Author: Jillian Daly, NC Coastal Reserve Communications Specialist
I sat down with Byron Toothman, a North Carolina Coastal Reserve and National Estuarine Research Reserve Research (NCNERR) Biologist, to discover what being a marine scientist is like. We discussed the sense of awe and wonder he feels people in the Science, Tech, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) field get to share, his advice to aspiring scientists, how he “didn’t know [he] could love a job this much”, and much more!
How long have you been with the Reserve?
It’s coming up on 16 years.
How did you end up in this position?
I graduated with my master's and was fortunate enough to work in a laboratory that focused on water quality. I was able to land a full-time spot there, but after a while, I needed to feel like I was a part of something a little larger. The Coastal Reserve’s office was right down the hall, and I knew some of the staff and got to know more about what they did there. So, when a job opened up there, I was quick to apply. When I was offered a chance to interview, I read everything I could find on the Reserve, and the more I learned about it the more I thought ‘That’s exactly what I want to be doing right now.’ And I’ve been here ever since. I really did not expect to be here this long. I thought I’d be in the job for 4-5 years. I did not know I’d love a job this much.
What does a typical day look like for you?
The typical day is pretty untypical. Sometimes it can be difficult to know what's going to happen from one day to the next. But the bulk of my job is to make sure that the system-wide monitoring program, or SWMP, is running smoothly, and sometimes it seems like it never is. So, it's a little bit of a constant battle. In a nutshell, SWMP is the environmental monitoring that we do here—water quality, weather, biological monitoring, and evaluating vegetation trends. The next largest part of what I do is to encourage researchers to take advantage of the data that we collect and to treat the reserve sites as living laboratories where we can help them perform their research and assist in locating appropriate locations or provide additional resources when possible. I try to encourage people to cite their research where they can take advantage of our monitoring data. That way we can offer a large, relatively comprehensive dataset that is useful across timescales. That way they do not have to spend their hard-earned grant dollars trying to replicate things we've already spent a lot of time and effort to do very well.
What is the best part of your job?
When the weather is pleasant, it’s the fieldwork—especially being out on the water when it is nice and slick. Somedays you go to work out on the water, and you just can’t believe that you get to work in such an incredible environment.
Something else I really enjoy is getting to be a part of some of the research that goes on in the Reserve. So many different and exciting projects are going on at any time. There’s always something more for me to learn. And whenever I am able to assist with someone’s research I often come away with some new understanding or perspective I didn’t have before. That part never gets old.
Do you have a favorite plant or animal to see when you’re out in the field?
Hmm, I have a bunch. I really enjoy seeing the common loon, I just think they're gorgeous. And they have completely different plumage in the wintertime than in the warmer months. They have red eyes, and then the sound that they make, it's so mournful, or soulful, if you ever hear one. I don't hear them often anymore, but in Morehead City when I was growing up on Bogue Sound you would hear a loon on occasion and it just makes this beautiful sound. [Byron proceeds to make a fabulous impression of a loon call]
My favorite estuarine plant is smooth cordgrass. In the springtime, it will have gotten bigger and is a shade of green that is just beautiful. Like when people tell you that Ireland is green, this is the color that I imagine. It's as if a color could feel fresh, that's what it looks like to me.
Tell me about a memorable field experience. It could be the best, the worst, or just memorable.
I don't know. I’ve been pretty lucky. I mean, my worst field days have never been that bad, they’ve just been inconvenient. Let’s see… it is memorable when Heather (a fellow NCNERR research biologist) and I have to chip ice off the boat to go do the fieldwork. There was another time, well nine months of fieldwork really, when the boat ramp at Fort Fisher was being rebuilt, which is the access point for Zeke’s Island Reserve, and we had to walk all of our equipment
along the Hermit’s Trail at Fort Fisher to the bird watching platform, which is kind of near our station. That was how we changed our instruments. And the water is not deep, so we had to wear waders. The bottom is deep though. It’s mucky. You’re already in knee-deep water, and then you sink another two feet in muck trying to walk out there. You need to have two people with you in case you get stuck and need to get help or rescue.
I think one of my favorite memories was when Heather and I were trying to repair the telemetry for one of the water quality stations (that’s the part of the station that transmits the data to a satellite from which it can be sent back to Earth and be posted online). It was when COVID was first hitting and we had to get a lot accomplished in a hurry because things were shutting down. We were out LATE. The sun was setting and by the time we got back to the dock it was getting dark, sort of twilight. We were waiting for the boat to finish coming up on the lift which moves very slowly, and I was thinking about the work we did, I don’t even remember if it was a success or a failure now. I was just looking at the water (and I took some photographs of the scenery that evening), and the water was perfectly still. You could see all the background lights and houses reflected in the water, and even some of the stars and planets in conjunction at that time. It was among the prettiest evenings I have in memory.
What do you want people to know about SWMP?
I want people to piggyback on what we’re doing. I want people to ask me about it. I visit our SWMP sites at least once a month and often more, maybe I can help you.
If you’re a researcher and you’re going to go collect data in the Sound, it would be useful to know the character of the site. The SWMP data does a great job of this and is available for free. For example, you could take a handful of readings for salinity and dissolved oxygen during multiple trips in the field, however, we’ve got 20 years of continuous data on that - collected every 15 minutes! From that, you can tell during a given day that this site’s temperature can fluctuate more compared to a site over there, something that would have been missed with a weekly or even once-daily measurement. With this, you can really begin to understand what conditions are like at that site during a day, a season, or across years.
People are using the data all the time, but it could always be used by more! Tell me what you want to find or what you’re looking for. For example, if you’re looking for data from storm events or droughts, I might be able to accelerate this hunt for data. I have a pretty big catalog of events in my head after doing this since 2008! If you have questions about what you’re seeing I might be able to help.
What advice do you have for someone wanting to pursue a career in STEM?
I really appreciated the path that I took because I took time between both degrees to work a little bit in my field and decide ‘Do I like doing this?’, or what do I like and don't like about it, and then I would course correct. Some people will make a seamless transition between high school, Bachelors, Masters, and Ph.D.. But sometimes people can benefit from that additional perspective that they get from doing the work. I didn't realize how beneficial that would be for me until after I actually did it. It wasn't something I was doing on purpose, but each level that I have worked at has been different in some ways from the previous. When I decided to go back to school for my master’s, I didn't know exactly what I wanted to study, but I did know I wanted to be driven more by curiosity rather than predetermined work-related objectives. That wasn’t without its own problems. Looking back, I should have paid more attention to the job field so I could pick up additional marketable skills. Also, I would have tried to get a better sense of what’s going to happen in the future in terms of the science job market.
However, since I went to school more for my natural curiosity, I was really passionate about what I was learning, so I think that helped me. Some smarter people may just be able to soak it all up and decide whether they are truly interested or not, and I'm not one of those people. I think you have to love STEM. The STEM fields are fantastic, I think that field produces things that make you proud of humanity. I feel a sense of awe at human accomplishments when investigating the STEM field. Every day I learn something new and it's not just the thing that I learn that is amazing, it's the thinking of it. Some other human being somewhere put together this whole research project and is completely passionate about this one thing. This is the result of all of their effort and everything that led them to where they are, and it might not always help humanity, but sometimes it does, and I'm constantly amazed by that stuff. I think people in STEM fields get to share in that sense of awe and wonder.
If you’d like to learn more about Byron and other staff at the NC Coastal Reserve, keep an eye out on our Tidal Flat blog and social media: Instagram, FB, and Twitter.