Around the Pier: Profiles in Diversity: Illuminating Unknown Paths


Noelle Bowlin’s days are filled to the brim. She’s exhausted. Some mornings she’s so tired she can barely get out of bed. But she loves it. Every bit of it. She considers herself lucky to be in this position, or in her case, two full-time positions.

And she is making the most of it. She is equal parts grateful and ecstatic that she stumbled upon a career path in the marine sciences. But like the younger Noelle Bowlin of a few years ago, many young minds have never heard of the things Bowlin tackles on a daily basis, from squid paralarvae to mesopelagic fishes. So Bowlin does what she can to inspire young minds with insights about her daily world.

She holds a full-time job at NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center (SWFSC), which keeps her quite busy, but thoroughly interested and engaged. Like a marine detective at sea and in the laboratory, Bowlin uses her keen eyes and identification skills to investigate scores of tiny marine larvae. By helping to piece together the early life stages of fishes and squids, Bowlin and her SWFSC colleagues hope to help solve mysteries surrounding survival during these early life stages in the ever-changing marine environment, a mission that could one day lead to more sustainable food supplies and resources.

But at the same time, Bowlin is also quite busy as a graduate student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. Her Ph.D. training focuses on fishes that live 200 to 1,000 meters (656 to 3,280 feet) below the surface, also known as the “mesopelagic” zone. These are the world’s most abundant fishes (in fact, the most abundant animals with backbones in the world)—with names such as bristlemouths, hatchetfishes, and barbeled dragonfishes—and they help feed whales, sea lions, squids, and predatory fishes, but surprisingly little is known about their activities and habits. Bowlin hopes to help fill voids where knowledge gaps currently exist.

Yet on top of all of that she still finds time for outreach activities to diverse communities and demographics. Why?

Simply put: because, as a young girl growing up in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles to Jamaican and Chinese parents, she never knew about marine biology, oceanography, or the fact that young women can grow up to study the fascinating world of marine science and make a difference.

“You don’t know what you don’t know,” Bowlin said. “I want to be able to help expose people like the little girl I was to all these things in the world I never knew about.”

She’s taken it upon herself to communicate these opportunities to youths in areas traditionally underrepresented in the sciences. In one example, Bowlin has been active in a program that brings middle school girls to Scripps and SWFSC to give them hands-on experience working in laboratories with female scientists.

The idea of pursuing unfamiliar paths led her to SWFSC and her graduate work at Scripps in the first place. After graduating from UC San Diego with dual degrees in biology and anthropology, Bowlin was absolutely certain she was headed for a terrestrial career as a plant biologist. That all changed when a classmate recommended her for a job sorting marine samples at SWFSC.

She’d never heard of SWFSC but thought it over. Never turn down an opportunity before you know what it is, she told herself. After a few days on the job as a technician she was hooked into the marine world. Later, as she gained more experience, the thrill of contributing to a research project, and to the publication of a scientific paper, led her to pursue her Ph.D. from Scripps.

“I have to tell you it’s really difficult to have two full-time jobs,” said Bowlin. “Make no mistake about it, I’m exhausted. A lot of days I don’t want to get out of bed. I’m too tired. But then I remember I love what I’m doing. What I do is awesome and I’m so lucky. And it will pay off—it already has… my parents didn’t have the opportunity to go to college so I have to make the best of it.”

In other diversity outreach efforts Bowlin works as part of a team. This was the case in 2010, when a handful of racist incidents embroiled UC San Diego, including an inflammatory so-called “Compton Cookout” that mocked and stereotyped the southern Los Angeles city. Following the incidents, students from Compton High School were invited to UC San Diego to share their feelings in a public forum.

Omar Bravo was one of these students. He was clear about one path he believed was closed  to him. Never, ever would he go the UC college path. If incidents such as the Compton Cookout spoke to the nature of the University of California, Bravo vowed never to step foot on a UC campus.

Bowlin, fellow Scripps Oceanography graduate student Mike Navarro, and four others banded together to counteract the inflammatory atmosphere that was afflicting the UC San Diego community. They joined with former Scripps Director Tony Haymet to visit Compton High School to speak to the students and teachers on their home turf. Then they took it a step further and created Focus on the Future, a summer program in which Compton High School and other students visited Scripps for immersive education and activities, from working in labs to heading to sea on a Scripps research vessel.

Bravo was part of the Focus on the Future program The experience shifted his ideas about the true nature of the University of California. He’s now a UC Santa Cruz student as a result.

With her full-time job and Scripps graduate work, Bowlin heavy-heartedly admits that she simply doesn’t have time to volunteer like she used to.

“I miss the outreach that I used to have time for,” said Bowlin. “I’ve done a bit here and there because it’s really, really important to me… A lot of people don’t recognize that when you are young and impressionable you literally don’t know these paths exist and how to take bold new steps… young people should know that places like NOAA/SWFSC and Scripps exist and young women should know that they can be a scientist or do anything they want.”

Related Image Gallery: Images: Illuminating Unknown Paths

Related Video: Video: Illuminating Unknown Paths

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