Dr. John K. Reed

Meet John K. Reed

Dr. John K. Reed is a biologist/taxonomist who served as the mission coordinator for biomedical research on NOAA expeditions. Read the full text of John's interview below to learn more about his job.


Hear John talk about his job and what it's like to conduct science while at sea. Download (mp4, 188 MB).

View transcript

About the Job

What is your title?

Senior Scientist with the Division of Biomedical Marine Research at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution.

Where do you work?

Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, which is a nonprofit research institution in Fort Pierce, Florida. Fort Pierce is on the southeast coast of Florida. We are fortunate to be located on the coast, and we have our ships right here so we can go to sea relatively easily. Marine biologists and oceanographers do not have to work on the coast, however. Quite a few work inland from major universities in the Midwest. It really doesn’t matter now, especially with the Internet and the opportunity to travel. You can do your research from basically anywhere.

Do you travel often?

I’ve been around the world twice. We’ve had scuba diving and expeditions with the submersibles to Africa, the Azores, the eastern Atlantic, Spain, Portugal, throughout the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean, the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, Thailand, the Seychelles, and Papua New Guineua. I’ve been very fortunate to travel as much as I have. I’ve visited more than 60 countries, primarily through my work.

What are the educational requirements for your job?

Typically, a master's degree is required to be an oceanographer or do the sort of thing that I do. You could start with a bachelor's degree, and quite often you would want to then pursue a master's and/or a Ph.D. I have a Ph.D. and have been working in this field for 30 years. My MS is in marine ecology from Florida Atlantic University, and I have a secondary degree in chemistry.

What is the salary range for someone with your type of job?

The salary range for marine biology is quite variable. When I started, quite a long time ago, the standard starting salary was $8,000, but my boss managed to get me $1,000 more. The starting salary for an oceanographer or marine biologist has a great range. A research assistant may make $20,000, a new Ph.D. may make $40,000, and the head of a department could make $50,000 to $80,000.

How many hours do you work per week?

For me, there is no such thing as a typical work week. It varies from week to week. Some weeks when I am on a cruise we may put in 18-hr days to do what needs to get done. In the office, about 40 to 60 hrs/wk is average.

Job Duties

Tell us about your research and the types of things you do.

For this upcoming NOAA mission to the Gulf of Mexico, my position is chief scientist. Basically, I am the mission coordinator for biomedical research. My job started about year ago with the question “Where are we going to go?” I did a literature search and put together stacks and stacks of papers and research on the Gulf of Mexico to try to determine where we should go. We are trying to discover deep-water reefs that people have never dived on, so I had to find out where people had gone. A lot of it was legwork and research in the library. As far as the cruise itself, I am a kind of travel agent. I have to do everything from arranging getting a truck to drive us to St. Petersburg with all of our gear, to putting together our computer programs, to assembling our collection gear, photography gear, and dive gear. I basically oversee the whole mission, work with all of the scientists, and deal with all of the problems people might have. When you are at sea you are in a small, closed ship, and people can get on each other’s nerves! I have to deal with that, too.

The main thing I do during the mission is select sights. I tell the caption where we want to go the next day, and where I want to dive, and I direct the ROV dives. I and my colleagues, Dr. Pomponi and Dr. Wright, will do the actual ROV dives and select the organisms we want to collect. I also keep track of all of the documentation on our samples: where they are collected, the taxonomy, the video and photos. It is a huge amount of data.

The chemicals we are discovering from organisms—deep-sea animals and plants, and even shallow-water inhabitants—are found throughout the world. We find them in the tropics and in the Arctic, from shallow water to depths of tens of thousands of feet. This is similar to the drugs that have been developed from plants and animals found in the Amazon. We think we have found most of our drugs from terrestrial resources, mainly microbes that live in dirt and from plants in the Amazon basin. Only recently, perhaps during the last 10 years or so, have we really started to look to the deep sea for equivalent drug discoveries.

What is the most fascinating thing you have ever seen or done?

I have made hundreds of dives with the Johnson-Sea-Link submersible to depths of one-half mile. Probably the most exciting thing that happened was when we took the sub inside an undersea volcano, but we didn’t know it was a volcano. We were about 600 ft deep under a ledge and down a hole, and all of a sudden we realized we were inside a volcano, and this thing shot us up about 200 ft a minute! That was kind of exciting!

I must say, though, that the most intense moments I have had are encounters with big fish, turtles, sharks and mammals. These animals have thoughts and feelings, and you can sense that. Every time I go underwater, I feel like I am visiting an alien world.

How does your work benefit the public?

Our primary objective in the biomedical research division at Harbor Branch is to discover and develop drugs from marine organisms that can be used to treat human diseases. That is our hope and our primary objective—to find a new drug that can treat human diseases such as cancer or any number of other diseases. Right now, we have one drug that is a chemical we discovered from a deep-sea sponge nearly 15 years ago. It has taken this long to develop, but this summer (2003) it began clinical trials for the treatment of human breast cancer. At the moment, it shows good potential for killing breast cancer and other cancers, such as colon cancer. We are very hopeful that it will make it to market. It has been a very long journey since we first discovered the sponge while scuba diving in 1988. It’s sort of odd that a deep-sea sponge produces a chemical that can be used to treat human disease. But sponges are full of chemicals and other compounds that they probably use as defense mechanisms; some such toxic compound, for example, probably prevents it from being eaten by a fish. We don’t even know why these sponges produce all these chemicals. They are there for us—it’s nature’s pharmacy for us to discover.

What else could someone with your background do?

With my background and training as a marine biologist, which involves a lot of training in scuba diving, collections, taxonomy, being familiar with different habitats and what lives there, and the marine ecology aspect, I could get a job consulting with a private firm doing ecological research, or I could work for the government. There are state and federal positions with fish and wildlife and natural resource departments, and there are opportunities with oceanographic institutions such as ours. With a master's degree, which I have, you are somewhat limited in terms of teaching at a university. Typically, you need a PhD for that.

About John

What sparked your initial interest in ocean sciences?

When I was a teenager, there was a TV series called "The Underwater World of Jacques Cousteau." Watching those shows really piqued my interest in deep-sea research. I decided to study that in school.

Who influenced you or encouraged you the most?

By biggest role model was my father, who taught me what I believe are the most important qualities—ethics and honesty. He taught me to go out and do what I wanted to do.

Looking back, was there anything you would have done differently in your education or career journey?

No. When I was in high school I just took the basic college prep courses, a lot of biology and science. I really don’t think that you need to worry about specializing during your early college years. It’s more important to get a good background in science and chemistry. I learned to type when I was 40 because much of what we do now is computer work. Thus, any kind of computer and software courses will help you in your career. When you're a junior or senior in college, or when you're pursuing a master's degree, you can specialize in an area like marine ecology or whatever your interest is. Get a good background and feel out what you want to do. You don’t have to decide on the rest of your life today.

What obstacles did you encounter along the way?

I know when I was in high school I had a hard time trying to decide what to do. One thing to keep in mind is to pick something you feel comfortable with, something you like to do, and pursue that and don’t get frustrated. You don’t necessarily have to go to the best university right away. Go to a junior college and take a few classes to figure out what you want to do. In the summer, try to volunteer or take internships, which are good ways to discover your interests. You can see what people do and if you really like it. This also gives you contacts for the future.

What are your hobbies?

I have lots of hobbies. Every weekend when I am not working, my wife and I like to go out in our Boston Whaler in the river. We go fishing and stomp out in the mud flats, traipse through the mangroves, or scuba dive. We like to go kayaking, and we just started yoga. I used to do karate, mountain climbing, hiking—lots of physical stuff.

Career Timeline

Interests in Elementary School:

I got interested in marine science in high school. Before that I was interested in natural sciences and archeology. I liked collecting bugs and snakes, and digging for fossils in the creek beds of Ohio.

Beginning of Interest in Marine Sciences:

We always came to Florida for summer vacations, so I liked to snorkel and fish. I got into marine biology when I was in high school in the 1960s. This interest arose from a TV show, "The Underwater World of Jacques Cousteau," that was on every Sunday evening.

First Marine Science Class:

No oceanography or marine biology courses were offered when I was in high school. I took general science and chemistry.


1971 - BS, biology, University of Miami, Miami, FL
1975 - MS, biology (specialization in marine ecology), Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, FL

First Career-related Job:

Not counting the jobs that put me through school—cutting grass, janitor, pool cleaner, tire repair/changer, etc.—my first job in science was as a teaching assistant while I pursued my master's degree. My major professor got me a couple of grants. One was an environmental survey of a beach restoration project in Miami. We scuba dived and made photo transects to document damage to the reefs. That was the first time I scuba dived for research. Now I have over 2,000 scientific scuba dives and 200+ submersible dives.

Employment Journey/Career Transitions:

I started my first job out of college as a research assistant in the Marine Science Division at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in 1976. I was promoted to Research Assistant II, then to Independent Investigator for the Coral Biology Program, where I worked until 1985. I headed up my own research projects, primarily studying deep-water Oculina coral reefs off Florida, and deep reefs in the Bahamas.

Then Harbor Branch shut down about two-thirds of the science division, so, along with 13 other scientists, I was out of a job. Fortunately, Harbor Branch rehired me as diving safety officer. I oversaw all of the scuba dive operations and also served as a science coordinator for the Division of Marine Operations. That involved coordinating with outside scientists who were going to use our ships and subs.

Soon after, Harbor Branch started a new division, the Division of Biomedical Marine Research. I was asked to assist with their collections and taxonomy department. That was in 1987. I am currently a senior scientist with that division, and I am the chief scientist who heads up all of our collection expeditions around the world. I never planned to go into biomedical research per se, but was lucky to have been in the right place at the right time.

My years of research and publications on deep-water Oculina coral reefs led to the establishment of the 300-sq-mi Oculina Marine Protected Area (MPA) off eastern Florida. This was the first deep-water reef in the world to be designated as an MPA. As a result, interest has grown worldwide to protect little known deep-water reefs, which are as diverse and rich as shallow reefs.

Our work at the Division of Biomedical Marine Research has led to the discovery of many new chemical compounds that may have potential in the treatment of various human diseases. One is now in clinical trials for the treatment of breast cancer. After 15 years of research, we are very hopeful that this will provide a new cure for breast cancer. We recently received a $1 million grant to discover a new treatment for pancreatic cancer. During this NOAA mission to the Gulf of Mexico, we will collect new species and certainly hope to discover novel chemicals that could provide that cure.