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Careers in Science

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Careers in Science

Shawn Robinson
Marine Ecologist

How did you choose your present profession?
I have always had a deep and abiding interest in marine biology and ecology for as long as I can remember. I enjoy finding out how things work. In my youth, I spent many formative hours exploring the intertidal zones of the Canadian Maritimes and once I learned to dive, I spent a lot of time underwater exploring the wonders there. My summer jobs, throughout my undergraduate work, focused on marine biology and as a result, led me to graduate work in marine fields. I didn't so much choose my present profession, but rather, my interests and a bit of luck along the way allowed me to evolve into it.

What were your biggest motivators?
I think some of the biggest motivators that allowed me to choose my present profession were my early summer jobs working for government science-based departments in Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia. The range of work I was involved in showed me that I could do something that I loved and actually get paid. All I needed was the right credentials and a break here and there to make it happen.

There have been a number of people that have inspired me, probably too many to mention here. However, some authors would be H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Sir Thomas More, Jared Diamond, Ronald Wright, Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov. On television, I have been motivated by the educational styles of Jacques Cousteau, Joe McGinnis and David Attenborough.

Who are your greatest mentors or heroes?
Throughout my academic career, I've had a number of significant mentors such as Sherman Bleakney from Acadia University, Brian Hartwick from Simon Fraser University, Tim Parsons from the University of British Columbia as well as Norm Sloan and Dan Ware from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. I owe a debt of gratitude to these gentlemen for taking me under their wing.

Was there a pivotal event in your life that helped you decide on your career path?
Two events stand out particularly in my mind that helped shape the path of my research career. One was the first time I went scuba diving and got a chance to see the floor and the sea life living on the bottom of the ocean. The dive was in the middle of the winter in Prince Edward Island, and despite the cold and the relative inactivity of the animals, I could not have been more enchanted with the new world I was seeing. The second pivotal moment was the first time I was down in a submarine off the coast of southern Vancouver Island in British Columbia. We dove in a fjord to a depth of several hundred meters to do a prawn survey. The biological structure and layers within the water column you could see from the window of the submarine firmly convinced me that you really need to see what you are working on if you are to truly understand it.

What has been the biggest surprise in your life as a scientist?
I think one of the biggest surprises in my life as a scientist is that there is an understandable level of pattern in the natural world that we are capable of discovering and understanding. This goes beyond the basic survey level of understanding, such as distribution and abundance of organisms, to the actual processes and species interactions on the way ecosystems work. While we may never be able to fully understand the entire complexity of the marine systems are linked with, we may very well be able to understand enough of them so that we can coexist within them for the long-term.

What would you recommend for students wanting to pursue a similar career?
Go into this type of career with passion and commitment. Marine ecology is partly a lifestyle choice rather than a job you endure to try and generate enough money to retire on as quickly and lavishly as possible. Work on your science courses and do not be scared of math. Math is simply a tool that needs to be learned and can be useful at whatever level of proficiency you achieve. The arts and sciences have several things in common, most notably the creative process in which a model of a particular structure or process is envisioned. Do not ignore the development of your creative side. Many of the major advances in science have come from ideas that came from "out of the blue."

What do you like best about your profession?
I like the diversity that exists within my job the best. I make a living that involves working on boats out on the ocean and in shore-based laboratories, studying organisms and ecosystems that few people really get to know. This work involves collaborations between colleagues, industry partners and a number of graduate students from local universities. Our team gets to use relatively high-tech equipment in both the field and the lab and each day brings new discoveries. There is also a travel component to the work. Much of our research is reported at scientific conferences that are held throughout the world, often in very pleasant destinations.

What would you say has been your greatest achievement?
I would say that one of our greatest achievements, as a team, has been successfully bringing more advanced ecological concepts to the aquaculture food production industry. Our research, to date, has shown that ecological recycling principles can be adopted into industrial practices so that a win-win situation can exist for both the environment and business. This is important in a society where short-term bottom lines for business often set social policies. While we are still far away from setting up a perfect aquaculture site, we have at least started to provide a potential solution that industry can use now and evolve from. This approach is now starting to be further spread by the graduate students that have come through the Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture (IMTA) program from various sites around the world.

Are you optimistic for the future of the planet and if so why?
My degree of optimism tends to fluctuate. There are times when I feel that human society is making significant progress in becoming more benign in relation to the various ecosystems with which we coexist on this planet. There are many brilliant people working to understand how these ecosystems work and problems are now being recognized by several different levels of society. Efforts are being mounted to either solve or remediate those issues that have been identified. There are a number of organizations throughout the world that are looking at ways to adapt and evolve man's method of habitation on this planet through many ingenious approaches. This type of proactive approach is encouraging to me and one on which our team is working.

What are your greatest fears for the future of the planet?
However, there are other times when it would appear that large-scale business interests, which ultimately stem from our need to supply goods and services to our large urban developments on Earth, are driving agendas that will ultimately degrade the environment to a point where large-scale economic and ecological collapse will occur. Many people within our societies have dissociated themselves from the workings of the natural environment to the point where they do not understand or care to understand many of the natural processes that are happening. In the past, these processes were once apparent to those people that lived closer to the land. Today, we are depending on someone else to look after our interests through either declining government science or scattered centers of academia at a time of further tax cuts and reduced public spending on knowledge generation. This self-induced apathy about how our planet works, combined with the very real need to understand its workings during a time of massive industrial expansion, is a real issue. When human society feels it's reasonable to invest more economic wealth in cell phone features or music videos than it is to understand how to sustainably exist within their environment, it has all the makings for an ecological global crisis. While there are many groups doing good work towards averting this calamity, I feel that at some time in the future we will reach the tipping point. If we do not have solutions in place, it may be too late and human society may collapse to a vestige of its former self. This is what often happens to natural populations that swell to abnormally high densities and grow beyond their carrying capacity. While it may be normal in nature, the transition to a lower state of development in human society will be extremely painful and messy.

What’s the one message you would like the next generation of scientists to hear?
You are sorely needed, but you need to be relevant. Keep in mind that the professional scientist is in the business of producing information. This is no different than any other business venture in several aspects. You need to produce a product that society needs both now and in the future. You have to be able to successfully advertise and market that product so that those who are purchasing it know that it exists and why they should have it. You also need to do follow-up market research to ensure that the product you are producing is the best that it can be and fitting the needs of society. While this may seem crass in today's academic circles, it is this "ivory tower" mentality and lack of relevance to the ordinary person that has alienated much of society from understanding and appreciating science. Many are neutral at best on seeing how it can benefit them aside from producing products that enhance their creature comforts. If we cannot convince society that we need to understand how to live sustainably on this planet before we run into that “brick wall”, it will be too late to develop that understanding at the 11th hour and we will not have fulfilled our responsibility as scientists.

What Web sites, books, articles and other layperson references would you recommend for viewers interested in your work featured in Strange Days on Planet Earth?
Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Integrated_Multi-trophic_Aquaculture Off-site Link
Government of Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Aquaculture site: http://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/Aquaculture/ Off-site Link

Articles:
Ridler, N., M. Wowchuk, K. Barrington, T. Chopin, S. Robinson, F. Page and K Haya. 2007. Integrated multi-trophic aquaculture (IMTA): A potential strategic choice for farmers. Aqua. Econ. Manag. 11(1):99-110.

Ridler, N. K. Barrington, B. Robinsion, M. Wowchuk, T. Chopin, S. Robinson, F. Page, G. Reid, M. Szemerda, J. Sewuster, S. Boyne-Travis 2007. Integrated Multitrophic Aquaculture—Canadian Project Combines Salmon, Mussels, Kelps. Global Aquaculture Advocate 10(2):52-55.

Chopin, T. and S.M.C. Robinson. 2004. Defining the appropriate regulatory and policy framework for the development of integrated multi-trophic aquaculture practices: Introduction to the workshop and positioning of the issues. Bull Aquacult. Assoc. Canada 104-3:4-10.

Chopin, T., Robinson, S.M.C., Sawhney, M., Bastarache, S., Belyea, E., Shea, R., Armstrong, W., Stewart, I., and Fitzgerald, P. 2004. The AquaNet integrated multi-trophic aquaculture project: Rationale of the project and development of kelp cultivation as the inorganic extractive component of the system. Bull Aquacult. Assoc. Canada 104-3:11-18.

Robinson, S.M.C and Chopin, T. 2004. Defining the appropriate regulatory and policy framework for the development of integrated multi-trophic aquaculture practices: Summary of the workshop and issues for the future. Bull Aquacult. Assoc. Canada 104-3:73-82.

Books:
A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright
Guns Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond
The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan.

Visit Robinson's bio page »

 


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