This week we chat to…Karen Bowles, Research Manager from the Bazaruto Center for Scientific Studies (BCSS). Growing up in Mozambique, Karen knew she wanted to make a difference. Her advice? Experience and experiment as much as you can, you do not need to rush right away into one thing. It is good to have an open mind and various ways of thinking that will help you have a multidisciplinary approach to research and conservation.
Name: Karen R. Bowles
Job Title: Research Manager
Organisation: Bazaruto Center for Scientific Studies (BCSS)
- What inspired you to pursue a career in marine conservation?
Growing up moving around Mozambique (where there is no shortage of wild places), I was always fascinated by the environment, its systems, and how people interact with it. I wanted to explore and understand how Earth “works”. The more I learned about it, the more I wanted to be where people were exploring and pushing the boundaries in our understanding of the environment, and coming up with creative solutions to the various issues I read about, and sometimes, witnessed first-hand.
I wanted to be part of the change-makers making an impact. The best way I saw to do that was to pursue a career in Environmental Sciences.
- What steps did you take/are you taking to achieve your career goals?
Ensure that I am continuously learning, have hands-on experience, and not limit my way of thinking to one specific area (have a multidisciplinary approach).
I did a hands-on undergraduate degree in Environmental Sciences, during which I actively reached out to professors that were working on projects that I had an interest in and ended up helping in the lab.
After graduating, I decided to get some work experience before committing to the research field. I was grateful to find an environmental consultancy firm that allowed me to work on various interesting projects, from general management plans for conservation areas, to feasibility studies and market analysis for renewable energy projects.
All these experiences challenged me, exposed me to various ways of thinking and, in a way, prepared me for what is coming. An example of which is my current role at BCSS where I live on a remote island for most of the year and get to be out in the ocean regularly. It sometimes feels like being in a National Geographic Ocean special!
- How did you land your current job/position?
The BCSS research station is the first of its kind in Mozambique. I saw the station’s inauguration on the news and reached out, curious to know more about it. It so happened that they were looking for a Research Manger and my profile fit the description.
I was excited to take on the challenge, as I always want to encourage more people, especially Mozambicans, to see the Sciences as a viable career option, as well as, contribute to making the statement “Africa produces less than 1% of global research output” a thing of the past!
- Which part of your job do you enjoy the most?
I joined BCSS in the early days as we developed the station, its internship programmes, and in-house research (the Ocean Observatory). This has been one of the most gratifying challenges I have taken on. The process of creating something that will be so useful and key for research in this area, however difficult that may be, and having other researchers already coming to the station to develop and conduct their own studies, has got to be my favourite part. It also helps that we are based in an incredibly beautiful and dynamic part of the world and the views/wildlife/ecosystems never disappoint.
- Are there aspects of your position which make you feel that you are really ‘making a difference’?
Absolutely! As I mentioned above, having researchers and students come to conduct their fieldwork at BCSS, use our lab facilities, be guided by the know-how we have developed in the area, and using BCSS as a platform for collaborations, is already so gratifying because this is what the station was made for. In the first year of me joining, we had a student present their findings at an international conference from a study they did whilst at BCSS. That was a key moment for me. I cannot wait to see the research that comes out of BCSS having an impact on decision-making and policy!
Other equally important aspects are the opportunities to educate the local island community and our interns/volunteers/visitors about the ocean and the environment.
- What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were starting out?
Business acumen is important.
- Are there any skills you never thought you would need but did?
As above, business and people skills. When you come from a research background, you may spend most of your time interacting with others that have a similar background as you; but to bridge the world of science and action, you need to communicate and deal with stakeholders from various backgrounds. Having the skills to feel comfortable and excel in these situations is key.
Another skill that I still struggle with but is useful, is to be confident and engaging on camera (especially to be on TV or, as is more common now, social media. Get comfortable with having someone filming you and hopefully not cringe too much watching yourself back).
- What advice would you give to budding marine conservationists?
- Experience and experiment as much as you can. You do not need to choose or figure out what you want to do right away.
- When in doubt, reach out.
- For my fellow women in STEM– Keep going! You belong, your contribution matters, and you can do it. If it gets hard, get better. Having a support system of other ladies trying to make it in this field, makes the journey way more enjoyable.
- What is your favourite marine creature and why?
A difficult question to answer, especially as I spend a significant amount of time in the field and probably have a new favourite every week. However, if I have to choose, it would have to be corals.
I saw a coral reef (IRL) for the first time when I visited BCSS (seems unbelievable considering I lived in Mozambique for most of my life, but it is true), and it was the most fascinating world. Corals are incredibly diverse and such interesting animals. On dives, I am often seen with my nose to the corals in awe. Have you seen a close-up image of a coral?
- What is your most unforgettable moment in the sea?
Another difficult one for me to pick. I have three that will always stay with me:
- Tagging sharks is such an adrenaline-inducing activity and a truly educational experience. When you are out there enough you start picking up on the different personalities and behaviours, but one of the most special moments for me was when we were tagging a large female Bull Shark and she locked eyes with me throughout the whole procedure and was so calm. It was such an intense moment.
- We had just finished servicing a sensor on a reef and were heading up to the surface when a pod of Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphins swam down and took turns rubbing themselves on the seafloor. It was the most random and awesome moment.
- A mother and calf Humpback Whale got stuck on an outgoing tide in the Bazaruto Archipelago National Park, the rangers managed to save the calf, but the mother did not make it. On the way to see what sharks were feeding on the carcass, the calf came close to the boat and just hung around, it was so sad. I often think about that calf and hope it makes it.
Thank you Karen, great to hear more about the work of this unique organisation. If you are interested in working somewhere like this, check out their internship programmes here.