This week we get to hear from Dr Elizabeth Cottier-Cook. Liz is a Senior Lecturer in Marine Biology at the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS), Head of the United Nations University, as well as the Programme Leader for the Erasmus Mundus Joint Master’s Degree in Aquaculture Environment and Society. Her research work focusses on marine invasive species, and aquaculture. Liz’s work in biosecurity for invasive non-native species has led to international collaborations resulting in guidance used by environmental organisations globally. In addition to this, she has published over 60 peer-reviewed papers, a book, and 5 book chapters. Liz truly goes above and beyond, and it was a pleasure to interview her over the phone.
How would you describe your work to a 10yr old?
I’m an alien detective. I look for invasive non-native species that have snuck into an environment they are not meant to be in. They can do this in a number of ways including on the hull of a ship, in ballast water, or sold as live food which is then discarded overboard. People think they are doing the animal a favour when they throw it overboard, but it can cause major environmental issues. Many invasive non-native species have no natural predators or diseases in their new environment, so their numbers are not kept in check. Many non-native species rapidly grow in number and disperse widely, displacing the native species. Think of this like the introduction of Grey Squirrels to the UK displacing the Red Squirrels, only in the sea where it’s a lot harder for us to see and measure. My work on non-natives asks the questions ‘what’s here?’, ‘how did it get here?’, and ‘what can we do about invasive species?’. Another question is ‘how can we prevent the arrival of non-native species in the first place?’, this is known as biosecurity.
I also work on a variety of other projects. One of the projects I’m currently working on is looking at seaweed disease and how this is impacting on the growth of the global seaweed aquaculture industry. Seaweeds are used in a lot of everyday products including toothpaste and ice cream. Many of the seaweeds grown globally have been introduced intentionally for aquaculture purposes, but have gone on to have wider environmental consequences in their new home. So this links well with my research into non-natives, as we look at ways to reduce the introduction of these species and their diseases into the aquaculture environment.
Why did you choose this as a profession?
Why did I choose science as a career? Growing up my mother was a biology teacher, so I would get dragged along on field trips. We’d also go on family holidays to the seaside where I would go snorkelling and it was impossible to get me out of the water. I loved it so much.
When I went to Bristol University to study biology I got involved with the scuba club and my interest in marine biology grew. I took as many marine options as possible, which wasn’t a lot. For my final year I applied to do a project feeding brittle stars in a flow tank that I was really keen to do. Unfortunately I didn’t get the project, but this stimulated my desire to carry on. I was always interested in figuring out why things work the way they do. I liked the topic of my Master’s Degree so much that I pursued a PhD in Sea Urchin Aquaculture at SAMS.
What I love about science as a career is that there is always a challenge to work on. I love the opportunities to travel and meet new people. I love that you are constantly learning and you get to see things that no one else has ever seen. I couldn’t imagine doing a job where I have to do the same thing day after day.
Scientific research is full of challenges; can you share some of your biggest challenges, and how you overcame them?
One of the biggest challenges is logistics. I spent 3 years working on an EU project where I had to visit a fish farm, Loch Duart, in North West Scotland each month. I had a 5 hour drive to get to my research sites. We were researching integrated multi-trophic aquaculture (IMTA) systems on one of the lochs near Scourie, Scotland, throughout winter. I remember one time we got caught in a storm while on the boat. The wind, waves, and hail make for a scary few moments!
Then there’s also the scientific challenges. How do you practically go about addressing your research questions? How do you devise an experiment that enables you to answer the question? How do you handle the practicalities of limited resources? One of the great things about working in science is the opportunities to work with other people. Sometimes this can be a challenge because you cannot just do your own thing, you have to work alongside land owners and business owners and other users of the sites you’re working in. Writing up research can also be hard. You find yourself staring at a blank piece of paper wondering how to start.
I think the key points to overcoming these challenges are, firstly, collaboration. Collaborating with business owners, fish farmers, and others in the aquaculture industry and asking them for help as the experts. Secondly, you sometimes just need to grit your teeth and work through the challenges.
How would you define success as a scientific researcher for you personally?
For me, I feel successful when peers read and cite papers that I have worked on, and when the work I’ve produced shows itself to have purpose. When research is translated into policy and influences how government legislation is enacted, that’s the sort of purpose that I like to see.
I think as a researcher you’re successful when you get invited to speak at conferences and share the work that you’ve put a lot of time and effort into. It’s great to meet people at these conferences who you respect, and who reciprocate that respect. Some people I have respected a lot throughout my career have been my mentors, and their approval has made me feel successful on numerous occasions.
What excites you about your current projects?
While I was on maternity leave (I have two children, now aged 9 and 7), I watched a documentary series that shared stories from developing countries and focussed on food security. I thought ‘If only I was a doctor, I’d be able to help directly’. So when I returned to work I made a conscious effort to apply my work to developing systems in developed countries.. Globally, 90% of seaweed production occurs in developing countries, and 20% of the crop is lost to disease. These diseases are often introduced by invasive species. Together with Claire Gachon (a disease expert at SAMS) I get to work with countries globally to research new ways to safeguard this industry. This interest in using my knowledge in developed countries led me to take on the role with the United Nations University.
What advice, that has impacted your career, would you like to share with any scientists reading this?
Don’t give up. Pursue a good idea with all your might. Sometimes you have to be thick-skinned when it comes to reviewers’ comments. Think laterally; you often need to be flexible and seek alternative ways to achieve your goal and answer your research question. There’s a book that I buy for all my PhD students and recommend to many other people too called, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway*. While I don’t usually read self-help books this one has had a positive impact on my life.
Work-life balance is also crucial. Since the birth of my second child in 2009 I have worked about 60% of the time of a fulltime role using advice from a book called, Do It Tomorrow*. To all the women in science I would like to give this advice; do not think that having children puts an end to your career. This is a common misconception in many careers. I have been incredibly fortunate to meet many inspirational women through the Aurora programme (a leadership development programme for women) who have taken 5 to 10 years out of their career, or worked part time, and are now at the top of their game in positions as heads of departments. Having children does not put an end to your career.
If another scientist wanted to collaborate with you, what is the best way for them to connect with you?
The easiest way would be by email (email@example.com). I’m also fairly active on LinkedIn where I run a group called, Marine Invasive Species.
Again my thanks go to Liz for taking time to speak with me and share her experiences. I know I have some friends, especially young women, who have had fears around taking time out of their career, so I hope the advice Liz gives here is encouraging to them and others.
Thanks to you, the reader, for taking the time to read this blog. If you liked it, I would really appreciate it if you share it on Twitter, Facebook, or your favourite social media platform. I’d also love to hear from you in the comments below. What is it that Liz said that interested or inspired you?
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