Humans are terrestrial creatures, but we’re drawn to water. When I think about the way I grew up and how my family was in relation with the environment, not a lot of it included connections to water, let alone saltwater. My initial tangible feelings of connection with the environment were with the forests. I grew up in an Atlanta suburb, green with woods sprawling in my backyard. This is also the life I’d known from my mother’s side of the family, on a farm in rural Mississippi. The forests and their mysteries are at the heart of my first experiences in nature and I’ve always had a curiosity to explore them.
Yet now, I’m a marine biologist who grew up in a landlocked city, went to college 4 hours from the coastline, only to find my true desire to study marine systems, and finally moved to the coast for graduate school in North Carolina where I could literally dive into the world that I developed a curiosity about much later than most people. Now, I’m a postdoctoral researcher in Colorado, another landlocked place, with seemingly no connection to the ocean from an outside perspective, but still, I study marine systems- go figure.
When I tell people I’m one of the people who work within the incredibly broad and mysteriously alluring field of marine biology, people recount their childhood dreams of working in this field, diving with the whales, and uncovering the curiosities of the deep blue. When I was a kid, my only desire was to better understand animals. In my case, my sense of connection with aquatic organisms didn’t start with seeing a shark or a whale. It started with a creek behind my backyard and a frog who ribbeted at just the right time to make me turn my head. My main way of exploring and connecting with nature was walking and running through those green woods of Georgia, which would later become a catalyst for my pursuit of trail running as a connection with the land and then scoping out creeks, which I’d also like to think as a spark for studying coastal and marine systems.
As a kid, I never saw studying marine fishes as an option for me because I honestly didn’t have much exposure to these ecosystems beyond National Geographic. My first time really seeing the study of marine animals as an option for me was through a research opportunity during college. My first research project was assessing microplastic ingestion in coastal fishes along the Texas coast. It was exciting to really experience a coastline for the first time on research trips, catching fish, evaluating the context in which we caught them, and taking them back to the lab for further study.
At this same time, I was amidst my collegiate running career, exploring different distances and terrain than what I’d experienced before. While in the throes of these academic and running developments, I realized I was fascinated by the human impacts on fishes and I wanted to further understand the complexities of fish development under human-induced environmental change. From there, I decided to fully pursue a marine biology degree for graduate school, but at the same time, I thought this would mean putting running on the back burner.
I moved to the North Carolina coast initially to pursue a Master’s degree, which would eventually turn into a Ph.D. focused on elevated temperature and hypoxia impacts on marine fish development and survival. Yet, while I embraced the coastal culture and water sports, running was always my fall back even in a place with more water than land. I found ways to integrate my love of running into a coastal life with limited trail networks, all while finding ways to incorporate learning more about the ecosystem in which I lived and the animals I studied. I even found paddleboarding to be my water-based running, a way to explore marsh trails and waterways that fueled my sense of adventure while also observing animals and ecosystem changes.
Through these adaptations of land and water movement, I’ve been able to explore more places than I would have been being solely academic, but these movements have also informed been integral to my personal scientific process and the questions I want to address in the future. In a way, running has been a form of being in relationship with the land, a form of competition and community, but also a form of study.
Though in the fields of ichthyology and fish ecology, I’ve sometimes felt like an imposter in a way because my connections with these animals have been limited compared to most people I know in the field. Many people I know in the field grew up fishing with family or grew up being inherently fascinated by these often slimy, scaly creatures whose lives we only get small glimpses of. Especially with trail running as a main hobby, sometimes it can feel like my focus should be more on the terrestrial, but running has actually helped me deepen my connection with the ocean. I can see the throughline of mountain erosional processes and snowmelt with coastal and open ocean nutrient cycling and atmospheric forcing from the ocean. In a way, running has been a form of being in relationship with the land, a form of competition and community, but also a form of study.
It takes some reminders to know that we arrive where we are from different places and that every entry point is valid.Peyton Thomas
There’s a beauty in experiencing and seeing change occur across ecosystems and being able to relate the stories of all of these places. We can all find through-lines in different aspects of our lives and I encourage you to explore the seemingly disconnected.
Connect with Peyton via Instagram is @ptcruisin22 and I have a website www.peyton-thomas.com
and B.I.M.S. (BlackInMarineScience) via