Steph is an ocean advocate, born and raised in Sydney, Australia, with a lifelong passion for the marine environment. She has a PhD in Marine Biology, specifically coral physiology and biochemistry, and her work focusses on how corals protect themselves against environmental stress caused by climate change. Her ultimate personal and professional goal is to raise awareness for and diagnose the problems facing coral reef ecosystems today and expected into the future in order to safeguard these vulnerable marine ecosystems.
Briefly describe your work and your research.
I am a Marine Biologist – or more specifically, a coral physiologist and biochemist. My PhD work focussed on the function of an abundant sulfur molecule called dimethylsulfoniopropionate (DMSP) in corals. This molecule represents a major fraction of organic sulfur in the marine environment and is involved in the transfer of sulfur through the marine food web. It has been estimated that globally more than 1 billion tonnes are produced by marine photosynthetic organisms per year.
The dinoflagellate partners (Symbiodinium spp.) of scleractinian corals are amongst the largest producers of DMSP in the marine environment, suggesting an important role in coral health. However, the underlying physiological function(s) and regulation of DMSP in corals is still unknown, yet we have evidence for an antioxidant function to alleviate cellular oxidative stress (the main cause of coral bleaching). This is important because under future climate change scenarios, increased seawater temperatures will put additional strain on the existing antioxidant defence mechanisms used by corals. So my work explored whether DMSP provides corals with an additional protective mechanism to prevent or slow coral bleaching. I found species-specific differences in DMSP concentrations which influences their tolerance to environmental stress and that the antioxidant function of DMSP is conserved from the micro to macro scale, highlighting the importance of DMSP in coral reef ecophysiology.
Now I’m working as an Endeavour Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Institut de Ciències del Mar, CSIC in Barcelona, Spain. My research here is to investigate the link between nitrogen fixation and dimethylated sulfur compounds in heterotrophic bacteria, associated with coral reef waters.
What do you love the most about your job?
I love that I get to spend so much time in and around the ocean, and that I learn something new every day! There’s not a typical work day for me. Some days I may be in the laboratory, processing samples on various equipment, others I may be on a tropical island in the water sampling coral, some days I may be reading literature and writing manuscripts, grant applications, or giving presentations about my work or teaching.
Science is very collaborative and I’m lucky enough to work with scientists from many different countries and backgrounds, with a range of experiences and ages. I also love engaging with the community and sharing my experiences as a marine biologist to spread the word about how we can best protect our fragile marine environment.
How difficult was it to get where you are today?
I always knew I wanted to be a marine biologist. I have always been passionate about nature and the marine environment and my family has always been so supportive of my studies and research and always encouraged me to do what I love. For me it made sense to study the ocean and because I love what I do, it wasn’t a difficult decision for me to pursue a career in marine science.
I studied a combined Bachelor of Science (Marine Biology) and Bachelor of Business (Tourism), and then completed a Bachelor of Science (Honours) in Environmental Science. After the Honours year, I spent some time in the Seychelles doing marine conservation work. I loved being out in the field conducting underwater surveys of the fish and coral communities, but I missed the research side so I started thinking seriously about doing a PhD. In my spare time I started reading scientific literature on DMSP in corals, applied for a PhD scholarship and 2 months later it was the first day of my Doctor of Philosophy. So in total, I spent 10 years at University!
What was the biggest obstacle in your way before your career reached where it is today? How did you overcome it?
The biggest obstacle I’ve faced is myself. And I’m not the only person I know who would say that. Being a young scientist, or at a cross roads and having to make a big decision about the direction your career is going to go, can be very daunting. Our inner thoughts and the story we tell ourselves is extremely important and you end up believing it, whether or not it is true.
For me, I never thought I was ‘smart’. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to do a PhD because I didn’t feel I was intelligent enough. If you keep telling yourself something negative like that, it completely affects how you work, live, make decisions and interact with colleagues. I overcame this because I knew exactly what I wanted to do – I wanted to be a marine scientist and research some of the most vulnerable ecosystems, and to bring awareness of the negative effects of climate change. To me, being able to achieve that goal was the most important thing and I saw a PhD as a way of working towards my goal.
You don’t necessarily have to be or feel ‘smart’ to have a successful career – but you do have to have passion, perseverance and determination and you have to actually want to do it!
What are you looking forward to the most in the future of marine science?
At the moment I’m really looking forward to seeing the positive effects of increased science communication in terms of conservation and protection of our oceans and the marine ecosystem. One of my favourite quotes sums this up perfectly:
“We will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught” – Baba Dioum
More recently I’ve been interested in communicating my research and findings to the general public and I’ve found it really rewarding. So many people have been really positive and responsive, and once they understand something, they start realising that they too can make a difference in the way we care for our planet. The best example of this at the moment is the movement to fight plastic pollution in our oceans and spreading the message that everyone and anyone can make a difference.
How do you think we can get more women involved within marine science?
It’s incredibly important for the empowerment of girls that we visibly celebrate women – we need to shine a light on those who have been successful so that future generations of women will have inspirational leaders to follow. We don’t want girls growing up thinking their choices and options are limited! We need to improve gender equality and bias and tackle important issues to encourage more women to enter and stay in science.
I’m currently 1 of 80 women in the Homeward Bound program which is a ground-breaking leadership initiative for women in STEM. It aims to heighten the leadership capability of women to enhance their influence and impact on policy and decision making towards a sustainable future. It’s a 10-year outreach initiative designed to reach 1000 women at different career stages, from most senior (deans, professors, heads of science organisations) to women who have just received their PhD, to women working in a range of industries (engineering, mining, teaching). We spend 12 months participating in collaborative projects, and leadership, strategy, science and communication training which culminates in a 3-week expedition to Antarctica in January 2019. On board the Antarctic expedition, there is a strong focus on gender issues in STEMM, collaboration of the participants and a whole-of-life approach to leadership and it brings together the training and coaching we’ve had throughout the year. The vision of Homeward Bound aligns closely with my personal and professional goals to make visible, celebrate, empower and recognise the work that women are doing today, particularly in regards to creating a sustainable future, so I would definitely encourage any women in with a science background to apply and join our network.
Twitter page (@HomewardBound16)
What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring female marine scientists?
I have two!
• Never pass up an opportunity – you never know where it will lead. Even if you may be out of your comfort zone, just say yes. That’s where you will learn and grow the most.
• Do what you love and love what you do. If you are passionate about something then stick to it. If you know what you want, don’t let anyone or anything get in your way.
In one sentence, why do you think a career within marine science is a great career option?
For me, I am able to combine my passion and profession and when you love what you do it doesn’t feel like work. I never wanted a desk job and I think it’s perfect that the kind of suit I wear to work is a wetsuit.
Social Media Links
I would like to give a massive thank you to Dr. Stephanie Gardner for participating in this interview. I cannot wait to share more of your stories and I hope that you find inspiration in learning of other journeys within marine science.
Are you a woman working within marine science? Would you like to share your story and inspire the next generation? Please get in contact with me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to be involved with the Leading Women in Marine Science Interview Series.
Disclaimer: All responses to the interview questions belong to Dr. Stephanie Gardner. The biography also belongs to Dr. Stephanie Gardner and the photographs used in this article belong to Matthew R. Nitschke.