Written by Jessica Myers
He found me in front of the bookshelf sitting cross-legged, immersed in one of the many dark blue books entitled SHARKS in a bold, red font. When I wanted to turn some pages, I could choose from fine art books, my DK’s children’s encyclopedia, the Silence of the Lambs series, or anything about sharks. My father was responsible for the collection, a physical representation of his fascination. Between the pages, you’d find newspaper clippings – the crudely cut edges of a shark attack stories, softened from years of rereading. I can’t recall what started the conversation, but in my excitement of recounting what I was reading I expressed how cool it was to do what these people were doing. How I wanted to meet a shark and help them. My dad looked at me and said, “so you want to be a marine biologist?”
My father is an avid hunter and outdoorsman and he made sure that his kids got a dose of climbing trees, dirty knees, and some ocean air regularly. We helped with yardwork, went fishing, and boogie boarded until our hair was equal parts keratin and seaweed. When I spoke about him at school, kids would think the 6’2” man covered in tattoos was this mean guy who thought it was fun to kill animals. I had a hard time communicating it at such a young age, but he wasn’t the evil hunter caricature from Bambi, he was quite the opposite. His actions were less barbaric and more respectful when it came to being outside. We never littered and always picked up trash we found. He would tell me about the importance of maintaining the animal population and that sometimes means that having too many animals in a population can be a problem too. Teaching carrying capacity young! I was raised that we should live in harmony. We are part of, rather than being separate from, the system and along the way, I’ve found that most hunters and anglers feel this way despite being demonized.
Fast forward a decade to my senior year of high school. When I announced my decision to attend Coastal Carolina University to study marine science people who thought they knew me were genuinely confused that I wasn’t moving an hour away to study art or music in Philly. Meanwhile, I was shocked by their confusion considering I was called “that shark girl” by random people in the halls for wearing my shark leggings, backpack, and other miscellaneous accessories to school. Like, hello? I’ve been crazy about sharks since day one! I just didn’t have as many opportunities to dive into that interest (other than wearing some obnoxious clothing) in the ocean-less state of Pennsylvania. But I guess it made some sense when I took every art class I could and couldn’t be found outside the music wing of the building.
Going into college, I wanted it all and I was going to get it. I was helping with shark research by my 5th day of school (I got to tag and hold so many sharks!!). With two labs and 18 credits, I joined the choir and was pursuing a minor in graphic design. I get tired just typing that, but I did it. By the next year I had added a job in the science department, an officer position for our SCUBA club, and being an RA for housing, as well as other volunteering to my schedule. Not only this, but I switched my focus from shark research to plastic. I spent my last two years counting microplastics under a microscope for hours each day. The eye strain. Along with that, came a hyper fixation on the insane amounts of plastic we consume and a self-inflicted obligation to fix that by myself. I had to reduce my plastic use. I needed to spread awareness. Not the industries that create it or the governments that could regulate it because that wouldn’t make any sense. I was trapped in the place they want environmentalists to be – crying in their kitchen, because that’s easy, forgetting they come in those little trays. You wanted a cheap meal to get you to your next paycheck, and now you hate yourself for using an ounce of plastic.
Even on the difficult days I was nonstop, and it paid off. I did drop the art minor, but I left that school with some amazing stories, friends, contacts, and was even deemed the Marine Science Student of the Year for 2019. I had learned, in a few cases, that taking on a little less was a good thing. By the end of my degree, I was teetering the line of burnout. But I had just graduated, so it’s fine! I escaped that. All I needed was a summer working on the water to get me out of that headspace…right?
By the end of the summer, I packed up my things and drove with my chatty senior cat all the way down to southern Texas for grad school. Bright-eyed and still secretly tired, I embarked my new chapter at Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi (what a waste of characters in a proposal). Upon my arrival, every time I talked about the extracurriculars I wanted to get into, I was stopped with, “well you overloaded yourself in undergrad, so just let yourself breathe and focus on one thing.” Maybe they’re right, I thought. So I under-committed. I only let myself take my classes and work on my thesis those first few months. I made a point to relax and go on adventures. While I know that giving myself more freedom to rest and relax was important, I can’t shake the feeling that I was underwhelmed. Maybe I succeeded in those high stress situations because I didn’t have a second to spare – I had to use my time wisely. With the master’s degree, I had all this time and no structure built around it. It was something to the tune of an object in motion remains in motion. I was the object that stopped and now needed help to go again.
As my first semester came to an end, I sought after that push. I started going to therapy and exploring my tendencies to procrastinate. Then, as I was making a comeback – BOOM – a global pandemic one month; your loved one getting COVID when you knew nothing about it the next. School being thrust into an online setting at warp speed. Having to be a student doing work and an instructor recording lectures at the same time. The proposal I had spend 7 months writing was at risk of not being feasible because of travel restrictions. Social injustices. My grandmother’s sudden death. The explosive end of a friendship pulling the pin to an anxiety grenade. Choosing to head back to Pennsylvania for the fall semester to be safer while the world settles back down. Realizing I may have undiagnosed ADHD and that’s why I could be struggling. Each time I picked up speed, the breaks would screech to a halt. Tightening the seatbelt around my chest.
Now I’m back and still struggling to get rolling again. Some days I think it might be a good idea to just try another path so I can rest my brain. But then I get to teach, and like a matchstick striking against a grainy surface, I’m remembering why I need to do this. Science communication is my passion and I just want to use the privilege that is higher education to make accurate information digestible to those who need it most. I want to make like a meteor and leave an impact.
I know I’ve seen both extremes when it comes to what I need to do to achieve my goals. And part of that is intentional and routine selfcare. It’s not a reward for productivity. It’s fuel. I’m not there but I am getting closer to finding the balance. Having a partner who knows when I need animal videos instead of doom scrolling is a good start. I am not the Atlas of the plastic pollution movement. It is not the end of the world if I don’t save and reuse that glass jar. Like I have enough cabinet space. It’s okay to get that dirty chai latte in a plastic cup if that’s what’s going to put the oomf in my letter to policy makers who need a wake-up call. It’s okay if some purchases aren’t sustainably sourced, especially on a graduate student budget. All these things can be done while still demanding change. You’re not a hypocrite, you’re a human.
For more of Jessica, check out @r0xy567 on Instagram