Land-locked detour leads to seaside dream job

Alex Vermont

Losing a job might be the best thing that’s ever happened to Alex Vermont.

It’s what he needed to transition from a detour back to a dream, and the first part of his dream will be realized when he receives his undergraduate degree in biology during NAU-Yuma’s commencement ceremony today.

Vermont knew as a child growing up in Yuma that he wanted to be a marine biologist. He saw the ocean much like people view space beyond our solar system, a whole other realm we know little about.

“There is not a terribly romantic reason I wanted to become a marine biologist,” Vermont said. “I was just fascinated with dolphins and whales.”

As he got older, he kept hearing there was no money in marine biology, so he looked for a more practical career path. Vermont completed his associate’s degree at Arizona Western College. After a brief stop at Arizona State University studying kinesiology and psychology, he enrolled in the biology program at NAU-Yuma.

Vermont imagined his future in medicine, but opportunities began presenting themselves in the field of marine biology. In the summer of 2011, he was selected for a National Science Foundation undergraduate research experience with Bigelow Laboratories for Ocean Sciences in Boothbay, Maine.

The next summer he earned a second NSF research grant with the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras, and scholarships to present his work at the national conference of the Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography. His research focus: marine microbiology, ocean chemistry and zooplankton ecology.

Then, in August 2012, the unexpected happened—Vermont lost his job of two years, and with one remaining semester of coursework, his plans were turned upside down. The balances in his checking and savings accounts were nearing zero. Two weeks later, a call came in from his mentor from Bigelow Laboratories offering him a full-time research technician position. Some 3,000 miles away, a dream job waited for him, and it would force him to leave behind everything he’d ever known, and officially abandon the path to practicing medicine.

“When the job offer to work in Maine came up, I literally could not afford to say no,” Vermont said. “It was serendipitous, like the universe was forcing me on the right path. Sometimes we see events like losing a job as bad, not knowing they are preparing us for something incredible.”

He finished his coursework in the fall and accepted a full-time position as a research technician with Bigelow Laboratories. He currently studies zooplankton ecology, which encompasses different topics like ocean acidification, viral infection, molecular biology and neurophysiology.

“What I dreamt of being as a kid I am doing and I’ve never been happier,” he said. “My hope is to eventually focus my own research on helping protect our coral reefs as well as understanding the relationships between organisms like dolphins and whales and their normal microbial flora.”

Vermont will walk in NAU-Yuma’s commencement ceremony Friday and deliver a speech on dreams deferred and realized.

“Completing my bachelor’s degree only signifies a first step,” Vermont said. “There is so much more I want to accomplish. It’s more of a beginning than anything else.”