Student Spotlight: An Interview with Katie Hearther


Getting my hands dirty while helping the Alaska Department of Fish and Game survey for razor clams in Homer as part of my NOAA Hollings internship. June 2019, Hattan Mollnow

Katie Hearther is a double major in both Marine Biology and Oceanography here at the University of Washington as well as a minor in Arctic Studies. She sat down with us to discuss her trajectory as a student, internship opportunities, and advice for prospective and current students interested in the marine sciences.

Why Marine Biology and what drew you to the marine science programs here at the University of Washington?

Katie Hearther: As high school junior, I was Googling “Marine Biology programs” and the UW kept coming up. As I was looking at it I thought, “Okay, this place has Oceanography, Aquatic and Fisheries Sciences, Marine Biology, and then they also have the Arctic studies minor”, which I’m currently doing, and I was like, “Yes, please!” I picked here because they have several marine science programs and the opportunity for early research opportunities, which was a big thing for me. I then toured here and I was sold.

The Greenland ice sheet, with my classmates for scale, just outside of Kangerlussuaq in early September 2018. Katie Hearther

You are currently a senior and majoring in Oceanography and Marine Biology along with the Arctic studies minor. Can you describe the interplay between all those areas and how they feed off each other?

Oh, yes! I love this question because people always think, “Well aren’t those the all same thing?” and I have to tell them “No, no it’s not.” Oceanography is definitely harder than I thought it would be and I love telling people that. It turns out oceanography is a little bit of everything and you learn about the abiotic processes that underlie all the cool stuff that happens with the biology that I really love. I got to learn about phytoplankton, ocean currents, and physics. In marine biology, you’re understanding how the stuff in oceanography sets the stage to build marine communities and ecosystems. So I’ve got this tug of war going on where I struggle with which one I like most but can’t choose yet because I just love them both so much.

The cool thing about the Arctic Studies minor is it’s a joint program between Oceanography and the Jackson School of International Studies. So about half of the core requirements are through Oceanography and basic science classes, which for me, was great. The other part of it was policy, which I didn’t know anything about. Through the program, I was able to do a study abroad in Denmark and Greenland which was amazing! Doing those classes and covering Arctic indigenous people and issues in the Arctic right now, is also kind of shifting my interests. I still love science. I love it so much. But I’m starting to get my foot in the door of some policy stuff. So we’ll see where it goes! My heartstrings are pulled in all these different directions!

Transferring a Pycnopodia helianthoides (Sunflower sea star) to a sea table at Friday Harbor Labs! Our beloved TA, Mo Turner, brought it back for us on one of her dives. May 2019, Ryu Kawada

You said early research opportunities were high on the list while applying to College. What research projects have you been a part of here at UW that stand out to you?

I went to Friday Harbor which was incredible! I would recommend that to literally anyone and everyone that comes through this program to go there for a full quarter. I went last spring for the Zoobots program. Our class was taught by larval ecologist where we got to learn how to spawn a lot of different echinoderms, like sea stars and urchins. I actually got to raise the sea star larvae which was crazy! I was literally watching in the microscope conception happen and then watching them grow little arms and little guts. When you feed them tiny pink algae their stomach turns pink! I had 12,000 of them and I was doing a feeding study because that’s a really good organism to test things on, but you have to keep them alive. So I was trying to figure out what combination of algae and feeding times and other conditions made them the happiest and that was really fun.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

I love science and I love learning stuff–I could spend the rest of my life just learning. I also feel I could have the coolest science job but I don’t think I would be totally fulfilled. Just because so much of my mental space and energy is taken up by climate change and issues like that. The science is there and we should obviously keep doing science, but more of the same science isn’t going to convince the people it needs to convince. So I’m trying to figure out the best angle to do that. I’m in a public policy class right now, a climate change governance class in the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs, and it’s really interesting. The plan right now is to go to grad school. I want a Ph.D.; I decided that last week! The catch is I don’t know when, where or what in, I just know there’s a gap somewhere. I’m trying to figure out where that is so that I can go fill it and be that person. I think my dream job would be some kind of communication. My internship over the summer was in science communication and education. So I think it’s something like that. I’m starting to come to terms with the fact that I won’t be able to single-handedly fix everything, which is really rough. I’m going to take a year off from school to figure out how to be something that’s not a student, because that’s all I’ve ever been, and then come back full-force.

You mentioned science communication as part of your internship through the Ernest F. Hollings scholarship. Did you have any prior experience with science communication and how did you approach the projects you were given?

No prior experience, just ridiculous respect for my science teachers. I was working in the Kachemak Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve or KBNERR which is one of 29 estuarine research reserves across the country. Unique to this one is they don’t actually own any of the land in their borders so they rely entirely on environmental programming and stewardship like school visits, to try and inspire the people to live there to want to protect it.

My job was to create tools for planning place-based learning opportunities, like field trips because everyone loves field trips, right? When you go somewhere and see concepts from the classroom in practice in the field you can form your own personal connections which can sometimes be more meaningful than a lecture. I compiled literature and came up with a best practices and procedures guide. The reason we did this was that they have a lot of visiting scientists come into the KBNERR and do research because it’s such an incredible area. They all want to share their research, but not a lot of them have experience with science communication. I came up with a site profile template and I got to go around to all the places these scientists did fieldwork. We’re hoping to build a portfolio of these site profiles that you can then take and build complementary lesson plans. I’ve already gotten really good feedback from groups like Smithsonian where they used the site profile that I made and came up with a program really fast. 130 middle school students out there within a week because I had already done all the preplanning. It felt so good.

My Zoobot 2019 cohort explores an urchin barren during our camping trip to Botany Beach on Vancouver Island, British Colombia. Katie Hearther

If you could give your high-school-self advice on the college application process, what would you say?

For me, it was crazy stressful. I would want to go back and tell myself, and what I told my younger sisters when they were going through this is, “This is horribly stressful and that’s okay. You’re going to get through it.” The choice itself was really stressful for me too. I remember thinking, “Oh my God. What if I make the wrong choice? What if I end up in the wrong spot?” So what I try and tell people now, and wish I could’ve told myself, is that wherever you end up you’re going to do good and if by some slim chance you don’t, it is perfectly okay to transfer. I think everyone built it up so much in my head and it made it so stressful that when I finally got here, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I thought, “Now what? Now there’s nothing next”. Once I finally figured that out I was able to, it sounds ridiculous, but focus on what I was here to do, which is learn really cool stuff about the ocean, meet incredible people, incredibly passionate people doing great things in their field, and then learn and grow as a person. In general, the whole thing has been absolutely terrifying, but I’ve come out of it now as a senior thinking, “Wow, this has been amazing.” I would try to tell people that it’s a lot and it’s okay to unravel. It’s okay. You’re having a huge lifestyle change, physically and mentally, and you’re going to work it out. Also, not go at it alone because you don’t have to. I would recommend making connections with professors, whether it’s after class or in office hours. The departments are incredibly special in that they are small enough that you can have personal relationships with the instructors. They have provided invaluable insight and advice to me throughout my undergraduate career and I would highly recommend getting to know them!

Post-polar plunge in the Ilulissat Icefjord in mid-August, 2018. The water temp was 0 degrees Celsius. Hans-Christian Steen-Larsen