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An Interview with Dr. Jenna Judge, Marine Biologist

by Talya Klinger, MSS Intern

Driftwood is a common sight on beaches, but what happens to driftwood when it sinks to the seafloor? Dr. Jenna Judge, a recent doctoral graduate of UC Berkeley’s Department of Integrative Biology, researches evolution and ecology in deep-sea habitats, such as driftwood, as well as hydrothermal vents and sunken whale bones. Her research shows that these unusual substrates host diverse, lively communities shaped by the wood they inhabit. Attend her research presentation at Terra Linda High School, Room 207, from 7:30-8:30 pm on September 9th.

In Dr. Judge’s words:

1.   Why did you decide to become a marine biologist in the first place?

Well, I grew up in the mountains, but I was always interested in nature and science. I also loved the beach when my family would go on camping trips to the coast. However, I really decided to pursue marine biology in high school after learning about extreme deep-sea environments and the strange animals that live there from my AP Biology teacher. From there, I looked for colleges that offered a marine biology major for undergraduates and went to UC Santa Barbara. My interests in the ocean and the deep sea in particular were reinforced with each class I took and especially the semester abroad I spent in Australia doing a marine biology program. At the time, the obvious next step for me to take was to apply to graduate school to pursue a career as a marine biologist. While this route has served me well, I usually advise college students to take some time after graduation to explore options before jumping into graduate school. It is a big decision, and it’s important to have a strong sense of yourself and what you want to get out of an advanced program before choosing a program and an adviser.

2.  How did you decide to research driftwood?

I ended up studying sunken wood as a habitat for deep-sea animals after learning that the communities on wood are similar to other deep-sea ecosystems I was initially interested in, but had been much less studied. These ecosystems were hydrothermal vents (basically deep-sea volcanoes), cold seeps, and whale falls, which I’ll explain more about in my talk. Due to a series of conversations with scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, I was given the opportunity to test whether the kind of wood matters in shaping animal communities by sinking a bunch of wood at about 2 miles deep and waiting 2 years to see what happened. You’ll see what happened during my talk.

3.   How does your work on communities that form around driftwood relate to other ecosystems?

The experiment I did on sunken wood showed that, like forests and other terrestrial (land) ecosystems, the immediate habitat can act as a filter that shapes the community that colonizes that habitat. This means that the ocean isn’t just a big bathtub with a soup of organisms floating or swimming through it, but that even on small scales, the complexity of a habitat can significantly affect who decides to settle down there. I see all ecosystems as a connected web across the Earth, and I am especially interested in links between the land and the ocean, like wood, but also how the increase in artificial materials like plastic is affecting marine ecosystems.

4.  What advice do you have for high school students who aspire to be biologists?

Follow your curiosity! Ask questions and read about what interests you to keep learning and following your interests. Reach out to people who are doing things you find interesting. Scientists are always happy to hear from people who appreciate what they are doing, and it will help you learn more about what it might be like to pursue certain career paths. And once you have some ideas, research colleges that will support that passion and allow you to fully explore and develop your passion. You might find that the best program for you isn’t at the “top” university in the state or the country. For me, I was only looking at CA schools, and I was really excited about marine biology. So, I focused on applying to schools that had specific aquatic or marine biology majors like UCSB and UCSC, but I did not bother applying to UC Berkeley or UCLA even though they rank higher overall. I encourage you to find a good fit for your interests (and of course a good personal fit!) when choosing a college, and if you don’t have a clear idea about what you want to pursue (most people don’t, I was unusually focused), take your time. If you are looking to pursue marine biology in particular, here is a good site that lists all the programs across states:

5.  One final question: do you have a favorite driftwood-dwelling creature?

My favorite wood-dwelling creatures would have to be limpets, since they are what led me to studying sunken wood in the first place. Limpets are snails that have no coil in their shell and a particular group of them are specialized to live in a wide range of deep-sea habitats, including hydrothermal vents, cold seeps, whale falls, and sunken wood. They also  live on empty shark egg cases, crab carapaces, worm tubes, squid beaks, algal holdfasts, and likely other organic substrates that sink to the bottom. 

Join us Wednesday, September 9th, 2015, 7:30 - 8:30 pm at Terra Linda HS, 320 Nova Albion, San Rafael - Room 207 - to hear Dr. Judge talk about her work.  Link to Dr. Judge's Marin Science Seminar profile. 


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