This week we get to hear from Professor Steve Hawkins from the University of Southampton. Steve is a marine biologist with a strong interest in coastal ecosystems, particularly the rocky shore. I was excited when Steve responded to my invitation to take part in the interview because I remember citing his work a lot while I was studying for my degree. I had the privilege of interviewing Steve over the phone last week and gaining some insights into his experiences as a marine biologist. Here’s what he had to say…
How would you describe your work to a 10yr old?
I use coastal ecosystems (beaches and rocky shores) as test systems to understand how different species interact. I research how plants and animals react to changes in the environment by setting up experiments that modify the environment. Changes such as removing predators from a particular site. My research also investigates the effects of climate change on coastal ecosystems and how organisms respond to changing climate. Rocky shores are convenient environments for counting organisms and ideal for providing evidence of fluctuations that occur as a reaction to environmental changes.
Why did you choose this as a profession?
From an early age I went fishing with my father, both freshwater and marine fishing, where I grew up in Weymouth. I can remember going on holiday in North Devon when I was 12 and digging for bait. I wanted to know where to find it, and how to catch it. I was always curious and asking questions. I would read books like ‘The Sea Around Us’ by marine biologists such as Rachael Carson, Frederick Russell, and Alister Hardy.
When I was at secondary school I was under a lot of pressure to pursue a medical career. But, at college, a trip to Lundy Island captured my imagination. My biology teacher at the time said, and I quote, “You’re too good a biologist to become a medic”.
I chose to apply for a biology degree at Liverpool University because the course didn’t require me to specialise straight away. Carrying out research on the Isle of Man immersed me in my interest for marine biology and I decided to go for a PhD. Teaching was something I’d always been interested in, and about half way through my PhD I realised that I could work as a marine biologist full time.
Scientific research is full of challenges; can you share some of your biggest challenges, and how you overcame them?
In the UK one of the biggest challenges is getting funding. Both for yourself and your research team. The key is to be persistent. Get better at writing funding applications. Take the time to consciously develop this skill, it will be invaluable.
The second biggest challenge, as I see it, is driving yourself and motivating yourself to read the literature. Academia is demanding and requires a lot of reading to keep up with ideas in your field of study. You can often be required to put in 12 hour days switching between labs, fieldwork, writing, reading, data analysis and teaching. You’re responsible for organising yourself and getting the work done.
The third challenge relates very closely to the first. It is challenging to secure funding or long term continuous research. This makes it difficult to investigate long term changes. Funding is more readily available for short term research.
How would you define success as a scientific researcher for you personally?
Well, I officially retire in June, but will continue to be involved in research for a few years. For me there are a few things that define success. Primarily supervising PhD students and postdocs and nurturing their careers. I am proud to have supervised around 80 PhDs. I enjoy seeing them go on to academic careers, research institutes, and conservation. I am also proud to have many go on to successful careers in teaching, business analytics, IT, and owning their own businesses. The skills and experiences they developed studying for a PhD giving them a different perspective to bring to each of these roles.
Another way of measuring success is ability to secure funding for PhDs and turning that work into publications that are read and cited. I think that it’s important that research has a practical use and is successful when it has a real impact on policy. That could be having an impact on coastal pollution, restoration, fisheries practices, or marine protected areas, just to name a few examples.
I’ve also had the privilege of being involved with TV and radio, for example The One Show’s 50th anniversary of the Torrey Canyon oil spill which is something that has formed a large part of my career. I believe that communicating scientific research in this way is important.
What excites you about your current projects?
We have a time series of limpet populations and distribution dating back to the 1980’s that lets us investigate the impacts of climate fluctuations and rapid changes. We can see changes in the geographical ranges of different species.
What really gets me excited is working on the shore, especially if it’s somewhere I’ve never been. I love to explore. Even if it’s somewhere you’ve been before there is always something different from the last time you visited. There’s always something new to see.
I’m also working on a 50 year time series of the Torrey Canyon oil spill looking at the return of species to the area, as well as the impacts of species mortality on the ecosystem.
What advice, that has impacted your career, would you like to share with any scientists reading this?
Advice I was given by one of my supervisors, Alan Southward, was ‘have bit more confidence in yourself’. I’ve always been outwardly confident, but Alan seemed to see through this, and I’m glad he did.
If I was to give some advice of my own it would be to work on something you’re interested in. As I said earlier research is demanding, and working on something you’re interested in makes it easier to get through those 12 hour days.
It’s also easier to go from job to job than to get a job when you’re not employed, so even if it’s not a job you want to do show that you can roll your sleeves up and get stuck into something. I’ve had jobs on a builder’s yard, worked for a baker, and as a farm labourer. All of these experiences give you skills that will serve you throughout your career. Apply for those dream jobs you don’t think you’ll get, have a go. When you have interviews, but don’t get the job don’t worry about it, learn from the experience. Better jobs come up. I’ve maybe been offered 1 in 3 of the jobs I’ve interviewed for, and that may be an exaggeration.
If another scientist wanted to collaborate with you, what is the best way for them to connect with you?
Email is probably easiest (S.J.Hawkins@soton.ac.uk), but better by far would be buying me pint and meeting face to face.
Steve was the first person I’ve been able to interview over the phone, which was a change from email responses. Although it’s more work for me to write up and a challenge to arrange around full time work I feel it enabled us to make more of a connection. Thanks to Steve for taking the time to share his experiences with me, and if I ever get chance to meet him I will most certainly buy him a pint.
I love it when people comment on my blog, so let me know in the comments what piece of advice from Steve stood out to you. Or if you’ve had the privilege of working with Steve, share a story below, I’m sure he’d love to read it.
Until next time,