Shooting for the Moon and Landing Among The Sea Stars: Jessica Schaub’s Jellyfish Journey
“I've always really been interested in the ocean. I've had a lot of people ask me this because it is strange to grow up in a landlocked area, and become interested in something like jellyfish research,” Jessica Schaub smiles. She is a third-year masters student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, a jellyfish ecologist by trade.
It’s a role that is a little unexpected when you think about how she grew up in rural, northern Alberta. She’s a Metis woman who grew up on treaty six territory in Cold Lake, with a lot of her family in the Lac La Biche area. The path she took from Cold Lake to the pacific ocean has helped her find success exploring creatures she is fascinated by.
One of the things she recommends for students looking to find their own success is having a good support network and also curiosity. The career counsellors and advisors at her high school didn’t know a lot about moving away to go to school in the city but they were willing to help her find her way. It just wasn’t all that common at her school. Having supportive parents and family also made a big difference.
“Don't be afraid to ask questions, even if they may sound like silly questions.”
When asked, “why jellyfish?” she says, “I just describe it like how you have a favourite colour, you don't really know why you have a favourite colour, but you know that that's your favourite colour,” she explains.
Growing up, Schaub read a lot of books, watched many documentaries growing up and did a lot of fishing. She enjoyed biology, seeing the fish and interacting with them and just being on the water on the lakes where she grew up. In high school, she watched a documentary about the challenges fishermen in Japan were having problems with jellyfish and how not much was known about them.
There were a lot of questions without a lot of answers, and she saw it as a challenge. She’s explored a lot of questions and answers as part of her Master’s research and her thesis is close to completion. Schaub isn’t planning on stopping there, she’s looking forward to starting her PhD next. Schaub has been enjoying learning more about the sea creatures that fascinate her.
Another learning opportunity she really enjoyed was a camp at the University of Alberta in Edmonton after grade 11. She loved being in the city, a few hours from her home, and doing science at a university. She suggests youth wanting to leave home to pursue their education to take advantage of programs like that.
Schaub was raised by a single dad and has a younger sister. She took on a lot of student loans and applied for bursaries and scholarships. Figuring out how to pay for school and flights home from school for the holidays is something more privileged students don't have to deal with. The financial challenge of education is an obstacle she overcame and she even learned how to navigate transit in the city over the course of her journey.
One of the things she wished she did more was take advantage of the support that was available to her at University. “There are benefits and drawbacks to going to a big university like UBC, one of them is that you can find a support network for sure because there are so many people on campus and so many clubs that you're bound to find something that you're interested in or a group that you click with. But then of course, it takes a lot of personal motivation to go out and seek out those opportunities,” she recalls.
Seeking out those social opportunities while also adapting to taking five courses a term and classes all day, plus homework can be a struggle. She found community in the longhouse on campus and also playing volleyball in the leagues on campus.
Schaub also struggled with the unknown in moving away from home. “You have no idea what to expect, because you can't imagine what your life is going to look like in the next six months during your move, or whether you're going to like your degree,” she recounts. Something she found valuable was hands-on learning, and volunteering at the Vancouver Aquarium.
“I had never even seen a jellyfish in real life. Just having watched that documentary and making a career decision based on something I saw on TV seemed like a poor choice,” she smiles. She didn’t have any direct experience with that and she didn't know if she could handle working with jellyfish.
Something she worried about was getting stung but her time at the aquarium was invaluable, with the lab experience and all the opportunities she was offered. Doing well in courses is important but trying the work out was important. In some ways, she wishes she put herself out there more.
Keeping her mental health in check has been easier because in her lab, they adjust their meeting schedule based on how people were feeling. Over the pandemic, they had slots open for people to meet a few times a week and check-ins so anybody feeling alone could talk to someone. Unable to do sports at the time, she shifted to new hobbies like knitting and baking.
What inspires her these days are the undergraduate students she mentors. Listening to their stories of how they got through the pandemic inspires her, as well as their resilience in navigating their studies without seeing their friends. Supporting them while working on her research has been fulfilling and kept her striving forward toward her goals.
It might be strange to grow up in a landlocked area and fall in love with jellyfish research, but the course she charted from Cold Lake to the Pacific Ocean meant Jessica Schaub shot for the moon, and landed among the sea stars. In a field where there are more questions than answers, she’s diving into research and exploring the creatures that captured her imagination in her youth.
March 2023 update: Jessica has started her PhD in Jan 2022 but is still doing jellyfish ecology.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
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Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.