one of the world's most complex languages as possible, and about six to get good enough to qualify for Japan's 文部科学省奨学金, the Monbukagakusho scholarship. It's similar to NSERC - essentially the government pays you a salary to go to school, cover your tuition, and drink beer. However if I learned anything in Japan, it's that nothing in Japan is as easy as it seems. Ever.

The major hitch in my plan to become an incredibly sophisticated foreign-language speaking researcher is that in order to pass the second round of cuts, I would need to do a face-to-face interview with the Japanese consulate IN CALGARY to be eligible for a scholarship to do school where I was already living. A 16 000 km journey to do school 50 km away. I was somehow being penalized for actually living in the place I wanted to study. Skype/phone calls or an interview with the actual Japanese government in Tokyo was not an option... believe me, I checked. Deciding that I didn't want to take holiday time to spend $1200 to fly back to the city I had just escaped to simply increase my chances of making minimum wage, I crossed Japan off the list. Despite the best year of my life, and learning to love teaching, I would leave a year and a half later.

Parksville, Vancouver Island, BC, Canada

Parksville, Vancouver Island, BC, Canada

It's amazing how things can stick with you. After eliminating Japan, I decided to change my selection criteria from a location-based focus, to subject-based. It was not long after, when searching for scientific inspiration and trying to decide on a field of biology to study, I thought back to a time a few years prior. It was one of those perfect B.C. summer days and a few friends and I decided to a stroll along one of the vast beaches in and around Parksville, on Vancouver Island. At some point that afternoon we stumbled upon an older man who looked to be giving a lecture as he was surrounded by a semi-circle of people hanging on his every word. Turns out he was a biologist and he was discussing the marine ecosystem - the flow of nutrients and water, what was eating what, and how human activity was changing things (mostly for the worse, not surprisingly). Although I had been exposed to what he was saying in a first year biology course during my undergrad, it really resonated with me that day because it seemed more visceral. It wasn't being said in front of a PowerPoint presentation - his classroom was literally in among the subject matter. I'm not sure if anyone was as touched by his storytelling as I was but everyone seemed to be enthralled, even if it were only for a minute or two as they passed by.

The four of us (all Environmental Biology grads) would talk late into that night about life, biology, grad school possibilities, and which of our specific interests was more interesting. But that marine biologist sparked something in me that had existed since studying marine and freshwater ecology during my undergrad. Something about the idea of being underwater and not studying insects really got my science juices flowing (Read my blog about studying these topics here). I had been inspired by marine courses in the past, but I was from Calgary and that is not how things were done. But I was living in Japan now, and how do they say it... "The world is your oyster"? Fitting. 

I then did what anybody in my shoes would do - I put the Planet Earth "Shallow Seas" episode in my DVD player, watched it; YouTubed the Great White shark on seal attack a few times, and was set. I was going to study marine biology!

But where to study??