Helene Marsh is an emeritus professor at the Centre for Tropical Water and Aquatic Ecosystem Research at James Cook University, Townsville.
In a career spanning four decades, she has pioneered the interdisciplinary field of conservation biology. S
he was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 2015 and continues to provide consultative expertise to international bodies and governments in the area of marine environmental management.
I describe myself as a marine conservation biologist with a specialist interest in coastal marine mammals. It was serendipitous: I didn’t choose it; it chose me. I went to university with the aim of being a clinical psychologist but quickly discovered two really important things: I didn’t want to be a psychologist, and I really liked research.
I had the privilege of doing quite a bit of fieldwork in my undergraduate career and I became interested in marine science. I did an honours degree and a PhD in cone shell venoms, which is still a very active area of research. When I had completed my PhD I had one child and I was expecting another. I was tutoring but because of the particular laboratory skills I had, I started as a part-time research officer in a project on dugongs, which was pure science.
After that everything changed. It’s impossible to be meaningfully involved in the science of marine mammals without becoming interested in their conservation. Over time, I morphed from being a very hard scientist with expertise in anatomy and physiology and biochemistry to being a marine conservation biologist interested in both the biological and human dimensions of conservation biology.
My journey as a marine mammal scientist became more and more cross-disciplinary. The understanding that conservation problems were really social problems fitted in with the direction I was going in my research and with my personal journey. Many of my opportunities arose serendipitously. I did research to solve a problem, not to get a job. Then when universities jumped on the bandwagon of increased interest in the environment in the early ‘90s, it was a happy coincidence.
Challenges and Highlights
My proudest research career moment unquestionably was being inducted as a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science. Being a typical female, in many ways I didn’t feel very deserving, but the whole process of signing a book that was given to the Academy by the Royal Society in the 1950s was just amazing. You realise the company of extraordinary people; every Australian scientist who has been a fellow of the Academy has signed that book. That was my proudest moment.
My most challenging time was after I completed my PhD and before I got a continuing appointment. I finished my PhD in my mid-20s, which by today’s standards is quite young but at the time was not remarkable. I had two children and a husband who had an academic job. Our capacity to move as a family was constrained. My husband wasn’t opposed to our moving, but it required two jobs being available.
I had many years on soft money of greater or lesser amounts. That was challenging because of the uncertainty and not being able to plan - I’m a person who likes knowing what’s going to happen next - and the other problem was that, as a post doc, you don’t actually have a say in the future direction.
That whole period was very hard for me. If anyone had told me when I was 40 that by the time I was in my late forties I would have a chair and be a head of department, I would have laughed. I thought I’d be stumbling from one post doc to another. But when I had the opportunity of a continuing appointment, it changed everything. Having worked in research-only positions for a long time, I had quite good track record, which meant that once I was on tenure track I could advance quite quickly.
Impact and Legacy
The most direct impact of my research has been on the conservation of dugongs and other coastal marine mammals. That’s most easily seen in the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait, but extends to other countries as well. I’ve had the privilege of giving applied advice to conservation managers in about 14 different countries.
The second impact is that my research and the interdisciplinary nature of my work have predated tendencies that are more popular today. Marine mammal science started as a fishery science and it was all about wild fisheries that were studied by fisheries biologists. Gradually, it’s broadened from being a fisheries science to being a conservation science. Marine mammal science still really struggles with its social dimensions, but increasingly people are seeing that as important. I think it’s fair to say that my work predated quite a bit of that.
The third area of impact has been through my research students. I’ve invested a great deal in the training of research students. As Foundation Dean of Graduate Research at James Cook University I did a lot, both here and nationally, in terms of policy for research higher degree training. I’ve been on committees examining more than 100 students in total, including 56 PhD students who’ve graduated. Many of those students are now playing important roles in conservation science all over the world. I regard that as my most important legacy.
Advice to Younger Researchers
One of the things I’ve really noticed in my career is a change in societal attitudes to women in research. When I started out, it was considered bizarre for a woman, particularly a married woman, to want a research career. For a really long time women researchers were seen as aberrations to be tolerated. I really see such a huge change in attitude. Suddenly women researchers are not being seen through a deficit lens. They are being seen as essential.
Understand what your passions are and know yourself. Going into university I didn’t know myself. I didn’t know what I liked and what I didn’t like. Know yourself and understand what is important for you, and what your skills, strengths and weaknesses are. Understand that there isn’t a right answer, there’s the most appropriate answer for you. The right answer or the most appropriate answer for two people with exactly the same ATAR results could be completely different.
Get advice on your negatives so you can do something about them, and on your positives so you can build on them, especially the transferability of your skills. I find many PhD students and young women graduates don’t know what their skills are. They’re frightened by job ads because they can’t see the opportunity in the skills that are specified.
People don’t often talk about this, it’s an elephant in the room, but I’d say to young women: think about how important it is for you to have children. Because fertility does change with age. It is a very personal choice, but I think women need to think about it and how important it is.