Can you afford to be a marine biologist? Or a scientist?

The early years

1. Could your parents afford to live on the good side of town? The one with the right schools? Did they send you to that elite private school?

There are clear advantages to attending a top-tier high school as is evidenced in a study of college admissions data. The Harvard Crimson recently reported that in Harvard’s Class of 2017, 6 percent of admitted students came from only 10 high schools. Eleven percent of high schools with students admitted to Harvard sent 36 percent of students, while 74 percent of schools sent only one student. [link]

2. For Christmas, your birthday, or because, did you get your own computer?

In every country, students reporting “rare” or “no use” of computers at home score lower than their counterparts who report frequent use…gains in educational performance are correlated with the frequency of computer use at home. [link]

3. Could they afford for you to participate in all those afterschool STEM activities with their fees and hidden expenses?

Afterschool programs can have an impact on academic achievement. Improved test scores are reported in evaluations of The After-School Corporation (TASC) programs in New York City (Reisner, White, Birmingham, & Welsh, 2001; White, Reisner, Welsh, & Russell, 2001) and in Foundations, Inc. elementary school programs (Klein & Bolus, 2002). A more recent longitudinal study showed significant gains in math test scores for elementary and middle-school students who participated in high-quality afterschool programs (Vandell, Reisner, & Pierce, 2007) [link]

Those who are admitted to UC are likely to participate in more precollege activities. The study also shows that there is a positive correlation between student precollege participation in these activities and their college experience, academic and civic engagement although the relationship is rather weak. The results also reveal that the participation in extracurricular activities and volunteer and community services is a significant predictor on first-year GPA and persistence. The more activities students participate in, the higher their first-year GPA is and the more likely they persist with their current college programs. [link]

However, we found that a substantial portion of students, particularly those in lower-income groups, are not fully engaged in a well-rounded school experience that includes activities — and too often, it’s because of cost. [link]

4. Did they send you to that cool summer camp?

Steven Infanti, associate vice president for admissions at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, said a STEM camp experience is something that makes him take a closer look at a student’s application. “When I look at an applicant who has a 2.5 [GPA], which would be kind of a borderline admit for us, but I see on his application, I participate in this camp…that shows a lot of initiative and someone who has a passion,” he said. [link]

5. Did you get to travel to the ocean on vacation? Could you afford to travel abroad?

From a prominent university’s website,

High school study abroad programs, and even international vacations, are fantastic opportunities for cross-cultural understanding, learning, and personal growth. For that reason, they can certainly be helpful experiences to draw on when applying for colleges. [link]

6. Did you get to learn to scuba dive?

Being a scuba certified is not at all recquired for being a marine biologist.  Although I do scuba dive and am a divemaster, I rarely if ever use it for my research.  However, many “career advice” websites online definitely recommend it.

There are no certification requirements for marine biology. However, because diving is a large part of marine biology, many schools recommend that students become open water certified and take a course in scientific diving. [link]

7. Did you get to participate in all kinds of wonderful experiences because you had free time? Were you blessed and did not have to work a full- or part-time job?

Data was collected from a very large sample of students when they were in 8th, 10th and 12th grades, and again two years after they graduated. The researchers compared groups by controlling for their economic background, ethnicity, gender, and prior educational experiences. They measured outcomes including standardized test scores, school grades, courses taken, attendance, staying out of trouble, educational and occupational aspirations, post-secondary employment and college enrollment. In general, results showed a pattern of negative effects for students who worked during high school. In particular, working in the final year of high school had a significantly negative effect. These negative effects occurred even from working a small number of hours per week… working during high school undermines students’ commitment to and identification with school and subverts traditional academic goals. [link]

8. Could you even afford to stay in high school?

Using data from the 2008-2012 American Community Survey, researchers at the Urban Institute found that nearly a third of the 563,000 teenage dropouts left school to work. These 16- to 18-year-olds were disproportionately male and Hispanic, and ended their education either at the beginning of high school or nearing the end. Roughly 75 percent of them are native-born Americans, the new study said. [link]


The college years

9. Could you afford not to go to the best school?

Of the 113 Supreme Court Justices, 40% of them attended an Ivy League university. Currently, all of the nine Justices went to an Ivy League. In CNN’s top 100 startups list, 34 of the CEOs went to Harvard…A study conducted by the US Department of Education in 2015 revealed that a decade after enrolling in a four-year college degree, the average income of a typical student is $40,500 USD a year…at the very least you’ll receive on average $19,200 USD more than the standard US college graduate [by attending an Ivy Leage University] [link]

Even when there isn’t a policy of exclusion, students at elite universities join networks of professors and alumni whose members offer each other information, support, and advice that isn’t available to outsiders. [link]

In a corporate environment that still largely favors white men, an Ivy League college degree opens doors that would otherwise remain closed for most. In recent years, I’ve interviewed successful people in a variety of industries. Among them: One of two black presidents in the history of the Harvard Law Review (the other was Barack Obama) who now runs a multi-billion dollar private equity firm, and a Yale graduate Latina female CEO of the Girl Scouts. In both cases, intelligence and perseverance got them far. But they also both agreed that an Ivy League education afforded them pivotal opportunities for their careers today, decades after graduation from those hallowed institutions. For both minorities – the Ivy “stamp of approval” became the first in a long list of achievements. [link]

Tech founders with Ivy League degrees also tended to start companies that produced higher revenue and employed more workers than the average, the report added. [link]

And while Princeton and some other Ivy League schools have generous financial aid programs, this is not the case among all universities.  It is near impossible to get an accurate view of what a typical amount of loans a student is burdened with after four years.  Take Duke University,  several reports suggest the average student loan debt is $25,000.  However, take note of the term average.  Only 37% of the student body is receiving Federal Student Loans.  This begs the question, how is this average actually calculated?  In my time at Duke as a faculty member, the dozen or so students worked in my lab as part of the Federal Work Study Program, meaning they come from lower and middle socioeconomic classes, were taken on $25,000 per year.  So pardon me if I don’t believe the average total student loan debt for Ivy League schools is low.  These universities have large student populations who can afford to attend and not take out student loans as reflected in that 37% amount.

Just keep in mind that low-income students cannot afford 95% of colleges.

10. Did they tell you that they would meet 100% of your financial aid only for you to realize that meant pile you up with school loans and work study?

Yeah me too.

11. Could you afford to leave your home and not financially help your elderly, sick, or young family members while you pursue your dreams? Could you afford not financially support your spouse and children?

Likely to be parents of young children: Roughly half of independent college students, or 4.8 million students, are parents of dependent children. Seven in 10 student parents are women, with women of color in college are especially likely to be student parents.

Twice as likely to be living in poverty: 42 percent of independent students live at or below the federal poverty line, compared with 17 percent of dependent students. In fact, nearly two in three college students living in poverty (72 percent) are independent. [link]

12. Could you afford to move to college? What about all those hidden fees and costs? Parking? Transportation?

Almost 74% said extra activities like study abroad programs and unpaid internships are important to reaching professional goals. But the same percentage (74%) had to turn down such activities due to a lack of money.  Expenses beyond tuition were higher than they thought, too. The top 5 expenses students said were “much more than expected” include: Textbooks: 63% Housing: 56% Food: 46% Exam prep classes: 45% Moving: 41% [link]

13. Could you afford your books?

the average cost of college textbooks has risen four times faster than the rate of inflation over the past 10 years. That has caused 65 percent of students to skip buying required texts at some point in their college career because of a lack of affordability. [link]

14. Could you afford a computer?

Yeah its time to update that one from high school. It should be obvious how not having your own computer could be damaging but take this one students perspective (also see this post),

The problem with not having a laptop comes with online assignments. It may be even more for me as a cs major, but even in gen ed courses we often had to submit assignments online or do readings online which is easier with a laptop. You can survive without one as you can use the library computers at your college or if you have a desktop you can do all your online things there- but it would be easier to just whip out your laptop wherever you are (cafeteria, empty classroom waiting for class to start, etc) to work on assignment [link]

15.  Could you afford the time for extracurricular activities, lectures, clubs, student events? Did you need to work a full- or part-time job while attending college?

More than two-thirds of independent students work on top of going to school, and the majority work at least 20 hours per week…39 percent of dependent students work at least 20 hours per week). [link]

16. Did you not participate in that marine biology volunteer opportunity because you needed to work?

Volunteer research that prevents a student from making money. Remember that most financial aid packages REQUIRE a student to make a certain amount of money over the summer. If they aren’t getting paid to do research, then they are either adding to their debt or working two jobs, neither of which is setting them up for scientific success. [link]

17. Did you not do that great educational experience at sea because you could not afford the hefty fees?

While again I don’t agree, the Semester at Sea Program is often promoted for the aspiring marine biologist.  That at least $25,074.  Keep in mind that both the University of Pittsburg and Virginia pulled out of the program for “safety concerns and complaints that its suggestions for program improvement were being ignored.”

18. Did you not take those field summer courses because you couldn’t afford it? Did you not participate in a summer research opportunity because you could not afford to not work for a summer?

I am obviously biased serving as the Executive Director of a marine laboratory.  As an undergraduate, I took summer marine biology courses for credit…at the marine lab I currently serve as the director.  These courses were invaluable for round out my education and kick-starting my career in marine science by offering experiential learning.  Likewise, a paid Research Experience for Undergraduate one summer launched my career in deep-sea biology.  These experiences are vital.

In conclusion, students with research experiences reported disproportionate gains in their ability to apply critical thinking skills in a novel context, and gain a greater understanding of the scientific research process. Many students who did not participate in research reported gains in general critical thinking skills from their coursework, but out-of-class research experiences were more effective in helping students to develop the intellectual abilities and capacities particularly valued for doing research…students who engaged in an authentic research experience, with adequate amounts of both challenge and support, described gaining an appreciation of the process of scientific research and an understanding of the everyday work and practice of research scientists. Though other out-of-class experiences clearly offered a host of benefits, student reports indicated that participation in research is a more effective way to socialize novices into the scientific research community by helping them to develop the mastery, knowledge, skills, and behaviors necessary to become a scientist. [link]

19. Did you not participate in a great paid opportunity on overseas or even across the nation because you did know how you would afford your travel there?

20. Did you purchase all those extra study guides for the GRE? Did you take the GRE training course? Could you afford to take the GRE multiple times? Could you afford to send it to numerous graduate programs?

You can read all about my views on the GRE here.  I’m not a fan but the fact of the matter is many schools still require this boondoggle of a test.

21. Did you apply to multiple graduate programs and pay all those additional application fees? Did you pay to travel to the visit those prospective graduate schools?

Given that most acceptance rates are less than 20%, applying to several programs is advised.  The application fees typically range from $50 to $100 per graduate program.

If you don’t think all of this matters, consider that,

The percentage of students enrolling in graduate school increases with family income. Among dependent 2007–08 four-year college graduates, 39 percent of those from families in the lowest income quartile, 42 percent from middle-income families, and 45 percent from the highest income quartile had enrolled in graduate school within four years of college graduation. [link]


Graduate School Years

22. Did you have enough money to take a gap year and travel abroad to visit the oceans you want to study?

In my experience, students that have traveled more extensively and have more life experiences fair better in graduate school.  No hard data here merely anecdotal but worth considering nonetheless.

23. Could you afford to move to graduate school?

Moving from Arkansas to Boston was more costly than I anticipated.  Gas, U-Haul trailer, food, and one night in a very cheap hotel all added up.  I couldn’t afford any of this and charged it all to my credit card.

24. Did you buy all those books your advisor recommend you have and read? What about the ones you will need for your research and courses?

Several books a scientist needs on a regular basis, far more often than would be convenient or practical to obtain from a library.  In many cases, these highly specialized books may not even be in the university’s library.  And because these are specialized and low print run volumes, the prices can be astronomical.  These are often out of pocket purchases.  Right now there are three books on my wishlist I simply cannot justify or find the extra fund for: Compendium of Bivalves: Full-color Guide to 3,300 of the World’s Marine Bivalves for $294.51, Reproduction, Larval Biology, and Recruitment of the Deep-Sea Benthos for $169.07, and Pattern and Process in Macroecology for $106.45.

25. Can you afford the computer and software you needed for your research?

That cheap, outdated, and slow laptop leftover from college is going to need a major upgrade.  Time for a new computer because science is becoming more and more computational and data driven.

Referring both to the modelling of the world through simulations and the exploration of observational data, computation is central not only to astronomy but a range of sciences, including bioinformatics, computational linguistics and particle physics…Computation has been an important part of science for more than half a century, and the data explosion is making it even more central.  [link]

26. Could you afford to travel to that conference or collaborators when you grant, or travel awards weren’t available?

If your advisor has grant money to cover your travel or you are lucky enough to obtain a travel grant or award you are set.  However, if not then you will need to find a creative way to pay for it on your own.  These professional conferences are tremendous benefits to your career and you cannot afford to miss the opportunity to network and hear about the latest advances in the field.

Nearly all (91%) gained new contacts that improved their research, in-the-field conservation, science communication, and/or conservation policy making. Two thirds (64%) gained ideas, contacts, and/or lessons could lead to publications. Over a third (39%) gained new ideas, contacts and/or lessons that led to grant proposals, and 36% gained contacts that led to funding. A conference is not just an avenue for a scientist to present their research to the wider community, but it can be an important venue for brainstorming, networking and making vital connections that can lead to new initiatives, papers and funding, in a way that virtual, online meetings cannot. This is why conferences matter. {link]

27. Can you afford to live on an income of $10-25k per year? Could you afford not to support your family while you pursue your career? Does your partner have a stable and high paying job?

The current poverty levels in 2018 are for 

  • One person $12,140 $15,180
  • Two people $16,460 $20,580
  • Three people $20,780 $25,980
  • Four people $25,100 $31,380

The average graduate stipend in science is $20,000-$30,000 per year.  This puts any graduate student with a family below or near the poverty level and nowhere near the middle class.  “Middle-income households – those with an income that is two-thirds to double the U.S. median household income – had incomes ranging from about $45,200 to $135,600 in 2016

28. Can you afford your own health insurance?

Most universities do not offer health insurance to graduate students.  Health insurance for a graduate student is going to be obscenely expensive if you need to get it independently.  Current cheapest plans with high deductibles, i.e. do not ever, ever need any medical assistance, will average $440 per month.

29. Can you afford that scuba or field gear you will need for your research?

Some gear, e.g. wetsuit, hiking boots, backpacks, binoculars, is considered personal and will not be covered by a grant or your advisor.  There may not even be funds currently available to purchase these things.  When I worked in the Antarctica Seas as part of my graduate research, I needed a set of good set of wrap around polarized glasses.  There was $100 I did not have.  You need to get in the field to get that data though.

30. Can you afford to be social over drinks and food with other scientists you need to network with?

Networking is a must and nobody in science seems to give a damn if you cannot pay.  You can try to drink cheaply but at some point, that restaurant or bar bill is going to be out of your control.  When I was a graduate student, this senior professor came to dinner and charged up a tremendous bill with a fancy entree and a bottle of expensive wine. This while ordered water and the cheapest dish I could find on the menu.  When the bill was brought, the professor stated we would just split the bill evenly “because it was easier”.  By the way, as aside, here if you are a faculty member and ever pull stunts like this YOU ARE AN ASSHOLE.  Pardon my language but its true.  If you are faculty member you should really be following the pay down rule; the faculty member should always pay for the food and drinks of the all the students.

31. Can you afford to wait a long time to be reimbursed for expenses from your university?

The major invisible difficulty that I’ve observed has been the reimbursement process. It’s common practice for people to spend their own money on scientific supplies and then apply for reimbursement from their grant, actually receiving the money 3-8 weeks later. For people without substantial cash flow, this can lead to credit card debt and future problems. [link]


Postdoctoral Fellow and Faculty Years

32. Can you afford that new set of clothes to interview in?

if you’re interviewing for a job, you might want to pay some attention to the way you dress. Because interviewers — yes, even a committee of curmudgeonly old tenured faculty members, most of whom don’t wear Armani themselves — are going to make judgments about you, fair or not, based on how you present yourself. And what you wear is part of your overall presentation. [link]

33. Can you afford to be social over drinks and food with other scientists you need to network with?  Do you have the funds to take care of the people in your lab group?

See above. Don’t be an asshole.

34. Did you just realize you are 35-40 haven’t paid off your school loans and just started to contribute to retirement?

A scientist doesn’t start thinking or paying into retirement plans until that first faculty position is landed.  With the current track record of 5-6 years of postdoctoral or soft money research positions until landing a permanent position could mean being 40 before landing that first job.

To afford a comfortable retirement, a 40-year-old couple with household income of$100,000 should have amassed savings of 2.6 times salary, or $260,000, according to research by J.P. Morgan [link]

35. Can you afford for your partner not work or do they have a mobile job?

Yeah with all that moving around for graduate school, postdocs, and faculty positions good luck to your partner trying to find a meaningful career.

36. Can you afford to wait a long time to be reimbursed for expenses from your university?

See above

38. Can you personally afford to float your research and travel needs between grants?

It happens and it sucks.  Are you just going to stop doing research?  Not go to conferences?

39. Do you have the funds to pay for society memberships?

A lot of grants will not pay for society memberships.  So there is that.


So this all leaves us needing a lot of money to get from Point A to Marine Biologist.  Conservatively, I estimate that cost, to ensure the greatest amount of success, to be $591,395 to make it to Associate Professor. Granted you could choose not to do some of these things, I didn’t do many of the things listed above as undergraduate or high school student and here I am.  But it was a tremendous amount of struggle and sacrifice for me being from a lower socioeconomic group.  If you poor and then non-white and non-male on top of that, the disadvantage is even greater, the proverbial one-two punch.

But let this sink in for a moment.
Nothing above is out of the recommended, ordinary, or expected.
We have created a system that to succeed it costs
half a million dollars.

This is not the kind of science I want.  The beauty of being a marine biologist and scientist should not be only those privileged enough to pay the price.


More reading

Below the tab, my calculations for putting real numbers on the costs of this pathway.


Cost Amount Reference and Notes
Private Elementary School $69,930 https://www.investopedia.com/articles/investing/100115/private-school-your-child-good-value.asp (9 years)
Private High School $52,120 https://www.investopedia.com/articles/investing/100115/private-school-your-child-good-value.asp (4 years)
HP Stream 14t Computer $249 https://www.digitaltrends.com/computing/best-laptops-for-high-school-students/
Extracurricular Activities $4,446 https://healthblog.uofmhealth.org/childrens-health/pay-to-play-may-keep-some-kids-out-of-school-activities (13 years)
Summer Day Camps $1,256 https://www.care.com/c/stories/3326/what-does-summer-camp-cost/ (4 Summers)
Specialty Overnight Camp $2,000 https://www.care.com/c/stories/3326/what-does-summer-camp-cost/ (2 Years)
Travel Abroad $2,000 https://www.valuepenguin.com/average-cost-vacation (Inexpensively)
Scuba Certification and Supplies $450 https://www.scuba-diving-smiles.com/cost-of-scuba-diving.html
School Loan Debt $37,172 https://www.cnbc.com/2018/02/15/heres-how-much-the-average-student-loan-borrower-owes-when-they-graduate.html (Conservative)
Personal Expenses in College $12,860 https://affordableschools.net/hidden-costs-college/ (4 years)
Cost of Parking and Other Hidden Fees $4,000 https://affordableschools.net/hidden-costs-college/ (4 years)
Textbooks $4,800 https://affordableschools.net/hidden-costs-college/ (4 years)
HP 13t Envy Computer $749 https://www.laptopmag.com/articles/best-laptops-for-college
Loss of wages $20,880 20 Hours a Week for 36 Weeks of College at Minimum Wage for 4 Years
Loss of wages $13,920 40 Hours a Week for 36 weeks of College at Minimum Wage for 3 Summers and Holidays
Semester at Sea $25,074 https://www.semesteratsea.org/voyages/fall-2018/program-fees/
Two 3-Credit Summer Courses $5,000 Based on Current LUMCON Summer Courses
Two Cross Country Trips for Opportunities $800
GRE Test, Prep, and Distributing $1,989 http://www.deepseanews.com/2018/11/lets-kill-the-gre/
Travel to Two Graduate Schools $800
Graduate School Application Fees $500 10 Programs at $50
Travel Abroad $2,000 https://www.valuepenguin.com/average-cost-vacation (Gap Year Inexpensively)
Moving to Graduate School $1,000
Graduate School Books $2,000
A Conference Registration, Flight, Room, and Board $1,500
Annual Income Addition $25,000 $5000 Needed While In Graduate School to Go Above Poverty Line (5 years)
Health Insurance $26,400 https://www.ehealthinsurance.com/resources/affordable-care-act/much-health-insurance-cost-without-subsidy (5 years)
Incidental Personal Research Gear $1,000
Miscenallenous Networking Food and Beverage $1,000 Costs Over 5 years
Interest Incurred on Credit Card Waiting for University to Reimburse You $1,000 Costs Over 5 years
Interview Clothes $500
Retirement Account Catch at Age 40 $260,000 http://time.com/money/collection-post/4555218/retirement-advice-middle-age-couples/
Miscenallenous Networking Food and Beverage Costs $2,500 Costs Over 5 years as Assistant Professor
Miscenallenous Waiting on the University to Reimurse YouCosts Over 5 years $2,500 Costs Over 5 years as Assistant Professor
Floating Your Program Before the Grant $3,000 Costs Over 5 years as Assistant Professor
Society Memberships $1,000 Costs Over 5 years as Assistant Professor
Total $591,395
Dr. M (1798 Posts)

Craig McClain is the Executive Director of the Lousiana University Marine Consortium. He has conducted deep-sea research for 20 years and published over 50 papers in the area. He has participated in and led dozens of oceanographic expeditions taken him to the Antarctic and the most remote regions of the Pacific and Atlantic. Craig’s research focuses on how energy drives the biology of marine invertebrates from individuals to ecosystems, specifically, seeking to uncover how organisms are adapted to different levels of carbon availability, i.e. food, and how this determines the kinds and number of species in different parts of the oceans. Additionally, Craig is obsessed with the size of things. Sometimes this translated into actually scientific research. Craig’s research has been featured on National Public Radio, Discovery Channel, Fox News, National Geographic and ABC News. In addition to his scientific research, Craig also advocates the need for scientists to connect with the public and is the founder and chief editor of the acclaimed Deep-Sea News (http://deepseanews.com/), a popular ocean-themed blog that has won numerous awards. His writing has been featured in Cosmos, Science Illustrated, American Scientist, Wired, Mental Floss, and the Open Lab: The Best Science Writing on the Web.


3 Replies to “Can you afford to be a marine biologist? Or a scientist?”

  1. Just wanted to say this is a good post and thank you for writing it. Nobody commented yet even to be pissed off, it must be really a slow time! All of your posts describing how privilege works are much appreciated, and I am filing them for my kids to read in a few years.

  2. I am a secondary science teacher as well as a college professor in the science. After 30 years, I have the requisite knowledge, skills, and experience to be what I always wanted to be: a marine biologist! Nothing in the field is beyond me at this point. However, it is way too late for me to enter the field as an active participant.
    The entire list of advantages that were discussed here are the things I should have done early to be the marine biologist I wanted to be. These days, I use the knowledge and experiences I have had to open up the field of research science for my students. I know exactly what they need to know to become the scientists they wish to be. The list that I have made is very similar to this list and I use it to create experiences for my students to show them what the world of real science is like, how to communicate in this world, and what it takes to make a career out of science.
    While I agree that an Ivy League education has great advantages, I have sent students on to many universities and told them to do one simple thing: excel in science! I taught them to get involved in science from day 1 by getting to know your professors, get involved in all phases of their research, pitch your research interests to them, and become a scientist instead of letting your degree tell others about you. These students are now members of this fraternity and are doing good work.
    I am going to update my list with the best of your list and see if I can teach my students more about being the scientists they wish to be. Thank you for your work here!!

  3. Thank you for illustrating these points. Many of the considerations you mentioned could apply to any higher education program, especially for first generation students, such as myself. I was the first to graduate with an undergraduate degree, and the first person of the region of Alaska where I was born and raised to graduate with a law degree in 13 years. Nobody in my family has ever received a law degree. That being said, it was painfully embarrassing for me to ask my parents for money for anything, even when I needed it. The most I would get at a time was $300, which I asked for maybe once or twice per school year, when I was really short, needed money for books, and other things that couldn’t wait. My mom did pay off $5,000 of my debts my last year of undergraduate, which allowed me to get a 3.8 GPA whilst taking on 18 upper division credit units. All of my school tuition was paid through either scholarships, Pell Grants, or using my credit card.

    I think most people who have never had to experience college as a first generation student have no idea what it feels like to be surrounded by other students whose parents did such things like: buy them a car, pay for their rent, give them a monthly stipend for groceries, put money on their student identification cards for meals on campus, etc. I had one friend whose parents bought him an amazing condo in the foothills while he was in school.

    College isn’t designed for middle class families anymore. It’s designed for the ultra wealthy.

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