I knew I wanted to be a marine biologist from the age of 11. I’d gone to an aquarium with my parents and there was someone diving in the tank – I think he was only cleaning it, but I saw this person underwater and I was like, “That’s what I want to do!”
I asked my parents – how do I do that? They said if you want a job like that you need to become an engineer or a marine biologist – and marine biologist sounded more exciting. So that was it. I think my parents thought I would grow out of it, but I never quite did.
Growing up just outside Oxford in the UK, diving opportunities were mostly limited to murky gravel pits, but I managed to do my first diving course when I was 12. There was also a book on my parents’ bookshelf by Hans Hass about his journey to the Red Sea and filming the underwater world. His wife Lotte became involved in this trip as one of the divers, and she gave me my first female role model to get into diving and marine biology.
Some people find SCUBA diving claustrophobic. But I find when you go underwater you’re immediately part of the environment – you’re not a bystander anymore. And there’s all these amazing secrets down there – it doesn’t matter whether you’re diving in a kelp forest or on a coral reef or on a wreck, you become part of a new world. It’s very peaceful and at the same time awe-inspiring. I find that I am thoroughly relaxed. It’s my happy place.
I did my undergrad in Southampton in the UK, where if you can see as far as your nose underwater, you’re having a good day. When I finished, I knew I needed to go somewhere warm with good visibility; I’d heard about James Cook University and was very excited to do my masters and then my PhD there, studying coral reef ecology. I’d follow fish around on tropical reefs, which was wonderful. But I found it didn’t really speak to how we are using the environment, or the synergies and trade-offs there are between ocean health and human health.
That’s why I came to the University of Tasmania, to work at their Centre for Marine Socioecology. This area very specifically focuses on how humans use the marine environment and its implications for ocean health. Marine socioecology draws on all sorts of disciplines, from people working in law, economics, fisheries, oceanography, public health, psychology – a massive array of different areas. It allows you to ask interesting and challenging questions. It’s not just: “How does this fish behave?” It’s more like: “If this fish behaves in this way, what are the implications for the local community that is fishing on that reef? How do these communities impact on fish and their behaviour?” It’s all about exploring the feedbacks between humans and the ocean.
The work I’m doing now is focused on both the social and ecological outcomes of coral reef fisheries. I am exploring what essential micronutrients (that’s things like vitamins, zinc, calcium etc) we are getting from coral reef fisheries today and how might this change in the future with climate change. This will have big implications for the nutritional status of communities that rely on coral reef fisheries for food.
My research will provide empirical data back to these communities. Currently, they might manage their fisheries in a certain way, but they may not know what nutrients they’re getting from the fish they are catching. By providing communities with that kind of information, they can decide, okay, what’s the best fish for us to consume? Maybe the fish we’re trading would be put to better use feeding our local community – more beneficial for our local health? We provide that kind of information to communities and they then have the power to make the decisions about what’s best for them.
The next big thing with marine socioecology are future studies. What kind of future do we want for our oceans? And, how can we achieve that future? This is all about working with local communities and stakeholders, whether it’s policymakers or industry – sitting down as a group and thinking: “What do we want our marine environment to look like to support industry, to support local communities, to be healthy, and to have great recreation, all these things?” Once you’ve created that shared vision, then you can come up with a plan of how to achieve it.
It’s exciting because you need the economists, you need the marine scientists, you need the people who work in technology, you need the psychologists to understand how people behave. You also need to understand all the different things people value about the oceans. By drawing together these disparate threads, 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’m involved with a project here at the University of Tasmania called Future Seas. We’re looking at 12 different challenges facing the world’s oceans, working closely with researchers, traditional owners and marine managers to understand how these challenges could play out in the future. There’s a lot more scope to explore in this sort of work, such as including the general public and a wider array of stakeholders in creating shared visions of what we want the future oceans to look like.
On a personal level, things got pretty challenging after I moved to Hobart and had my daughter. I didn’t really know anyone, I had a child but didn’t have any family support, and then I was diagnosed with postnatal depression. Thankfully, I got amazing help from local health professionals and also from colleagues within the university, who put me in touch with a lot of great resources. As I was coming out of that difficult time I spoke to colleagues around the world, and I found out that a lot of people who have children in academia are putting on a brave face about their experiences – short-term contracts and moves to new jobs far from home are a common occurrence in academia and often parents feel isolated, while struggling to juggle research and family. That’s why I founded aKIDemic Life, a free online resource hub for academics with caring responsibilities. We curate resources on all sorts of topics – how to prepare for a career break, tips for integrating back into work, where to find support locally and online. I’ve been getting great feedback that it is filling a need. I encourage anyone to check it out.
As told to Graem Sims for Cosmos Weekly.