Why Dr. Natasha Karenyi Became a Marine Biologist

When she chose to become a Marine Biologist, her family weren’t very pleased. Given her matric results, she could have become a doctor or a lawyer, professions that hold a certain level of esteem in her community. Her love of the ocean would however someday lead Dr. Natasha Karenyi to become one of the most respected academics in the country.

Originally from Paarl, she grew up in the Boland, which meant that she visited the ocean once or twice a year. The water was filled with “creepy crawlies” that scared her but learning about these ‘creepy crawlies’ in high school fascinated her.

When Natasha was 16, she did a research project on possible careers that she might be interested in. She had to find out what a marine biologist does and where they work, and then interview an actual marine biologist. She did not know any marine biologists but she did not use this as an excuse to give up. Instead, she contacted the University of Cape Town and they put her through to Prof George Branch, the guy “who literally wrote the book” on South Africa’s marine life. She says that “after that conversation”, her mind was made up. Of course, as noted above, her family had questions.

Her parents and grandparents did not know what a marine biologist was, and more importantly, whether someone could “make a living doing that”. They bombarded her with questions like, “What is this thing, marine biology? What do they do? Where do they work? What job would you get? How long do you have to study?” You see, like many of us, Natasha comes from a family that feels it’s important to have a job that puts food on the table. Her family’s CV consists of a wide variety of skills that ensures that there is food on the table. These include carpenters, medical doctors, educators and mechanics. Now however, that CV also includes, ‘Marine Biologist’.

Despite her family’s reservations, Natasha went on to complete her science degree in Zoology and Botany at the University of Cape Town, where she also received a Merit Scholarship. In 2000, she completed her Marine Biology Honours degree and by 2003, she was done with her Animal Biology Masters. She was also consistently one of the top students, appearing on the Dean’s Merit List, and as a result, from 2000 to 2002, she was awarded a scholarship from the National Research Foundation.

After completing her Masters, it might have come as a relief to her family that she managed to get a lot of jobs. She started out as a teaching assistant at the university and then went on to become an ecological consultant for Ezemvelo Kwazulu-Natal Wildlife and a Science Liaison Officer and Outreach Officer for Stellenbosch University. By 2009, she was ready to take the next step, and so she completed her Doctorate.

Natasha applied for and was successful in receiving scholarships from the National Research Foundation and the Andrew Mellon Foundation. By 2015, she completed her doctorate in Animal Biology at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. Once again, she was not without job opportunities. In 2014, she became a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Statistics in Ecology, Environment and Conservation; and in 2018, she was appointed as a lecturer at the university’s Department of Biological Sciences. As a lecturer and researcher, she focuses on Benthic Ecology, Community Ecology, Marine Habitat Classifications, Multivariate Analyses and Occupancy Models.

During this time, she had published academic papers in several journals, her first being published in 2004. The journals she had published in include Koedoe, Oceanography and Marine Biology, the African Journal of Marine Science, the Journal of Insect Conservation, Ecography, Diversity and Distributions, and Coastal and Shelf Science. She also presented papers at the Coastal and Shelf Sciences Conference, the International Sandy Beach Conference, the Institute of Oceanology Polish Academy of Sciences Conference, the South African Marine Sciences Symposium, and the African Science Communication Conference. She contributed to a chapter in the book; Field Guide to the Offshore Invertebrates of South Africa, and she contributed to South Africa’s submissions to the Convention of Biological Diversity.

Most recently, she was invited as one of the speakers at the Soapbox Science event held in Cape Town. Soapbox Science events are held all over the world, and is aimed at motivating women to pursue science. This is the first time that the event is held in Cape Town, so Natasha was in fact, part of an historical event. More than 60 academics applied to speak at the event, and Natasha was one of the final 12 that was invited to speak.

Natasha says that she blames her parents for her life choices. They wanted her to choose something safe but she chose a path that was different. The reason she blames them is because it is their stubborn resolve to face any challenge that motivated her. They taught her to work hard, grow and face down any challenge that comes her way. They also supported her decision, despite their own reservations. She also credits her husband for having been there when she needed it most. The mother of three is also motivated by that which matters most; her kids.

Natasha says she grew up in a time when apartheid was coming to an end and suddenly there was hope for a new beginning. She could finally dream beyond the limitations that apartheid had imposed on her and think of a future with limitless possibilities. She looks at her kids and it fills her with joy that they think it is normal to have a mom with a PhD. When she was growing up, thinking about a future seemed pointless, but now for her daughter, having a future with endless possibilities is just, well, normal. To them, there is no difference between the abilities of boys and girls, something which makes her very happy.

When Natasha said she wanted to become a Marine Biologist, her family weren’t too pleased. However, she was determined to follow her own path, and this path led to her adding both ‘Marine Biologist’ and ‘Top Academic’ to her family’s diverse CV. Despite their reservations, it is safe to assume that they had nothing to worry about. She is, after all, Dr. Natasha Karenyi, one of the most respected academics in the country.

Source(s): Edited from an article on the Soapbox Science website, other