Listening to our Blue Planet: An interview with Professor Steve Simpson | Part 2

In the quest to safeguard our oceans, it’s vital that we understand marine life so that we know the best ways to protect it. Academics are crucial to this mission, providing the expertise and research that ultimately informs local, national and international policy.

Prof. Steve Simpson, currently a professor at the University of Exeter, is a top authority on marine acoustics, being one of the first to investigate how coral reef fish use sound to navigate, communicate and orientate. He’s a featured scientist in Blue Planet 2 and served as a scientific advisor to many other documentaries.

Steve is passionate about discovering the secrets of our oceans, solving the pressing issues of our time, and opening our eyes to the majesty of our oceans to inspire the world to action.

In part two of this this interview, Steve introduces us to his research and discusses the realities of academia. He also shares his own journey and gives his top advice for aspiring marine biologists! Steve also explains how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected his research.

In Part 1, Steve introduces us to the world of marine acoustics and shares how his research contributes to conservation. He also shares what it’s like working with the media and highlights the top skills for marine biologists.

What are your main activities and focuses in your current roles?

As a researcher, I’m interested in how global change affects oceans and how we can solve these problems. This includes impacts like warming seas and how that’ll affect fisheries, fish distributions and the future sustainability and prosperity of fishing communities.

I also research underwater acoustics; how marine organisms communicate, navigate and orientate using sound. I research anthropogenic noise pollution; what are the sources and impacts, and how can we manage it?

Why do you do the research you do?

From my mid-teens, the ocean drew me in. The more we learn the more we realise we don’t know; there’s the opportunity to make amazing discoveries.

Steve checking a light trap used to monitor the arrival of larval fishes at Lizard Island, Great Barrier Reef.

“I’m dazzled by the diversity of marine habitats and the very different rules to life underwater. You get to live in two different universes.”

While I encourage research simply exploring natural history, we focus on environmental change. The research we do must address the pressing issues of our time. I believe we can make positive change before our window of opportunity closes. To do this, we need to build the evidence to guide policy and make change quickly!

How did you get to where you are now?

I studied marine biology for 3 years and my master’s degree took me to the coral reefs of the British Virgin Islands. At this time, new evidence was emerging that showed that fish could find their way back to their natal reefs. This behaviour means fish can use cues to find their way home. I chose to investigate sound when others were looking at smell and vision.

Our evidence was so compelling that it spurred me to take my research further. After researching at the Universities of Edinburgh and Bristol, I took my knowledge exchange fellowship to the University of Exeter, where I also started lecturing. With the fellowship, I work on the interface of research and industry to tackle anthropogenic noise pollution.

Starting a research group means you’re not limited to your own time. It’s an exciting environment to be in, with so many early-career scientists.

What are the biggest challenges in your role?

Leading a research group, but it’s also very rewarding! Finding ways for team members to work independently is a challenge. So is learning how to let go and to empower people to take more leadership roles in the team.

Here Steve is studying how reef sound attracts fish to new habitat at Lizard Island, Great Barrier Reef.

It’s tough trying to balance all the opportunities that come after making an exciting discovery. People want to engage with that, from industry to academic collaborations through to the media. Through the BBC “Life” series, David Attenborough’s “Great Barrier Reef” and “Blue Planet 2”, we communicate science to the public as much as possible. This justifies the research we’re doing and inspires more people to pursue a career in science!

A key way to achieve great science is to build your team to cover each other’s weaknesses and build on each other’s strengths. I love initiating projects and finding opportunities while my colleagues take pride in finishing our studies. Find the missing pieces to bring into your team. This also means you’ve identified what you’re good at and know what you can offer to a team!

Life’s too short to work with people you don’t get on with. Luckily, in science, your collaborators can be some of your best friends. If you’re away at a conference together it can become an enjoyable, albeit geeky, holiday! Those are two of the most important things. Find people that complete you in terms of your attributes and weaknesses and make sure you enjoy spending time with them too!

What are the best bits about academia?

There’s so much to discover. Sometimes it’s knowing there’s some gold at the end of the rainbow that you’ll get after thinking about it for years. Other times discoveries happen out of the blue.

Steve surveying the reefs around San Salvador’s Bonefish Bay, The Bahamas.

Working with the next generation of scientists is a real privilege. I help them take their careers to the next level. For undergraduates, it’s the opportunity to present to hundreds of people that which I find most exciting in the world. Some go on to choose that as a career! Those that don’t hopefully take some knowledge and love of the oceans, influencing how they live their lives.

Explaining to someone else what you do and why you’re excited by it, whether in a pub, a school, a public forum or parliament, really reminds yourself how amazing the ocean is and what discoveries there are to make!

What are your least favourite parts of academia?

Luckily, I don’t dwell on the negatives, but if you do then academia can be brutal. Bad news often comes instantaneously while the good news is incremental with no “eureka” moment – submitting a paper to get published for example. You always wish for more hours in the day. Academia is an all-consuming way of life. You often don’t get paid to work with the media, review papers or write grants but you do it as it’s an integral part of effective science.

If you don’t mind putting in the hours and dealing with rejection, there are few jobs where you’ve got more opportunity to craft your own destiny than academia.

What advice would you give to someone wishing to follow in your footsteps?

Don’t follow in someone else’s footsteps – choose your own path!

I have two important mantras. One is “The harder you work, the luckier you get”. That’s not just hours spent in front of a computer. Work on communication, science, networking and supporting other people. The harder you work at these, the more likely it is that opportunities present themselves.

The second mantra is “Fortune favours the prepared mind”. Keep in mind ideas of the science or collaborations you’d like to do in the future. You never know who you’re going to sit next to on a train or who is going to be in the next book you read! Bear your ideas in mind so you can make those connections. Even if your plans always change it’s worth thinking about your ambitions for the next five years. Be ready for unexpected opportunities!

How has the pandemic been affecting your work?

It’s meant I’ve had to bring my group back from around the world. Experiments have been left half-done and we’re wondering when we’ll be able to finish them! It’s given us a lot of opportunities to work on data we already have, moving our papers along. It’s also brought the group together a lot, especially as we’re no longer in different time zones! We have many more lab group meetings, journal club meetings and pub quiz nights. Our sense of community is only growing stronger as a result. Ultimately, we’re giving the ocean a chance to breathe, which can only be a good thing!

Now you have a better idea of what the academic world is like and how vital research is in the quest to understand and safeguard our natural world!

Are you ready to jump in and help save our blue planet? Check out our Ultimate Guide for Marine Conservation Jobs as well as our plethora of articles about our blue planet! Find our entire selection of FREE Ultimate Guides here to turbocharge your conservation career success!

Follow Steve on Twitter and check out his academic profile find out more about his fantastic research and career.

You can also check out Exeter Marine’s website or follow them on Twitter for a wider look at the University of Exeter’s world-leading research on our marine environment.

Author profile | Jamie Bolam

Jamie is a Biological Sciences student at the University of Exeter. He has a passion for the natural world and finding the most effective ways to help it. When he’s not scrambling down cliffs looking for bats, studying turtles or trapping moths, he’s learning about anything and everything to prepare for an impactful life in conservation. In his spare time, you’ll find him out in nature, learning languages, playing guitar and blasting country music! You can find out more about Jamie on LinkedIn.

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