I am delighted to be able to start this series! We will be getting an insight into the life and work of scientific researchers.
First of all let me introduce Dr John Griffin.
John is a senior lecturer at Swansea University, Wales, with keen interests in biodiversity, ecosystem functioning, and coastal ecology. He attained his PhD at the University of Plymouth. I’ll let him tell you more in the interview.
So without further ado let’s dive in to the interview!
How would you describe your work to a 10yr old?
I work with a team of young scientists to help understand how nature – the plants, animals, and microscopic organisms all around us – works. We ask: how important are places like woodlands, beaches, and rivers (and the many different plants and animals which call them home) for keeping us healthy and happy? We also ask: how can we make sure these places are still there for our children to enjoy?
We then do surveys and experiments to work out some answers to these questions. Just like our doctors need a good understanding of our bodies, and need to monitor things like our blood pressure and heart rate when we are sick, our team of ecologists (and many like us around the world) monitor the health of nature, do experiments to gain a better understanding of how nature works, and offer solutions for some of the challenges facing the natural world.
That was a first go. I would have to pitch that to a 10 year old first and gauge their response — they don’t tend to hold back criticism at that age, so I would learn quickly!
Why did you choose this as a profession?
Please forgive me for the self-indulgent sentimentality you are about to be subjected to…
I was always captivated and inspired by marine life, especially fish, but also just the general underwater world. I was originally inspired by annual holidays to Pembrokeshire, where I fell in love with the coast and the sea.
By the time I was 5 or 6 I took up snorkelling down there (despite the cold water and lack of wetsuit), and I vividly remember a small shoal of sand eels at Barafundle Bay mesmerising and exciting me beyond belief — it would take an enormous shoal of barracuda off a Pacific Atoll to have a similar effect today.
I was probably about 7 or 8 when I asked my mum what job I could have that allowed me to spend time in the sea, doing what I loved, snorkelling and watching fish. She suggested I should be a ‘marine biologist’, and, even though I didn’t quite know what a ‘biologist’ was, that stuck with me and gave me something to aim for through school and beyond. Inspirational undergraduate lecturers and mentorship from PhD and post-doc supervisors all helped give me their confidence to keep going in this career.
I have to say, though, that there are many ways into careers in natural sciences, and by no means is it necessary to be passionate about the subject from an early age. Indeed, I have seen many students become ‘hooked’ on natural sciences for the first time as undergrads or even beyond, and become much more competent biologists than I am.
Scientific research is full of challenges; can you share some of your biggest challenges, and how you overcame them?
Great question. It sure is. One of my biggest challenges was moving to the US to do my post-doc in salt marsh ecology. I changed my entire lifestyle quite suddenly — from deep in my comfort zone living with my best friends in Plymouth (and surfing all the time), to living in a trailer in the woods on a remote island off Georgia (with no surf).
It wasn’t just the lifestyle change, but also the change of ecosystem, from rocky shores to salt marshes. I had no idea about how salt marshes worked, and struggled over many months in the extreme heat and humidity of a southern US summer to establish my first experiment. This was entirely my fault, but the 3rd iteration of my first field experiment finally worked (after 3 months of non-stop trying!). I have to admit that I really struggled personally in that first year, and considered throwing in the towel, but I am glad my advisor kept faith in me, and I am glad I stuck it out.
I ended up staying in the US for almost 4 years, and I have some fond memories and some still dear friends. I also learnt a lot about science, salt marshes and myself. Scientific careers especially early on tend to be really mobile, with many post-docs taking jobs abroad. For those in labs receiving post-docs from abroad, reach out to them to make their transition manageable, like the wonderful Silliman lab did for me.
I would be amiss not to mention the biggest challenge I have faced. For the last two years I have been enduring a chronic illness called M.E., or CFS. Essentially, I would describe this as constantly being on the brink of flu, and doing even a little bit of exertion can tip you over the edge and wipe you out completely for days, or even weeks.
Some of the core activities that I previously did as a scientist — like fieldwork and travel for workshops and conferences — are very difficult, if not impossible, now. Rather than overcoming this challenge, I guess the order of the day is adapting, or coping; keeping going and meeting the requirements of my career despite the illness.
Different elements of the job require different means of coping. For instance, in place of travelling, I am aiming to organise more events here in Swansea; I was delighted to host a workshop on marine functional diversity in June, and will host a statistics training course by a world expert next month. I also find Twitter an amazing way to stay connected with colleagues around the world.
Most importantly, I am fortunate that my colleagues appreciate and accommodate my illness — they understand, for example, that I am unable to run or help with field courses. I am very much hoping that I will recover and be able to demonstrate my passion for field-based ecology in the near future. This passion, though currently masked by illness, is still strong after 30 years.
How would you define success as a scientific researcher for you personally?
Well, I don’t think I have reached it yet, that’s for sure. Purely from the perspective of research, I would define success for me as making a lasting and meaningful contribution to our understanding of the natural world. I would probably classify my work so far as incremental — the bread and butter of science, contributing towards a deeper understanding of ecological communities and the importance of biodiversity, but not fundamentally changing the way we see ecosystems, or an ecosystem.
Such a contribution may come from the long-term studies my research group has set-up on the Gower coastline, or it may come from syntheses of existing data from the fossil record or contemporary studies, or, it may not come at all. Fortunately, though, I gain most of my sense of ‘success’ in science from being part of ‘team science’, from collaborating with other scientists, be they colleagues or the wonderfully bright PhD students in my group. So, no matter whether the grand idea we have pans out, or not, the process is always a rich learning experience.
What excites you about your current projects?
The chance to set up a program of research around coastal ecosystems that will hopefully be lasting. As a PhD student I didn’t have the foresight to set up long term experiments, or think about how one experiment could be built on in the future; here, as a permanent member of staff, I have the chance to think a bit longer term.
What advice, that has impacted your career, would you like to share with any scientists reading this?
That’s stumped me a bit because my mentors have given me so many small pieces of advice over the years, which really add up. I would say that a really important one is to go to conferences, even if you have to sacrifice time in the field or in the lab. Just go. You’ll meet scientists from around the world who will end up being friends, colleagues and collaborators in the future.
If another scientist wanted to collaborate with you, what is the best way for them to connect with you?
Twitter is a good one (@JNGriffy), or via email (firstname.lastname@example.org). Always fun to explore potential for new collaborations!
Many thanks to John for taking the time to answer these questions and be so open with the challenges that he has faced in his career. I can definitely relate to a love of getting stuck into fieldwork and travelling. I couldn’t agree more with the advice to use conferences as a way of developing relationships.
Let me know in the comments below what resonated with you.
Until next time,