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As a little girl, I wanted to be a neurosurgeon. It sounded good, and I wanted to be a doctor. In college, I realized I could not cut a straight line in a stick of butter and I faint at the site of blood. To go forward, I went back to my roots.

I grew up with red clay soils under my feet in Tuskegee, Alabama, with a great grandmother who woke me and my twin sister up every Saturday at the crack of dawn to go fishing at Lake Martin. We watched as she prepared our breakfast and lunch for the day.  I often wondered why -- with what seemed like the longest trip ever -- she never just stopped to eat or use the rest restroom. I didn't realize at my young age, she was doing what she always did, because during her time she wasn't allowed to just stop.

In those Alabama lakes, I learned to swim, bait a hook and catch catfish, bream and bass. I caught my first hook in the jaw, too, and saw my great grandmother clean and cook the fish she had caught for dinner that night.  She was a great fisherwoman and gardener and my first teacher in life. She taught me the wonders of nature and the bounty it can produce, and that by doing, you can be whatever you want to be.

I should have known my childhood influences would lead me back to the water and the fish and to my career as an environmental scientist. Fish and water have never been more important, particularly in Northern California where many agencies and organizations work together to better manage our water resources and save our fish, such as Coho salmon, from the brink of extinction. Like other pressing ecologic issues, we must  embrace the diversity, cultures and different ways of thinking to solve them.

As an African-American female scientist, I am thankful for those who made it possible for me to walk my own path, even if it is the road less traveled, a road that gives me a hand in protecting something greater than myself.


Just like my great grandmother, I know the future generation can be whatever they want to be; even a fisherwoman.

With a Perspective, I'm Dr. Melanie Harrison.

Dr. Melanie Harrison is an environmental scientist and water quality specialist at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries. She lives in Sacramento.

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