Why I switched from Pre-Med to Oceanography

There had always been a passion for the ocean

Dr. Jenan Kharbush was fascinated by the ocean, and when she was younger even wanted to be a dolphin or whale trainer! So, how did she go from heading towards medical school, to a Chemical Oceanographer and Microbial Biogeochemist?

Being from the mid-west, she found whale training and marine biology a little intimidating. Even in college she thought, “That’s such a cool job! Everyone is going to want to do it, right?” Even now, watching the videos from other SciAll.Org scientists like Mike or the other marine biologists, she still gets the feels for how it’s one of the coolest things to do! There’s bound to be a lot of competition… especially for someone who is from the mid-west where there are no oceans…

How did she get into Oceanography?

Throughout college Dr. Kharbush had good grades, and with the advice of her family was trying to find ways to take advantage of that. Naturally they came to, go to medical school. And so, that was her plan.

Then, her junior year she decided to do something different for a semester abroad experience. She had heard of a program called SEA Semester. SEA stands for Sea Education Association.

It was pretty much the craziest semester abroad experience she could think of doing. It is a 6 week on land program where you learn about oceanography and sailing, followed by a 6 week trip to sea on a sailing vessel. Yes, like a sailboat. For someone who had never been out of sight of land in their entire life it sounded very exciting and cool. Also, a way to live out her dreams of being an oceanographer and marine biologist while maintaining her practical career plans of going to medical school.
Check out this part of the video for her personal photos!

What was her SEA Semester like?

Her program was focused on climate change. They sailed from Mexico to Tahiti!

She was so far out into the ocean, that there were times when the space station could pass overhead, and the crew would know that those humans on the space station were the closest humans to their ship. The closest humans around. The ocean is a really big place. It’s isolated out there.

She discovered, Marine Science was definitely something she loved

Her SEA semester experience really showed how Marine science was something she still loved and found interesting. Fascinating even.

Maybe she could make a career after this, after all?

It would be something she was really passionate about, and when things got tough she would have the strength and energy to keep going. She found she was so much happier being outside, working in the sun, than she predicted she would be if she went to medical school.

Grad school is stressful… but so is medical school…

So, she thought it was really important that she enjoy or care about whatever she was working on.

So, how did she make the Oceanography leap?

At (more or less) the last minute, her senior year of college fall semester she changed all of her plans. This is the typical time when seniors are applying to medical or graduate schools, and she pivoted.

She had a feeling that this is what she needed to do. So, she applied to all Oceanography programs.

How did her family take the switch?

Well… she didn’t tell them at first. She thought they would be upset. And, they were a bit surprised once they found out.

One thing her dad said when she revealed she was going to do a Ph.D. in Oceanography was, “There aren’t going to be any jobs when you’re finished!” At the time she thought, “Of course there will be jobs!” She could work for the government, be a professor, do all sorts of things.

But, she was naïve… In a way he was right and it was a much more competitive world in the academic research and oceanography world than she was anticipating as a senior in college. Looking back, it was not an easy road to get to where she is now.

But, the interest and fascination that she has with what she studys has really sustained and pushed her through the tough times.

So… What does she DO now as a Dr. in Oceanography?

Unexpectedly, she’s back in the mid-west!

That’s where the opportunity was. Turns out, the Great Lakes (where she’ll likely spend a lot of her time in the coming years) are a lot like oceans. They just don’t have salt, and the microbes that live in the great lakes are completely different – which is really exciting!

So… What’s the lesson?

  1. Do what you’re interested in
  2. Keep an open mind
  3. Be flexible

And things will work out 😊

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