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Deep Dive Q&A with Kara Muzia

February 12, 2023

Ocean lover and marine biologist Kara Grace Muzia has done it all… seagrass research, oyster restoration, sea turtle research, and building artificial coral reefs are just a small part of her work. She leads MarineBio.Life, a website packed with useful information and more importantly home to nearly 100 episodes of the So You Want to Be a Marine Biologist podcast. She is also the author of Scuba for Beginners, an e-book written to help people get out and fall in love with the ocean through diving. Today Kara Grace shares her knowledge with us and answers our questions about her career and her future plans. She also shares some great tips for future marine biologists!

How did you get into marine biology in the first place? Can you tell us a bit about your time at the Florida Atlantic University (FAU)?

Well, I really wanted to be a boat captain and sail off into the Caribbean, but my mother was having a heart attack at the idea of me not getting a college degree. When I looked at the majors and the subsequent course lists, nothing else appealed to me. I just wanted to be in or near the ocean and I wanted to do as much as I could to create waves for positive change. A career in marine science seemed like the best way to do this, and getting a degree in marine biology seemed like the logical first step.

I actually transferred to FAU my sophomore year. I went to a different uni for my freshman year, but it never felt right.  When I came to FAU, I wanted to get involved as much as possible. I joined the Sailing Club (which is how I met my husband), got AAUS Scientific Diving certified and opted for a study-for-credit position in Dr. Jeanette Wyneken’s sea turtle lab that I ultimately stayed on and volunteered for a bonus two years. I also took classes at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute for their Semester by the Sea program.

FAU was a wonderful experience for me.

How did you come up with the podcast idea?

Over the years I’ve learned that quite a lot of people have had the dream of becoming a marine scientist at some point in their lives. Whether at work, meeting new people, or even at parties, once people learned that I was a marine biologist there was always this spark of excitement. Either they had wanted to become a marine biologist or they had a niece that’s interested, or a son. And they wanted to know how to do what I did, how I got the jobs I’ve had. I realized that there really wasn’t a good answer out there, and I wanted to remedy that. The “So You Want to Be a Marine Biologist” podcast was born.

And, if you’re reading this and looking for the answer on how to become a marine biologist, the answer is: there is no checklist to follow, no perfect blueprint. Everyone has their own unique path in life, marine scientists included. Even folks who have the same job at the same company have vastly different stories of how they got there. It’s up to you to create your own path.

Your career has been super interesting, what have been some of your favorite moments? What are your research interests? What have been some of your biggest challenges?

When I was doing sea turtle nesting surveys, there were three things about the job that I absolutely loved. The first was getting to watch the sunrise on the beach every morning. There’s something so magical about the first rays of light on a new day. 

The second thing I adored was seeing sea turtles. Doing nesting surveys, we’re more like trackers. You’re learning to tell the story of which type of turtle came to nest by their tracks and what she did while onshore (Did she nest? Did she make a hole and leave?) Similarly, you’re looking for tracks around the nest to tell a story of (ideally) hatching babies, but sometimes it’s the story of ghost crabs or raccoons predating the nest. When I actually get to see a nesting mother or babies scurrying to the water, it’s always a special treat.

The third thing I loved was talking to people about the ocean and getting people excited. I got to do this in all of my jobs, and it’s always one of my favorite parts.

As far as research interests, I’m pretty conservation minded. I think we can learn a lot from observing and working with Nature, instead of battling against her. Education is some of the most powerful medicine we can give to people to help heal our planet right now, and sometimes it can be difficult to get the word out. 

Everything and everyone seems to want a bit of our time and attention, and it’s certainly a challenge to engage with people when their attention is constantly pulled in a million different directions.

What would you say to students that are thinking about becoming marine biologists?

Go for it! Get as much experience as you possibly can. Volunteer, get an internship. Even if you live inland, there’s probably a zoo, aquarium, nature center, even a park that you can volunteer at. Learn as much as you can, make connections. You never know what may prove useful later. Learning what you don’t like is nearly as valuable as learning what you do like, and you won’t know either until you get your feet wet.

And once in the program, what are your top recommendations? If you were a marine biology student books again today, what would you be doing to stand out?

Again, get experience. Before you go to any university, find a program, project, or professor that interests you and reach out. Can you work in their lab? Can you help with their project?

I would also hone skills that are not necessarily “marine science” related, but are super beneficial. Writing is certainly one of them. Good writing skills will not only help you land jobs, but if you can help bring in grants or write reports, these are skills that will help you keep jobs.

Another example would be boat and/or mechanical skills. If you want to do field work, there is a high probability that you’ll work on something with a motor. If you can fix things when they break, do routine maintenance, these are super valuable skills. Similarly with IT. If you’re good with a computer, can you get an extra certificate or take a couple extra classes to hone those skills? Having an in-house IT person AND marine scientist is very valuable, especially as everything continues to become digitized.

Also drone work in the field is becoming increasingly popular and most places, in the US at least, require a license to fly a drone. Having a drone license and/or your own drone may be a good way to set you apart from other applicants.

The news constantly reports about the impact pollution and climate change have on the world’s oceans disappointed Have you had a chance to see this first hand?

I have. I live on the coast. We have water quality issues that stem from pollution here. It affects our rivers, reefs, and it’s heartbreaking to witness, even as we do what we can.

I also see a LOT of plastic pollution. We have a stretch of beach here that’s a park- no houses, condos, hotels- nada. But I’ve found untold amounts of trash along this beach. Random things like dozens of toothpaste tubes, plastic wrappers from different countries. It’s been a huge driver in my choices to reduce my own plastic consumption.

The World Economic Forum is meeting in Davos right now. If you were a speaker there with the world leaders listening to you, what message would you share?

Some of the most important work that we can do right now is the simplest. Get outside and connect with the natural world around you. I’m a firm believer that you protect what you love, and I want everyone to fall in love with our Blue Planet and do all they can to work with and protect her. Our current world leaders suffer from the same thing many of us do: a disconnect from the natural world. Reconnecting, rediscovering Nature is some of the most important work we can do.

Do you have any funny career stories to share?

Of  course! I’ve told this one on the show before, but it makes me laugh every time I tell it.

I was out doing field work in Biscayne Bay in Miami, and we pulled up to one of the sites we needed to survey. Hurricane Irma had gone through recently, and the water was like chocolate milk- almost no visibility. 

We anchored the boat, and I’m getting my fins on to get in the water and my boss goes, “You know, we caught a ten foot (3m) crocodile here once while trawling. Couldn’t believe it! Nearly broke the net. I’ve got a photo to prove it, too. Well, anyway, time to get in!”

Needless to say, I was on high alert during that particular dive. I also requested he save such tales for AFTER we left the site (and yes, it is a true story- I did see the photos).

What are your plans for the future?

I have so many! Right now, I want to inspire as many people as possible to step into their roles as stewards. Stewards of their own lives, stewards of the ocean. People can get lost in the day to day and the doom and gloom messaging, but there is so much hope and so much that we can control. I want to spread that message so that people recognize how powerful they really are.