I knew I wanted to be a marine biologist from the age of 11. I had been to an aquarium with my parents and there was someone diving in the aquarium – I think he was just cleaning it, but I saw this person under the water and I walked over. says, “This is what I want to do!”
I asked my parents: how to do? They said if you want a job like this you have to become an engineer or a marine biologist – and the marine biologist sounded more exciting. So that was it. I think my parents thought I was going to be okay, but I never really did.
Growing up just outside of Oxford in the UK, diving opportunities were mostly limited to cloudy gravel pits, but I managed to get my first diving course when I was 12. There was also a book on my parents’ shelf by Hans Hass on his journey to the Red Sea and filming the underwater world. His wife Lotte got involved in this trip as a diver and she gave me my first female model to get into diving and marine biology.
Some people find scuba diving claustrophobic. But I find that when you go underwater you are immediately part of the environment – you are no longer a spectator. And there are all these amazing secrets out there – it doesn’t matter if you dive in a kelp forest or on a coral reef or on a wreck, you are part of a new world. It is very peaceful and at the same time impressive. I find that I am completely relaxed. This is my happy place.
I did my undergraduate studies in Southampton UK where if you can see up to your nose underwater you have a great day. When I finished I knew I had to go somewhere warm with good visibility; I had heard of James Cook University and was very excited to do my masters and then my doctorate there, studying coral reef ecology. I followed the fish on the tropical reefs which was wonderful. But I found that it didn’t really talk about how we use the environment, or the synergies and tradeoffs that exist between ocean health and human health.
That’s why I came to the University of Tasmania, to work in their Center for Marine Socioecology. This field focuses very specifically on how humans use the marine environment and its implications for ocean health. Marine socioecology involves all kinds of disciplines, people working in the fields of law, economics, fisheries, oceanography, public health, psychology – a wide range of different fields. It allows you to ask interesting and thought-provoking questions. It’s not just, “How is this fish behaving?” Rather, “If this fish behaves like this, what are the implications for the local community fishing on this reef?” How do these communities impact fish and their behavior? It’s about exploring the feedbacks between humans and the ocean.
The work I do now is focused on the social and ecological outcomes of coral reef fishing. I explore what essential micronutrients (i.e. vitamins, zinc, calcium etc.) we get from coral reef fisheries today and how that might change in the future with climate change. This will have big implications for the nutritional status of communities that depend on coral reef fishing for food.
My research will provide empirical data to these communities. Right now they can manage their fisheries in a certain way, but they may not know what nutrients they are getting from the fish they are catching. By providing communities with that kind of information, they can decide, okay, what’s the best fish we eat? Maybe the fish we market would be better used to feed our local community – more beneficial to our local health? We provide that kind of information to communities and then they have the power to make decisions about what is best for them.
The next big thing with marine socioecology is future studies. What future do we want for our oceans? And how can we achieve this future? It’s about working with local communities and stakeholders, whether they are policy makers or industry – sit down as a group and think, ‘what do we want our marine environment to look like for? to support industry, to support local communities, to be healthy and have great recreation, all of those things? Once you’ve created this shared vision, you can make a plan to achieve it.
It’s exciting because you need economists, you need marine scientists, you need people who work in technology, you need psychologists to understand how people behave. You also need to understand all of the different things people like about the oceans. By bringing these disparate threads together, you can then say, “Hey, this is the future we want! And these are the economic, psychological and ecological approaches to achieve that future. “
I am involved in a project here at the University of Tasmania called Future Seas. We take a look at 12 different challenges facing the world’s oceans, working closely with researchers, traditional owners and marine managers to understand how these challenges might play out in the future. There are many more possibilities to be explored in this type of work, such as including the general public and a wider range of stakeholders in creating shared visions of what we want future oceans to look like.
On a personal level, things got pretty tough after I moved to Hobart and had my daughter. I didn’t really know anyone, I had a child but had no family support, and then I was diagnosed with postpartum depression. Fortunately, I received incredible help from local health professionals as well as colleagues within the university, who put me in touch with many great resources. As I emerged from this difficult time, I spoke to colleagues around the world and found that many people who have children in academia are showing courage about their experiences – short term contracts. and moving to new jobs away from home is a common occurrence in academia, and parents often feel isolated, struggling to balance research and family. That’s why I founded aKIDemic Life, a free online resource center for academics with family responsibilities. We organize resources on all kinds of topics: how to prepare for a career break, tips for getting back to work, where to find help locally and online. I have received excellent feedback that this meets a need. I encourage anyone to check it out.
As told to Graem Sims for Cosmos Weekly.
Do you like the weekly? You will love the COSMOS quarterly magazine.
Biggest news, in detail, quarterly. Buy a subscription today.