My Career Path
I hardly followed the "typical" path to marine science. Like most people who end up becoming ecologists, I have always been fascinated by animals. But the ocean and science were not things I was drawn to as a kid. The former probably has a lot to do with growing up very far away from the ocean (Colorado) and a childhood disdain for swimming. The latter likely had a lot to do with a lack of scientist role models. Needless to say, a 10-year-old Matt would be quite surprised to find out that he would one day become a marine scientist, an sea turtle expert no less.
I first became interested in ecology as an undergraduate at Auburn University. After short stops in engineering, microbiology, and veterinary science, I ultimately landed on a major in Zoology in large part due to my growing interest in ecological research. I was fortunate to have an undergraduate advisor who allowed me to follow one of her graduate students to the the Canadian Rocky Mountains and perform an independent study on ground squirrels. I quickly became hooked on conducting scientific research!
Prior to graduation I applied to conservation science internships to gain more applied research experience. On a whim, I applied to work on a sea turtle nesting beach in North Carolina and was lucky enough to land an internship. As it would turn out, this would become my origin story as a marine scientist as it was when I first became captivated by sea turtles and the ocean—I mean, who doesn't love sea turtles?! That summer I learned that despite decades of intensive conservation and management there was still much we did not know about their ecology, particularly during the long periods of their life when they occupy the open ocean.
This led me to another sea turtle internship in Southwest Florida and then ultimately to graduate school at Oregon State University, where I began working towards filling some of the critical knowledge gaps in sea turtle ecology. In graduate school, my research focused on integrating multiple complementary techniques (e.g., skeletal, isotopic, elemental, growth, and population analyses) to better understand the movement, growth, and population dynamics of sea turtles and inform their conservation and management.
During graduate school I developed a deep interest in using naturally occurring chemical markers (e.g., stable isotopes, trace elements) to study animal ecology. This prompted me to pursue postdoctoral research at the University of Rhode Island, where I was introduced to the world of amino acid-specific stable isotope analysis and all its wonders. I also used this opportunity to expand my research program beyond species-specific sea turtles studies to study of the assemblages of marine top predators, and subsequently the dynamics of whole coral reef food webs at the University of Victoria (postdoc #2 in 2022).
As should be obvious, my path to marine science was anything but linear. I have many people to thank for helping me get to where I am today, but particularly those who gave me chances early on in my education to conduct research. I thus advocate strongly for student involvement and training in scientific research as early as feasible, particularly students from groups historically excluded in STEM. As a Hispanic gay man who knows personally the barriers faced by minoritized people in society and who has benefited greatly from national diversity pipeline programs, I actively work to build institutional cultures that allow us to thrive in the workplace and society and be our authentic selves. Learn more about my outreach and DEI efforts here.