Jasmin Groß is a 33-year-old german postdoctorate research fellow. She works on humpback whale ecology at the Helmholtz Institut for Functional Marine Biodiversity, in Oldenburg, Germany.
Jasmin’s education took her around the world
I completed my studies at seven different universities all around the world. I did a gap year in the USA after high school to study biology at New York State University. Although I initially wanted to study medicine, my grades were not good enough to get a uni spot in medicine. I am not one of those who always knew they wanted to become a marine biologist. But I always loved the ocean. So I decided to study marine biology instead of medicine.
A BSc in Australia, Florida, and Scotland
I wanted to travel away from Europe. Australia intrigued me the most, so I applied there and got into James Cook University (JCU) in Townsville. JCU didn’t offer much in the marine mammal field, so I applied for semesters abroad.
I got scholarships to complete two semesters. One was at the University of Miami in the USA, and one at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. I was lucky to take three graduate classes from the Masters of Professional Science Marine Mammal in Miami. Class sizes were 3-20 students, and I got a ton of hands-on and fieldwork experience with marine mammals. At the University of St Andrews, I also took classes at the Sea Mammal Research Unit and learned about quantitative behavioral studies and the interactions between humans and marine mammals.
An MSc in Germany
After completing my BSc, I got accepted into the Marine Biology MSc program at the University of Bremen in Germany. Classes are in English and the program only accepts 20 students per year. The small class sizes really improved my learning. The University of Bremen is affiliated with the Alfred Wegner Institute for Polar and Marine Research (AWI). It gave me a chance to meet a lot of different researchers.
I chose Bremen because they offered to do half of the program at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. So I applied for a Fulbright scholarship, got accepted, and contacted local marine mammal researchers. I nearly had the opportunity to do my MSc thesis on humpback whale diets, almost a dream come true. Sadly the funding for the project fell through, so I changed topics. My MSc thesis was part of a big ecosystem study examining the distribution of two crab species in the Chuckchi Sea. I completed my thesis in one semester.
Back to Australia: PhD life
After completing my MSc, I had to look for a PhD project for two years before getting accepted at Griffith University (Australia). My PhD focused on humpback whale diets from a climate change perspective with Dr. Susan Bengtson Nash. This was a dream come true for me. I learned a ton, and grew as a scientist and person. I also had a lot of freedom to experience workshops, conferences, and STEM education initiatives.
What is Jasmin up to today?
I’m currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the Helmholtz Institut for Functional Marine Biodiversity. It’s a fairly young institute (established in 2017). The institute is a research collaboration between the AWI and the University of Oldenburg in Germany. The work atmosphere is very collaborative, interdisciplinary, and international.
I was hired as part of a postdoc pool. I started together with five other postdocs working together under a common theme, but each of us work on our project. This setup is meant to foster collaboration and co-publishing among early career researchers. It encourages interdisciplinary research and also aids with mental health through the cohort. We all work under the same theme; “Biodiversity of Anthropocene Oceans: Networks, Flows, and Systems Approaches for Boundary Crossing Research.” I study the flow of carbon through different trophic levels in the Southern Ocean. I also try to understand how baleen whales impact carbon flows as “climate engineers.”
What is postdoc life like in Germany?
Compared to my PhD, there is even more freedom in pursuing research interests. The resources provided in Germany for researchers are also better compared to Australia. I have access to workshops, seminars, and programs from two universities and two research institutes. Overall, it offers more events than I could ever participate in.
In addition, the AWI provides career, engagement, and training advice. Many resources are available for research stays at other institutions in Germany and overseas. The only disadvantage I see now is that I am on a fixed-term contract. It does not provide job security after my fellowship is over. Additionally, my current project does not involve fieldwork, so I definitely miss Australia when the humpback season starts.
What does a typical day look like for you?
As with most scientists, there is no typical day, but I usually try to start work early (7-8 am) to have more time in the afternoon. Usually, I check emails first, answer urgent ones, and add urgent tasks to my to-do list for the day. I tend to have a to-do list ready for the day to know what I want to try/have to get done during the day.
On top of this, there are multiple tasks I need to prepare for: meetings or workshops, lab or computer projects, teaching, trip planning for conferences, organizing permits for fieldwork, transporting samples, or participating in outreach activities like teaching in schools or giving a talk somewhere. Any one of these can be part of a typical day.
But no day is the same, which is what I really like about being a scientist. Discussing ideas and science with colleagues is definitely my favorite part of the job. Although being in the field with whales and dolphins or other marine mammals is also one of the top spots.
Did you do any internships during your studies?
I completed one marine education and outreach internship and two bigger research projects — my MSc thesis and my PhD thesis. James Cook University set up a lot of their assessments as research projects that include field data collection, laboratory work, and write-up of the results in publication format afterward. This gave me a strong writing background.
I found the outreach internship through an internet search, applied at the right time, and got it after an interview. The internship was at a small organization in Ireland called “Marine Dimensions.” It was three months long and taught me quite a bit about developing educational material and social media engagement.
The internship was a good experience: I traveled all over Ireland, educating kids about marine life around the country. I also learned more about animal husbandry. We used to take starfish, hermit crabs, etc., to all visits so we could teach the kids about marine life. I also learned more about building and running a marine education business, social media engagement, and the development of educational material.
Jasmin’s tips to aspiring whale scientists
Travel if you can
My advice will be to move around a bit if you get the chance to. The connections I have made at the different universities I attended have helped me more than once. It also showed me how small the world of marine mammal research is: you’ll likely interact with the same people repeatedly. This is great as it makes it easy to work together with friends or have your friends introduce you to someone they know who you might like to work with.
Read as much as possible
Another piece of advice is to read the literature carefully and search for those unanswered questions. It will help you develop ideas in the area that interests you. This is important as it is always better to approach potential supervisors or collaborators with an idea in mind rather than simply asking if they have a project that you could work on. It shows initiative and will give you a focus while reading literature which is vast and overwhelming.
If you want to pursue a PhD
My MSc thesis sparked my passion for research and encouraged me to pursue a PhD. Without my MSc thesis, I also wouldn’t have gotten my PhD. Nowadays, having a publication is a must to obtain PhD scholarships. If you are interested in a PhD, you should keep your options flexible by pursuing a master of research rather than a master of coursework.
What does the future hold for you? What do you wish to accomplish?
That is a great question, and I am honestly not sure yet. So far, I really enjoy the academic life of doing research and getting to answer questions that intrigue me, but I also really enjoy STEM education and policy work. I would love to explore working for intergovernmental bodies like the EU or UN, to see what more applied research is like, but for now, I’m enjoying the work that I’m doing. You’ll have to stay tuned for what comes next 🙂
Humpback calves and hammer sharks: One perfect day at sea
One day, we had a perfect day on the water: It was a sunny, calm day. I was out on the boat with one of my colleagues and two volunteers. After only a few minutes of starting to search for whales, we encountered a humpback whale mum and yearling pair. Both were really interested in the boat constantly swimming around us, surfacing very close, and spy hopping.
After a while, the yearling surfaced belly up next to us, which I had never seen before. It was like a white shadow coming up from the deep, getting bigger and bigger until the whale was at the surface and turned around to breathe.
We got biopsy samples of both whales and then moved on, only to encounter another single humpback whale minutes later that was constantly flipper slapping next to us, swimming very slowly next to the boat. After getting a biopsy of that whale, we also encountered a couple of hammerhead sharks swimming at the surface, a few sea turtles, and of course, more whales.
One mum, calf, and escort group was also really interested in the boat and stuck around for a while, with the calf breaching often. I had never experienced such a fun day on the water with every single whale not being evasive but rather interested in the boat or us 😉
If you liked this story, make sure to check our other stories here!