Terrie Williams

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Professor Researcher, University of California, Santa Cruz

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Coffee shop drink of choice? I’m already too high energy–no one would want to be around me if I drank coffee. So I stick to tea–iced as well as hot. And lots of sugar–my addiction.

What do you wear to work? I wear field gear that fits with the environment I am in–from parkas and boots in the polar regions to field pants and t-shirts in the woods, to bathing suits and flip-flops in the Bahamas. This is not the type of job you want if you are into manicures and stilettos.

ocat7Was there a particular person or event that influenced your career choice? I knew that I would study big wild mammals from the time I was a teenager. There was a series of articles in Life magazine that showed spectacular pictures of the big cats from around the world. Lions, tigers, jaguars, cheetahs. It was breath-taking. I made up my mind that somehow I would grow up to study these spectacular animals. Now, I spend my life trying to save them. It doesn’t get better than that!

What is the most interesting or unusual experience of your career? The most unusual experience was directing the sea otter rescue center in Valdez, Alaska following the Exxon Valdez oil spill. For biologists, this was heart-breaking to see all of the suffering animals, but we prevailed with our science, saved hundreds of animals, and returned them to the wild. I’m proud of that.

What has surprised you about your career? Is it like you imagined it would be? I could never have predicted the path that I took to get to where I am today–nor do I think that it could ever be repeated.  Everyone is different and times change.  In truth it is all about persistence and knowing what you want to be. The surprise is that someone will actually pay you for doing what you love to do.  I laugh every time I am working with wild animals in some remote location when I think about that.

What is a typical day like at your job? Every day is new and exciting. When I am not teaching college students, I am working with large mammals (everything from dolphins to seals to mountain lions and elephants) conducting physiological and conservation research. Although I try to plan exact experiments, in truth, the animals we work with dictate what will happen–so there is no typical day. This is a very fast-paced career filled with a roller coaster of adventure, risks, and excitement. It is not for the fainthearted. In fact I would not call it a job–it is a lifestyle.

Read more about her career! BiologistCollege ProfessorResearcher

Bio: Terrie received her undergraduate degree from Douglas College, and her master’s and doctorate degree from Rutgers University. She also received a certificate in molecular biology from University of California, San Diego, and completed her postdoctoral studies at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Now, she works as a professor and researcher at University of California, Santa Cruz. Her favorite part of her career is the animals! According to Terrie, “There is nothing better that having animals show you about their biology. Most of the time the dolphins, seals, lions, bears, etc. show me something more spectacular than I could have ever imagined. I try not to over-think hypotheses in my line of research–the animals usually prove me wrong. That is my favorite time–the moment of discovery with a wild animal that has shown me how they survive in this changing world.” On the flip side, however, her work can prove difficult at times. The most heart-breaking part of her work is that many of the animals she studies are endangered. There aren’t enough biologists or money to save them all, so she finds it to be a race against time to save endangered animals. When Terrie is not working in a classroom, lab, or her office, she can be found at a field camp in the Arctic or Antarctic, in a forest studying lions or otters, or walking along a shoreline studying sea otters or dolphins. She often also works with animals at zoos and aquariums for comparison.

Terrie’s work requires imagination and creativity, combined with persistence and passion. A fun fact about her: her undergraduate degree was in art! She had wanted to become a medical illustrator or a cereal box designer when she was younger. When she retires, she hopes to illustrate a book. In her free time, Terrie enjoys triathlon sports–she just finished an Ironman race, which consists of a two mile swim, a one-hundred-twelve mile bike ride, and a marathon run, because she wanted to see how her physiology worked! According to Terrie, it was the hardest thing she has ever done, next to learning public speaking. Terrie’s personal role models are Walt Disney–the most creative person she knows–and Gerry Kooyman–her postdoctoral mentor who encouraged her to follow nature and her heart!