Monthly Archives: January 2013

Marine Ecology or Marine Biology….what’s the difference!?!?!?

A few of you may be wondering why the blog is called ‘Confessions of a Marine Ecologist” and not ‘Confessions of a Marine Biologist”.  After all, if you ask a group of school kids what they want to be when they grow up, more than a handful would happily answer “marine biologist”, but I would happily put money on none answering “a marine ecologist”!  Even when I decided I wanted to study life in the ocean, I searched for courses on marine biology, not marine ecology!  And I myself often wondered why people I was introduced to describe themselves as ‘marine ecologists’ instead of ‘marine biologists’.  So what’s the difference?  And, more importantly, why do I feel the need to describe myself as a marine ecologist that will almost definitely get me less traffic and fewer looks of admiration from non-scientists (incidentally, these looks of admiration are quickly replaced by confusion when you explain to people that you work on seagrass instead of dolphins or turtles!)

Coral Reef Community at Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia

Why do we find marine organisms in some places but not others? This question is at the heart of all marine ecology!

Let’s start at the difference between the two.  Marine biology is the study of life in the oceans.  The mention of marine biology invokes thoughts of dolphins, turtles, and maybe even some pretty coral-reef fish from Finding Nemo!  However, marine biology is a whole lot more than that, investigating all life in the ocean, from the phytoplankton (very small) to the blue whales (very big).  In short, marine biologists concentrate on studying their chosen species, answering questions like “What type of fish is that?”, “How do the bodies of whales cope with extreme depths?”, and “How do sharks sense their environment?”.  All in all, some pretty cool stuff in my opinion!

So what makes us fully fledged marine ecologist different from our biologist counterparts?  Well, I think that marine ecology is even cooler than marine biology because as marine ecologists we link what we know about the biology of a given species with other plants/animals and the environment as well.  This allows questions to be explored like :”Why do ecosystems that are so depleted in nutrients (like the Great Barrier Reef) have such high biodiversity and productivity?”, “What will happen to the local seagrass and fish population if we build a new jetty here?”, and “How does the presence of keystone predators (like sharks) effect not only turtle and dugong numbers, but the type of plants we see on the seafloor?”.  Nature is extremely complex, and I believe that we can only  gain a limited understanding of how nature works by simply looking at individual species in isolation.  This is where marine ecology comes in….we attempt to understand how species interact with one another and their environment (things like temperature, nutrient/food availability, light……even human-related disturbances).  When we consider that we live in a world where climatic conditions are changing at an unprecedented rate, we need marine ecology to help make predictions about how marine species will respond to such environmental changes, and how best to mitigate against any potential losses.

If we were splitting hairs, ecology is technically a form of biology, but I felt the need to write this post given how passionately I see some researchers stating that they are in one camp or another. Most importantly, we need to have marine biologists and ecologists to help us understand marine organisms and how they interact with the environment and each other.  But as an ecologist (albeit a biased one!) what gets me excited isn’t just finding out how the amazing plants and animals we find in the ocean work, but how they interact with each other and their environment, explaining why we see certain species in some places and not others!

So hopefully this little rant has shed some light on the importance of us marine ecologists!  Though I’m still not holding my breath for any school kids to profess a desire to become a marine ecologists any time soon!

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My 2013 PhD Resolutions

So the New Year is upon us, so there is no better time to thrash out what I hope to acheive throughout the year (in an informal, non-official way!)

1) Publish!!!
Boring I know, and this isn’t really a new resolution (and is probably part of 99% of PhD students resolutions) but I think it is important nonetheless!  I had a fairly good year for publications in 2012; with 1 paper as a lead author and a further 3 as  co-author (not too bad for the year where I transitioned from an honours student to a PhD student).  If I was setting myself a target, I would like to at least maintain that rate (so another 4 papers this year), with at least 2 of those as the lead author.  I’m also trying to forage into writing a review (slightly intimidating giving my opinion on a body of literature that has been worked on for several decades!) so it should be interesting!

2) Interact more with the public!
I guess this resolution was the reason for me starting this blog!  As PhD students we are often required to give presentations to other academics (either in-house or at conferences), but we don’t often interact with the public!  So my second resolution is to get more messages out there to the public in plain English…either electronically or through outreach programs!

3) Learn how to teach properly
Last year, I took a lead role in helping with demonstrating in a couple of units at the university – ‘Marine Systems’ and ‘Ecological Processes’.  I found it fantastic, and it’s definitely true that to teach something, you need to know it inside out!  I’ve been lucky enough to be granted a Postgraduate Teaching Internship for 2013 at UWA, a scheme that gives postgraduates some intensive training and allows them to teach (including giving lectures) in a couple of units through the year.  I’m hoping to post all the teaching materials I come up with on this blog, so watch this space!

4) Take more photos in the field!
Every time before I head out in the field, I pack my camera and tell myself that I will make an effort to take lots more photos, and it never happens!  So this year, I am resolving to actually make use of the underwater camera when I pack it!  More specifically, I need to take more photos of me and the rest of the gang doing our work in the field….it’s only when you are asked for some photos of yourself in the field that you realize you have an aversion to being in front of the lens!

5) Have more confidence in myself!
Pretty much do what it says on the tin!  Not that I’m an insecure person, but I guess building confidence in yourself as a scientist is something you should aim for every year during your PhD as you transition from a student to an early career researcher (all going well).

6) Brush up on my ecological theory by reading some seminal ecology papers!
I read….I read alot!! It’s part of the job after all; you need to find out what else has been done in your field of research, find a piece of evidence to support your argument or even find obscure methods to help you carry out an important experiment.  But, as a biogeochemist, I find that I don’t read enough of the classic,
theoretical ecology papers even though they really interest me, purely because I don’t really cite them.  So, this year I am going to make time to at least try to read one classic ecology paper a week!  Even if I get really, really busy………promise!

That’s all I can think of at the moment, I’m sure I’ll add more as time goes on, or if anyone else gives me any bright ideas!  As always, feel free to comment on anything I may have missed!