A Life in the Deep Sea with Dr. Janet Voight

Jordan Greer

Dr. Janet Voight is an invertebrate researcher who has made a career of exploring the depths of the ocean. There, she works to uncover the secrets of the mysterious organisms that reside on the seafloor. Through her inquiry, she has become a renowned biologist who has discovered and/or described several deep-sea invertebrates (including bivalve and flatworms) as well as observed unique animal behaviors never before seen. As a tribute to her contributions to deep-sea biology, she has had several species named after her.  Currently, Dr. Voight conducts her research as curator of invertebrate zoology at the Field Museum. Over the past 25 years of her tenure at the Field, she has continued to publish and review relevant research while providing outreach to the public and support to up-and-coming scientists.

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Dr. Voight began her journey into science in her hometown of Davenport, Iowa. Although no one in her immediate family pursued science as a career, that did not deter her from being fascinated by the natural world and pursuing those interests for herself. She later enrolled at Iowa State University where she received her Bachelor’s degree in Biology. Afterwards, she honed her scientific expertise by working as a laboratory technician, then research assistant before committing to graduate school. Her efforts culminated in her PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Arizona. By the time she arrived at the Field Museum, three months later, she was a fully realized scientist, prepared to lead her own research.

 When given the opportunity, Dr. Voight conducts research into the deep sea aboard Alvin; a crewed submersible that can carry its passengers as deep as 4,500 meters. Using Alvin as well as Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROV’s), she has collected rare invertebrates, such as various species of wood-boring clam. The wood-boring clams do just what their name implies; they tunnel through wood, eating sawdust in the process. However, you might wonder, when would clams ever come across wood in the deep sea? Well, trees fall into rivers and some are carried to the coast where they become driftwood and eventually sink to the ocean floor. These bivalves have evolved to exploit those natural wood-falls, and are commonly referred to as “shipworms” due to their worm-like appearance and ability to bore into the wood of ships. Part of Dr. Voight’s research investigates the diversity of these animals that exist on what we think of as the very scarce wood found on the ocean floor. By placing wood on the deep sea floor and recovering it later, she has been able to study what changes occur over time in the entire wood-fall ecosystem; a fact that is vital if she is to shed light on the ecology of these fascinating invertebrates.

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Left: Shipworm anatomy and tunnel architecture, as represented by a Dutch printmaker in the early 1700s. (Photo from the Rijks Museum, via the Smithsonian.) 

While her field work is extraordinary, aspects of her day to day life may be similar to your own. She begins each morning by feeding her cat and doing some recreational reading. When she reaches her office, she starts her day by checking her email and updating the various papers on which she is working, then on good days she gets to look at specimens. To provide continued support to those in her field, she became an associate editor for three scientific journals. By working as an editor, she helps bolster new scientists and gives supportive feedback to her fellow members of the scientific community. In her own words, “it is so important that when you submit a paper that you get feedback in a reasonable amount of time; that someone says ‘well thank you for sending this to us’. I’m going to see what your peers think of it”. This type of input is essential to moving science forward, and particularly important for giving constructive criticism to improve the work of junior scientists.

 In addition to her work within the scientific community, Dr. Voight engages with the general public through both outreach and media outlets to share her science. For outreach, Dr. Voight has participated in invertebrate collections training for both interns and volunteers, helping to inspire people to pursue science for themselves. She continues this trend in the Field Museum’s blog, where she contributes articles using accessible language to describe both the deep-sea critters she adores as well as her experiences during her field expeditions abroad.

 Although she appears to wear many hats in her career (explorer, researcher, editor, blogger) she shows no signs of stopping. Whether it be her passion, research, or outreach, Dr. Janet Voight continues to be an inspiration to future scientists and a significant addition to the women in science community.

 To hear more about Dr. Voight’s work, you can listen to a podcast with her here.

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