This week we chat to…Dr Paris Stefanoudis from University of Oxford and Nekton. Always fascinated with the natural world, Paris advises budding marine conservationists to enjoy the journey! Your career path can have many unexpected twists and turns but relish these rather than dwell on what could have been. It’s the journey not the destination that counts!
Name: Dr Paris Stefanoudis
Job Title: Postdoctoral Researcher
- What inspired you to pursue a career in marine conservation?
I didn’t know that I wanted to pursue a career in marine ecology and conservation when I was little. Being curious and inquisitive, I had many different interests and change of hearts during my teenage years, so it was difficult for me to make up my mind and decide what I wanted to do in my adult life.
However, I was always fascinated by animals and the natural environment they live in. From documentaries to books and encyclopaedias (internet was just about becoming mainstream when I grew up so not much to find online back then), I really enjoyed the idea of studying the natural world.
- What steps did you take/are you taking to achieve your career goals?
I did my BSc in Biology, a rather broad degree that touched on several subjects, including genetics, microbes and biotechnology, evolution, plant and animal communities both on land and sea etc. During my BSc studies I realised I was more excited about aquatic rather than terrestrial life so I ended up applying for a MSc in Aquatic Sciences. It was heavily focused on freshwater and riverine ecosystems, which I found interesting, but still not 100% what I wanted to do.
I then went on to pursue a PhD in deep-sea ecology, studying habitats lying several thousands of metres below the sea surface. I started joining oceanographic expeditions where I learned how to investigate those remote marine habitats using a range of sophisticated tools and state-of-the-art technology. It felt out of this world! I felt like an explorer!
That’s probably the first time I realised that I found a field that I would want to work for the years to come: the marine realm. Oceans are vast, harbouring such a variety of habitats and life, that I was sure to always find something to keep me interested.
- How did you land your current job/position?
I had just finished my PhD, and I was looking for post-doc opportunities in marine ecology. At the same time, Nekton was looking for researchers to work on their newly-established lab in Oxford. I was aware of their work and their recent expedition on deep reefs in Bermuda, and I really liked their approach of combining state of the art research with effective communications and knowledge exchange activities. That’s when I decided to apply; I eventually got the position, and four years later I am still there!
- Which part of your job do you enjoy the most?
I feel really lucky being able to go and explore remote coral reef habitats in the tropical Western Indian Ocean, that very few people have ever had the privilege to survey before. Because so little is known about these ecosystems, any meaningful assessment of their biodiversity or health status requires the knowledge and scientific input from so many different researchers spread out across the globe. It’s this aspect of collaboration and engagement with other researchers that I enjoy the most.
- Are there aspects of your position which make you feel that you are really ‘making a difference’?
At Nekton we are trying our best to operate in an ethical, transparent, fair and equitable manner. All marine research projects conducted in a host nation state, are co-developed, co-produced and co-disseminated with the government, local and regional stakeholders and researchers, so that they canmaximise research outcomes and achieve a legacy of impact.
- What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were starting out?
That what you do in your BSc or even MSc does not necessarily define your career. I thought doing an MSc focusing on freshwater systems, would not allow me to pursue a career in marine science and conservation, but I was wrong of course! Most Universities and employers know that, so as long as you have studied something that is relevant to what they are offering, then you should be ok.
If you want to improve your chances, internships can be an effective and quick way to develop new skills and gain some practical experience (e.g. working in laboratory environment or conducting field work) which will greatly improve you academic profile / employability.
- Are there any skills you never thought you would need but did?
When participating on large oceanographic expeditions you need to set up working stations, assemble gear, pack and unpack (lots of it!), store samples and equipment efficiently etc. So experience with practical and hands-on work can be very useful.
- What advice would you give to budding marine conservationists?
Enjoy the journey, and don’t stay fixated on a target you set yourself years ago. Sometimes you end up working on a slightly different subject to what you originally planned, and discover it is as (if not more) enjoyable and fulfilling.
Don’t compare yourself to others; each path is unique and that in itself is precious.
Don’t be afraid to approach others if you need help or advice. Great collaborations can start from an email or a chat during a conference.
(Research) life is full of unexpected turns – be adaptable and don’t dwell on too much on what could have been.
- What is your favourite marine creature and why?
I really don’t have one, as it keeps changing over the years. Favourites so far included harbour seals, Chinese mitten crabs, freshwater eels, and sea pigs! Who knows what the future will hold? Cusk–eels and sunfish are beginning to grow on me though!
- What is your most unforgettable moment in the sea?
It has to one of the submersible dives I have been on. At one of the dives, the submersible had to rest on the seabed at ~100m, to re-establish communications with the ship. As we were waiting, a large moray eel came out of small crevice and swam for a while in front of us, before disappearing in the shadows again. Eels, are elusive animals, so it was a real highlight for me to be able to observe this individual in its home.
Thank you Paris, an amazing insight into the world of a deep sea researcher. A place many of us can only dream about!