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Rodrigo Zúñiga Mouret

Rodrigo “Digo” Zúñiga Mouret is a research assistant in the Tarrant and Mullineaux labs in the WHOI Biology Department. (Photo by Elise Hugus © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

I've been fascinated by marine life since I was a little kid growing up in Texas. It was landlocked so the only access to the ocean I had was through nature documentaries, the Internet, and the occasional family beach vacation. I didn't really see marine biology as a viable career option, and I went to college thinking I was going to be some sort of engineer. But I allowed myself some flexibility and took a biology class to fill my schedule. I was immediately hooked by all things biology: DNA being life’s universal language, looking at animals under a microscope, and getting a really close-up view into how life actually works.

I further pursued that interest and got involved with research, working in a zebrafish lab that studied the neurobiology of behavior. That really captivated me, trying to get inside the head of the little fish that we were recording– and just the whole scientific process. My undergraduate advisor would say I “got bit by the research bug.” It wasn’t until just before my senior year that it hit me: I was just circling my way back to becoming a marine biologist— as a biology major, I just needed to find a way to specialize! After graduating in the spring of 2020, my advisor pointed me to a new zebrafish neuro lab that was starting up in Madison, Wisconsin and I thought it would be a valuable experience to help build a lab from the ground up as my first job out of college. Thankfully, I was given the position, but in the back of my mind, I was like, “I'm not doing what I want to do. I want to do marine science!”

If I could offer advice to my younger self– or anyone who wants to get a start in marine biology– I’d say, “Keep following your curiosity and trust your gut. It knows more than you give it credit for.”

Eventually, once the new lab was established, my supervisor and I agreed it was time for me to break the comfort of being in a stable academic job. So, I left the lab and became a bartender at a local pizza restaurant. Although bartending might be considered a gap in my academic resumé, I grew a lot as a working professional and thoroughly enjoyed working with a beautifully diverse group of people. Meanwhile, I was applying to anything even tangentially related to marine science. I was rejected from many jobs, though I did land a couple of temporary positions, including a summer camp gig on Santa Catalina Island, in California, teaching marine science to Boy Scouts and SCUBA diving to collect marine creatures for the aquarium. After four years of actively pursuing a career in marine science, I finally got to WHOI, where I now work as a research assistant for Ann Tarrant and Lauren Mullineaux’s labs.

In the 6 months I’ve been here, I've already done and learned so much. Since I work in two labs, I have a wide variety of different responsibilities, ranging anywhere from basic animal care to designing and engineering laboratory equipment, all in service of conducting real groundbreaking marine science. What I do here changes by the week it seems, but I'm most excited about working with marine larvae that live in and around hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean. Using a custom High Pressure Plankton Observatory (HiPPO) chamber, the Mullineaux lab has recorded these larvae swimming at the same pressure they’d experience thousands of meters below the surface, which allows us to quantify their behavior for the first time ever. I have the immense privilege of working with these unique videos to try and put myself in their shoes (or shells) to better understand life in such extreme environments.

Being involved with so many projects keeps me engaged and teaches me new things nearly every day. With WHOI's incredibly supportive community of intelligent and passionate experts, there's always someone ready to lend a hand to an early career scientist like me. Through this network, I've had the opportunity to use cutting edge equipment and techniques such as 3D printing and AI-powered video analysis. I'm incredibly excited for the chance to go on a month-long expedition to the East Pacific Ocean and go in the Alvin submersible to see the hydrothermal vents with my own eyes. Career-defining opportunities like this are unique to WHOI and I couldn't be more grateful for it.