This week we chat to…Julia Wester, Director of Program Development for Field School. Julia has lots of detailed and useful advice for anyone wanting for forge a career in marine conservation. Her background goes to show that you don’t always have to have studied for an undergraduate degree in marine biology – there are many routes in.
Name: Julia Wester
Job Title: Director of Program Development
Organisation: Field School
- What inspired you to pursue a career in marine conservation?
Growing up I always loved nature and being outdoors. By the time I finished undergrad I knew I wanted to do something to help save the environment, but I had not yet narrowed to a focus on the ocean. My academic interests and professional experience steered me toward dealing directly with people through policy and the psychology of communication and decision-making. It was volunteering with a marine science lab during my Ph.D that really made it clear to me not only how important our oceans are, but also how difficult it can be to communicate about marine conservation issues and protect marine ecosystems. The ocean is both inextricably connected to all aspects of life on Earth and yet can feel so remote, alien, and unreachable to people. For much of our history, the ocean has been treated as a blank, unending surface on which to conduct transportation, commerce, and possibly war. A widely accessible picture of its inhabitants and ecosystems wasn’t achieved until very recently in our history (with the advent of things like scuba diving, marine acoustics, and underwater photography). While my love of the environment extends to the land, the challenge of connecting people to the ocean and helping them to feel a sense of both awe and responsibility has become a huge part of my calling in this field.
- What steps did you take/are you taking to achieve your career goals?
Prior to my current position, I completed a one-year master’s degree at Oxford before working as a legislative aide for a Florida State Senator. My time in policy taught me a lot about how things actually get done (or fail to get done) in government and that work still informs my research today. After that, I completed a Ph.D at the University of Miami’s Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy. While I always loved the idea of being a scientist and being curious about the world for a living, I also had a hard time picking just one academic discipline that I was most drawn to. The Abess Center Ph.D is an interdisciplinary program, which played to my strengths of looking at the bigger picture and drawing connections across fields and disciplines. During my Ph.D I also volunteered in a marine science lab that was developing an education and outreach component to their field research. They needed someone with a social science background to create a rigorous evaluation plan for that program and my background in psychology and social science methods was perfect. I became more involved in marine conservation through that program and have never looked back.
It was during that time that I met the friends with whom I would co-found Field School, a marine science research and education program that operates educational courses on a 55’ liveaboard research vessel in South Florida. We offer hands-on marine science training and conduct applied marine conservation research on a variety of topics with a focus on sharks.
- How did you land your current job/position?
My career path has led me to an unusual place in that I created rather than landed this job. There’s so much work to be done in so many ways in order to help our oceans. Don’t rule out the possibility of creating your own position, either by forming your own organization, or by recognizing a need at the organization you are at. My friends and I formed Field School in 2014 with the mission of creating a place for the kind of fieldwork experience, training, and mentorship that we all wanted early in our careers and which is so hard to find. We are all field scientists and educators in some capacity, but all of us have different academic backgrounds, training, and experience. The thing we all have in common is a deep commitment to doing impactful marine conservation research while creating a positive culture for students to learn. My personal background is in social science, particularly policy and psychology. While mine is not the bio that immediately pops to mind when thinking of field marine research, the longer you work in this field, the more you will realize that every environmental problem we are working to solve has humans at the center. My research background lends itself well to the applied interdisciplinary nature of our research program. The thing that is harder to put on a resume though is that I’m great at operations and logistics and have a knack for seeing the big picture. In addition to keeping an eye out for possible positions you can create, it’s worth thinking about some of the soft skills (i.e., organization, communication, positive attitude, etc.) that you bring to the table when thinking about what jobs you might like and communicating about your professional value to potential employers or your current boss.
- Which part of your job do you enjoy the most?
All people at relatively small organizations wear multiple hats and work long hours. Fortunately, the varied and intensive parts of my job also have almost too many joys to mention. Sometimes it’s anchoring out in a remote part of the Caribbean at night during a research expedition, just out of cell phone range, and spending the evening staring up at the sky, full to the brim with stars. Other times it’s just the little moments of humour and happiness that come with working with a team of your best friends. Ultimately though I think my favourite aspect of this work is getting to meet, work with, and mentor our incredible students.
- Are there aspects of your position which make you feel that you are really ‘making a difference’?
As I said above, working with students and interns who come through our programs is easily the most rewarding part of my work. Getting to spend a week or more living and working long hours in close quarters, you get to know students well. After lecture, our evenings are spent over dinner, chatting about student hopes and dreams, goals and aspirations, but also their fears and uncertainties. I’ve talked to students who have either lacked previous mentorship, or have been actively discouraged from pursuing a career in conservation by a past “mentor” because of any number of irrelevancies including race, gender, orientation, or religion. Getting to help them find their path is incredible. As we tell our students, we know hundreds of people working in marine science and conservation and no two of them have the exact same job, skills, or background. The problems our oceans are facing are vast, varied, and complex, and every student has something to contribute to the cause of protecting them. Hearing from these students months or sometimes years later about what they are up to now, and how their time with us helped shape their careers or gave them the confidence they needed to pursue this work, is when I know we are having an impact.
- What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were starting out?
So many things… can I borrow a time machine? I think the biggest thing that has changed for me is my relationship with failure and criticism. It’s easy to fall into a trap of only doing things you are naturally good at (and avoiding trying when you don’t feel you’re good at something). I’ve heard it said that you teach the thing you most need to learn. One of the things I find myself repeating to my students is that if you never fail then you aren’t challenging yourself enough. Being outside of your comfort zone is… well it’s uncomfortable. Yet some of the most important and meaningful work in my life to date has come with a big dose of discomfort and uncertainty. Relatedly, don’t worry so much about rejection. This is a competitive field and some level of rejection is just sort of built-in—it’s not personal, and it’s not a final verdict on your intelligence or potential contribution. An easy way to get more comfortable with that is to build a habit of applying for lots of opportunities. Nothing takes the fear out of rejection or failure like experiencing it a few times and realizing you can just get right back up and try again.
- Are there any skills you never thought you would need but did?
Statistics! I didn’t really get into stats until graduate school, but it is an invaluable skill for research of any kind and is a really important part of both understanding other people’s research and designing your own. Not everyone has to be a stats whiz, but I recommend getting some grounding in it, particularly if you are thinking of working in science or applying scientific findings in your work in another sector.
- What advice would you give to budding marine conservationists?
Early in your career, your main job is to experience things. Not just to gain skills, but to figure out your strengths and what you like. Often a career-counselling conversation with students will start with my asking if they know what they want to do. Common replies include something along the lines of “I want to work with/study [sharks, whales, the ocean]”. It’s great to know what creatures or ecosystems interest you! The thing I’d recommend you think about though is what are the skills/tools/approaches that you want to bring to the table and how do you want to spend your time. I say this because “shark scientist” can mean so many different things! You can study their diet, movements, populations, physiology, genetics, policies that impact them, how people view them, etc. You can work for a non-profit, state agency, or university. And that’s only a small slice! Do you like writing, reading, working with others or by yourself, are you good with computers, talking to strangers, presenting to the public, working on boats? There’s room for everyone reading this to make a contribution to the field of marine conservation.
- What is your favourite marine creature and why?
This is a tough one! I’m going to have to go with the yellow stingray (Urobatis jameicensis). These small rays get no bigger than a large pancake and live on coral reefs and seagrass beds. As one of our study species, students on our shark research skills and tropical marine research courses get to work with these animals, helping us to take fin clips, muscle biopsies, and measurements before they are released back where we found them. There have only been about 20 published scientific papers on these little guys, meaning that this work is gathering basic information about their populations, feeding ecology, and reproduction. There is so much we do not know about the ocean, even these small, relatively common rays found near Miami!
- What is your most unforgettable moment in the sea?
Because of my graduate volunteer work, I had the opportunity to work hands-on with sharks on a boat long before I ever actually got in the water with them. This is not the usual order of things for most people. The result of this was that by the time I had the chance to snorkel with sharks in the wild for the first time, I had seen and worked up close with many sharks alongside marine biologists and had talked about these misunderstood creatures to the general public a lot. As I strapped on my fins, I was excited, but assumed that to some degree, this would be like those other experiences. As I swam over the reef, free diving down to check out the fish, a reef shark swam into my peripheral vision. My heart stopped, not in fear, but in awe. Seeing this incredible, powerful animal glide peacefully through the water, uninterested in me or my friends, just taking its place in the ecosystem was unlike anything I had seen or experienced before. While I’ve had the chance to swim with sharks many times since then and have been part of amazing fieldwork with species from sawfish to sperm whales, it was this simple moment that will stay with me forever. I will always remember that initial jolt and the sense of wonder as I watched the animal circle and disappear into the blue.
Thank you Julia, we are sure that many people will find this interview very useful and inspiring. Find out more about Field School and see how they could help you build up some invaluable experience to help you build your own career.