Picking Up STEAM
A trip to the National Aquarium can unlock a world of unique career opportunities for future conservationists.
Our world relies on science, technology, engineering, art and math professionals to find creative and sustainable solutions to its most complex problems. Job roles in the STEAM field—which continues to grow rapidly—require passionate and curious minds to foster change. We caught up with our experts to learn how they turned their passions into fulfilling careers at the National Aquarium.
Charmaine Dahlenburg found comfort in the natural wonders of her own backyard as a child growing up in the lush, wooded countryside of a small town in northern Pennsylvania. She regularly studied collections of crawling creatures underneath rocks along the creeks and trails of her local state park at Jacobsburg Environmental Education Center. Despite her curiosity about nature, science wasn't a regular part of her educational experience as a child. It wasn't until she was pursuing a biology degree in college that she first imagined her love of science as a viable career path as she submerged herself into various science classes. The hands-on nature of her coursework was reminiscent of her time spent exploring the natural world around her as a child. "I gained a whole new way to appreciate nature," Charmaine said. "Not only was I experiencing it, but for the first time, I could really understand it."
Today, Charmaine's interest in and understanding of the environment have led her to her current role as the National Aquarium's director of field conservation.
Art is everywhere in the natural world around us—from the brightly colored coral of Indo-Pacific reefs to the intricate striation of aquatic rocks, the beauty in nature can often be observed just beneath the water's surface. Our exhibit fabrication team re-creates these natural works of art, creating habitats for our animals that are not only practical, but are also visually stunning.
Upon graduating from art school, Will Staub had no idea that his studies would lead him to a career in building aquarium exhibits. Science is not his primary calling, but through working and learning with experts at the National Aquarium, he found himself right at the intersection of science and art. Now as an exhibit builder and habitat fabrication specialist, Will lends his artistic eye, steady hand and educational background in interdisciplinary sculpture to the replication of natural habitats throughout the Aquarium.
Will sees these artistic interpretations of nature not only as a way to showcase his abilities as an artist; he also values the educational component that these exhibits offer guests. These habitat re-creations, in addition to being beautiful, are also functional and stimulating for Aquarium animals. One example is the artificial oyster clusters Will and his team crafted for our Maryland: Mountains to Sea exhibit, which were soon occupied by neon gobies, striped blennies and skilletfish. "We're creating something that looks super real, replicates these animals' natural habitats and helps us to demonstrate their natural behaviors to guests," Will explained.
National Aquarium Senior Aquarist Pete Larson understands the value of working in a field that caters to your passions. Upon experiencing post-grad burnout following his studies in biology, he decided that he needed a change. A trip to an aquarium in Tennessee revealed to him a world of opportunity in aquarium careers. By connecting with the aquarium's staff through their website, he was able to jumpstart his career journey as an animal care professional. Now as a senior aquarist at the National Aquarium, he finds relaxation and personal fulfillment in his work. As an avid animal lover, caring for animals in his day-to-day duties has created a low-stress environment, which he affectionally describes as "a day at the beach." But Pete recognizes that it isn't always easy to secure dream jobs like this at an aquarium. Although the STEAM field continues to grow exponentially compared to non-STEAM fields, the scarcity of available positions at aquariums can be challenging. "I've been lucky," he said. "You have to know people to get your foot in the door."
Luckily, seasoned professionals like Holly Bourbon are bridging the gap between prospective aquatic conservationists and their dream careers.
Holly's resume is impressive—while pursuing her Bachelor of Arts degree in biology at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, she was one of the first interns to work with penguins, river otters and juvenile Kemp's ridley sea turtles at the New England Aquarium. She credits this internship experience as the start of her impressive 35-year career in aquatic science. Following 18 years at the New England Aquarium, seven years at the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and an induction to the Women Divers Hall of Fame in 2007, she joined the National Aquarium in 2012, where she currently serves as director of dive programs and dive safety officer. She also holds the torch as the longest-standing current member of the Association of Dive Program Administrators, where she served as the group's first female president from 2018 to 2019.
For accomplished aquarium professionals like Holly, it is important to recruit like-minded and passionate individuals to continue the protection and preservation of aquatic habitats. For this reason, mentorship has become a critical part of her work, and each year, she dedicates her time and wisdom to mentoring a National Aquarium intern. "If you want to be successful in this field, especially as a woman, you have to believe in yourself and have the courage to put yourself out there" she explained. "Sometimes growth isn't comfortable and can even be painful, but it's necessary in gaining the experience you need to get where you want to go."
Learning and networking opportunities are essential stops on the career path of a future STEAM professional. Explore volunteer opportunities, internship options and education programs at the National Aquarium—they could be the first step in your journey toward a fulfilling career in conservation!