Steve Ross

Meet Steve Ross

Dr. Steve Ross is a research professor at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington.


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About the Job

What is your title?

Research Professor.

Where do you work?

University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNCW), Center for Marine Science.

Do you travel often? To where?

Yes. All over the United States and to foreign countries. In the U.S., I often travel to Oregon; Seattle, Washington; Washington, DC; Charleston, South Carolina; Florida; and several sites along the Gulf of Mexico coast. International travel has recently included trips to Canada, New Zealand, Curacao, the Netherlands, Scotland, England, Portugal, the Bahamas, and Bermuda.

What are the educational requirements for your job?

I found that a Master’s graduate degree was not adequate for the level of work I wanted to pursue. In order to obtain grants and formulate and lead my own research projects, a PhD was required. To teach in a university, advise graduate students, and hold a faculty position, a PhD is also needed.

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

This varies a lot depending on the type of institution one works for, the degree one has, the position level, and the number of years of experience. An entry range for someone with a PhD may be $37,000 (post-doctoral position) to over $140,000 per year for someone with experience in a higher-level position.

How many hours do you work per week?

Our type of work is not really based on an hourly commitment. There is no such thing as an 8 to 5, five-day work week, at least not if one wants to accomplish anything or excel in one’s field. Although I may work fewer hours than in years past, I suspect that my average work week now is about 60 hours. On offshore research cruises, the days are nearly always about 16+ hours, especially if I am the Chief Scientist. Work-related travel and conferences often occur on weekends.

Job Duties

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

In this business, one of the things that comes with success and experience is an increased administrative load, unfortunately. While I teach and supervise graduate students, I am not in a formal teaching position. My job is to conduct research in whatever area I find fruitful. Since it takes a lot of money to conduct deep-sea marine science, I spend a lot of time writing grant proposals and searching for funds. I have a small staff and graduate students, and I spend time supervising and helping them, although they are normally quite independent.

My field work is now somewhat restricted to the two to three deep-sea cruises I am on each year. As Chief Scientist for these cruises, I write cruise plans and a report after the cruise; I try to manage a wide range of objectives during the cruises to ensure everyone obtains adequate data; I supervise remotely operated vehicle and submersible dives; and I direct the ships to accomplish the science.

In the office, I analyze and direct analysis of data and I write scientific papers for publication. This part is very time consuming. I serve on a variety of committees which involves a lot of communication (email and phone) as well as some travel. I have some sort of work-related travel almost every month and on many of these trips I present talks on my projects. I spend time communicating with colleagues to collaborate on a variety of projects.

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

My work takes me to many places in the world that I would not have otherwise seen. Even so, my time spent in manned submersibles remains by far the most rewarding and memorable. To be able to visit an environment in person that few people (or no one) ever see is a rare privilege. I have seen a swordfish attack our submersible, large sharks cruising the deeps, amazingly colored and shaped deep-sea corals, sponges and fishes, and rapid small-scale changes in environmental conditions.

On almost every dive into the deep sea, I have seen something no one has ever observed, collected an animal or data completely new to science, and gained a greater perspective and understanding of the environment I study than I could gain from surface ships or remote vehicles. It is sad and a detriment to marine science that manned exploration of the sea is being replaced by robotic operations. Although these have value, there is no substitute for being there. Instead of further encouraging our youth to spend even more time in front of a TV monitor, we need to be educating them also to be “out there.

What are the personal rewards of your work?

This work rewards me when I feel I have made a contribution toward a greater understanding of how ecosystems function. While the value of my research may not always be apparent, I hope that what I do adds to an ever-growing body of knowledge that ultimately leads to better management of our resources. On a smaller, more personal scale, I enjoy being at sea, going underwater (whether SCUBA or submarine), and while it may sound arrogant, a reward is that I think I am good at what I do. Having said that, I am also painfully aware of how much I do not know.

How does your work benefit the public?

During much of my career, the data I collected and published were directly applicable to river, estuarine, or ocean management. Unfortunately, that does not always mean these data were used. Natural resource management is a conglomerate of politics, varied and often-competing interests, science (if lucky), and compromise. I have found this mix to be frustrating at best. Nevertheless, in our deep-sea coral studies, our data were rapidly incorporated by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council to make one of the largest marine protected areas in the United States. This was gratifying.

What else could someone with your background do?

They could be involved in environmental and biological consulting, teaching at various levels, or doing technical or other types of writing.

About Steve

What sparked your initial interest in ocean sciences?

Unlike many scientists, I did not have an early driving agenda to be a scientist when I grew up. I was always curious about how things worked: taking machines apart (some of which never went back together with all their parts), mixing liquids to see what would happen (sometimes with awful results), and I was usually out-of-doors in my activities, except as a kid I spent a lot of time in the library.

Although I grew up in south-central North Carolina, from childhood I spent long periods at the seashore. My reading tended toward sea stories, tales of exploration (Kon-Tiki), adventure (Mutiny on the Bounty), or the imaginary (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea). I grew up with Jacques Cousteau books and television programs. I learned to sail when very young, and from that point and even before, I envisioned a life involving the sea. Ultimately, I lived on a sailboat for seven years.

Adding to this ocean orientation, I learned to SCUBA dive in high school and my first dive trip was to the fantastic coral reefs of the Cayman Islands. In my undergraduate years at Duke University, I headed toward a biology degree with no clear direction. I spent a semester at the Duke Marine Lab, immediately followed by a summer job sampling fish for a nuclear power plant environmental impact study. At this point I realized I liked the study of fishes and that I could perhaps be good at that. The students I worked with at that lab (the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC-CH), Institute of Marine Sciences) inspired me to continue in this direction. From then on the path was more clear: graduate school for a Master’s degree at UNC-CH, then a job for about seven years with the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries (as a Fisheries Biologist), then back to school at North Carolina State University for a PhD in Zoology.

Who influenced you or encouraged you the most?

An obvious answer is that my parents encouraged me to pursue a high-quality education and ensured this was possible. They told me that I was capable of almost anything (perhaps somewhat of a stretch), and they helped facilitate such a philosophy.

At Duke University my mentor and eventual friend, Dr. Richard Searles (Professor of Botany), had a large impact on my career by setting a high standard for excellent work and integrity. I helped with Rick’s SCUBA diving off North Carolina and elsewhere for several years, always learning from him and receiving encouragement.

Another friend and mentor I met later was Dr. John Miller (Professor of Zoology at North Carolina State University). I worked with John while a fisheries biologist, and he later became my major professor for my PhD study. John’s way of dissecting a problem and teaching about the science process helped polish my very rough edges (some may still need polish).

To both of these men and several other people I owe a lot and still today I am inspired by and learn from many colleagues with whom I work.

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

I have been fortunate in my education and career choices and often opportunities seemed to appear at the correct times. Most things I would have done differently were minor. Perhaps I could have worked less time between my Master’s and PhD degrees, but the work experience was quite valuable.

What obstacles did you encounter along the way?

Very few that I can remember. I did not always have a clear plan, but things always worked out

What are your hobbies?

Reading, sailing/boating, hiking, camping, SCUBA diving, wood work, photography, travel, and I like horses and dogs. I have a pet parrot.

Career Timeline

Interests in Elementary School:

Sailing, horse riding, reading, the sea, boats.

Beginning of Interest in Marine Sciences:

Late high school and early college.

First Marine Science Class:

Freshman year at Duke University.


BS in Zoology (Duke University)
MA in Zoology (UNC-Chapel Hill)
PhD in Zoology (NC State University)

First Career-related Job:

Summer job sampling for environmental impact of a nuclear power plant. First full-time permanent job was as a Fishery Biologist with the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries.

Employment Journey/Career Transitions:

  • Fishery Biologist (North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries)
  • Research Coordinator (North Carolina National Estuarine Research Reserve)
  • Research Associate Professor (University of North Carolina at Wilmington)
  • Research Full Professor (UNCW)

Other Accomplishments:

  • Water Conservationist of the Year-1996, by North Carolina Wildlife Federation (with other committee members)
  • New species of fish (Psednos rossi) named in my honor
  • Tar Heel of the Week (Raleigh News & Observer, 22 Nov 2009)
  • Experienced (35+ years) SCUBA diver (NAUI Advanced Diver); Nitrox certified (NAUI); AAUS certified
  • Research submersible pilot (DeepWorker 2000)