Natalie Salim, ’11, wasn’t always sure what she wanted to study in college. She attended Richard Bland College for two years to complete general education courses and earned an associate’s degree, but when she transferred to the University of Richmond, she was no closer to reaching a decision. However, a meeting with Dr. Scott Johnson, director of the Academic Advising Resource Center, revealed the perfect major.

“I was interested in all of these marine biology classes, but I love art and photography,” she says. “[Johnson] asked if I’d ever heard of interdisciplinary studies, and said I could combine two interests to create my own major. He asked what I thought about marine photography and I said, ‘Sign me up!’ He was really the catalyst in helping me figure out exactly what I wanted to do.”

With Johnson’s help, Salim selected a combination of courses from the art and biology programs that would make up her core requirements and electives, and wrote up a description of the major and her goals for approval.

Salim’s interests truly intersected for the first time in Tropical Marine Biology, taught by Malcolm Hill, chair of the department of biology. At the end of the semester, the class took a trip to the Florida Keys and Salim got a firsthand look at marine life.

“We went snorkeling and it was the first time I’d really worked with an underwater camera,” she says. “It wasn’t anything fancy — it was just a point-and-shoot — but I fell in love. On the first dive, I actually ran the camera battery out. It really whet my appetite for underwater photography.”

From that point on, Salim always attended biology class field trips — whether to the Virginia Beach Aquarium or an oyster farm — with her camera in tow.

With graduation right around the corner, Salim is focused on completing her thesis requirement for the interdisciplinary program. She’s documenting her Marine Biology of the Chesapeake Bay class for a nature magazine-style article about marine life and conservation.

Salim says her dream post-graduate internship would be with National Geographic magazine as an underwater or wildlife photographer. But she wants to do more than just document the world around her. “I love taking pretty pictures of fish,” she says, “but my main goals is that the pictures would encourage people to think about the beauty that’s in the ocean and how we can protect it.”

Looking back, Salim can’t imagine where she’d be without the help of Hill and Johnson, and the ability to design her own program of study.

“I’ve told so many people about Johnson and interdisciplinary studies because I feel like a lot of students want to combine two different majors, but they don’t know how,” she says. “One of the things I love about Richmond is that people are so willing to help you succeed and help you have experiences that I feel like students at other colleges don’t get to experience.”