Last month, we shared with you one early career researcher’s story of inspiration. His amazing story was submitted as part of our #becauseofyou campaign, which celebrates the work being carried out every day by researchers, authors, editors and reviewers. In the second of these features, marine mammal researcher Christiana Wittmaack discusses the driving forces behind her passion.
Christiana Wittmaack: #becauseofyou Story
Being a marine mammal researcher is not easy. Long hours of research, internships, volunteer work, and years of higher education loomed before me as I made the decision to work with marine mammals. Of course, I was only three years old when I made that decision. I am the typical cliché, the person who has always wanted to work with marine mammals. When asked why I never changed my mind, my reply has always been that I am just too stubborn to do so. As a child, I delved into every book and documentary I could find on the subject. My passion led to terrible bullying by my classmates that became so severe I was pulled out of traditional school and placed in home school for my own protection. There, my instructors encouraged me and incorporated marine mammal science (involving actual animals) into my curriculum. Of course, hardship was still just around the corner.
During my M.S., my major advisor, Dr. Edward Keith, tragically passed away. He had been inspirational to me through his wealth of knowledge and his easy, approachable nature. Students were his number one priority and he instilled in them a hard work ethic within the field. After his death, I found myself taking care of my mother, who had been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer that carried only a 16% chance of survival. During that time, I was pulling a full-time research and academic load. People in the field were telling me to just give up, but I remembered the last thing Dr. Keith said to me before he died: “Nothing can or will ever stop you, because you just keep going." I took that to heart and persevered. I also listened to my mother, who insisted that she had not spent her life raising a child obsessed with the marine mammal sciences to die before seeing her become a successful marine mammal researcher.
I started writing my M.S. thesis in a nuclear medicine waiting room and, ironically, I finished writing it there a year later. Little did I know that my mother would beat all odds and astound her physicians by going into and staying in remission. Even untreated tumors would vanish!
Once I had obtained my degree, my passion for science burned brighter than ever. I knocked on every door and arrived at a very unique place (marine mammal toxicology). My mother insisted on picking up her life and moving across the country with me to help both financially and domestically during my Ph.D. program. I am now preparing to investigate the effects of toxicants on cetaceans. My drive, my passion for marine mammals is enhanced every day as I learn, discover, and embark on a lifelong adventure that will, hopefully, have a lasting impact.
I never do anything the easy or traditional way. I expect to encounter more hardships along the way. I also expect my career to be anything but ordinary. When I am old and look back on my life as a marine mammal researcher, I am confident that I will say, “It was hard, it was extraordinary, and it was an awesome ride.” Then I will go out into the field for more research, because nothing ever stops me.
Christiana Wittmaack is a marine mammal researcher and PhD candidate at Texas Tech University.