Dr. Nasreen Peer graduated with her PhD in 2016 from Nelson Mandela University where she studied the taxonomy, ecology and diversity of crabs in South Africa. Currently, she is a postdoctoral fellow studying the ecology of freshwater, mangrove and estuarine crabs around South Africa. Her research led her further up the East Coast to Mozambique where she began to work closely with communities. Nasreen soon realised that we need to listen more to coastal communities if we are to effectively conserve habitats. Her current work involves merging scientific exploration and local knowledge in the mangroves of Mozambique.
Briefly describe your current work and your research.
Currently I work in South African and Mozambican mangrove habitats studying the species distribution of mangrove flora and associated macrofauna (crabs and snails, mostly). In Mozambique there is a strong emphasis on community involvement. The Mozambican project is much more holistic involving community leaders, the government, an NGO and even the military sometimes. It’s fantastic because we’re investigating community-designated no-take zones, developing knowledge exchange initiatives and finding other ways to get all interested community members involved in citizen science projects.
What do you love the most about your job?
I am always learning. Every day I learn something new whether it’s some mangrove knowledge from community members, results from data analysis, notes on how to run my own projects or even just general life lessons. I feel fortunate that my job exposes me to all this wisdom and information.
How difficult was it to get where you are today?
I certainly strayed from the norm and that took a lot of guts and stubbornness. Instead of completing my postdoc at the university, I decided to move to a remote village in a different country. I knew I wanted my life and career to revolve more around exploration and real world lessons as opposed to just following the standard “field trip, lab work, office work” life where we (scientists) exist largely within a bubble. I still spend most of my time behind a laptop and it is so unbelievably challenging to work in isolation away from the comfort of my lab but it was worth it for all the lessons I’ve learnt and for the remarkable people I’ve met along the way.
What was the biggest obstacle in your way before your career reached where it is today? How did you overcome it?
I feel I have been very fortunate with relatively few challenges so far. The biggest obstacle, however, was the conservative community I was raised in. There was a lot of pressure not to pursue such an unusual career. Many people including teachers, family and friends tried to convince me to study pharmacy, medicine, engineering and once even law instead of marine biology. People went so far as to tell me that I would be a disappointment to my parents. This is not something any 15 year old should hear and, of course, I began to doubt myself. I felt alone, I felt like I was choosing unwisely and that I was being selfish. Thankfully I am a very logical, stubborn person so I got over it and went ahead with my plans. I am grateful that my parents gave me the space to forge my own path and always assured me that I would not be a disappointment. They have always been encouraging and that really helped.
What are you looking forward to the most in the future of marine science?
I am really excited about the increase in citizen science especially regarding the marine environment. We are doing more to involve coastal communities, from both the developed and developing worlds, in science exploration of their own environment. I look forward to this for many reasons: 1. It’s always exciting to show people something that’s been there all along but that they haven’t been able to see e.g. giving communities GoPros to explore underwater or making smartphone microscopes to examine the invisible world. 2. This will encourage scientific curiosity and involvement in places where it would ordinarily be difficult. 3. Communities are often an untapped source of knowledge that scientists are beginning to value. Citizen science activities promote both ways learning which is highly underdeveloped in marine science.
How do you think we can get more women involved within marine science?
First, find out if women want to be involved. I see many volunteers trying to force women to be involved when a lot of females don’t want to go near the sea or sit at a desk job (which is what marine science often is) or fight for funding. We have to be careful not to impose our own dreams and ideals on others in a ‘I know what’s good for you’ way. Secondly, make marine science relatable. For example, here marine science education is mostly about conservation of sharks and rays. This is cool for the males who go out fishing and actually get to see manta rays. For women, however, interests are different because of traditional roles where women stay on shore. They are interested more in the estuary and mangroves habitats where they spend a lot of time harvesting food and in animals such as clams, crabs and snails that they interact with. My point is that we can’t use a one-size-fits-all approach when trying to involve different communities, genders, ages. When it comes to women, find out how they relate to the marine environment and then involve them using that aspect.
What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring female marine scientists?
Your life revolves around your passion and curiosity, not your degree! Fill your life with lots of other things, ESPECIALLY whilst studying. Take time off during your studies to travel. Don’t go with a mindset that you’re going to “teach” or “volunteer”, go simply with an open mind to learn about other cultures and how people around the world interact with the marine environment. Don’t work around the clock, take time off every day to recharge and think about/do something different. Your degree should never stress you out to the point that you’re having constant anxiety attacks.
In one sentence, why do you think a career within marine science is a great career option?
We forget that we (humans) are part of nature and a marine science career helps us to both see and communicate the importance of the human-nature connection.
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I would like to give a massive thank you to Dr. Nasreen Peer 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 email@example.com 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. Nasreen Peer. The biography also belongs to Dr. Nasreen Peer and the photographs used in this article also belong to Dr. Nasreen Peer, with the exception of image 3 (Stromatolite research) which belongs to Lynette Clennell.