What is your scientific background?
I was a bit of a late starter, going to university when I was 27! Because I had been outside of education so long, I did a distance-learning science program with the Open University based in the England. This allowed me to keep working whilst I studied. They even sent a tutor over from England a few times to give us face-to-face lessons! After that, I went to the University of Exeter in England for my undergraduate where I studied conservation biology and ecology, and spent a year at the University of Victoria in Canada where I specialised in marine sciences. For my masters, is was back to England – this time to study marine environmental management. I also spent some time in Australia where I got to focus on my favourite topic of all – dynamic ocean management! Between my masters and my Ph.D. I decided to get a different perspective and do a graduate diploma in fisheries management with the Marine Institute in Canada. I am now in a Ph.D. program at Memorial University in Canada looking at marine protected area networks and mobile species (wish me luck!).
Why did you choose to become a scientist?
I wanted to work in marine conservation in some way and thought that science was one of the ways in which I could do that. I also thought that it was important to have a high level of education in the field so I could be most effective.
Did you have a role model that influenced your decision to work in science?
I didn’t have a single role model, but many. My parents always took me outside into nature, which played a huge role in cultivating my love for the environment. They encouraged me to explore, play, and learn about the World. Then there was the local conservation trust – really a zoo. I have mixed feelings about zoos, but this one and its creator (Gerald Durrell) certainly influenced me a lot. Even though I grew up on a small Island, we were lucky enough to get BBC TV – and all the wonderful science and science fiction shows they broadcast. Tomorrow’s World, Dr. Who, Springwatch, Day of the Triffids, Stargazing Live, Horizon, and of course David Attenborough’s work – all of the people involved in these shows became my role model.
How did you choose your field of study?
I think it chose me! I grew up on a small island, surrounded by ocean and marine life in all its splendour. The ocean was a part of our everyday life – from BBQs on the beach to swimming in the ocean, to snorkeling and scuba diving, to paddle-boarding, to boating, to fishing…. I grew up with small fishing boats bringing in their day’s catch, fish markets full of local and imported seafood – and at times foraging for our own in amongst the rock pools. How could I not want to do something to take care of the ocean?
Which topic are you working on at the moment? Why did you choose this topic and how do you think you’ll make a difference?
Right now I’m putting together a proposal to look at marine protected area (MPA) networks for mobile species. The spatial protection of species which exhibit great mobility throughout their life cycle is a challenge, but not impossible. MPA networks designed to incorporate the range of ‘essential habitats’ occupied throughout the life cycle of a species, could provide critical protection and support population persistence. For example, protection of spawning or nursery grounds which are resilient to changing oceanographic conditions may improve the chance of populations persisting in the long term. What’s more, the abundance and distribution of prey is considered to be a major driver of the movement and distribution of predators. MPAs which include predators as a conservation target may be enhanced if they consider the current and future distribution of major prey into their design.
By taking into account the movements of marine species at different stages in their lives and interactions between predators and prey, MPAs carefully placed into a network can ensure species are adequately protected, maximising both the conservation and fishery benefits that MPAs potentially offer.
I’ll also add that MPAs don’t necessarily have to be static!
Since I am out in Newfoundland I have decided to focus my attention on 3 key interacting species (well… 2 species and one group…):
- Capelin are recognised nationally and internationally as a keystone forage fish species in the region and has become the focus of calls for conservation management as a result of population declines.
- Cod is a keystone predator and commercially important species which relies heavily on capelin and has failed to recover from overfishing despite a moratorium being introduced in the early 1990s.
- Finally, seabirds such as common murres and puffins come to Newfoundland and Labrador to breed and support their chicks with capelin.
To elucidate design principles for MPA networks for these – and other – interacting migratory species, the thesis will broadly:
- Explore capelin’s spatial-temporal relationship to static and dynamic habitats throughout their life cycle, and how shifts in habitat use, abundance/distribution, and ranges may occur with current and future changing oceanographic conditions.
- Assess the current and historic spatial and temporal co-occurrence between cod and capelin at different age/sizes, and how this may change over time.
- Understand the spatial connectivity between key seabird nesting and foraging sites, and the impact of shifting capelin distributions in Newfoundland waters.
Well, that’s the plan! But as anyone who has done, or is doing a Ph.D. knows, plans can change.
What is a typical day like for you?
I’d love to say it was full of adventure but alas… my work is pretty much computer based! At the moment I’m mostly reading reading reading.. writing writing…reading… oh and I’m trying to learn some new skills, like using R and quantitate analysis which is still very new to me.
What are the hardest parts related to this work?
For the Ph.D. directly, definitely learning quantitative skills. More generally it’s pretty hard to stay positive about improving the way people interact with the ocean. The small wins and good news stories are really important for this!
Did you ever doubt your abilities as a scientist? Why? How did you handle these situations/feelings?
All the time. To be honest, I’m not sure if I will ever make an excellent scientist, but that’s primarily because I lack the quantitative skills I need to answer the questions I am asking (which when you deal with dynamic management and mobile species are extremely complex and rely heavily on quantitative skills!). Still, I am only at the beginning of the Ph.D. so this should hopefully improve.
Do you come from an academic family? How does your family regard your career choice?
Not even remotely! My parents and sister are both really stoked that I am doing this (thought they would be happy with whatever I was doing if it made me happy)
What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome? Did you ever have the impression that it would be easier/harder if you were male?
In my first year of undergraduate (I think in the first week) one of the head scientists (who was female) at the University pointed out that over 90% of the people in our year doing our program was female. She then pointed out that when it comes to higher up the academic ladder, we would not see 90% women. She wanted to tell us that we must not be disheartened, but that it was tougher for women for many reasons. Despite this, I have never felt held back because I was female.
What kind of prejudices, if any, did you have to face? How did that make you feel? Were you able to overcome these?
My age – and mostly for grant applications. Apparently, when you reach the age of 25+ or 30+ you suddenly have access to vast amounts of money that you can use to fund your education and no longer need grants. I wish someone would tell me where my stash was!
As a white cis female, I haven’t had to face many of the hardships some of my counterparts have, particularly as I have primarily been in white-dominated countries. I did witness (and took action on) some bullying particularly in the English universities from a minority of other students though.
In your opinion, which changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system to be more attractive to female scientists and possible future scientists?
I think this has been well discussed, but I’d like to add that societal/cultural changes need to happen to (not just for science but for all career choices). For example, kids should not grow up with ‘boy’s things’ and ‘girl’s things’ – clothes, books, toys, jobs… it’s all just ‘stuff’. Who cares what sex you were born, what gender you are. Family responsibilities need to change too. For those who want to have children, women still largely take on the lion’s share of the responsibility. These things take time to change – and they will if we all take a little time to think about what we are doing, and what we can do to improve the situation for ourselves and future generations.
If you had the option to give advice to a younger version of yourself, what would that be?
When I was 15 I did one of those ‘what’s your career’ computer programs and it came up with ‘conservation’ as my match. The program also warned that there were few work options, and poor pay in this field so it put me off. Now I tell myself to do it anyway. If I had started university when I was 18 instead of 27, I would already be finished my Ph.D.! Quitting work and restarting education when you’re older is harder… but not impossible!
You can visit Samantha’s website, follow her on Twitter, on Instagram, and LinkedIn!
You can also write her at S-Andrews@live.ca!