Spotlight on early-career researchers: Kirsty McQuaid
My name is Kirsty McQuaid, and I am a South African postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Plymouth (UK) and the South African National Biodiversity Institute (South Africa). I am a deep-sea benthic ecologist, which means I work on understanding animal communities that live on the seafloor in areas deeper than 200m. I focus on habitat mapping, classification and marine spatial planning in the South Atlantic (both South Africa and Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction) and am engaged in environmental management issues related to deep-sea mining and biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ).
- What’s your greatest achievement since you started working for the One Ocean Hub?
I think my greatest achievement, or the work I’ve taken most pride in, is working to develop capacity in deep-sea research in South Africa and Africa as a whole. In 2021 I co-authored a report identifying challenges and barriers preventing progress in deep-sea research and management in South Africa, as well as potential solutions and actions to address these. I have also been working through the Decade endorsed Challenger 150 Programme, a Hub partner, to bring together researchers across Africa who are involved or interested in deep-sea research to form an African Network of Deep-water Researchers. Through this we hope to progress deep-water research (>50m deep) in Africa through collaboration, coordination, exchange and fair partnerships.
- How has the Hub enhanced your leadership skills?
Through the Hub I have had the opportunity to lead research and the development of a policy brief aimed at influencing the negotiations of a new agreement on marine biodiversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction. This has developed my academic leadership skills, as well as the organisation and execution of multiple online events like webinars and panel discussions. In recently published work in the South Atlantic, for example, I led a group of nearly 30 habitat mappers, biodiversity experts and marine managers from across the area to produce a regional habitat map to support basin-scale marine spatial planning. This was a big learning curve for me, leading technical work with a group of both early-career researchers and established experts, and was a great experience thanks to the support I received from my line managers and co-authors!
- What, in your view, have been the Hub’s most impactful activities?
Working on a transdisciplinary project has really opened my eyes to the different ways we can work and the magic that can happen when we combine knowledge from very different fields to address issues. In that sense, it has impacted my perspective on ocean issues and provided a space of learning where we are pushed to think outside the box. Combining disciplines has resulted, for example, in the highly successful Empatheatre production Lalela uLwandle, which has been shown in many different fora at the highest levels to promote change.
- How does your work contribute to shaping the One Ocean Hub’s interdisciplinary endeavours?
Drawing on my background in deep-sea ecology, I provide a natural science lens to the Hub’s interdisciplinary research. This helps to shape Hub endeavours through the application of deep-sea knowledge and expertise to interdisciplinary journal articles: for example on transdisciplinary research from an Early Career Researcher perspective, exploring links between the Blue Economy and the Sustainable Development Goals or developing a standardised ecosystem services framework for the deep sea. In addition, I have contributed to discourse on specific issues: for example through participation in online events such as a COP 26 climate law and governance day or Hub World Ocean Week celebrations.
I have also shaped learning materials: for example this Blue Economy Massive Open Online Course. I recently contributed to a journal article (about to be published in a Hub-led special issue) combining expertise in deep-sea ecology, fisheries, international law and social sciences to propose ways in which the new international Agreement on Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) could address the ocean-climate nexus. The proposals are presented from a truly interdisciplinary lens, combining prior work led by the University of Plymouth on environmental assessment at regional scales with human rights arguments to provide unique perspectives.
- What is your advice to fellow early-career researchers working on a global development project?
Think critically about how you carry out your research, and how you participate in the research of others. If you are on the “receiving end” of development aid, look for ways to benefit your wider research community beyond just those individuals directly involved in the project. If you are involved from a developed nation, listen to partners and fellow early-career researchers from developing nations to understand and respect research priorities. Above all, ensure that you engage these partners fully throughout the research lifespan, from conception to delivery.
- What are the aspects of working in a collaborative environment such as the One Ocean Hub that you value the most?
The interdisciplinary, collaborative nature of the Hub creates an environment of continual learning. As I touched on above, it forces you to slow down, open your mind to diverse perspectives, and think more broadly about how your own research could be applied. It teaches you to communicate your research in an accessible way and encourages you to look at your own work from different perspectives, exploring intersections with other disciplines. It can be very challenging and uncomfortable, but ultimately I have found it fascinating and rewarding.
- What are the challenges and new demands that early-career researchers face today?
Over recent years there has been global movement towards including early-career researchers to a greater degree in all elements of the science-policy interface. This provides a platform for the voices and expertise of ECRs to be included while enriching the experience of ECRs, but it can also place a lot of pressure on individuals who are still learning a great deal. Fighting imposter syndrome can be a huge challenge and it is so important to remember that our contributions, however big or small, are valuable.