University of Texas at Austin Marine Science Institute
@SabrinaHeiser on X
@algasabrina on Instagram
German marine biologist Sabrina has worked as a diver and researcher at American and British research stations in Antarctica; she's focused not on the ice, but on the underwater forest of algae.
It's not unusual: kids don't always know what a phrase means and don't want to ask, or grab onto an idea without really knowing what it means. That happened to Sabrina, who grew up SCUBA diving on family trips to Norway, who taught swimming and thought she might want to work with children, and who jumped on the popular job title "marine biologist," without understanding what it involved. "[The friend who told me she wanted to be a marine biologist] didn't really tell me much about it. I didn't quite think. I loved the ocean, and I remember going to Norway every year, how as soon as we were on the ferry crossing the water, I felt at peace and at home and like that's where I belonged. I had never put one and one together that this was something I could study. And [my friend] was drawing fish. It's not that I was interested in fish, I just had never thought of the ocean as a career path."
So what happened to the friend who wanted to become a marine biologist? She didn't. She's working as a paramedic now and is very happy in her career.
Meanwhile, Sabrina didn't learn all that much about being a marine biologist until she started looking at colleges. "I mostly just concentrated on school. I thought, "I have to get good enough grades to get into a program." But there was one thing she understood completely clearly and never let up on: SCUBA* diving. "I tried to do as much diving as possible, just seeing and exploring the ocean." She continued diving all through high school, wherever she was, and chose her college based on her ability to get her professional diving certificate there. Of course, many marine
biologists have successful careers without being SCUBA divers. "I just knew I wanted SCUBA to be part of my career; it is who I am."
* SCUBA stands for self-contained underwater breathing apparatus.
Shooting too high
So far away
Sabrina knew herself well enough to be sure she needed to work on her English. A year in England helped, although it was a headache. "English was never my strength. Language is not my strong part." She wasn't that surprised by the difficulty she faced once she got to England. Students who had taken part in her program had spoken at huggler school, helping her to make her decision. "They said that after a couple of weeks they had a really hard time, because they realized that their English wasn't that good. They had fairly good grades in school, but it's not the same as living in a place and being surrounded by [the language]. They talked about how your brain is just exhausted. They struggled with it and had a really hard time."
Things were even worse for Sabrina because, she says, her English wasn't as good as those kids' in the first place. "I thought, the only thing that can happen is my English can improve. So I didn't have that slump. I just got better over time. And when I went back to Germany to do the last two years of high school, I got better grades in English, so that was yay!
Sabrina grew up in Germany's lifeguarding program, where her parents met as SCUBA divers. Not only did she learn to swim through this program, but from the age of twelve, she taught little kids swimming, something which she says contributed to her understanding of herself as a trustworthy person, and helped her comprehension of how people learn.
The best-laid plans... Sabrina started off wanting to study dolphins, and to go straight through school on the traditional academic trajectory. "Undergraduate, master's, Ph.D., becoming a professor, a couple of years of postdoc in between." By the time she finished her undergrad, she'd become aware of more options. "I could have worked at an aquarium, or for a company, a nonprofit, or as a lab technician." And she had put a lot of energy into her studies and felt the need to try something different. When she heard marine biologist Terri Souster describe her work, she changed her mind -- and her pathway.
Shooting too high
Sabrina got one of the 18-month research assistant gigs the British Antarctic Survey advertises, but first she applied for a marine biologist position there. "In hindsight I was shooting a little high, but I wanted to go there, I wanted to work there, I was willing to do the work." It didn't work out. "I didn't get that job, because they found someone who had a little more experience, but they highly encouraged me to apply for the marine research assistant job." (She got the job offer on her birthday!)
Sabrina set aside her conventional plan for an unusual detour to Antarctica. She even extended the 18-month job to 30 months -- although the BAS sent her home for a "sanity break" midway. "So that's how I ended up working in Antarctica instead of a master's and before my Ph.D. And I think it gave me a lot of insight. I mean, it wasn't a typical job, being and working down there, but it did give me more of a job experience than a master's would have, and I think that really helped me in my Ph.D." What's more, confidence that had been somewhat shot during her last undergraduate year got built up again because of the experience of working more independently at Rothera Research Station.
So Far Away
Being far from home at difficult points in her family's life has been rough for Sabrina, but she feels it has helped her to know herself better. "I was at Rothera when my grandma passed away. You can't just catch a plane and go home. But it also gave me an appreciation for just processing things in my own way. This might be too deep, but I feel like for a lot of people, graves are a very important thing. And a funeral is an important way to process someone's death. I didn't have those things with my grandma because I couldn't go, I couldn't join.
"When my mom died I went back for her funeral, but now I can't go and visit her grave. It's different for me; I've never had that association with remembering a person that way. I found other ways instead. Every year on my mom's birthday I make her birthday cake. And I get to eat cake and share it with my friends, so that's awesome."
I wasn't the most popular kid in school because I was the nerdy one. I was very focused on good grades. I wasn't like the cool kid with the newest clothes and stuff like that. I really struggled with my unpopularity growing up. On the other hand, it pushed me towards leaving Germany -- like "Okay, goodbye!" By undergrad I gained a lot of support from fellow students. Then, in Antarctica, I joined the band. The first time I played the flute in the band at Rothera, I was shaking so badly, I was so nervous! Everyone was so supportive. No one judged. Everyone was just really nice. And by the end of my three years there I played a solo on the flute in front of everyone. That personal growth is something I'm not sure I would have found elsewhere. People who weren't my family supported me and believed in me and said, "You don't have to be perfect, we still appreciate you."