Jessica Nowicki’s work as a marine biologist diving on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was inspired by the aquatic life in her father’s pond
Anyone who wanted to find Jessica Nowicki when she was a young girl went to the pond at her Town of Grafton home.
“I would spend my day — the whole day — at the pond,” Nowicki said.
“When I got home from school, I would drop my backpack and run to the pond. I would stay there until my dad called me in for supper, and then would go back out until it got dark.
“I would just enjoy the feeling of knowing I was a part of nature. I didn’t feel outside of it — I felt a part of it.”
Nowicki still feels that way.
But the girl who used to research creatures in her father’s pond is now a marine biologist in Australia, studying the mating habits of butterfly fish on the Great Barrier Reef. The research for her doctorate is a collaboration between James Cook University in Queensland, Australia, and Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
Nowicki spent last summer at Harvard analyzing the brains of butterfly fish to determine if they have the same neurochemical as humans that causes them to be attracted to each other. It has been documented that butterfly fish are monogamous, Nowicki said, but she’s looking at what causes them to bond.
“If we find out fish bond like we do, it may change how we view them, and we may have a greater appreciation for them and a greater desire to preserve them,” she said.
“It’s gaining insight into the evolutionary origins of the bonding trait as we evolved from fish to humans.”
The woman who feels as comfortable underwater as she does on land has no doubt humans evolved from fish.
The neurochemical in humans that triggers pleasure and aids in bonding is oxytocin, Nowicki said. In fish, the chemical is isotosin and it dates back 400 million years.
“Because James Cook University is world renowned, the researchers there are the tops in their field,” Nowicki said. “The study I have started no one else has done, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it.
“It’s challenging traditional thought, and there was a lot of resistance in the beginning. If you really, really want to make a difference, you have to be willing to have the courage to challenge traditional thinking.”
Killing the fish she had observed for months to extract their brains was something Nowicki said she couldn’t do. Her partner and research assistant had to do it.
“I cried in my mask,” Nowicki said. “But I see it as a sacrifice that ultimately could result in their conservation.”
Nowicki has also done research on the effects of climate change on marine systems at Shannon Point Marine Center in Anacortes, Wash., and on the interactive effects of increased sea surface temperatures and ocean acidification on coral reef fish in Australia.
“It all started here at the pond,” Nowicki said.
She never tired of watching the fish, frogs, whirling beetles, dragonflies and other creatures and how they interacted with each other. She would catch them with her net, look at them under a microscope, then release them. She would draw them and search through books to identify the species and learn as much about them as she could.
“She was just a peewee, running around in rubbers and carrying a small plastic pail,” her father Michael said.
Her father, a diver and former swim instructor at Riverside High School in Milwaukee, taught Nowicki and her sister Corinne to dive when they were young. Nowicki was 12 when she got her diving certification.
“We dove in the Great Lakes, and the water was very cold. Not like the tropics,” Nowicki said.
“I always wanted to be a marine biologist, but that’s not easy in the Midwest. I didn’t see the ocean until I was 16 and didn’t meet a marine biologist until 2005.”
Nowicki, a 2003 graduate of Grafton High School, obtained degrees in psychology and biology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2008.
“I never knew how I was going to fuse the two together, but now look at what I’m doing,” Nowicki said.
After graduating from UWM, Nowicki volunteered at the Great Lakes Water Institute in Milwaukee, helping with Great Lakes research, including the effects of climate change.
She then received an internship through the National Science Foundation to do the research at Shannon Point Marine Center.
That paved the way for her to get a scholarship to James Cook Institute, which led to the joint doctoral project with Harvard.
It sounds easier than it was.
“I had my fair share of people saying, ‘What makes you think you’re going to be a marine biologist?’ ‘You’re going to struggle to find work.’ ‘You’re going to be hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt,’” Nowicki said.
“This was my dream — and I had to listen to it and trust it, as unsecure as it was.”
Her father, she said, was 100% behind her.
Nowicki said she doesn’t do nearly as much diving as she would like or thought she would.
“Most of my time is spent in the lab or on the computer looking for grants,” she said.
She will spend most of the next year writing her doctoral thesis and publishing the results.
After spending a week with her family, Nowicki returned to Australia, but will move to Saudi Arabia in January for a year with her partner, who is doing post doctorate work on the coral reefs in the Red Sea.
Nowicki remembers the first time she dove on the Great Barrier Reef.
“It was complete bliss,” she said. “In a weird way, I felt like I was home.”
Image Information: Marine biologist Jessica Nowicki stood at her father’s Town of Grafton pond, where she used to study fish and other creatures. Photo by Sam Arendt