Elizabeth Lenz

Hometown:  Clayton, CA

Current Job Title:  PhD Student

Work Location:  Hawai'i Institute of Marine Biology

Job Description:  I am currently getting my PhD, studying coral reef ecosystems at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. My day to day involves attending specialized classes in my field from genetics to marine ecology with other students with similar interests but very different backgrounds, exploring (snorkeling or diving) the coral reefs in Oahu to know the flora and fauna, reading about or assisting others with their research so I can learn methods to use for my own research. It's a very exciting time for me to explore and develop my questions through reading and experiencing!

Company, Academic Institution, Government Agency or Non-profit affiliation: Hawai'i Institute of Marine Biology

Highest Degree Level Achieved: and Area of Study: Masters of Science in Marine Biology

Thesis Title: Ecological and physiological assessment of tropical coral reef responses to past and projected disturbances

What do you love most about your career?

I love that I have the opportunity to do my research in some of the most beautiful places in the world (French Polynesia, Okinawa, Hawaii, and the Virgin Islands) and work with some of the most interesting, intelligent, and active people. I am able to spend my time on answering questions I am most curious about.

What inspired you to pursue a career in marine science or STEM related field? When I was an undergraduate, I was a premed major taking all sorts of classes that did not interest me. I was challenged, but bored at the same time. I was volunteering at hospitals, thinking I would become a pediatrician. Out of frustration one night while studying organic chemistry, I came across a program that was offered through my school. This program offered hands on experience at a marine research station in Northern California. It offered opportunities for students to design and conduct their own research, attend lectures by experts in the field, and live at a research station. I immediately applied to this program and I have not looked back since. 

Describe one of the most exciting moments you’ve experienced in your work.

While studying the effects of ocean acidification on stony corals in Moorea, French Polynesia, a film crew from Montreal arrived at our research station. They were sailing around the world for their documentary called "1000 Days for the Planet". Their goal was to show the public the diversity in many marine habitats, cultural connections with marine ecosystems, human impacts, and scientific research being conducted.

Describe the biggest challenge (or challenges) that you’ve faced and how did you overcome it?

One of the biggest challenges was the realization that not every community is supportive and respectful. Unfortunately, there are still social issues (gender-bias, status, etc) that can impede the work that needs to get done or provide opportunities to under-represented groups.  In general, working in the sciences is extremely competitive and can be full of a lot of egos.

That's okay though - self reliance and perseverance are key!

Fortunately in the field, you have the choice to not work with these types of people. Rather, you can build the community you want to be a part of, create groups that help you and others succeed, and collaborate with scientists you enjoy working with (this can even include your long time friends).

Who is your most influential mentor and how did they help you get to where you are today?

I would not be where I am without the support of my mentors. I highly encourage you to have a mentor or role model as you venture down your own path.

Out of my wonderful mentors I've had the privilege of working with, my most influential mentor - Dr. Eric Sanford at the University of California, Davis who works at the Bodega Marine Lab.  He is one of the most genuine, dedicated, energetic, and knowledgable people I have met. When I was an undergraduate at UC Davis, I attended his course on Invertebrate Zoology and instantly fell in love with marine invertebrates (corals, limpet, sea stars, octopus, snails, urchins, worms, the works!) and their role in ecology. Eventually, I joined his research team as a technician (fancy word for assistant) where I helped with several projects addressing the effects of ocean acidification on key organisms along the California coast.  During that time, I learned a lot about myself, my specific research interests, and what a career in marine science involved.  From there, I went on to study coral reefs for my master's degree and now continuing that research during my PhD.  Dr. Sanford has always been a knowledgable resource for me as well as constance source of encouragement for me to push forward and most importantly leave a place better than I found it.

How do you feel you are making a positive difference in the world?

"Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm"        - Ralph Waldo Emerson

I believe I'm making a positive difference by:

  1. engaging with and complimenting my scientific and local community
  2. maintaining a "yes and" attitude
  3. encouraging young women to step outside of their comfort zone in order to fulfill their goals