This week on #MeetAScientist, get to know Dr. Kirsty Nash, a marine ecologist at the Institute for Marine & Antarctic Studies and founder of aKIDemicLife.com. The website is an online resource to connect parents and carers working in research or academic settings to information to support their work and their child caring responsibilities. In this interview, Kirsty chats about her work studying the resilience of marine social-ecological systems, as well as the inspiration for launching the aKIDemic Life, as part of our #SciMomJourney campaign.
When did you first identify as a scientist? What does your research center on today?
I first consciously thought about being a scientist when I was working for an NGO based in Seychelles. I was responsible for coordinating the coral reef surveys for the Marine Park Authority, using volunteers that we trained in coral and fish identification. We had a researcher visit from the UK for a few days and he immediately made it clear that he did not think of me as a scientist as I didn’t have a PhD or a university position. I mulled this over for a few days and realized that I believed being a scientist wasn’t something you became when you are handed a piece of paper with a qualification on it. Rather, becoming a scientist was a journey that I had already begun. Every day I went into the field and collected data using an established survey technique. Yes, I had (and still have) lots to learn, but I was a field scientist with knowledge and experiences to offer.
Today, my research focuses on the resilience of marine social-ecological systems. I’m working to understand how can we support the health of marine environments while also ensuring human well-being now and into the future? I am particularly interested in the contribution of small-scale fisheries to human health.
Where do you find hope in studying the resilience of marine social-ecological systems?
I will admit that often my research focuses on the negative interactions between humans and the oceans, but that does not mean that I think the future is hopeless. I work with a team of collaborators from a wide range of disciplines from human geography to public health. By stepping out of the field of ecology, I am constantly surprised by the breadth of innovative research and thinking focused on supporting both our society and the environment. And when I need a focused pick-me up, I delve into the Seeds of Good Anthropocenes website, which has an array of inspirational stories of social-ecological bright spots.
You recently founded and launched aKIDemicLife.com. Can you tell us a little bit about the inspiration for the project and what it seeks to achieve?
aKIDemic Life is a free information hub for parents and carers working in research or academic settings, allowing users to easily access resources that will help them pursue a successful career and make juggling work and family that little bit easier. The website came about because of my own experiences as a new parent and the help I received. I returned to work at the University of Tasmania in 2018 after the birth of my daughter, a career break that was extended by postpartum depression. Despite the difficulties I experienced, I was incredibly lucky to receive an enormous amount of help from both colleagues, and support and health services. On discussing my experiences with other academics, I realized that many mothers don’t receive nearly enough support and don’t have time to search for help. I had already collected a lot of resources for my own use and was in the fortunate position to be able to share this knowledge – www.aKIDemicLife.com was born!
At 500 Women Scientists, we think a lot about how our identities inform the work we do. How has becoming a SciMom changed or shaped your approach to your research?
A few years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to articulate that field-work was a central part of my identity, but the feelings of loss I have experienced since I became pregnant have shown me how much being in the field motivates my science. I am sure I am not alone in this; every female field scientist may be faced with such a dilemma if they decide to start a family – how can I balance the field work I love with the realities and demands of being pregnant and then looking after a baby or toddler? The restrictions of being pregnant and breastfeeding introduce unique challenges, and scientific research that requires travel, working in remote conditions and activities such as diving, which are incompatible with being pregnant, mean that I have had to carefully weigh the desire to have a family with the desire to exploit new research opportunities.
Nevertheless, it hasn’t all been negative… I have found a sudden desire to do research that provides clear links to human well-being rather than simply focuses on animal behavior; maybe because I can now clearly see the importance of investing in a future society that will support my child. Over the last couple of years, I have developed a whole new angle to my work: a massively steep learning curve has pulled me out of my academic comfort zone, forcing me to work in interdisciplinary teams, learn how to ask questions about the impact of my research findings on society, and realize that an ecological viewpoint is just one perspective out of many equally important viewpoints. As a result, I find that I am developing a new scientific identity – don’t get me wrong, when my daughter is older I will be returning to the fieldwork I love but I certainly won’t be dropping the new perspectives I have gained with a move to social-ecological research. Hopefully, by combining my old and new passions, my research will continue to evolve, allowing me to ask challenging and exciting research questions that keep me inspired well into the future.
What is the best or most salient advice you've received over the course of your career?
Everyone’s journey is different. Although some people may follow more traditional pathways, like a direct progression from undergraduate to postgraduate to postdoc, this doesn’t mean that this is the only way to be a successful scientist with a rewarding career. My professional journey has been a bit meandering; I was worried that this would be a detriment to my career, but great mentors have made me realize that I can and should exploit these diverse experiences to be a better scientist!
Kirsty Nash is originally from the UK. She studied Oceanography with Marine Biology (BSc Hons) at Southampton University. In 2002, then moved to Australia and completed a MAppSci in Tropical Marine Ecology at James Cook University, Townsville. She then spent a number of years doing field research and teaching field techniques in association with the Marine Park Authority in the Seychelles, and teaching college level courses in marine biology and oceanography in the Caribbean. In 2009, she returned to Australia, completing a Masters of Education at Charles Sturt University and a PhD at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University. After a 1-year postdoc at the Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, she moved to the Centre for Marine Socioecology, based at the University of Tasmania.