Her life changing career
The dream was born
Out there on the open waters by the Georges Island off the coast of Massachusetts a dream was born based on curiosity.
Mithriel MacKay and her family grew in a small beach town in Massachusetts. Every now and then, the beach town sirens went off announcing that pilots whales got stranded on the area.
“I was very young, my brother, my sister and I and my parents were in this little boat, I remember wearing this big ugly square orange life jacket, (that they are bigger than you when you are that little) . I remember looking at the water, thinking, where the whales? I looked at my father and ask, dad where are the whales? I think he thought I was afraid, because he said they were sleeping on the bottom. I remember, I was five, I remember thinking: What are they doing? What are they thinking? Where are they going? How many are they? How are they look like? And that’s the moment I knew, I wanted to study whales.”
But life just happens
A dream can stay within you even you haven’t achieved it just yet. And it can come back when you least expect it.
For MacKay , the dream was realized at a very young age. The curiosity of knowing more about whales never left her. Beside her curiosity for the giants of the seas, she was always lover of the outdoor.
After graduating from high school in 1980 the outdoorsy girl studied clinical laboratory technology and worked in that field for almost 30 years. The multitasking mother of four, also studied and worked as a paramedic for more than seven years. During those 30 years of clinical laboratory medicine duties, she manage to juggle many different jobs at the same time. She taught clinical laboratory medicine courses, and CPR, and life support courses for the EMT program academy.
Her duties as a full-time employee, full-time mother and a wife put all her whale dreams on a bucket list that probably she would never achieve. At that time, the only outdoor activity that she was involved was as an on-call as a paramedic.
There were two things left on Mackay’s bucket list, one was to go to Australia and the other one having a Ph.D in Marine Biology.
“ Because I married and then I had my kids it was just impossible. My kids didn’t decide it when to come, so I have four kids close all together and I couldn’t have a husband, and a family and do all that, it was too much. And I was ok with that, because at that time of my life, my kids fill my life and I was very happy with that.”
Change of circumstances
“Then my kids grew up”
She found herself alone with all the time of the world in her hands. Mackay divorced, and the kids were out of the house. One day she looked around, she was the only one in the house and she said, “What I am going to do with the rest of my life?” Her old time bucket list was making signs to her, but she didn’t recognize it immediately.
Re-organizing her options of what to do with her life, she thought about going back to school. The fact that she was 47 at that time crossed her mind. She wanted to make a good decision, and there was no time to play with her future. Few things crossed her mind, she thought of becoming a CPA. “I am good with math, I can work from home and I will have plenty of time to travel.” She kept playing with her thoughts and analyzing different things that she could do. Even talking to herself:
“If I am going to go back to school, I am going to go back for something that I can still teach, because I love to teach. I don’t want to give that up. I want to travel but I want somebody to pay me to travel and…I want to study whales. You know, I can really go back and get my Ph.D in Marine Biology, there is nothing stopping me. ”
The bucket list call finally got through her mind and that is how in 2008 she went back to school to get a Masters Degree in Marine Resources Management. She continued her doctorate studies in Marine Mammal Behavior at Texas A&M University of Galveston.
How to start all over again as a full-time student having so many responsibilities? MacKay kept working part-time, teaching 20 hours a week at UTMB (University of Texas Medical Branch) in Galveston while she was a full-time student. That job was not enough for her to pay her mortgage, bill, tuition and research. What could it be an impediment or an excuse for other people not to go to school, MacKay took advantage of it. She is almost completely deaf. Because of her disability, she could study for free in any state university in Texas, so that obstacle was taking care of. Still she had other difficulty to embrace. MacKay wanted to work with Dr. Bernd Würsig as her advisor, he is the number one person to study behavior of whales. Dr. Würsig was at the end of his career and he didn’t have any funding to support any graduate students. He agreed to take her as a student if she could find a way to support her own research. For her to be able to support her research, she took out many students loans.
For MacKay, neither studying, money, loans or her own impediments were obstacles for her. She was focused on what she wanted. She wanted to understand whales, their behavior, ecology and more. The most difficult part for her during the years that she was studying and working on her graduate degree was the acceptance of younger students that studied or worked with her at that time. Some of the students mistreated her, looked down on her, like she was an old lady trying to start something at that time of life. Some of the students didn’t know that she was already a professional changing careers.
How MacKay did it, and where she is now?
In need of supporting her own research, MacKay came up with a brilliant idea. She created an institute that gives opportunities to students to pursue marine biology internships. Their tuition supports Mackay’s research and creates a win-win situation for students, the marine biology community and for herself.
The Marine and Coastal Ecology Research Center (MCERC) provides research and education opportunities to increase awareness in conservation and preservation of marine and coastal ecosystems.
Now at age 54, MacKay feels that she’s fulfilled her dream. Her professional goals continue to grow, as her home life is alive once again. Her daughter, Nicole, and her two grandchildren live with her in her home. Their multifunctional home provides a workspace for both of them. Nicole works as Mackay’s assistant at (MCERC) and Saltwater Inc. Their two desks are side-by-side, with papers, computers and office supplies. An island bookshelf with baskets, all kind of decorations and even a microscope, divides the kitchen from the office. Marine mammal posters and more bookshelves decorate the office walls creating a laboratory work environment.
Working from home has its perks! Because of the nature of her job, MacKay travels constantly from the arctic to the tropical waters of the Caribbean. Having completed her goals, MacKay now is working on a new bucket list and dreams.