To find your dream career, try studying salamanders in isolation

Hanging out with amphibians can lead to important revelations.
Hanging out with amphibians can lead to important revelations.
Image: AP Photo/David Duprey
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When Arielle Duhaime-Ross was a zoology major in college, she decided to do her undergraduate thesis on salamanders.

That was her first mistake.

“It was a very isolating experience for me in some ways,” says Duhaime-Ross, a science journalist and host of the new tech podcast Reset from Recode by Vox. “They were nocturnal salamanders, which means that I had to do my research at the time when they are most active, which is the middle of the night.”

The salamanders also enjoyed temperatures on the chillier side—around 10°C, or 50° F. This meant that Duhaime-Ross had to observe them in what was, essentially, a large refrigerator. As it turns out, “I do not do well in long periods of time in the dark around midnight hanging out with these salamanders,” she says.

But in the end, shivering in the dark with only amphibians for company wasn’t such a big mistake after all. The experience eventually brought Duhaime-Ross to her dream career—and offers a lesson in how the path to finding the right profession often involves a certain amount of trial and error.

Arielle Duhaime-Ross

Duhaime-Ross, who previously served as the climate-change correspondent for HBO’s Vice News Tonight and also worked as an editorial intern at Quartz in 2013, explains that while she grew up with a deep love of science, her studies at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, ultimately convinced her that the field wasn’t the right fit. “I don’t have the attention span,” she says, “and I don’t have the ability to focus on a single aspect of a single organism—that’s something I really admire in scientists.”

But because she was hanging out alone in the lab during odd hours, she began listening to podcasts like Science Friday and Quirks and Quarks. One night, it occurred to her that someone was writing those podcasts—and that such a someone could one day be her.

“That night, I jumped on my bike and I rode home and I immediately looked up science journalism,” Duhaime-Ross recalls.

This was a career that, in contrast to the ultra-specialized world of science, played to her strengths. “What my brain is good at is jumping from subject to subject, and doing a deep dive in a focused way into a specific topic, coming up for air, and then moving onto something else,” she says.

That’s exactly what Duhaime-Ross promises to do on Reset, with episodes devoted to topics like the ethics of DIY biohacking and the biases that crop up when artificial intelligence scores student essays. “I’m really interested in what has enabled certain technology to exist and what has prevented some technology from being better for everyone—not just users, but in the sense that technology can be better for society, broadly speaking,” she says.

As a journalist, she still tries to replicate certain conditions of the salamander experiment, carving out time for solitude that will let new ideas and desires rise to the surface of her consciousness. “I try to make a lot of time for spending time in libraries,” she says. She reads a lot of sci-fi and fantasy, and is currently engrossed in Octavia Butler’s dystopian novel Parable of the Talents. “I don’t always make the time, but I do really get a lot out of being alone,” she says.

This story has been updated to note that Duhaime-Ross also worked as an intern at Quartz in 2013.