A Caribbean murder mystery, changing perspectives, and how to kick start your conservation career

This week Rachel Louise Gunn talks to Dr Dan Exton from Operation Wallacea (Opwall). Dan is currently Head of Research at Opwall and has worked in the marine conservation field for the past 15 years.  Opwall is a network of academics who design and implement both biodiversity and conservation management research expeditions around the world. Rachel went on a marine expedition with Opwall to Utila, Honduras in 2015 and will be returning this summer as a ‘Reef Ecology Lecturer’. Here, Dan talks about his current role and research, the changing perspective of conservation among the general public, and offers some excellent advice and insight into how best to get a foothold on the conservation career ladder… 

What is your current position?

My official title is Head of research, conservation and education. It’s my role to make sure we are performing as best as we can from a research perspective. Unfortunately, expeditions, by necessity, are costly and we have a responsibility to make sure that money is spent as effectively as possible. I ensure students get the best value for money in terms of what they are learning and gaining from the expeditions. This can range from ensuring our research is meaningful, addresses useful questions and is published in good quality journals, to ensuring we have a strategy around the world for different research projects. My role also ensures that our research projects lead to tangible conservation outputs and that the educational courses we provide are enjoyable to students, but are also accurate, meaningful and useful.

Do you have a current ongoing research project of particular interest?

Most of my own research is based out in Honduras. I am a marine biologist by trade so my research is focussed around coral reef conservation and education.

A big project has been trying to answer the ‘Caribbean murder mystery’ with my PhD student, Max. The project is based around the sea urchin, Diadema antillarum. It is an incredibly boring animal on the surface. We didn’t realise how important the species was until a disease wiped out 99% of the Diadema population across the Caribbean. This was associated with loss of reef health and is a reason why Caribbean reefs are in such a poor state. There has been little recovery in the past 30 years and no one has really understood why.

Max and I have spent the last 5 years trying to solve this. A loss of structural complexity means that urchins can’t survive predation like they used to. A few years ago we built miniature artificial reefs, creating housing for urchins. In the past 2 years, urchins are moving into these reefs and increasing to pre disease numbers and surrounding reefs have shown an increase in reef health as a consequence. 

Why do you work in conservation and what made you choose the specific route you have taken?

There is something very satisfying about seeing large scale positive change. I went to study marine biology at university with no intention of becoming a scientist, it just interested me and I wanted to have a degree and then get a job, like most 18 year olds.

During my studies, it was marine ecology and conservation, specifically related to the tropics, that changed my mind and I went on to do a masters and a PhD and here I am, 15 years later!

The first time I saw a coral reef, I thought ‘wow, this is incredible’. Realising that coral reefs were something I could work with and study and dedicate your life to was a light bulb moment for me. 

What are the highlights and lowlights of working in conservation?

Conservation attracts a really great group of people to work with. Particularly in the tropics, conservation is directed towards groups of people that generally don’t get the external support they need.

Opwall is all about ‘Conservation through business’, believing that the way to achieve successful conservation is to make ecosystems more valuable healthy and alive than they are dead and exploited.

For me, a highlight is this dual approach of being able to conserve amazing ecosystems whilst supporting and developing the communities that depends on them. The negatives are harder, because the negatives are also often the positives. I am older now than when I first started and am now about to become a dad for the first time. Unlike more traditional scientific jobs, such as working within universities, my role involves spending lots of time away from home, without internet access in very basic conditions. Now there is definitely a need to balance home life priorities with work life priorities which in conservation can be a real struggle. I love my job and will make necessary changes to ensure I can continue. So for me there are no real negatives, because the fact that conservation isn’t a 9-5 office job is a huge positive. 

Have you noticed a change in conservation as a discipline over the course of your career so far?

I think conservation has become a little bit more respected. There is still a separation between those who consider themselves ‘real’ scientist, sitting in labs etc. and those out doing conservation work.

The biggest change for me has been public reception. Conservation is now a dinner table topic. It is now valid to sit around with your friends and have a conversation about conservation. Documentaries and articles in the press have shone a light on conservation and it is great to see people with no experience of conservation talking about the latest success story they have read about or worrying about plastics.

In the last few months following c it has been amazing to see how many of my friends are now avoiding using plastics. A few years ago, all this would have been unheard of.

Pure scientific research is always going to be in the realms of the experts, but conservation involves the public to such a degree that without their support, it just isn’t going to happen. Over the next few years, we will likely see a shift to more successful conservation driven by local governments realising people want this to happen and providing more funding for conservation projects. 

How can projects like Operation Wallacea help those who are interested in a conservation based career?

Conservation is still a very competitive sphere to get into and anything that sets you apart from other people is beneficial.

Real, ‘on the ground’ experience makes a huge difference and unlike other areas of science where theoretical knowledge is so important, with conservation, practical experience counts for a lot more.

When hiring people to work for Opwall over summer or looking for PhD students to supervise, I look more at their none academic abilities and experiences than I do at their academic background and abilities.

The example I always use is I would rather work with someone with a 2:1 from their undergraduate degree but has been out into the field, has experience in working with local communities and working in and amongst the ecosystems they are going to conserve than I would someone with a first class degree and awards coming out of their ears but hasn’t gone out there and proved that they can work in the field.

Working in the field is quite a stressful job, being away from home for 8 weeks, living in basic conditions and living and breathing your research in a way that other scientific disciplines do not.

Organisations like Opwall gives you that real world experience and allows you to demonstrate that you are capable of working under field conditions.      

Find out more about Operation Wallacea

To find out more about kick starting your conservation career with Operation Wallacea, visit here.  Alternatively, you can contact Dan via twitter @DanExton. For a behind the scenes look at what you could see and do on an expedition, check out this video.

About the blogger: Rachel Louise Gunn

Rachel recently completed an MSc in Marine Biology from Bangor University. following a BSc in Zoology from the University of Nottingham. She completed her masters thesis on invasive lionfish in collaboration with the Cayman Islands Department of Environment, where she also ran a invasive lionfish workshop for a local summer school. Rachel volunteered with Operation Wallacea in Utila in 2015 and will be returning in June 2018 to work as a Reef Ecology Lecturer. A PADI Divemaster and Master SCUBA Diver, Rachel has over 150 logged dives, obtained primarily through marine based research in the Caribbean. Rachel hopes to continue her passion for marine research and conservation through a PhD on reef fish behaviour in response to climate change at Lancaster University. In the mean time, Rachel is continuing her passion for marine conservation as a volunteer with ‘Capture our Coasts’ and by educating and advising others on marine conservation and careers as a Conservation Careers Blogger.

Careers Advice, Interviews, Senior Level, Scientist