Dr. Ruth Carmichael

  • What was your path to becoming a marine scientist? 

I knew I wanted to go into some kind of Marine Sciences, but I wanted to get a good general background. I got my

Bachelor's in Biology and a Master's in Marine Biology. After I got my Master's, I worked for an environmental

consulting firm which is what got me more interested in how people make decisions...particularly about environmental

resource use. Essentially, this experience is how I became interested in Ecology. I then pursued my PhD in Marine

Biology with Dr. Ivan Valiela. He did a lot of applied work on how people affect the environment and how that in turn

affects ecosystems. That's what changed my career and got me on the path of work that covers everything I do now.

When I finished my PhD, I did some consulting work on Cape Cod, Massachusetts and near the Cape. Then I took a

faculty position at University of Maine - Machias, which had a great Marine Sciences program. I had a half time teaching

and half time research position there. After a few years, I realized I wanted to be somewhere that I could really do more

intense research. I am currently a Sr. Marine Scientist II at Dauphin Island Sea Lab (DISL) and have a dual appointment

to the University of South Alabama (USA) as an Associate Professor of Marine Sciences, which allows me to take


  • When you were pursuing your phD were you in the minority as a woman? 

For many years now, the field of Biology, at least among the undergraduates and some graduates, has been female

dominated. But they [women] seem to drop out, at least in the past, as they move up to the level of faculty. I remember

always having many colleagues and other students who were women. In my classes when I was a T.A., it was mostly

women students. Our advisors, our mentors, and the vast majority of our faculty were always men. My committee for my

Master's had no women. I had to work fairly hard to make sure that I had even two women on my committee for my

PhD. That was by design, I did that on purpose. When I took my first faculty position at the University of Maine,

interestingly that department was primarily women. The President, VP, and the chair of my department were women.

The faculty was at least half women; that was an unusual situation. Then when I came to Dauphin Island, I didn't think

about it but I was the only woman, at the time, on the university faculty side. During the interview process, one of the

students asked me if it made me uncomfortable, or if I thought it was odd that I was the only woman. I had to stop and

think about it because I hadn't actually had never occurred to me. I far more noticed when I wasn't the only

woman, and that was odd to me. I never thought twice about it when I was the only woman because that was normal.  

  • What type of research projects are you working on?

I am a population and trophic ecologist, which allows me to do a variety of projects, including several different species.

For example, I operate the Alabama Marine Mammal Stranding Network and DISL's Manatee Sighting Network, and we

have a number of spinoff projects. We do demographic work, stranding response, and live animal taggings. I have three

students working on marine animal projects, one working on movement patterns, another doing genetics and dietary

analyses, and one who is studying harmful algal bloom toxins. I also have a student who is studying larval distributions

relative to microbial distributions and environmental conditions in Mobile Bay. We work on a number of projects related

to human alterations to natural systems including studying phosphorus contamination in Bangs Lake, part of the Grand

Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, and projects in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (ADVANCE fellowship) and in

Waquoit Bay, Massachusetts using the shells of bi-valves as tracers of pollution. I also have two students working on 

horseshoe crab ecology, including development of a habitat suitability model for the northcentral Gulf of Mexico and

occurrence surveys in Mississippi Sound. Working on many projects suits my personality. It's all part of the big picture.

We essentially are asking the same questions about each of the animals, in terms of their population demographics,

their growth, their survival, their physiology, and their diet. How are they responding to environmental change? Because

all of these animals live in the environment together, studying them together is natural to me. It's not like we should 

study any of them in a "vacuum". Everything's related to everything else...a big blanket of population and trophic ecology

on different scales and measured using different indicators and metrics. 


  • What do you like best about being a researcher? 

My favorite part of being a researcher is asking and answering interesting questions. Beyond the questions has been

the opportunity to travel and interact with other researchers from around the world. I have been to Europe, South

America, and Asia. The farthest I have been is Taiwan and Hong Kong, and my most recent trip was to Japan in June

2015. My trips to Asia were for international horseshoe crab meetings. In addition to the typical conference where we

gave talks and posters, and worked on papers, these meetings provide an opportunity to visit field sites for highly

endangered horseshoe crab species. We try to do a lot of things with this unique group of colleagues that we don't get

to see very often. 

  • What is your favorite part of being a professor? 

There are two things in particular that I really like. The first is the direct one-on-one mentoring with students. When I get

a chance to get into the lab and show a student how to dissect clams, for example. I never get to do that anymore and it

is so much fun...doing something I love to do while teaching the sciences. The other thing I really like is doing data

analysis; letting the story reveal itself in the data is really exciting to me. It's like the sculptor who talks about how the

statue they are making is in the material already and all they are doing is freeing it. That's exactly how I think about 

data. Whatever numbers or information we collect about the natural environment, the story is already in there. It's our

job as scientists to find the patterns that are already in the raw material and then the data tells the story. That process

of analyzing the data to find the story that's already in there is very exciting to me.  

  • What advice would you give to young scientists who want to follow in your footsteps?

I would tell them not to try to follow in anybody's footsteps. I would tell them to do as many things as you possibly can

and find out what you really like. Try a lot of different things, don't hem yourself in early. Don't try to follow in anybody

else's footsteps, but see what opportunities present themselves to you and try very hard to say "And yes" rather than

"No but" as often as you can. I think often we think things are supposed to be a certain way so we don't take

opportunities. Don't try to put yourself in a box or pigeonhole yourself. Everybody else will do that so don't do that to

yourself, just leave yourself open to trying things. If it doesn't work out that's fine, it's not the end of the world. Go do

something else. Try as many things as you can because you never know what you might find that is really exciting.


Dr. Carmichael at the mudflats in Nagasaki Japan. The flats are spawning & nursery grounds for rare Asian horseshoe crabs.


Dr. Carmichael with endangered horseshoe crabs.


"I don't want to be famous. All i hope is that people will find value in my publications and that they will provide a stepping stone for future work." 

- Dr. Ruth                Carmichael