Marine Social Science – Dr Suzi Billing

Dr Suzi Billing
Dr Suzi Billing

Suzi is a postdoctoral researcher at the Scottish Association for Marine science (SAMS). As a social scientist in the marine sector, Suzi’s work revolves around the interactions between people and the marine environment. In particular, her work focusses on the social obstacles to aquaculture and marine renewable energy. As rapidly growing industries it is vital that these obstacles are understood for progress to be made sustainably. In this interview Suzi describes her work, what interests her most about it, and shares the challenges involved.

How would you describe your work to a 10yr old?

I look at how humans make choices about different uses of the sea and why some people’s views are different to others. Understanding these differences helps us to locate industries like fish farming and technologies like wave and tidal energy devices where there are the most benefits and the least conflict for local communities and society as a whole. I hope that my work can contribute in some small and probably local way to sustainable development which is fair and takes into account climate change issues.

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Why did you choose this as a profession?

Choose is an interesting word choice… When I was young (as in <10) I simply didn’t want to be inside. It wasn’t action sports or set activities that kept me outside though. I spent most of my time wondering around looking at the bark on trees, collecting sap from high in their branches, hunting for insects and tadpoles, seeing what sticks were the best for making bow and arrows based on how much they would bend before snapping.

I used to collect cicada shells, pinecones, and rocks (sorry Mum). All of which were fascinating to me. This obviously dwindled in my teenage years. I was still outside all the time, but it was mostly for sports rather than simply wondering around – however I still remained quite environmentally conscientious.

When I was 16 my Mum asked me what university course I wanted to do, and I remember saying “Environmental Science” – even though I had no idea whether it existed or not… Neither did Mum! I applied for the course at Plymouth University and got unconditional acceptance.

Throughout that course I began to realise that we can measure, observe and record the natural world all we want, but without having discourse about the importance of this type of evidence within society it wouldn’t make any difference to how we manage our natural environment.

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Science communication in action.

The difference is made at the point of people choosing (or not choosing) to act on the evidence that is presented in scientific studies. So I decided that the best option was to study how people make decisions about the use of our planet’s environmental resources. This led my choice to do an MSc in Sustainable Environmental Management (Plymouth University). From there I realised that I didn’t know enough and wanted to learn more – so a PhD followed. I still don’t know enough and want to learn more which inevitably lead me down the path of research.

Scientific research is full of challenges; can you share some of your biggest challenges, and how you overcame them?

The biggest challenge for anyone working in the social sciences within a natural science environment is to get across how important it is to take into account social interactions when looking at how we manage our natural resources. Luckily it seems the tide is turning as the natural sciences and policy-makers are realising that you can have all the evidence you want, but it won’t have the impact that you want it to when there is limited understanding of how society will react to it. It’s an ongoing challenge, but one which is an interesting study in itself!

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How would you define success as a scientific researcher for you personally?

For me, success is finding out something new. Even if it’s only a tiny build on what we already know, it’s really exciting. I enjoy putting theory to the test, especially when I find a new aspect which can add to the theory and make it more practically applicable for management.

What excites you about your current projects?

I’m working on a few projects in different ‘fields’ (aquaculture, fisheries, renewables) but am finding that the social choke points and challenges are very similar. It’s exciting to think that although current management isn’t the best, we can find ways of optimising it that might help across different industries. I also love hearing about people’s experiences and the work that I’m currently doing involves talking to quite a few folk from different backgrounds.

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What advice, that has impacted your career, would you like to share with any scientists reading this?

The best advice I’ve ever received was from a senior academic, who contradicted almost all of the advice that I had previously been given about networking. She said (something along the lines of)… Networking is sometimes considered as more important than your work. But if you do your work, present it in a good and easily understandable manner, then people will want to come and talk to you. Your work acts as your best “wingman”. As a person who is pretty poor at informal chat, this advice was gold.

If another scientist wanted to collaborate with you, what is the best way for them to connect with you?

Phone (01631 559204) or email (suzi.billing@sams.ac.uk). Not the best at keeping up-to-date with email though… It’s on my “to get better at” list!

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Science communication is vital for turning research into action, and Suzi’s work is at the heart of that. Influencing culture and industry is how changes are made, and as Suzi said, makes for an interesting research topic in itself.

Thanks to Suzi for taking the time to respond to my questions and share her experiences. I love the advice to do your work so well that people are naturally drawn to you.

 

Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this post then please share it out on social media so other people can benefit from it too.

 

Until next time,

David

 

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