Profile: Erin Spencer

This profile was written for my Art of the Profile Class at the Columbia Journalism School. The task was to write about someone – anyone – we thought was interesting. I chose Erin. 

Image Credits: nationalgeographic.org.


When Erin Spencer hunts lionfish in the Florida Keys, her weapon of choice is a fiberglass spear with a three-pronged steel tip. She has a dive knife tethered to her thigh, and a GoPro strapped to her forehead. Her wetsuit offers protection from the deepwater cold and the stinging barbs of her prey. Breathing steadily through her respirator, she takes aim.

Later, on deck, Spencer poses with her catch, holding one lionfish in each hand by its jaws. She beams, her face absent of apology. Lionfish are venomous, carnivorous, and invasive. She wants to correct the imbalance of the ocean, one fish at a time.

~

Spencer and I are speaking via Skype. She’s in Fort Lauderdale. White-hot sunlight streams through the windows of her apartment. I can see a television behind her, its screensaver an aquarium.

Spencer is new to Florida, having moved there only three months ago from Chapel Hill, North Carolina for her doctorate in shark physiology at Florida International University. She grew up in a small town north of Baltimore but inched closer and closer to the sea until, at 27, she had finally arrived at the southernmost tip of the U.S.

“Fieldwork is incredible and infuriating and complicated,” she says. “Being able to be close to your field site is just a huge advantage.”

Her blond hair is in a loose ponytail, her round face reddened from her time in the sun. She has just returned from the Bahamas, where she spent the week attaching accelerometers to hammerhead sharks. The devices are bright red and resemble sticks of dynamite. A clamp attaches to the dorsal fin. Comprised of water-soluble components, the float with the accelerometer will eventually pop off after 24 hours, and the clamp pops off after a week. Spencer then tracks down the shark and retrieves the device.

~

As a teenager, Spencer knew she loved science, but couldn’t imagine herself in a white lab coat. “I just didn’t think I fit the profile of someone who would go on to become a research scientist,” she recalls.

At 19, she attended the National Geographic Explorer’s Festival in Washington D.C., which featured speakers including explorers, scientists, and conservationists. Talks spanned a range of research areas, including human-tiger conflict in India and shark conservation in Cocos Island in Costa Rica. She was surprised to find that a lot of the scientists looked like her.

“There were women doing marine science,” she says. “A lot were early in their career—It really humanizes the field.” She was stunned by the diversity of research that was being conducted—and by the diversity of people doing the work. “No one was presenting work in a lab coat. My idea of what a scientist looked like had completely expanded.”

She left the festival so inspired that she could hardly contain herself. “You get this feeling in your gut. You can’t sleep, you can’t shut your mind off, because you’re so excited,” she says. “Once you have that feeling, you got to follow through on that. You can’t ignore that, or else you’re just doing yourself a disservice.”

That week, as soon as she got back to College of William and Mary in Virginia, she changed her undergraduate major from environmental policy and communications to marine science and ecology, and set to work on an application to become an “explorer” at National Geographic.

~

The magazine gives grants to young men and women to encourage ambitious environmental projects in remote corners of the world. Grants are awarded based on a competitive application process. Selected projects range from unearthing human remains in Asia and Africa; to halting the decline of lions and other ‘big cats’; discovering new or poorly known organisms; and recovering species on the brink of extinction. Spencer’s field of expertise is invasive species, non-natives that are causing harm or expected to cause harm to an area.

Spencer was only 19 when she applied, and hadn’t completed her undergraduate degree. She had no publications. “I thought that the odds of me getting it were really small. I promised myself: I’m going to apply to this grant as many times as it takes.”

Spencer asked for $3000 in funding, which paled in comparison to the hundreds of thousands the magazine was prepared to disburse. Her main concern was getting out onto the water as fast as she could. “With marine science, it’s like there’s only so much you could learn in the classroom,” she says.

She got it on her first try. “It opened so many doors for me,” she says.

~

Her grant focused on invasive lionfish in the Florida Keys.

In 2014, she launched the Invasive Species Initiative, a website that highlights innovative approaches to the problem. The goal was to find new ways for people to combat invasive species in their own locales, such as adding lionfish to the menus of local restaurants, encouraging the use of lionfish-specific spearguns, and motivating fishing and diving companies to offer lionfish removal trips.

All in all, invasive species cause $1.4 trillion in damage per year.

In a 2016 National Geographic talk called, ‘Why Lionfish Should be Your Favorite Fish to Eat,’ Spencer recalled, “When I was 17, I was diving off the coast of South Florida when I saw the most beautiful fish I had ever seen. It had these bold stripes and these big dramatic spines, and I had no idea what it was.”

The divemaster informed her that she had seen a lionfish, an invasive species with spines that can cause pain and swelling in those it stings.  Lionfish are prolific breeders. One lionfish and all of her offspring can produce 8.1 quintillion—8,100,000,000,000,000,000—eggs in only three months.

Lionfish originated in the Indo-Pacific region and first appeared off the coast of Florida in the 1980s. They have since spread along the southeastern coast of the United States, the Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico. Experts believe that hobbyists have been discarding them from home aquariums.

During the lionfish project, Spencer exhausted her pocket money on dives. “I ended up eating lionfish for almost every meal… which was totally barbaric, but it was delicious.”

The lionfish has few predators. The fish feed on small crustaceans and commercial fish, threatening the stocks of species like grouper and snapper (a species that became the focus of one of Spencer’s future projects).

“I had no idea that something so gorgeous could be causing such harm on our native reef ecosystems,” she says.

Spencer went on to win two subsequent grants.

~

In 2015, she began her second project, which focused on invasive species management in Fiji. In Suva, Fiji’s capital city, she snapped photos of the sea and overlapping mountains. Swollen, grey-blue rainclouds hung like a canopy overhead. In another photo, brightly dressed locals, bronzed from the sun, shop for fish at the seaside market. The sun casts shadows over bold, rainbow-colored marketplace fabrics.

Spencer’s photographs have been featured on NBC, the New York Times, and CBS Sunday morning.

Now, in a new country, living 16 hours ahead of her family, lodging with an unfamiliar host family, she found her days “shockingly unstructured,” her time “entirely my own.” As an antidote to the loneliness, she threw herself into her work, which entailed speaking to locals to gain insight into successful community-driven invasive species eradication campaigns. She also began blogging about her experience. “On a practical level, the alone time means I’m able to truly throw myself into my work, which is ultimately the reason why I’m here,” she wrote. “But there’s another result, too: being alone means you don’t have friends and concerts and commitments to distract you from your thoughts.

During quiet nights and solo drives, she became concerned about her future career path, of travelling solo. She found herself frustrated, anew, by missed opportunities.

“But I’ve also marveled at the unusual turns my life has taken since graduation, the serendipitous moments that led me to new opportunities, the inspiring group of people I’m blessed to call my friends, and the pride I feel for all of us making it this far in the ‘real world’,” she says.

Her next project would focus not on destruction but on restoration; not on overpopulation, but underpopulation: the stark absence of a certain pink-red fish native to the Western Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. This project took her to the Southeastern U.S.

~

Red snappers—so named for their large canine teeth—are severely overfished. High demand persists. Sellers routinely mislabel the fish, quietly substituting other species in its place. Sometimes, these fish are other threatened species, or species with higher levels of mercury, which poses an increased risk for pregnant women and children.

Using DNA barcoding, a method of identifying organisms using genomic DNA, Spencer found that almost three quarters of store-bought samples purchased at TK were not red snapper. The samples from the sushi restaurants were worse—100% mislabeled.

“Working in this field is incredible, and it’s also really disheartening,” she says. When it comes to the environment, she says, “I think that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and sad about what you’re seeing.”

When she writes freelance environmental articles for Ocean Conservancy, a nonprofit and the National Geographic travel site, she tries to maintain a measure of positivity in the face of despair.

“I love that I get to write about science for public audience,” she says. “I can write about why seagrass is important … which some folks might not have really thought about before.” She calls seagrass ‘The Ocean’s Unsung Hero.’

A recent piece focuses solely on mangroves. Mangroves are a strain of coastal tree that stretch down through saltwater, plunging their roots into mud, forming thickets of tangled roots. “What’s the deal with mangrove trees?” she asks. “Well, a lot of fish use mangroves as juvenile nurseries.”

Another piece discusses a fish the sarcastic fringe head, which has an enormous, gaping mouth used to intimidate adversaries.

She finds these stories are a welcome departure from the “doom and gloom” of typical Climate Change discussions. “I’m building love and appreciation for the weird and wild parts of the ocean,” she says. “My early interactions with marine world were not academic. They were just fun.”

~

Spencer’s parents enjoyed being near the water. In the summers, they would take her to the Jersey Shore, where she would wade in shallow tidepools, explore caves, and snorkel.

“I’m not sure if my love of sciences was nature or nurture or little bit of both,” she says. Her father wanted to challenge the idea that young women were not made for the sciences and gave his daughter science kits for Christmas.

In her parents’ cabin in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Spencer was left to her own devices, trekking through the mud and upending rocks to discover crawfish hiding underneath. When she attended the local library’s reptile show-and-tell, she reached into the tank to grab a boa constrictor. “My mom nearly passed out.”

She has advocated for the involvement of women in STEM through her work with Rosie Riveters, a nonprofit that works with girls ages 4-14 to develop their skills in STEM. “At early ages, boys and girls are the same at their ability for math and science,” she says.

“As you get older, cultural pressure and lack of confidence makes it a self-fulfilling prophecy,” she says. “Young girls start to think that they’re not as good at math and science and they start to steer away from those fields.”

~

Spencer believes that young girls should be encouraged to get their hands dirty. “Marine science is messy,” she says. “I work in tropical locations, and I think when people see photos, they’re like, ‘Oh, so you’re on vacation in the Bahamas.’ And that could not be further than the truth.”

When she was researching seafood mislabeling, the better part of her day was spent handling dead fish. She began to fear that she smelled permanently fishy.

~

Spencer recently moved her research area from fish to sharks. The animals got bigger, and the stakes got higher. “I’m shifting to this new area, which is looking at how sharks use energy,” she says. “Their movement, their food consumption, how they burn energy. That requires a lot of physiology and a lot of physics, which has not historically been my area.”

“I just love being around people where you could just talk about fish all day,” she says. “In our refrigerator in the house where we were staying the Bahamas, I went in to grab a diet coke and there was a bottle of shark blood next to it… It’s just like, normal.”

When dealing with large, dangerous animals like sharks, the difference between the experienced and less-experienced researchers becomes abundantly clear. “I’ve been with people who were really experienced and knew what they were doing, and I’ve been with people who were not as comfortable, and you can really tell the difference. It’s really a team mentality. We all are responsible for each other.”

On a 7-day research cruise in the Galapagos, Spencer and her colleagues set out to save a failing experiment involving sea urchins. Aboard the boat were three principal investigators, several undergraduates, and the boat crew. The students struggled to set up a laptop loaded with software and apparatus meant to measure the respiration of the urchins.

“You’re dealing with water and electrical equipment,” she says.

The students were severely shocked as they fiddled with the equipment. By the time they had mastered it, they were exhausted and looked like castaways—dirty and salty, torn T-shirts flapping in the wind. “When you’re faced with an issue with your equipment and all you have on-hand are zip ties and duct tape—figure it out,” Spencer says.

“My advisor congratulated everyone,” she says. “He’s like, ‘great job,’ and he swings his hand out and knocks the laptop into the ocean.”

Spencer pulled on her scuba gear and retrieved the laptop. “And of course, it’s completely done. It’s fried.”

~

Much of the allure of marine science—like the ocean itself—lies in its mystique. Humans have only explored 5% of the ocean thus far.

“I’m putting in the work,” Spencer says. “I’m starting to see results, and I’ve got a really long way to go. I don’t think I’ve ever learned so much in such a short amount of time.

Spencer dreams of one day working for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), her presence in the upper echelons of marine science serving as a proven example for another young women. “I hope that eventually you just never have to think about being a woman in science because it just is,” she says. “Everyone is just there.

Life inside a research vessel means cramped conditions and long workdays. At the end of each day, the student researchers retreat into the hull of the ship, spent, where they bunk together in windowless rooms.

“It’s not glamorous,” Spencer says, “but then you wake up in the morning and you watch the sun rise in the Galapagos. That’s one of those moments where you’re like, I can’t believe this is what I get to do.”

The sea, stretching out in all directions, is her office and her playground. “You’re on the boat ride out to the site, you’ve got on your dive gear, and it’s a beautiful day. You pinch yourself,” she says. “I have moments where I’m just like, I can’t believe I get to do this for my job.”

(2587 words)

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thingsconsidered

I believe that: (1) language is the most powerful tool we have (2) that bravery is the most admirable quality in a person and (3) that the best is yet to come.

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