When Your Hustle Chooses You
Written by Bridget Chalifour // Edited by Chelsea DuDeVoire
Growing up in Central Florida, I spent most of my childhood surrounded by theme parks, strip malls, and highways. What little untouched conservation land was nearby slowly but surely became paved over, to make way for yet another development of condominiums or fast food chains. I knew I loved nature and wanted my eventual career path to lead me to the great outdoors; I dreamed of working in pristine habitats and preferably conducting research in grandiose National Parks, like Acadia or Yosemite. This led me to pursue a college degree in Environmental Science, where I expected to take many classes on forestry and wildlife, to focus on learning about towering Redwoods and cuddly animals.
This was not what happened.
During my sophomore year in college, I attended a seminar that focused on sea otters and their ecological impact on the aquatic food web. The professor's presentation included images of otters we’re all familiar with: adorable hand-holding critters floating in the water, the same ones that understandably flood our Facebook newsfeeds with cute, viral videos. I knew this was the research team I wanted to join, and emailed the professor right away expressing my interest. Little did I know, I would spend the foreseeable future dissecting, giving presentations on, and writing a full-length honors thesis about the teeth of Littorina irrorata – not the endearing otter, but the tiny, humble, considerably slimier, periwinkle snail.
As it turned out, this professor was embarking on a new project: how rising temperatures and increased drought impacted snail grazing in a southern Georgia salt marsh system. Working under her as a research assistant, I was to take over many of the technical aspects of the experiment. The chance to become so involved in research as an undergraduate was too phenomenal to refuse, so I set aside my dreams of working with otters and embraced the unobtrusive snail. This was not a glamorous job; essentially, I dissolved the collected snail bodies in bleach, removed their grazing apparatus from their bodies using fine tweezers, mounted them onto carbon coated stubs, and then carefully measured multiple aspects of their morphology. Really cute, right?
I never expected to find such passion dissecting and measuring snail radula (basically, a tongue-like ribbon of teeth used as a grazing mechanism to farm fungus.) There is seemingly nothing special about these animals. They’re abundant, ordinary, and simple. Through my research, I began to piece together that these seemingly insignificant creatures were highly adaptable, resilient, top-down controllers of the salt marsh food chain. This research was about so much more than the meek little specimens; it indicated alterations in entire habitats and ecosystem structure that could result due to climate change. It became incredibly meaningful to me - so much so that I’d talk my friends’ ears off about why I’d come home from the lab smelling like a wonderful mix of saltwater and bleach.
My position provided an excellent reference for an internship at a wildlife refuge in Maine. Despite applying for every single internship I could find, I was selected to join the team as a salt marsh technician. While I still wasn’t sold on spending every day in the muck and grime of the marsh, the opportunity, again, was too good to pass up. In Maine, I learned to love the salt marsh. I loved pulling up my chest waders and jumping into a waist-high pool of murky water to sample the fish and crustaceans living there, to dig out the most pungent smelling soil cores, to learn the scientific names of every plant species present. The salt marsh is an ever-changing, ever-adapting system, always filled with cycles of life and death. It provides essential ecosystem services to the human population, from filtering water, to storing carbon, to protecting us from storm surges and erosion. Famed conservationist and my personal idol, Rachel Carson, said it best, “To stand at the edge of the sea, to sense the ebb and flow of the tides, to feel the breath of a mist moving over a great salt marsh… is to have knowledge of things that are nearly eternal as any earthly life can be.”
There are more than enough people in the world who want to stick to the cute and cuddly parts of our planet: the pandas, the big cats, the sea otters. In any field of study, or any line of work, there are the preferable paths to take - the popular ones, the glamorous ones, the safe ones. I encourage you to try the dirty jobs. They could lead you to incredible feats, open doors for you for new opportunities, and ultimately alter the course of your life. I can say with certainty that if I hadn’t learned to love snails, I would never have been accepted to my PhD program.
In my experience, I felt like my hustle chose me. I do not, however, think that is a bad thing. There’s something so empowering about actively letting go and giving up control. It’s not complacent or apathetic – it’s accepting that sometimes what you are meant to do can choose you, and that’s totally fine.
Rest assured that I haven’t given up my goals of one day working in governmental conservation. I’m just taking a smelly, mucky, salty path to get there.
Bridget graduated from the University of Florida with a B.S. in Environmental Science, and an unofficial degree in knitting and watching Netflix simultaneously. She begins studying for her PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder in August. In the meantime, she's keeping busy hiking, reading Darwin, and petting stranger's dogs.