NSF Postdoctoral Fellow, University of California, San Diego, San Diego, CA
Ph.D., 2000 University of California, San Diego, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Marine Biology; A.B., 1992 Occidental College, Biology, Graduation with Distinction
My professional interests are diurnal fluctuations in oxygen concentration in aquatic environments,cardiovascular and respiratory adaptations to hypoxia (low oxygen) in fishes and control of breathing in vertebrates.
I grew up near the coast of Los Angeles, and thus have always had an interest in the marine environment. I was very fortunate to have an opportunity to take a summer marine biology course while growing-up, so I knew fairly early that I wanted to go to college to study marine biology. My father passed away during my senior year of high school, so family issues dominated my choice to attend Occidental College in Los Angeles. Oxy was only 30 miles from home and offered a major in Biology with a marine emphasis.
I hadn't given much thought to what I wanted to do for a career until I attended the Minorities in Marine Science Undergraduate Program (MIMSUP: http://www.ac.wwu.edu/~mimsup/index.html) at Shannon Point Marine Center, Western Washington University. MIMSUP was my first experience directing my own research project and I enjoyed it so much that I began to think about graduate schools. Immediately after MIMSUP, I was a summer undergraduate researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO), where I met my future PhD advisor.
At SIO, I learned about comparative physiology for the first time. For me, comparative physiology is the perfect blend of all of my interests - it is an integrative field that incorporates ecology, physiology, molecular biology, and evolution. For my dissertation, I studied how a group of amphibious fishes, mudskippers, was adapted to an unusual lifestyle. Mudskippers have specially modified fins and gill structure that allow them to literally walk out of the water and breathe air. But, most species of mudskipper also build mud burrows and the water in these burrows has almost no oxygen. Air can at least 40 times more oxygen per unit volume than water, so these fish are "walking" back and forth between the some of the most extreme oxygen conditions that exist in nature. I studied physiological (heart rate, metabolic rate) and biochemical (enzyme activity) adaptations in many species of mudskippers, and analyzed evolutionary trends within this group. I also traveled! to Au stralia, Japan, and Malaysia to do ecological studies these fishes in their natural environment. In my current research, I'm using a species of fish from Southern California estuaries to do an in-depth physiological and molecular study of how this species adapts to daily changes in aquatic oxygen tension. (http://compphys.bio.uci.edu/hicks/Nancy.htm)
Most of my day is spent thinking about research, but not all of it. My other interests include music (I play string bass in the UCSD/La Jolla Symphony), running, hiking, backpacking, cooking, and sewing. For me, it has been essential to have hobbies for stress relief. I love my job, but sometimes things go wrong and it feels good to have a way to express frustration in a healthy way.
Students frequently ask me for advice on what they should do to get into a science career. Here are things that people told me, or I wish they had told me:
1) Always look for opportunities to learn new things. It can be really scary to travel abroad the first time (especially if you're like me and have always lived near family) or even to take a class in a new subject, because there is a very real possibility of failure. Take the chance and believe you can succeed. I don't want to be cliché, but believing in yourself goes a long way.
2) Always be informed and don't be afraid to ask questions. I always hear students complain about not understanding lectures or reading assignments, but they are reluctant to go talk to the professor because they are afraid of feeling stupid. I personally had a very hard time with this as a Mexican-American female because I sometimes felt I was expected to live up to a higher standard than other students. I finally decided that I would rather feel momentarily awkward than fail catastrophically, and more importantly, I realized that accepting help does not mean that you are less qualified!!! The majority of professors want to help you, they want to hear your questions, and they want to be involved in your growth as a scientist, but most won't do anything for you until you take that first step into their office and ask. Asking for help means that you can achieve more, with less stress, and have time for other important things like family and hobbies.
3) I'm reluctant to tell undergraduates that they should take particular courses. I think almost all graduate programs in marine biology prefer students with a solid background in general biology. You'll have plenty of opportunity to take specialized classes in graduate school.