A Path Less Traveled

I am often asked, “How do I get a job like yours?” After fielding this question for six years, I still struggle with the answer. Unlike many of co-workers, I never set out to work here. Even though I grew up visiting the zoo with my grandma and knew early I wanted to work with animals, I never considered working at a zoo. Six years ago, however, a series of serendipitous decisions and a dead rainbow trout changed all that.

Like many new college students, I thought that becoming a veterinarian was about the only path towards a career working with animals. That changed during my first college biology course. I listened as the professor told stories of his research; jumping out of moving boats to catch sea turtles, scuba diving on coral reefs as people dynamite fished nearby, and zipping through swamps catching alligators at night. No offense to my vet friends, but to me that sounded way more exciting than a career fixing Fido. So, I made it a mission to work in this professor’s lab. After a year of polite pestering, he finally caved and immediately I was hooked on this new thing I discovered called “research.”

Catching and tagging alligators was, happily, part of the adventure!

Catching and tagging alligators was, happily, part of the job!

The journey from then to now has been an amazing one that I could have never planned. Each step of the way I found myself doing something enjoyably challenging. I finished out college studying reproduction of fish and alligators. After graduation I worked as a field biologist for a year. I was actually paid to drive airboats, catch alligators and collect their eggs; all things I would’ve done for free! Next, my pursuit of a research career took me to graduate school, a training ground for aspiring scientists.

In grad school, my research interests became a lot more focused: I spent 5 years studying how one hormone makes fish sperm swim faster. Yes, 5 whole years on that. During that time I became fascinated with the proteins hormones interact with to do what they do. These proteins, called receptors, are tiny—nearly 12 billion of them would fit on a pinhead!—but without receptors, hormones are pretty much useless. Like a mechanic learns how parts of a car work together to help it run, I explored how receptors talked to other molecules within sperm to make them swim.

One day towards the end of grad school, when the pressures of finding a job were mounting, my office phone rang. It was a former graduate student from my undergraduate lab. He told me he had taken a job at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research in the Reproductive Physiology Division. He called because one of the last male Sweetwater rainbow trout, a local subspecies, had swum to the big stream in the sky and its sperm was destined for the Institute’s Frozen Zoo. “What’s the best way to freeze it?” he asked. I had no clue…I had never frozen fish sperm before.

After being little to no help, we chatted for a bit and he mentioned he was studying how chemicals in the environment interact with hormone receptors and impair reproduction of endangered species. HELLO! He suggested I should apply for an job in his lab.

So here I am. I have a job I never knew existed and certainly never targeted, but I love it. I enjoy the freedom of asking questions about the natural world and challenging myself to think of the best way to answer them. I’m proud that we are one of few labs studying hormone receptors of endangered species and applying our discoveries to their conservation.

With that story, I tell students who are after my job that there is no one path toward working at a zoo. I didn’t have my eyes on this prize when I took the airboat driving, alligator catching, fish sperm hormone receptor-studying route. But you never know what unforeseen doors studying biology can open. That’s the beauty of this field. So my best advice is to keep an open mind about research opportunities and find passion and interest in doing what you do. With that, you will be well on your way to getting that zoo job. Just please stay away from mine, because I am quite fond of it!

Christopher Tubbs, Ph.D., Scientist, San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

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