Animals, Greater Cleveland Aquarium, Northeast Ohio, STEM Career Series, STEM Careers

STEM Careers Interview Series: Greater Cleveland Aquarium Aquarist Laura B

Laura B feeding a stingray. Photo credit: Greater Cleveland Aquarium
Laura B feeding a stingray. Photo courtesy: Greater Cleveland Aquarium

Happy Shark Week!

I am so excited to share with you an interview with a local Cleveland STEM girl, Laura B. in my STEM Careers Interview Series!  Laura is an Aquarist at the Greater Cleveland Aquarium.  

As an Aquarist at the aquarium, Laura cares for many of the aquatic animals!  An aquarist serves a very important role in the care for the aquatic species (sharks included!) at an aquarium, such as feeding the animals, performing health checks on animals, and monitoring the overall health of the aquarium exhibits.  Laura plays a role in designing some of the exhibits at the Greater Cleveland Aquarium as well!  She has a very interesting background and path that led her into the STEM careers which I am so excited to share!

MTF: In your own words, how would you describe the job of an Aquarist to a child?

Laura B:  I would say that I’m a zookeeper, but I work mainly with aquatic animals like sharks and stingrays!

MTF:  What roles / job titles have you had in your profession and how would you describe them?

Laura B:  My first title was ‘Husbandry Intern’. I worked closely with an Aquarist named Paige, and learned the daily routine for the job. Paige was our quarantine Aquarist at the time, so I was able to learn about aquatic treatments and diseases in animals, which I found really interesting. I was able to apply my Physiology minor that I obtained during my first degree in Dance Education, which was cool. I also learned about filtration and how it works, the water cycle and basic chemistry behind aquarium care, as well as how to maintain exhibits to make them look nice.

Laura B water quality testing. Photo courtesy: Greater Cleveland Aquarium

As an intern, I was hired as a part time Life Support Systems Technician (LSS), where I worked third shift from midnight to 8am. In this position I worked completely solo and in the dark with the exception of a red-light flashlight. Overnight I ran all the water quality chemistry for the exhibits, as well as basic maintenance of the filtration behind the scenes. This position really helped me gain self-confidence because it challenged me to problem solve on my own. 

After a year on third shift, I was able to move up to second shift (from 4pm-midnight), where I had a little more responsibility with cleaning exhibits with the lights on for a few hours, but I still spent the majority in the dark. The basic job function was still the same but I was given a few small projects like testing dissolved oxygen levels in the water and more water chemistry testing.

I spent almost a year at second shift, and then I was then promoted to a full time Aquarist! 

MTF:  What are your favorite animals to work with at the Greater Cleveland Aquarium and why?

Laura B: I love the stingrays! They have friendly personalities, they often remind me of puppies. While we try actively to not disturb our animals in the shark exhibit by touching them, the stingrays make it hard. They swim up and around divers and I always find it pretty cute when they bump into you, just like they’re saying hello.

The sharks are also pretty fascinating. I really enjoy being able to dive with them and being able to educate guests on why they shouldn’t be afraid of sharks, as well as why shark conservation is important.

MTF:  In your opinion, what are the most important attributes or characteristics that an Aquarist must have to be successful?

Laura B:  I would say that teamwork, patience, creativity, and a desire to learn would be the most important characteristics. While we do have our assigned exhibits that we take care of and we do generally work alone, in the long run we are one team and learning to work solo for the benefit of a larger group and the benefit of all the animals is essential.

When working with any animals, patience is key. They don’t always do what we want or expect them to, which can get frustrating. We do also have things that go wrong on the filter side fairly often. Remaining patient is key! Getting stressed out and frustrated won’t make the situation better, working through the issues and keeping a level head will save a lot of time in the long run.

Personally the creative side of this job is my favorite. From designing exhibits to changing layouts of the filtration, having that creative mindset really helps. Again, sometimes the animals don’t do what we want them to do, and we have to think creatively to get them to do things.

Laura B working on theme for an exhibit. Photo courtesy: Greater Cleveland Aquarium

The ideas and practices behind caring for animals is always evolving and getting better. Continuing to ask questions, learn from mistakes, and being open to new ideas and different practices is essential to succeeding in this field. 

MTF:  When and how did you become interested in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields?  Do you have a specific memory or event that happened in your life that helped you choose your career path?

Laura B:  I think I was always interested in the STEM fields but I didn’t really recognize that they were fields I could actually go into until I was older. I grew up on a farm in a small town where my mother raced horses, and I have so many wonderful memories of cracking open river rocks at our barn to see if I could find fossils inside, as well as fishing in the river that ran behind the farm and catching crayfish with my brother. I loved being outside by the water and I loved taking care of our animals, but it wasn’t until I was older that I realized I could combine animal care and my love for aquatics into an actual career!

MTF:  Growing up, what were your favorite subjects and why? 

Laura B:  I really enjoyed Biology and Environmental Science. I love to learn how things work and being able to connect different ideas, so the natural sciences came easy to me. I’m also a very hands-on learner and my Biology classes allowed me to easily visualize what I was learning. I remember being amazed by dissection. Seeing things close-up really helped me do well in those classes.

MTF:  What did you study in college and how / why did you choose it/them? 

Laura B:  After graduating high school I was unsure of what I wanted to do for a career.   I was a competitive dancer growing up and loved it, so I decided I would get a degree in dance. I graduated from Ohio State with a degree in Dance Education and a minor in Physiology. 

After a few years of teaching dance, I felt like I wasn’t really making a difference in the world so I decided to go back to school for a degree in Environmental Science, and a minor in Psychology. It was the best choice I could have made.  I felt like it was where I was supposed to be all along. I was able to focus on the subjects that I love – Biology, Wildlife Conservation, and Ecology. I wanted a career where I felt I could do some good in the world. I was so excited about school and ended up graduating with honors at Notre Dame.

MTF:  What were your college / university experiences like as a student?  

Laura B:  Looking back, I was not passionate about my Dance Education degree or the classes that I took.  Later, when I returned to school for Environmental Science, I knew I had found my passion because I was so excited about my classes and my study/discussion groups.  I branched out even further for volunteer opportunities and worked with the sewer district studying bug populations in local creeks. I made many wonderful friends with my same interests and became close with my advisor and professors who I still keep in contact with.

MTF:  Do you feel that your studies and experiences in college are helpful to you in your career now?  How or why?  What were most beneficial to you?

Laura B: Absolutely!  Although I did not continue to use my Dance Education degree and I don’t teach dance anymore, I was still able to learn and grow from those experiences. My time at Ohio State taught me teamwork, time management, and how to work through stressful situations. I am lucky that I am also able to apply those to my career now.  Time management is really important and is the most beneficial skill I’ve learned.  I am an excellent multi-tasker and don’t usually get stressed out. 

At Notre Dame I learned much more from the classes that I took since I was passionate about them, but also that making friends and being social is also important. Building those connections helps down the road and being connected to others makes you much happier. I have found that my Environmental Chemistry class and Animal Science class have been crucial to my career, and I find myself often thinking back to the topics I learned in both those classes.

MTF:  What has been the most rewarding part of your STEM career?

Laura B: I feel like I’m actually making a difference in the world. I’m deeply passionate about aquatic life and love being able to educate guests. I’ve also been fortunate to work in conservation with our Spotted Turtle project.  In this project, we tag and track endangered spotted turtles in the wild. It’s hard and messy work but I feel a sense of pride and fulfillment, which is what I was missing when I was teaching dance.

MTF:  What has been the most challenging part of your STEM career?

Laura B: Going back to school, balancing a full time job, and full time classes after already spending four miserable years in college was hard.  Being a woman in a science field isn’t always easy either. I felt like I needed to prove myself in school since I was one of very few women, even though I was just as capable as my male classmates. I’m lucky to be in a very healthy workplace here at the Aquarium, but there have been instances with guests where I have felt talked down to simply because I’m a woman. Being confident in myself and my knowledge doesn’t always come easy, but it’s crucial.

MTF:  Do you have fun, exciting or even embarrassing memories or story from your STEM career that you would be willing to share?

Laura B:  To be hired as an aquarist here at the Aquarium you have to be a certified SCUBA diver. While I was certified before starting work here, I was a terrible diver with very little experience. The first time I had to dive in the shark exhibit was embarrassing for me personally because I was afraid of getting water in my mask. I’m sure guests watched me panic under water for a few hours, thinking I was afraid of the sharks!

Laura B diving. Photo courtesy: Greater Cleveland Aquarium

MTF:  What would your advice be to parents and / or educators to help children build confidence and interest in the STEM fields?  

Laura B:  For parents I would say to encourage what your kids are interested in, even if it seems mundane. As a child I was interested in geology and my mom bought me a rock tumbler and we tumbled rocks together. She was always the one who would take me fishing and bait my line and help me reel them in. She would educate herself about whatever it was, be it rocks or fish, so she could learn with me and help me along the way.

For educators I would say to be aware of the learning styles of your students. For me, hands on learning and field work really shaped my interests and retention in subjects. Sometimes in the STEM fields those real life examples and experiences are essential.

MTF:  What advice do you have for children that are interested in becoming an Aquarist?  

Laura B:  I would tell them to get a fish tank! A lot of Aquarists started as hobby fish keepers, myself included. I still have a big fish tank and an axolotl at home! Learning the basics behind animal husbandry and basic aquarium components has really helped me a great deal. 

I would also tell them to ask their parents to get them SCUBA certified or a junior certification. Initially, I was a terrible diver when I became certified. I was very anxious underwater.  However, seeing underwater ecosystems is incredible. It’s also a really cool hobby parents can join in on too!

Lastly I would tell them that school is important, but volunteer work is more important. It’s an absolute must to have internships and volunteer work to be able to get in to this field, and the internships are competitive. Volunteer work offers you an advantage to get those internships. Many facilities offer junior educational camps, and many places are always looking for volunteers. It will also let you figure out if this really is something you’d like to do, or if maybe you want to go a different path.

Laura B caring for a catfish. Photo courtesy: Greater Cleveland Aquarium

MTF: If you could give advice to your younger self, based on your career journey so far, what would it be?

Laura B:  I would tell myself simply that “it’s okay”. It’s okay to not know what you want to do for the rest of your life when you’re young, and it’s okay to change your mind, as long as you have a back-up plan.  I felt a lack of purpose with my other career choice, and I don’t know how I would have dealt with feeling stuck and feeling that way forever.  I would also tell myself, “you are capable” and to “be confident”.  Math and chemistry were not my strong subjects in school. So in high school, I felt like my career options were limited.  I chose a career that came easy to me, which was dance.  I know now that it is possible to do well in subjects that are not easy.  With a few long nights of studying, asking questions / help, and taking breaks when I felt overwhelmed, I ended up passing my classes with honors and my actual degree is a Bachelors of Chemistry.  With confidence and desire, you can do great!

I am so grateful to Laura and the Greater Cleveland Aquarium for allowing me to interview her for my STEM Career Interview Series.  I loved learning about Laura’s STEM career path and also being able to get a deeper glimpse into the special work being done at the aquarium! 

Something she said really resonated with me – she was not strong in math and chemistry subjects and therefore, when she was young she felt that she could not choose careers with those subjects.  I have heard stories similar from friends and family my entire life.  For me personally, math and physics were not my strongest subjects and I had to work hard at them and ask for help along the way, just like Laura.  I think Laura’s message is very clear, it is so important to follow your interests and what you are passionate about regardless of what subjects might be challenging along the way!  And I couldn’t agree more! Stay confident and work hard!

I can also relate to Laura’s advice regarding volunteer work and internships.  My co-op experiences were so incredibly valuable during my time in school and once I entered the workforce.

If you are inspired to learn more about the Greater Cleveland Aquarium or catch Laura B in action, be sure to follow the aquarium on Instagram @cleaquarium, on Facebook @cleaquarium, or on Twitter @cleaquarium.

Thank you to Laura for sharing your STEM story and to the Greater Cleveland Aquarium for allowing me to interview one of their shining stars!  I plan to continue to share more STEM stories from STEM professionals across Cleveland and at the Greater Cleveland Aquarium again in my STEM Careers Interview Series! Stay tuned, sign up to follow my blog, and don’t miss out!

If you are inspired to share your STEM story, please reach out to me at mailto:MomgineeringtheFuture@gmail.com.

-Kristen

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