Faces of the Gulf: Life as a Marine Scientist

Written by on May 9, 2016 in Interviews, Other News

Editor’s Note — Ever wonder what life as a marine scientist is like? MST contributing writer Astrid Hsu is conducting a series of interviews with the people behind the Gulf of California Marine Program (GCMP) at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and she shared a sample with us! Check it out.

By Astrid Hsu

The Gulf of California Marine Program (GCMP) is composed of a widely diverse group of individuals from all walks of life. Speaking different languages and representing different nationalities, the GCMP team brings many different perspective to the world of marine conservation. As such, to know each member a little bit better, the GCMP blog series “Faces of the Gulf or “Rostros del Golfo” showcases the knowledge, dreams, and quirks of each individual. Here’s a sample from Dr. Tara Whitty!

Q: Who are you and where do you currently reside?

Image courtesy of Tara Whitty

Image courtesy of Tara Whitty

A: I am an NSF SEES* Postdoctoral Fellow in the Gulf of California Marine Program and with Too Big To Ignore, the global network for small-scale fisheries. My other title is Conservation Assessment Scholar at the Center for Marine Biodiversity for Conservation. I’m happy to be based in San Diego, which is where I grew up.

*Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability

Q: What are you studying/researching?

A: I study social-ecological aspects of marine conservation, with a focus on the interface between small-scale fisheries and conservation. A key idea in this work is the concept of stewardship, which includes both an ethic (a feeling of responsibility) and actions based on that ethic (e.g., management of important local resources). At the moment, my fieldwork looks at the perspectives of diverse stakeholders in the Upper Gulf of California regarding future scenarios for vaquita conservation. I also will have fieldwork in Madagascar and Myanmar, looking at how communities act as stewards of coastal resources.

Q: How did you get interested in the topic?

A: I have always been interested in efforts to “make the world a better place” and ended up gravitating toward conservation ecology in college. I was able to do ecological fieldwork in fantastic places, primarily developing countries, where the human context (including poverty) was very obviously intertwined with conservation. It became clear to me that conservation must consider the well-being of local human communities, for practical reasons (conservation will likely work better if local communities support it), but also for ethical reasons. For my dissertation, my co-advisor Lisa Ballance introduced me to the topic of marine mammal bycatch in small-scale fisheries. This proved to be a perfect topic for studying the human side of conservation and is how I started working on small-scale fisheries.

Q: Where do you want to end up with your research/what is the “end product”?

A: I would like my work to go beyond academia, and to guide the conservation community toward more productive and creative ways of developing solutions that have a measurable, positive impact on nature and human communities.

Q: What is your greatest achievement pertaining to your work?

A: One of my main achievements has been developing a social-ecological approach for studying the problem of marine mammal bycatch in small-scale fisheries. With this approach, we study the ecological, social, and governance aspects of the problem, which helps identify obstacles to and opportunities for solutions. I call this the conservationscapes approach. I’m proud of the idea, which builds on the brilliance of many esteemed colleagues; it has great potential for improving how we study marine mammal bycatch and other serious conservation problem.

Q: What is the most fascinating component of your research?

A: I’ll be candid: conducting interviews is not as exciting as getting on a boat or scuba diving and studying animals. But, the information that I get from interviews is more interesting to me in many ways. We can learn about how people see their world – what they dream for, what they worry about, why they do what they do. And that’s fascinating!

Also, because this research is related to several different fields of work, it is an area where many ideas, approaches, and methods come together in fascinating ways. For example, I’m learning about design thinking, also known as human centered design, which has exciting potential for conservation!

Q: Describe your dream!

A: One dream would be to work with the conservation community to facilitate communication, guide the development of creative and effective solutions, and help apply those solutions in a meaningful way. A more abstract dream is to see more empathy and creativity in the conservation community, and to see communities truly incorporated in the conservation planning process.

Q: What are your hobbies?

A: Among several others, my top hobbies include traveling, playing in the ocean, learning new languages, dancing, cooking, and spending time with family and friends.

Q: Who do you admire and why? (it doesn’t have to be in your field)

A: This is a long list! I’ll choose a group of people who inspire me: my young research colleagues working on marine conservation in Southeast Asia, where I did my PhD research. This is a group of enthusiastic, talented, and dedicated people who work hard to promote conservation in their countries. They do not have many of the resources available to researchers in the US, but they persevere and do amazing work. On top of all of that, they are an absolute pleasure to work with and to have fun with!

Image courtesy of Tara Whitty

Image courtesy of Tara Whitty

Copyright © 2016 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

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