Where did you grow up?
Most people are surprised to learn I was born and raised in Great Falls, Montana. Apparently it’s somewhat of an anomaly to find a marine biologist in the mountains. I spent my childhood weekends at our cabin in Wolf Creek tucked deep in the Big Belt mountains — a section of the Rocky Mountains in Montana. I have many great memories of days spent exploring creeks, and nights filled with family around the campfire while my stepdad played guitar. My parents still live there and my husband, our two kids, and I try to visit as often as we can.
Though I spent my weekends in the mountains, a portion of each summer was spent visiting my Dad and stepmom in various spots across the country. When I was 5 years old my brothers and I flew to visit them in California, where I had my first introduction to the Pacific Ocean. My love for all things ocean was immediate and my family would later joke I had “saltwater in my veins.” I vividly recall chasing the waves as they receded, following the water as far as I possibly dared before spinning on my heels and racing back to safety. The ocean is powerful and I was enamored. It’s true I miss the mountains, but I’ve always known I would find myself settled near the ocean.
Where did you go to school and what subject did you get your degree(s) in?
I left Montana to attend college at Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, Maine. As the youngest of six kids, my college search criteria required two things: a school that offered an ocean sciences degree and a Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps program (NROTC) to assist with tuition. I grew up an Air Force brat and NROTC was a natural transition that led me to the beautiful town of Castine, Maine. Here I pursued a bachelor’s degree in ocean studies and was able to go on cruises aboard the Academy’s research vessels R/V Argo Maine and Schooner Bowdoin. This new world of CTDs, plankton tows, remotely operated vehicles, and scuba fascinated me and I knew I was on the right path.
I met my husband, Steve, at the Academy. He was just finishing his degree and planned to move back to his home state, California. After a year apart, and much deliberation, I chose to move my studies to California. This transition allowed me to narrow my academic focus from ocean studies to marine biology. I completed my bachelor’s degree in marine biology at California State University, Long Beach in 2002. While I was there, I worked in the Biology Department’s Marine Lab collecting samples for laboratory courses and assisting with the Lab’s marine life support and maintenance systems. I recall many early morning trips to the Pacific Ocean with nets, buckets, and our small outboard boat. We’d cruise along the shore and free-dive to fill specimen requests, often various kelp species, urchins, and sea stars. Though I’m not usually a morning person, I loved starting my day on the water! In my free time, I began volunteering at the Aquarium of the Pacific in both the marine mammal and fish husbandry departments. This dual focus required extensive volunteer hours, but working with seals, sea lions, and fish was a unique and rewarding experience that began my path toward animal health and aquarium biology.
Tell us a little about how you came to the Science Center.
After I received my bachelor’s degree, my husband and I moved to New Hampshire, then to Maryland where I worked for Charles River Laboratories as an aquatic specialist at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. I primarily worked for the National Human Genome Research Institute maintaining their zebrafish facility. When my son, Jack, was born in 2006, I put my career on pause to focus on raising my family. We moved to Cape Cod during the winter of 2013 when my husband took a job with Hydroid, Inc. in Pocasset, Massachusetts. Soon after, I took a position at the Marine Biological Laboratory in their Scientific Aquaculture Program where I maintained phytoplankton cultures and assisted with their blue mussel (Mytilus edulus) research. In 2014 I began volunteering at the Science Center’s Woods Hole Science Aquarium. I eventually began working part time as an aquarium biologist and was brought on full time in 2017.
What do you do at the Science Center?
I’m currently an aquarium biologist at the Woods Hole Science Aquarium. This title is broad and covers various responsibilities, always keeping me on my toes! Similar to Cape Cod itself, my job tends to fluctuate with the seasons. Summer is definitely our busy season and the aquarium is packed with visitors from all over the world. We offer public collecting walks to our local beaches with seine and dip nets, and help locals and vacationers alike explore and identify our regional flora and fauna. Last summer we hosted two college interns from the University of Chicago and supported 11 high school interns from across the country. In the fall, our visitation shifts from vacationers to school groups. Field trips to the aquarium offer local kids a glimpse of Woods Hole’s “little village, big science” mentality. We field thousands of questions, help with worksheets, and occasionally give quick introductory tours as each group arrives. Winter and spring allow us to catch up on various projects and acquisitions to the Science Aquarium’s collection.
We maintain three separate water systems at the Science Aquarium: cold, temperate, and tropical. By doing this, we can exhibit a broad range of species from across the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions & show visitors the animals and ecosystems our Science Center studies. Of course anytime you’re working with live animals, the work never ends. We’re always busy bouncing between cleaning and maintaining exhibits, checking and maintaining water quality and life support, monitoring veterinary health, and so much more. It’s a lot of work, but I love it!
One of the really unique features of our Science Aquarium is that it has the capability to hold and nurse cold-stunned sea turtles. In the fall of 2017, we assisted the Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network by accepting 12 cold-stunned Kemp’s ridley sea turtles for rehabilitation and eventual release. Each turtle required extra attention and individual medical care. Frequent feedings, radiographs, blood tests, and administering fluids and medications became part of our regular routine. Once turtles were healthy enough, they were transported to warmer waters and released back to the wild. Three stayed behind for further rehabilitation and were later released locally at a remote location on Martha’s Vineyard. I brought my daughter, Ayla, along for the event and will forever be grateful to be able to share that experience with her.
What you like most about your position?
Whether I’m cleaning tanks, battling parasites, or rehabilitating cold-stunned sea turtles, no single day is ever the same and I’m always on my feet! Most recently, I’ve been working on logistics to acquire Atlantic salmon smolts from Connecticut’s Inland Fisheries Division of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP). These fish are the main feature of our Atlantic salmon exhibit which highlights conservation of this endangered species for the International Year of the Salmon. I’m also currently working with our Science Center’s longline survey team to acquire a few new animals for our cold-water exhibits.
In addition, I greatly enjoy watching the young kids that visit us at the aquarium. I love the excitement I see on their faces and the looks of wonder and amazement when they peer through the glass, trying to make sense of all things fish. I sincerely hope it sparks their own love affair with the ocean and a drive to preserve it.
What are some of your hobbies?
I enjoy spending time outdoors with my husband and two children. My kids are both active in the scouting community here on Cape Cod and weekends are often spent planning and facilitating Scouts BSA activities. I’m still—and will always be—in awe when looking at the ocean. I will never tire with flipping rocks along the shore and investigating the hidden world beneath. I also enjoy backyard campfires that constantly remind me of my childhood cabin weekends.
For more information, please contact Heather Soulen.