An Interview with WiseOceans… Aaron Eger from Sea Watch Foundation
This week we chat to…Aaron who shares some very useful and detailed advice on developing a career in research, such as: how to approach a professor to land that opportunity, why people skills are important, ensuring you can sustain your career over your working lifetime, using your local area to find your research niche…plus a great sounding dive in his hometown backyard that has definitely gone on our wish list!
Name: Aaron Eger
Job Title: Scientia PhD Candidate
Organisation: University of New South Wales
- What inspired you to pursue a career in marine conservation?
To be honest, I was at a bit of a loss after completing my first year of undergrad. We had to declare a major and I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to choose. When I was having a chat with sister, she asked me the cliché, “if you could try anything, what would it be?” I had a thought and essentially landed on maybe marine biology. I’d always felt an affinity to the ocean and I wanted a career with the potential to protect our natural world (law was on the table). The more I followed the idea, the more I learned what needed to be done and the need for people to do it. I think lots of people end up in the profession this way, they have an initial background interest, from their childhood, books, or movies, they start down a path of education and experience, then one day you realize they hey it actually worked out. I kind of wish I had a better origin story but I think the eureka moments are far outweighed by the more consistent pacings of life.
- What steps did you take/are you taking to achieve your career goals?
Since I’ve worked almost entirely in a research context, the big things for me have centred on the university. Once I decided I wanted to try marine research and see if it fit, I sought out classes that taught ecology and ocean science. But I think, more importantly, I looked at job postings for potential positions and saw that communication skills, field experience, statistical knowledge, and GIS skills were very common throughout the kinds of jobs I wanted.
By communication, I mean writing and presenting. To work on these I took a lot of classes with independent research projects that required papers and oral presentations. And it wasn’t easy at first, my first paper received a 62/100 and my first presentations were punctuated by many “umms” and forgotten lines. But by practising (a lot) I turned those weaknesses into strengths.
For hands-on experience, I earned my boating and diving qualifications which allowed me to work in the field and reinforce those skills. Again at first, it was just helping out on the boat, doing snorkel surveys, learning the ropes and then as things progressed, I was driving the boat or planning the dive trips.
Similarly, for stats and GIS, I took the classes I could on those subjects and made sure that the independent projects that I worked on incorporated those skills so I was constantly forced to build on my past experience and learn more.
For me, the ultimate combination of all these skills was my honours project. I approached a professor to work on a project that “involved the ocean” and applied the skills I mentioned above. Luckily for me, there was an ongoing project where I would work to coordinate the larger research goals but then I would have their support in developing my own research project. So between those two elements I was putting everything to the test, I had to communicate with research scientists far my senior to organize trips, learn new statistical methods to do my own research, continue to improve my diving qualifications to do field work, and I think most importantly, find my place in the larger research team.
If you’re doing a bachelor’s degree, which I think most people in the field do, I think that is a really important time to leverage the opportunities available to you. It is not often you are provided with so much time to just learn and people are generally very willing to help you out if you ask kindly and with enthusiasm. Try and tap into the research community at your undergrad university, grad students and professors are usually really happy to hear from keen undergrads. It can be really hard (or extremely costly) to break into the field if you don’t build your experience during undergrad.
- How did you land your current job/position?
For my bachelors position, it was from taking the initiative to ask about an honours project, which led to a summer job, and then asking again the next year if there was room for me to come back.
For my Masters, I cold called 4 or 5 professors that I was interested in working with and set up interviews to see how we and our research interests matched.
For my current position, I saw an ad on Twitter, contacted the supervisor, had an interview, and submitted an application.
In a less literal sense, I think my positions have come from actively targeting positions that fit my skillset and then selling my research vision and qualifications to the people in charge of hiring. I think professors receive a lot of vague emails about wanting to do something in the ocean, to stand out you need to be direct and clear about what you want and how you’re going to get there. If anyone wants a template for cold calling a professor, send me an email and I’ll be happy to share.
- Which part of your job do you enjoy the most?
I’ll cheat a bit but the part I enjoy the most is the diversity of things I get to work on. One day I might be driving the dive boat, the other hosting a skype meeting with researchers from around the world, then working on computer code, engaging my artistic side by creating a presentation, and even teaching students the basics of ecology or independent research. I don’t know very many jobs where you can wear so many hats on a regular basis. To play devil’s advocate, this breadth can be exhausting because it forces you to develop a wide and often polar skill set but I really relish the creativity and challenge that comes with doing so.
- Are there aspects of your position which make you feel that you are really ‘making a difference’?
The times that I’ve felt most validated that I might actually be doing something useful have been through teaching and outreach.
Conservation is a very social field, you need to be able to connect with people and engage them in a positive direction. So when you see a student really engaged or motivated by your lecture or people coming up to you after a public talk to thank you for all your work and tell you that you’ve changed their mind about a subject or taught them something new, it’s incredibly rewarding.
One of my favourite moments was after an outreach presentation I gave on seagrass. It was in a small town, late on a weekday but the room was packed, I’d had some great questions and lots of good conversations afterwards and I was just heading out the door when a 13-year-old girl stepped away from her friends, threw up the bull horns and shouted “Rock on Seagrass, rock on”. That sort of thing still brings a big smile to my face.
- What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were starting out?
It can require a lot of moving. Between finding jobs and degrees, the research field requires a lot of relocating and this can take a toll on community connections. I would do it all again, 100%, but if I’d known I would be moving so much, I might have taken some more time to appreciate friends and family when they were so nearby.
- Are there any skills you never thought you would need but did?
People skills. I started as a very cut and dry scientist. I would think along the lines of these are the facts and this is what we should do because of the facts or I am good at what I do so I will succeed on talent alone.
I’ve since learned that it is not always what you say but how you say and it really helps to get good at communicating effectively to different audiences. Numbers do not inherently drive people and if you want to be effective at affecting change, you need to be a persuasive communicator.
The idea that science is a solo sport is very misleading. You certainly need to invest in yourself and develop your skills but there is no solitary genius. To be successful in research you need to develop rich and diverse networks and communities. These people will expose you to new ideas, help you work on different research projects that you couldn’t do alone, and aid with simple things like sending you a job posting when they know you’re looking.
- What advice would you give to budding marine conservationists?
Let your passion drive you but don’t let your passion define you. It is important to love what you do but it is equally important to have an array of interests. It is too easy to only be a scientist and justify working 60-80 hours a week because “you love what you do”. If you want a sustainable career you need to nurture other aspects of yourself and invest in personal relationships. Science doesn’t always go well and when your work takes a dip (which it will), it is important to have other things in your life that make you happy.
Another really big one that I don’t think gets talked about enough, try looking for marine conservation opportunities in your own backyard. There are a couple of motivations for working locally. First, I think a lot of opportunities are overlooked by persons from temperate regions, many people want to work on coral, dolphins, and turtles, but there is a huge investment in marine conservation and management being made in temperate countries. If you’re from a cold water country, working locally can help develop your niche. Second, marine conservation has an undeniable social element and I think scientists need to work harder to develop social licenses in the communities that they’re conducting research. And lastly, fieldwork is very carbon intensive and working in your hometown helps reduce the environmental impact of your fieldwork.
- What is your favourite marine creature and why?
I love a whole host of bizarre cryptic fish but to spare myself the difficulty of picking a favourite, I am going to go with a penguin. As a Canadian, I have to really respect an animal that hops in for a swim at -30˚C
- What is your most unforgettable moment in the sea?
I’m going with a hometown favourite. Back in Western Canada, there is a tidal passage called Nakwakto Rapids, it is in the books as the fastest tidal rapid in the world (up to 16 knots). You have to dive it at slack tide and this only lasts for about 20 minutes. So the captain drives the boat in with the rapid still running, you’re standing on deck, gear on, waiting for the last signs of current to disperse, you get the signal, and it’s splash time.
Once you’re in the water, you’re treated to a kaleidoscope fuelled explosion of colours. With the water running so fast, there are ample nutrients and oxygen levels in the water and vibrant filter feeders fight for space often stacking on top one another to get a chance at the action.
The highlight of the dive are the crimson coloured gooseneck barnacles, normally intertidal creatures, but the conditions here allow them to live submerged. Stalks of these underwater pitcher plants abound and there are simply too many to take in during your limited dive. Soon enough you feel the current tugging at your feet and its back to the surface. By the time you get your dive gear off, the whirlpools, standing waves, and thundering sounds have all reclaimed their rightful place.
Thank you Aaron – this is a fantastic set of answers that we are sure will be very useful to those still thinking about how to get into this field. If you want to know more about Aaron you can explore his blog.