Dr. Valeriya Komyakova: Leading Women in Marine Science

Valeriya 1Dr. Valeriya Komyakova was born in Russia, however at the age of 16 she completed high school through a fast track path and moved to Australia. She completed my BSc, GradDipResMeth and MSc in Marine Biology in James Cook University. In 2009 Valeriya moved to Sydney and joined Subtidal Ecology and Ecotoxicology (now Applied Marine and Estuarine Ecology Lab) laboratory at the University of New South Wales where she worked as a volunteer and later a full-time research assistant. In 2012 Valeriya decided to continue my education and moved to Melbourne to start her PhD. Her PhD focussed on investigating the formation of ecological traps in the marine environment. She completed her PhD early 2018 and started a post doctorate position at the Institute of Marine Research, Norway.

Briefly describe your current work and your research.

Currently, I am working at the Institute of Marine Research in Norway, the largest Norwegian and one of the largest European Research Institutes of it’s kind, on a post-doctoral fellowship. Here I am investigating maternal influences on the recruitment success of Norwegian Spring-Spawning herring larvae (NSSH). To do this, I am modelling spatial and temporal differences in environmental and biological factors (temperature, food availability, mothers condition and age) as a way to determine why there are differences in pre-vitellogenic oocytes and how these differences contribute to persistent recruitment variability. Additionally, I am using otolith microchemistry as a tool to determine the relative larval contribution from each of the NSSH spawning grounds to the 0-age population in the Barents Sea and the subsequent contribution into the adult spawning population.

However, my true passion lays in the research on the marine fish habitat associations, habitat restoration, green marine engineering, habitat design and investigations of the effects of pollution and habitat modification on the performance and persistence of marine organisms. I have dedicated 10+ years of my career on studying and researching these topics.

What do you love the most about your job?

Working as a marine scientist is extremely challenging, but also extremely rewarding. It is difficult to pick a favourite of this job. Through my entire career, I spend many days in the field collecting the data, some of those days were cold and rainy, others were beautiful sunny days. The job requires separation from loved one for relatively extensive periods of time, but you do get to see some beautiful places and sometimes you can take loved ones with you. I worked in many challenging environments stretching from the Norwegian Sea to the tropical Great Barrier Reef. Field work is wonderful as you get to see animals in their natural environment, you also get to travel to amazing, remote locations around the globe. More so, participating in national and international conferences is another big plus to this job. It is vital to share your research with others and also to learn from them. Traveling to incredible destinations all around the globe and meeting colleagues from different parts of the planet is another big plus of this profession. We make friends everywhere, everywhere is a home. Traveling is my passion and hence I do find this part of the job as a big plus. But for me, the most rewarding moment is data analysis. After days in the field or the lab doing repetitive tasks, making sure you are achieve highest replication possible and required, long sleepless nights, cold field days – it is exciting to finally look at you data and see what all of these actually means and to develop new questions.

How difficult was it to get where you are today?

I could say it was very difficult, but I think it would be a lie. I believe any career, any path you take has challenges – it is all about how you look at them and what kind of people stand by you. I have decided to be a marine biologist when I was 7 years old. I have grown up in one of Russian large industrial towns, miles from the sea. For my family and friends, it was a mystical career. But I was lucky to have my parents and siblings support. Majority of people in my surrounding back then laughed at my dream, called me crazy. How a girl from an industrial town in the middle of the largest continent and the largest country can possibly become a marine biologist. But my family and some of the close friends believed in me and so I followed my dream.

I completed high-school as a fast trek and with the help of my parents I left Russia to join James Cook University Australia. This was hard time because I was alone in a country I did not know – only 16 years of age and far away from everything I have grown up with. The first two years were challenging, with a huge cultural shock and a language barrier. However, along the way I met some incredible people. My zoology lecturer recognised how passionate I was about science and she spent many hours helping me through tasks that were challenging for me due to my English limitations. I have made friends with many demonstrators that also encouraged and supported me, and we are still close friends today, almost 18 years later.

Valeriya 2I will also always be grateful to my Masters supervisors, that did not spoon feed me, but challenged me and encouraged me. They did not just teach me science and research, but also they taught me independent thinking, creativity and to take risks, to ask difficult questions.

When I left JCU after my Masters I moved to Sydney. I had no job and no friends in Sydney, except my sister. I was facing similar challenges again. I emailed many people looking for any kind of work in marine science. Only a few replied. I volunteered for several months, struggling without an income. But through my work, my skills and knowledge were recognised and once again I met fantastic people in marine research. Eventually, I got a casual position and then a full time as a research assistant. The field of work was outside of my usual expertise. I was a fish ecologist, while the laboratory I started working for were focusing on pollution and invertebrate ecology. I had to learn new skills fast, but I was giving great support and guidance.

Finally, after a few years I decided to do a PhD. I moved to Melbourne this time and once again I was starting from scratch. My PhD supervisor offered me a series of potential projects which had money behind them, but I have chosen the one that did not. It was a new question, not investigated much in marine environment. I had to apply for grants and figure out how to ask those difficult questions. It was a challenging time, but also extremely rewarding and I had the support of my new friend in Melbourne and all of my old friends. I never felt disappointed or overworked. I never felt like quitting. I really enjoyed doing a PhD despite many technical and personal challenges I faced.

Life will always throw us curve balls, it is how we catch them and what we throw back that matters. As mentioned, my current employment isn’t exactly within the field of my passion. So recently I decided to resign and return to Australia where I can focus on publishing my PhD research and look for projects within my area of interest. It will no doubt be a new challenge, and I am looking forward to tackling this one.

What was the biggest obstacle in your way before your career reached where it is today? How did you overcome it?

Hardest was probably finding a job. There is a great shortage of jobs in marine science and a great shortage of grants. I was lucky to have the support of my friends, colleagues and family and I continued looking, applying and volunteering in those times when I didn’t have any employment. Another big issue that there is, I believe, is lack of information, especially for people unfamiliar with the system, like international students. I, for example, was not aware that Master students can and should present their research in conferences and that there are student grants available. It seems silly to me now, after years of experience, but back then it was not communicated and hence I had no reason to research available options.

Another issue is a negative attitude from some colleagues. Science is no doubt a challenging environment. I was lucky enough to have support of many people, but I also heard a lot of negativity in regards to future career in academia. I think it is important for people in higher position to do all they can to encourage the young generations – provide them with guest lectures when it is possible so they can get that experience before they really enter the work force, train them in new methods, new techniques that may be slightly outside they current research, encourage participation in conferences and workshops, give them a go in assisting with grant applications etc.

Finally, I found it frustrating that many research grants do not allow money to be used to pay research assistants. Due to Occupational Health and Safety most of the field work must be done with a minimum of two people – for diving one would often require three. Field work may take months each year and finding volunteers is very challenging, especially when you are offering diving in 2 meters visibility and 10 degrees waters of Port Phillip bay – and not 30 meters visibility 30 degrees waters of Great Barrier Reef. Most people simply cannot make such commitment for free, nor it is fair to ask people to ask people to do so. I do support volunteering, for gaining new skills, but a volunteer must receive something out of the work they do – a publication, new skills if it is prolonged. And if a person requires someone skilled (like a diver) for a prolonged period I do believe such work must be paid. However, it is almost impossible for a PhD student to obtain grants that allow some money for research assistants. I relied heavily on the help of my friends and University staff, but there were many of us doing projects and it was often difficult, due to poor weather conditions for all of us to complete our work.

What are you looking forward to the most in the future of marine science?

I would like to see an increase in financial support to marine research.

I would like to see marine research to be recognised as equal to terrestrial. Too often I have heard that such and such study can not be published in a journal because it is marine, so not as applicable. Humans are terrestrial animals; however aquatic systems take up much larger part of our planet than terrestrial and I think it is a stretch to say that marine (or freshwater) work is not as applicable or general as terrestrial.

I would like to see equality between men and women in a work forces, which I think is quite well achieved in Scandinavia, where it is compulsory for both parents to take a parental leave within a certain time frame post child birth. Such system takes the pressure from women when it comes to job search. While it may not illuminate age discrimination, it will certain reduce sex discrimination.

I would like to see true equality. I would like to be chosen for jobs not because I am a woman or blond or of Russian origin – I would like to be chose because for a particular job I am the most competitive candidate due to my skills, education, work ethics etc. not my gender. I would like to give a talk in a conference not as a female scientist – but as a scientist. Gender should be irrelevant when we are talking skills. And from that I would like to see, for example, women dress as they like (be that corporate, casual, dressy, hippy etc.) because this is the style they like, not because it is the style they think they must chose because of the job.

Valeriya 3How do you think we can get more women involved within marine science?

There are many women in marine science in my generation. I don’t think the issue is – to get women involved. It is not true for older generations, but the ratio has changed, as our attitude has changed. The issue is however – how do we get women to stay. A lot of my friends have decided to leave marine science because of the difficulties of finding grants and work and of managing competitive academic environment and their desires for families. I think we need to improve support for women with children – increase the number of childcare place associated with the Universities, drop the fees, allow for part-time work perhaps for a couple of years for new mothers etc. Also, we need to change the attitude – just because something is hard, it does not mean it is impossible. Nothing great ever came easy. Stop negative affirmations, that are often directed at women, like for example, if you want children you will not be able to have a great career. A lot of issues, I believe, we have lays not just in the society, but in ourselves. Speaking from personal experience (and it does not apply to everyone, we are all different, but I do believe it is common), women tent to believe in themselves less, they tend to talk themselves down in interviews, not up, they get shy or unsure more often. We need to change this attitude.

What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring female marine scientists?

Believe in yourself. It does not matter if you are a man or a woman. Believe in yourself. Nothing good has ever come easy. Dreams required hard work. Keep going. It might feel like you are getting nowhere, but unless you try – you will never know. Success may be just around the corner. And… do what you love, what you want to do…not what others tell you to. It is your life and your life alone. There is nobody else that knows what you are capable of and what makes you truly happy, except of yourself. We are our greatest enemies sometimes, so let’s become our greatest friends. And when you get there, do not forget where you have come from – help, encourage others – men or women…does not matter…teach the new generation, give them a fighting chance. Never let success cloud your mind, do not compete with other in being better, compete only with yourself, every day be a better version of yourself.

In one sentence, why do you think a career within marine science is a great career option?

Because the ocean is our future – we will continue to grow as a species and this will affect the ocean. We must find ways to co-exist. So today more than ever, brilliant, innovative, creative researchers in marine science are needed.

Social Media Links

Twitter: @VKomyakova13

I would like to give a massive thank you to Dr. Valeriya Komyakova 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 hannahsrudd@outlook.com if you would like to be involved with the Leading Women in Marine Science Interview Series.

Disclaimer: All responses to the interview questions and the biography belong to Dr. Valeriya Komyakova. All photographs have been used with the permission of Dr. Valeriya Komyakova.

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