Emily is a Marine Conservation Consultant and works to get people excited enough about the life in UK seas to want to take action to protect it. Her work has seen her meet with an Environment Minister, appear on national TV and radio and secure more than £5m in funding for marine conservation projects. She holds a Master of Marine Biology from Bangor University and has worked in some incredible places on her career journey so far, from monitoring Sea Turtles on Ascension Island to developing community conservation initiatives in Sri Lanka. She is currently based in North East England and when not at her desk can be found outside watching wildlife and/or sunsets.
Briefly describe your current work and your research.
I’m a self-employed Marine Conservation Consultant and I work with different national and local organisations on various aspects of marine conservation practice. In a nutshell, I work to get people excited enough about the life in UK seas to want to take action to protect it. To do this I design and secure funding for big pioneering projects (between £1m and £5m) that get organisations working together, I do TV and radio interviews, I speak to policy makers and I make good use of social media. Although highly varied, my work is essentially all about growing marine citizenship and ocean literacy and catalysing behavioural change.
What do you love the most about your job?
The variety! As a freelancer no two days are the same and I love that I get to work with many different organisations towards a shared goal of more effective marine conservation practice. I’m especially proud that my work has impact – not only for the marine environment, which is why I chose this career in the first place, but also for coastal communities and individual people that benefit from the projects I develop. That makes me incredibly happy.
How difficult was it to get where you are today?
I won’t sugar-coat it; marine conservation is very competitive! During my degree, it was drummed into us that we’d struggle to get a job, so I made it my mission to be an exception to the rule. I volunteered like crazy when I was studying as well as holding down a job. This meant that my first class marine biology degree wasn’t lonely on my CV when I graduated – I already had some real-world experience, some marketable skills and evidence of job responsibility.
Since graduating, I’ve never been without a marine job. I’ve been strategic in my job choices and sought skills and experience that would help me progress. I’ve had to move around a lot in pursuit of work I wanted – which has been a huge personal sacrifice, but one I was willing to make. I also work hard to have a wide professional network through attending conferences and being active on Twitter and LinkedIn. This helps a lot and resulted in me being headhunted for a job. I find talking up my own achievements really cringeworthy but I have realised that no one else is going to do it for me so I have to swallow my embarrassment and put myself out there.
What was the biggest obstacle in your way before your career reached where it is today? How did you overcome it?
The biggest difficulty for me has been in balancing mine and my partner’s career aspirations. My partner works in marine science and, like me, is highly ambitious. It’s really tough to make that work and we’ve battled through a long distance relationship, following each other for jobs and everything else in between. I know lots of couples face this – especially if you met on your degree course like we did! This was partly the stimulus for going freelance; self-employment allows me to be location-independent, meaning that I can be wherever he is but still do the impactful conservation work that I’ve grafted so hard to be able to do.
What are you looking forward to the most in the future of marine science?
I’m really excited by the potential of citizen science on so many levels. Not only does it increase our capacity to collect and analyse data but it’s a way to engage more and a wider range of people with science and conservation work. This is why I build citizen science initiatives into all of my projects. I believe that citizen science is helping to blow apart the construct that science is the preserve of the educated elite. It opens the door to new people and in doing so we get new ideas, new enthusiasm and new perspectives. In a nutshell, citizen science empowers.
How do you think we can get more women involved within marine science?
In the marine conservation sector, women* are visible and kicking ass at every stage of the career ladder. I think this visibility is key. Women respond to role models – we need to see “someone like us” doing a job to believe we can do it too.
*Although “women” are well represented, women of colour are not. I want to see greater diversity in the marine conservation sector – we’ve got one hell of a battle on our hands and we need a diversity of skills, perspectives and worldviews on our side. If there isn’t “someone like you” visible in your field, please don’t be put off – it just means there’s a niche waiting to be filled.
I’m not a fan of quotas or positive discrimination as I feel it leads to workplace unease and division. I think it is up to us women to be bolder in our pursuit of career progression. There’s a well-cited statistic that men will apply for a job when they meet 60% of the requisites but women will only apply when they meet 100% of them. From my personal experience, this doesn’t surprise me! We’ve got to be in it to win it, ladies!
We also need to encourage each other. In particular, I think that women who are succeeding need to take an active role in encouraging women (and men) below them on the career ladder. We need to be mentors to those we see potential in. I never understood the value in mentorship until I was taken under the wing of someone (male) who became my mentor and boosted my self-confidence massively. As a freelancer, I don’t yet have this opportunity but do volunteer my time to give careers talks and school visits to talk about my career path and offer advice. If you’re looking for a mentor, get in touch!
What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring female marine scientists?
Be bold and tenacious and above all, make your own luck. It’s a competitive field and sacrifices and hard work will be required along the way. It’s not an easy or particularly lucrative career but it’s highly rewarding and for me that outweighs the bad bits. I started out with no contacts and no clue and I’m only here through a combination of dogged perseverance and a growing realisation that we make our own opportunities in life.
Also, get yourself on Twitter and engage with the marine science community on there. Lots of networking is done on Twitter and it’s a great way to keep your finger on the pulse of what’s happening in your field.
In one sentence, why do you think a career within marine science is a great career option?
Marine conservation: a career that has impact, improves lives and can offer wildlife experiences that money couldn’t buy… what more could you want?
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I would like to give a massive thank you to Emily Cunningham 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 and the biography belong to Emily Cunningham. All photographs have been used with the permission of Emily Cunningham.