Cool Job: This ecologist is studying an ocean of changes | Science News for Students

Cool Job: This ecologist is studying an ocean of changes

He’s collecting data to better understand humanity’s role in and on the warming seas
Oct 11, 2019 — 6:40 am EST
a photo of Malin Pinsky

Malin Pinsky, 38, is a marine ecologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Since shortly after finishing college, he’s been curious about the oceans and how people and our changing climate are affecting them.

Jeff Heckman, Courtesy of Rutgers Univ.

Malin Pinsky had the first of two lightbulb moments in 2003 while crossing the churning Drake Passage. It separates the tip of South America from Antarctica. He was standing on the bridge of a research ship. Just five months earlier he had finished college, where he studied biology and environmental science. Now he was scanning the sky for seabirds. It was one of his duties as a research technician on the cruise. But his eyes kept straying to the vast, mysterious slate-blue ocean.

As the ship entered nutrient-rich Antarctic waters, water-temperature gauges on the bridge abruptly dropped. Whales suddenly showed up all around the ship. “It was stunning,” recalls Pinsky, now 38. Today he’s a marine ecologist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. But that moment on the bridge helped him realize “that the ocean looks featureless from the top, but there’s so much going on underneath.”

a photo of the surface of the ocean in the Drake Passage
While scanning for seabirds here, in the Drake Passage, Pinsky began to appreciate that “the ocean looks featureless from the top, but there’s so much going on underneath.”
Goddard_Photography/iStock/Getty Images Plus

The second lightbulb moment hit him several months later. The locale was far less captivating. Pinsky was then an intern in Washington, D.C. for Oceana. It’s a conservation group. His job was making photocopies. Lots of them.

It was around when two big reports had come out. Both focused on what policies might best preserve U.S. ocean resources. “And I realized, wait a minute. We have all these laws and policies that determine how we as a society interact with the ocean. And they’re far out of date.” The problem, Pinsky realized: “We don’t yet have the science to know what the new policy should be.”

Today he runs a sprawling lab — with a cast of about 20. And it’s leading a charge to collect those data. Amidst this era of global warming, “The overarching focus of the lab is to understand how marine ecosystems are changing,” Pinsky says. His team wants to learn why ocean ecosystems are changing. They also are searching for “choices we can make as a society to alter that course.”

One research area has gotten a lot of media attention over the last year: how warming ocean waters are reducing the share of fish that can be harvested sustainably around the globe. His team’s work was included in a high-profile international report. It suggested that nearly 1 million species are facing possible extinction. Part of what’s putting those fish at risk is what people are doing. 

Pinsky’s team also seeks to learn how our changing climate, as well as overfishing and habitat destruction, might be driving changes in fish and other animals in the sea. To find out, team members travel each year to coral reefs near the Philippines. There, they carefully catalog populations of clown fish. They collect data on the growth and mating of these fish, their diversity and other factors. A staggering number of different things could affect clown fish numbers.

These researchers are also studying whether recent changes in climate have driven genetic changes among Atlantic cod and other fish in the sea. Maybe that would explain why some fish are now maturing at younger ages, for example.

Focused and data-driven

Such a rigorous, data-driven approach to studying how well species can tolerate warming seas is “incredibly important,” says Kimberly Oremus. She’s a fisheries economist at the University of Delaware in Newark. Pinsky’s broad approach to the problem — looking at species, where they live and how fisheries are managed — is setting the pace for other scientists, she adds. “He’s pushing the whole field to respond to his growing body of research.”

Looking for the big picture has always been a trait of Pinsky’s, says Stephen Palumbi. He works at Stanford University in California. He also was Pinsky’s PhD advisor at that school. Pinsky was “always raring to do a thousand different things in a hundred different ways,” Palumbi recalls.

a photo of Pinsky diving at a reef in the Phillipines
A swarm of fish surrounds marine ecologist Malin Pinsky at a reef off the coast of Leyte island in the Philippines in 2017.
M. Stuart/Rutgers Univ.

Pinsky’s seemingly boundless energy has become legendary. Michelle Stuart is a marine biologist who has worked in Pinsky’s lab since 2013. She recalls sitting on the team’s boat, exhausted after a long day of fieldwork. “Someone was just below the surface, kicking,” she says. “And it was like one of those windup dolls that you put in the bathtub, you know, ch-ch-ch.” She realized it was Pinsky. Here it was “after a long day of diving,” she says, and “he’s still, like, 120 percent.”

At times in the past, Pinsky has been more interested in “what’s the big idea?” than in small early-stage ideas, says Rebecca Selden. She’s a marine ecologist who joined the lab in 2015. (Pinsky concurs, noting that he once had a reputation as “Dr. No.”) But over the last four years, she says, Pinsky’s leadership style has evolved. He now creates space where ideas have room to grow. Selden, who in July left Pinsky’s lab to start her own at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, plans to take those lessons with her.

Visit to join an Oct. 22 chat with Malin Pinsky.

Power Words

(more about Power Words)

Antarctica     A continent mostly covered in ice, which sits in the southernmost part of the world.

Atlantic     One of the world’s five oceans, it is second in size only to the Pacific. It separates Europe and Africa to the east from North and South America to the west.

biology     The study of living things. The scientists who study them are known as biologists.

climate     The weather conditions that typically exist in one area, in general, or over a long period.

conservation     The act of preserving or protecting something. The focus of this work can range from art objects to endangered species and other aspects of the natural environment.

coral     Marine animals that often produce a hard and stony exoskeleton and tend to live on reefs (the exoskeletons of dead ancestor corals).

data     Facts and/or statistics collected together for analysis but not necessarily organized in a way that gives them meaning. For digital information (the type stored by computers), those data typically are numbers stored in a binary code, portrayed as strings of zeros and ones.

diversity     A broad spectrum of similar items, ideas or people. In a social context, it may refer to a diversity of experiences and cultural backgrounds. (in biology) A range of different life forms.

ecologist     Someone who works in a branch of biology that deals with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings.

ecosystem     A group of interacting living organisms — including microorganisms, plants and animals — and their physical environment within a particular climate. Examples include tropical reefs, rainforests, alpine meadows and polar tundra. The term can also be applied to elements that make up some an artificial environment, such as a company, classroom or the internet.

environmental science     The study of ecosystems to help identify environmental problems and possible solutions. Environmental science can bring together many fields including physics, chemistry, biology and oceanography to understand how ecosystems function and how humans can coexist with them in harmony. People who work in this field are known as environmental scientists.

extinction     The permanent loss of a species, family or larger group of organisms.

factor     Something that plays a role in a particular condition or event; a contributor.

field     An area of study, as in: Her field of research was biology. Also a term to describe a real-world environment in which some research is conducted, such as at sea, in a forest, on a mountaintop or on a city street. It is the opposite of an artificial setting, such as a research laboratory.

fishery     A place where fish are raised commercially (for sale) or a site where large numbers of a fish species naturally congregate, making it a place where commercial fleets come to harvest that species.

genetic     Having to do with chromosomes, DNA and the genes contained within DNA. The field of science dealing with these biological instructions is known as genetics. People who work in this field are geneticists.

global warming     The gradual increase in the overall temperature of Earth’s atmosphere due to the greenhouse effect. This effect is caused by increased levels of carbon dioxide, chlorofluorocarbons and other gases in the air, many of them released by human activity.

habitat     The area or natural environment in which an animal or plant normally lives, such as a desert, coral reef or freshwater lake. A habitat can be home to thousands of different species.

marine     Having to do with the ocean world or environment.

marine biologist     A scientist who studies creatures that live in ocean water, from bacteria and shellfish to kelp and whales.

media     (in the social sciences) A term for the ways information is delivered and shared within a society. It encompasses not only the traditional media — newspapers, magazines, radio and television — but also Internet- and smartphone-based outlets, such as blogs, Twitter, Facebook and more. The newer, digital media are sometimes referred to as social media. The singular form of this term is medium.

nutrient     A vitamin, mineral, fat, carbohydrate or protein that a plant, animal or other organism requires as part of its food in order to survive.

PhD     (also known as a doctorate) A type of advanced degree offered by universities — typically after five or six years of study — for work that creates new knowledge. People qualify to begin this type of graduate study only after having first completed a college degree (a program that typically takes four years of study).

policy     A plan, stated guidelines or agreed-upon rules of action to apply in certain specific circumstances. For instance, a school could have a policy on when to permit snow days or how many excused absences it would allow a student in a given year.

population     (in biology) A group of individuals from the same species that lives in the same area.

reef     A ridge of rock, coral or sand. It rises up from the seafloor and may come to just above or just under the water’s surface.

sea     An ocean (or region that is part of an ocean). Unlike lakes and streams, seawater — or ocean water — is salty.

species     A group of similar organisms capable of producing offspring that can survive and reproduce.

trait     A characteristic feature of something. (in genetics) A quality or characteristic that can be inherited.

whale     A common, but fairly imprecise, term for a class of large mammals that lives in the ocean. This group includes dolphins and porpoises.


Journal: L.A. Rogers et al. Shifting habitats expose fishing communities to risk under climate changeNature Climate Change. Published online June 17, 2019. doi: 10.1038/s41558-019-0503-z.

Journal: M.L. Pinsky et al. Greater vulnerability to warming of marine versus terrestrial ectothermsNature. Vol. 569, May 2, 2019, p. 108. doi: 10.1038/s41586-019-1132-4.

Journal: C.M. Free et al. Impacts of historical warming on marine fisheries productionScience. Vol. 363, March 1, 2019, p. 979. doi: 10.1126/science.aau1758.

Journal: M.L. Pinsky. Species coexistence through competition and rapid evolutionProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Vol. 116, February 12, 2019, p. 2407. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1822091116.

Journal: M.L. Pinsky et al. Preparing ocean governance for species on the moveScience. Vol. 360, June 15, 2018, p. 1189. doi: 10.1126/science.aat2360.