Ecological Modelling – Dr Tom Adams

Dr Tom Adams
Dr Tom Adams

This week we’re joined by Dr Tom Adams. Tom is a research associate in Ecological Modelling at the Scottish Association of Marine Science (SAMS). Tom’s research focusses on changes in ecological population dynamics over time and space. He is especially interested in the effects that outside forces have on populations, for example the impact that humans have when exploiting natural resources. On with the interview…

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

I study plants and animals that live in the sea (or around its edges), and how they are affected by the environment around them. This includes things like temperature, how salty the water is, how large the waves are, but also how water currents move organisms around the marine environment (usually during their young “juvenile” stages). This affects where they are able to live and how they interact with other plants and animals.

In particular, we have done quite a bit of work looking at the potential spread of “sea lice”, a parasite that lives on salmon, between fish farms on the UK coastline. This can cost the industry a lot of time and money to control, and risks harming local wild fish populations. Doing this can help us to understand why outbreaks might occur in different places at different times, how management could be better organised to reduce lice numbers, and how fish farms can be best arranged on the available coastline. All these factors can benefit our ability to produce food sustainably, our understanding of the environmental impacts of human activities in the coastal seas, and how to limit them.

Dr Tom Adams collecting soil and vegetation samples on a saltmarsh in North Wales.
Dr Tom Adams collecting soil and vegetation samples on a saltmarsh in North Wales.

My work has included many other topics (renewable energy, saltmarshes, Scots pine forests!), but the central theme has been human impacts on (and management of) ecological populations, and how these are affected by physical processes.

Why did you choose this as a profession?

Since I was young, I have always been interested in nature and concerned with environmental issues. When I left school, I wasn’t even aware that doing research into marine ecology would be a possibility (they certainly didn’t mention it in “careers advice”!). I decided to do a degree in mathematics, fully expecting to move into a career in a financial or engineering company. After a year of working in pensions, I discovered a Masters’ course run by Richard Law at the University of York, and realised that I could put my mathematics to a more exciting use. The course was a really great eye opener and introduced us to a huge range of opportunities. After that, I was sold!

Clearing settlement areas in the Clyde to assess barnacle larval quality
Clearing settlement areas in the Clyde to assess barnacle larval quality

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

I have only been working in scientific research for a relatively short time (10 years, if you include my PhD). As such, I can remember how difficult I found starting out working independently during my PhD. It is quite different to have a “blank canvas” for your work, in comparison to the well-defined learning that you do before that point. Defining research questions, and developing appropriate solutions, can feel very challenging and frustrating at times. However, once you get the hang of it, it is also incredibly rewarding to identify how your abilities can work (either independently or together with other people) to answer some really important questions the face society. In particular, learning to program computers was an uphill struggle, but completely worth it!

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

Success for me personally would be feeling that my work had an influence, for the better, on how society operates. Obviously it is important to write good papers that allow people to find out about the details of your work, but I would personally place more value on linking scientific activities with the needs of society (and how those needs are represented by government, industry and other “stakeholders”). A lot of really interesting work is being done to understand the processes at work in the world around us, and it can be easy to lose sight of why we are doing this work. I would only feel satisfied with my work if I felt it improved our ability to meet our demands from nature in the lowest impact way possible, or given insights into how we should manage the environment that we are part of.

What excites you about your current projects?

Marine larval dispersal has been the main ongoing topic in my marine work, and I am excited about upcoming projects on Marine Protected Areas that will enable us to develop and investigate our models for this a little further. In particular, investigating how the behaviour of larval organisms affects where they end up dispersing to, and the impact this has on their life cycle. The physical properties and behaviours of many larvae are not well documented, limiting our ability to understand how and why they are found where they are. Combining realistic dispersal estimates with information on environmental factors, interactions and habitat mapping for adult organisms into models that predict how abundances are likely to change over time would be a longer term goal, but we are taking small steps along the way there.

Example output of "particle tracks" generated by released virtual larvae into predicted current fields. These calculations can help to predict where different organisms travel to, and how this relates to their life histories.
Example output of “particle tracks” generated by released virtual larvae into predicted current fields, West coast of Scotland . These calculations can help to predict where different organisms travel to, and how this relates to their life histories.

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

I think that one of the most important events in my career was deciding to do a maths degree (and the subsequent masters’ course). Being in this apparent niche has given many varied opportunities. Numeracy and computing are incredibly useful in scientific work, and a little ability in these topics goes a long way. However, variety is difficult to manage, and it is much easier to focus on (and become knowledgeable in) one thing! Finding a balance can be difficult.

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

Any way they wanted to. I’m always happy to discuss topics over the phone or email (tom.adams@sams.ac.uk). Meeting up is great too; and our lab near Oban is in a very beautiful place!

View from near the lab in Oban, looking west towards the Isle of Mull.
View from near the lab in Oban, looking west towards the Isle of Mull.

Oban is certainly a beautiful place, and I couldn’t help but visit the SAMS site when I was on my cycle tour of the coast of Britain in 2015.

Thanks to Tom for taking time to answer these questions, I found it particularly encouraging to hear that learning some computer programming is worthwhile as this is something I’ve been doing over the past few years.  A little goes a long way.

Some things that Tom mentioned that I feel are worth reiterating are; that it’s important that we remember why we are doing what we do. And, that work which is essentially a blank canvas can be daunting, but incredibly rewarding.

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