Dr. Jennifer Lavers is a lecturer in marine biology at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies based at the University of Tasmania. She is an eco-toxicologist with expertise in tropical and temperate seabird ecology, plastic pollution, invasive species management and fisheries by-catch.
Dr. Lavers research interests include understanding how seabirds can act as indicators of ocean health and this knowledge can be used for wider public scientific communication and research. Her research primarily focuses on plastics, heavy metals, POPs and radionuclides as pollutants of aquatic ecosystems.
Prior to joining the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, Dr. Jennifer Lavers worked for the U.S. Fisheries and Wildlife Service as well as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).
Briefly describe your current work and your research.
I’m a marine biologist at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies in Tasmania. My graduate students and I primarily study the impact of marine pollution, with a focus on plastics and their associated chemicals.
Recently, we have been trying to increase our knowledge of lesser known and harder to quantify impacts known as “sub-lethal” impacts. These are essentially issues caused by ingesting (or becoming entangled) in plastic that harm the animal, but don’t necessarily kill it. Often, these impacts are not visible to the naked eye, meaning they are more challenging for scientists to quantify and especially difficult for the public to understand. I often put it this way: think of someone with diabetes. You can’t see diabetes. But, it doesn’t mean the person doesn’t have it, and isn’t suffering. Same can be said for animals. When they ingest plastic, it may (or may not – we just don’t know, yet) cause a diversity of health problems that are “more than skin deep”. If we can’t see these impacts, it likely means we’re drastically underestimating the scope and severity of the plastics issue, which is all the more reason to break our plastic addiction, fast!
What do you love the most about your job?
Field work on remote islands. I am privileged to get to travel to some of the most far-flung and heavily protected islands in the world. I feel an immense sense of responsibility to tell the story of these islands, which are often under threat despite their remote location, because society can’t possibly be expected to care about and fight for an island or species they’ve never seen, never heard of. In 2015 I spent 3.5 months living on Henderson Island in the remote South Pacific. When I returned, I was determined to show the world how our day-to-day decisions regarding so-called “single use” plastics was putting this World Heritage listed, one of a kind island (and the endemic species that live there) at grave risk. Working with students has to be another highlight of my job – their creativity and enthusiasm keeps me going when I’m staring at a beach piled high with plastic and feeling hopeless.
How difficult was it to get where you are today?
It’s been a long, hard road covered in obstacles I expected, like missing my friends while living on remote islands for months and having to scale dangerous cliffs, but also many more obstacles I never imagined and wish didn’t exist. Diversity is something that still requires some work in science, and in society as a whole. As young female scientists, there are a number of barriers that one must face. It’s not fair – hopefully one day it will be better. The judgment is another challenge: scientists and volunteers working to protect Earth’s natural system and preserve our collective future are increasingly undervalued and criticised. It’s a tough job, and a long road to get here, but it’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do. Nature defines who I am. It should define all of us.
What was the biggest obstacle in your way before your career reached where it is today? How did you overcome it?
The marine ecosystem is dynamic and complex. Understanding it therefore requires scientists to become highly specialised. Unfortunately, each country usually only wants one seabird or koala biologist, so once you become specialised, jobs are few and far between. In the biological sciences, employment contracts are almost always short-term, so this means you’re going to have to relocate, and often, starting a new job and a new life in a new place every 1-3 years. The biggest obstacle was finding a way to keep my research relevant in Tasmania, after I feel in love with the energy of this place. So many times I’ve nearly had to leave, and may still one day.
What are you looking forward to the most in the future of marine science?
For more than a decade I fought to get marine plastic pollution on the agenda and radar of politicians and the public. The shift in consciousness that I’ve observed in the past 12-24 months has been incredible. I look forward to a time when the threat posed by marine plastic pollution is given the same recognition and support (e.g., funding) as other well-known, global environmental issues, such as climate change.
How do you think we can get more women involved within marine science?
Thankfully, marine science benefits from significant involvement of women already, although this can always be maintained and enhanced. On average, 60-80% of the applicants for the graduate student positions I advertise in any given year tend to be female and as a result, many of the students who end up in my lab are women. My goal is always to maintain a gender balance, and to achieve other diversity targets, so I of course try to recruit men where possible. Together, men and women provide a more balanced and creative viewpoint, which is essential when tackling new and challenging issues.
What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring female marine scientists?
Go and talk to other scientists in the field you’re interested in. We’re all really busy and not everyone will answer your email unfortunately, but some will. Ask them questions, see if it’s possible to join their lab for a day, shadow one of their post-docs or students. Volunteer! The job market is unfortunately quite competitive, a diversity of skills and experiences (including outside of marine science) can give you the competitive edge!
In one sentence, why do you think a career within marine science is a great career option?
If the ocean and conservation is what drives you, a career that helps you protect and spend time around amazing species and spaces is worth so much more than money, prestige, and a new iPhone. What you do with your life matters, make every moment count.
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Disclaimer: All responses to the interview questions belong to Dr. Jennifer Lavers. All photographs used also belong to Silke Stuckenbrock.
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