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Careers in Science

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Careers in Science

Wolfgang Vogelbein
Fish Pathologist

How did you choose your present profession?
I think the profession chose me. As a boy my interests and passions were largely focused on the natural world. I had a keen interest in and empathy for, animals of all kinds. I practically lived in the woods and spent day after summer day catching turtles and snakes in the various ponds within range of my bicycle.  I dreamed about being an explorer and seeing the farthest reaches of the world.  As a Boy Scout I was the crazy kid who had moss and lichen collections and fish tanks full of turtles. I had a great interest in rocks and minerals and amassed a large collection of them. I would spend hours looking at crystals with a magnifying glass, marveling at their sheer beauty. In high school I obtained my scuba certification and that started my love affair with the oceans and set the stage for my educational direction in college.  In time, my naïve notions of becoming an explorer merged with the growing realization that scientists are exactly that—explorers.

What were your biggest motivators?
Curiosity about the beauty and workings of the natural world—discovery of the new, creativity of work in the scientific disciplines the realization that with the Ph.D. comes independence and the ability to work on that which most interests you.

Who were/are your greatest mentors/heroes?
In my life I have had perhaps four primary mentors, the first being my father.  He would take me on nature walks on Saturday and Sunday mornings during my childhood and these walks opened my eyes to the natural world.  In his younger days, he also had a great interest in living things and bred fish, birds and dogs. He pushed me to do well in school and supported my chosen career path even though he could not fathom why it should take so long to get on with my studies.  I owe my persistence and hard work in my dogged pursuit of the advanced degrees to his encouragement. 

At the age of 10, we immigrated to the United States from Germany. As I did not speak English, I was forced to repeat the fourth grade. My fourth grade teacher, John A. Hanawalt, was a passionate rock collector and had a major influence on me and ultimately on my career choice. He personally worked with me on my English while his student teacher taught the class. He first introduced me to the milkshake, which did not exist in Germany. He took me with him on many rock-collecting trips throughout New York and New Jersey. He gave me his time, shared with me his passion for rocks and minerals and sparked an ever-growing passion in me for natural history. He opened my eyes to the beauty and possibilities of science.

As an undergraduate at Southampton College working on a degree in marine science, I floundered a bit in the early years, but my then professor and mentor, Edward Coher, introduced me to the secret and fascinating life of parasites.  With his unwavering encouragement and direction, I decided that the start of my career path would be in the pursuit of these interesting animals. His mentorship and advice led me to pursue a master's degree in California with a research focus on the parasites of Antarctic whales.

During my pursuit of the Ph.D. at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Louisiana State University, the famous veterinary parasitologist Thomas Klei had a major influence on the development of my work ethic and philosophical and scientific framework. I admired his work greatly and took much from our discussions in the classroom and over beer. 

These four men stand out as having had a major influence on my growth and development.  Perhaps ordinary men from external appearances, yet I’d seriously consider putting Abraham Lincoln in the same league with them.

Was there a pivotal event in your life that helped you decide on your career path?
Not so sure if there was a single pivotal event…but during my junior year as an undergraduate, I decided that I needed to do an independent research project if I was going to be successful in pursuing advanced studies in the natural sciences.  So with the guidance of Professor Ed Coher, I conducted a small taxonomic and life history study of a parasitic worm in the common mussel.  This work and a study of the scientific literature available on this topic ultimately led me to the Museum of Natural History in New York City to visit with one of the acknowledged forefathers in the field of marine parasitology, Horace Stunkard. At the time he was 85 and still working every day. We became good friends and I visited him often before his death. This undergraduate research experience and ensuing discussions with Drs. Coher and Stunkard, perhaps more than anything else, helped me define my career path.

What has been the biggest surprise in your life as a scientist?
How creative, beautiful, engaging and fun scientific research is. 

What would you recommend for students wanting to pursue a similar career?
Three things: passion, persistence and hard work. Find a subject that you are totally passionate about. This will sustain you during those moments of self-doubt when an experiment fails miserably, when a technique touted by the world authorities does not work the way described, when your mentor looks at you with that look indicating that perhaps he thinks your an idiot. There will be highs and lows… but the highs, when they do occur, will be worth the agony of the inevitable lows, and you will be happy to feel that you are in some small way contributing. 
  
What do you like best about your profession?
Freedom. The freedom to explore that which interests me with minimal interference by others.  That is the beauty of the Ph.D.: as long as you are productive (i.e., teach, publish and bring in the grants), you are pretty much left alone to do what you like to do. In a sense, it’s very entrepreneurial.

What would you say has been your greatest achievement?
Getting here, and playing the game I love at the professional level.

Are you optimistic for the future of the planet and if so why?
This is a difficult question to answer. The planet itself will remain, I think, in one form or another. The question is, how will time and this ever-growing human population change it? We are the enemy. The natural world and the many qualities of the Earth that many of us treasure and that we are dependent on, will continue to be changed. There will be great future losses. The potential for human suffering on a scale never envisioned. We are changing major world systems yet, there are great minds. Men and women of passion and vision at work on efforts to understand what is happening and why working on ways to minimize our long-term negative impacts.  Are the answers out there? I don’t know…will a general understanding and acceptance of the need to act come in time? Will we find the will to implement difficult and costly change in our ever-expanding consumption patterns? I do not know…I do retain hope however. 

What are your greatest fears for the future of the planet?
The ever-growing human population and it’s ravenous need for and use of, finite natural resources…Ignorance, apathy, short-term thinking…a continuing inability to mobilize change on a world-wide scale…Contemplating the future impacts on earth systems as the largest population groups and economies are poised to come on-line and move toward modernization is very very sobering.

What’s the one message you would like the next generation of scientists to hear?
I have no message…these things come from within each and every one of us…follow your own inner voice. Do the best possible work that is in you…keep your passions alive any way you can.

What web sites, books, articles and other lay person references would you recommend for viewers interested in your work featured in Strange Days on Planet Earth?

A good source of layman information on the Chesapeake Bay striped bass mycobacteriosis issue is the Bay Journal, a monthly publication covering environmental and resource issues: www.bayjournal.com (search: mycobacteriosis, striped bass). Off-site Link

Visit Vogelbein's bio page »


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