Family and Fieldwork

I have been following two topics with particular interest over the past year. The first centers around Family and the Academy. There have been some great posts reflecting upon and highlighting challenges and strategies for balancing the demands of a job and a family (e.g. getting a research career established with small babies) and issues such as maternity/paternity leave.

The other centers around Fieldwork. Posts and discussions here have ranged from the joys of close field sites and the defense of distant field sites to working in a field camp. Within this realm I would also include the great series over at the New York Times – Scientists At Work – which unfortunately has come to a close after 3 years.

What I wish to reflect upon here is the intersection of these two: family and fieldwork. Despite the various posts and articles I have come across concerning the above two topics, I have yet to see much if any discussion situated at the intersection. Though perhaps I haven’t looked in the right places!

It was just about a year ago my wife and I got the great news that we were expecting. At the time I was in the midst of prepping for my comprehensive exams. I was both excited and overwhelmed all at once. Perhaps a bit naive, I thought I was going to be able to get the majority of my fieldwork done before the arrival of our son. Moreover, I quickly convinced myself that’s what I ‘needed’ to do. While I was still wrapping my head around how our life was about to change with the addition of a new member to the family I certainly wasn’t in any place to grasp what it would look like to do fieldwork with an infant!

However, my wife was quick to point out that: a) I was not going to be in field during the third trimester; b) she wanted to travel with me; and c) she wanted to learn more about what I did! All very legitimate reasons. She made a good case! Needless to say, I quickly came to terms with the fact that my fieldwork was not going to happen so soon and began to embrace a new vision for my fieldwork that included an adventure with my family.

At the end of June I came down here for a short visit with a number of objectives which included conducting some preliminary interviews. As if being away from my son for the first time wasn’t hard enough, I also had to envision our time in the field as a family and the logistics associated with that. First and foremost, I needed to track down and secure a place for us to live. The combination of not having a vehicle and having an infant meant that there were a number of criteria that needed to be met (e.g. laundry on site or within walking distance, groceries/ food in close proximity). And I was thinking about the accommodations with regards to safety as it is currently still hurricane season. Now, because I was going to be working in three different communities, I needed to find three different places that met the criteria! Despite the underlying stress and uncertainty during the trip, overall it was a success and I was able to line up housing for our time together in the field.

As I outlined in my previous post which served as an introduction to my fieldwork and research, I’ve got my work cut out for me. That equates to busy days, possibly odd hours and some potential travel. This leads me to one of my main concerns for my family, loneliness in a cross-cultural setting. I count ourselves lucky in many regards as we will have a few visitors during our time (equalling almost half of our time here). My wife had a great sales pitch. Her mantra – “We’ve got a place for you to stay, flights are reasonable and you have to pay for food no matter where you are!” I have also met some wonderful people in the communities where we will be staying.

While I’m sure there will no doubt be challenges, it will also be an amazing adventure to be shared with my family. Perhaps too having my family with me will serve as a way to connect with people in the communities and across the island – a bridge between cultures and strangers. Perhaps I may be perceived and received by the communities and individuals I meet as more than just an outsider from the ‘North.’

My family arrives today. I am beyond thrilled to have them join me in the field for the next few months. I’d be lying though to say I’m not nervous and apprehensive about how this will all play out. Perhaps too is has to do with still feeling like a novice at this whole parenting thing! While the adventure is just beginning, I wouldn’t want it any other way and often chuckle to myself as I think back on my ‘rational’ thinking and justification for wanting to get my fieldwork done before our son arrived.

Stay tuned as I hope to reflect further upon my experience with #familyinthefield over the next few months.


Into the Field: Understanding the role of Social Networks in MPA Governance

The cumulative effects of climate change, biodiversity loss and resource exploitation could be devastating to Jamaica’s coastal-marine systems in the near future. For example, the World Resources Institute’s recent global assessment of coral reefs found that Jamaica is highly dependent upon coral reefs that rank globally among the most vulnerable to environmental change. In an attempt to navigate these effects, the Jamaican government signed onto the Caribbean Challenge and in turn initiated the establishment of twelve Special Fishery Conservation Areas (SFCAs) between 2009 and 2012, with more under consideration. SFCAs (locally referred to as fish sanctuaries) are essentially marine no-take zones, and recent efforts to expand the SFCA network build off existing SFCAs that were established well over two decades ago.

Map created by S. Lee, courtesy of CARIBSAVE

Map created by S. Lee, courtesy of CARIBSAVE

Through Memorandum’s of Agreement with local non-governmental organizations and/or fisherfolk co-operatives, the Jamaican government and Division of Fisheries have established co-management arrangements and delegated certain roles and responsibilities (e.g. monitoring) associated with the day-to-day management of the SFCAs. Such hybrid governance arrangements are believed to build resilience and contribute to increased capacity for collective action. However, research has shown that this is not always the case suggesting that there is a need to better understand the conditions which enhance or inhibit the successful management of natural resources.

Local Level Dynamics
On one level, my research is concerned with better understanding local level dynamics and the engagement of resource users in management. Specifically, I am looking to identify and examine patterns of social relations among resource users (i.e. fisherfolk) associated with the Special Fishery Conservation Areas that may facilitate or constrain collective action. While significant strides have been made in regards to identifying attributes that contribute to the collective action and governance of common pool resources, there remains a critical need to better understand the nuances and complexities of the social variables previously identified, particularly in the context of community-based and co-managed marine reserves (i.e. no take zones). Furthermore, the application of a social relational network perspective provides the opportunity to shift the broader discussion from simply if social networks associated with marine reserves (i.e., no take zones) are an attribute to more specifically how social networks enhance or inhibit collective action.

What this looks like:
Over the next several months I will be dividing my time between three different fish sanctuaries and spending time in the communities and with the fisherfolk located in and around those sanctuaries.

An Emerging Network of Special Fishery Conservation Areas
Simultaneously, I am examining the emerging network of fish sanctuaries. To this end, I am specifically interested in understanding: i) how the governance network (composed of state and non state actors) associated with the fish sanctuaries may enhance or inhibit the diffusion of innovative practices, knowledge exchange and collaboration and ii) how the fish sanctuaries are situated in the broader context of coastal-marine management and governance.

What this looks like:
Over the next several months this will involve visits to Kingston to speak with various government agencies and NGOs and to many of the other fish sanctuaries to speak with the community NGOs and/or fisherman cooperatives, managers and wardens.

The next several months will no doubt be busy. My hope is that they are also fruitful, leading to insights that not only inform the scholarly community but also the communities here, so that Jamaicans can continue to rebuild their fisheries, coral reefs and coastal communities.

Galleon Fish Sanctuary

Galleon Fish Sanctuary

Getting Ahead on the Job Front

For some time now there has been a relatively ongoing discussion about the job prospects for PhD’s both in academia and beyond the ivory towers. This discussion has surfaced in the media, on blogs and in the twittersphere. For example, The Globe and Mail has had a number of pieces over the last several months (here, here & here) speaking to this issue with Brent Herbert-Copley, vice-president Research Capacity at SSHRC proclaiming most recently that while there were indeed few academic jobs, Canada needed more PhDs. Yet around the same time, Macleans’ published a recent article where Charlie Gillis questions whether a PhD is an academic dead zone! Similarly, not too long ago, Alex Bond, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Saskatchewan, provided a really honest reflection on the post PhD prospects for an ecologist in Canada over at The Lab and Field. On twitter, one only have to take a look at #altac or #phdchat to quickly see various musings, appeals and interweaving discussions concerning current and future job prospects.

No matter what your outlook, you will be applying for jobs soon, if you haven’t already. Every so often I come across a nugget of advice that I tuck away knowing that it could help me down the road. A while back I stumbled upon a post by Doug Kalish titled 7 Ways To Stand Out From the Crowd, which was part of the Graduate Student Advice Series. In the piece, Kalish provides a suite of tips to help make ones self known.

1)   The Four P’s: Publications, Posters, Presentations and Patents
2)   Start an ‘achievements’ file right now
3)   Scrub your online presence
4)   Join professional organizations in your field
5)   Set up professional social media accounts
6)   Build an online reputation
7)   Get business cards

The majority of these seemed quite common sense. However, the one that stood out to me as being especially useful was number two: Start an ‘achievements’ file right now. It stood out enough so that I continued to reflect upon it for some time realizing, or perhaps believing, it had even more potential than what Kalish had initially shared.

This is what Kalish had to say:

No one updates their CV or resume as often as they should. And I find that it can be hard to remember everything I’ve done when I finally get around to it. Start a paper or electronic file to hold evidence of your achievements. Any success or recognition, new skill or achievement goes into the file. Did you present your research to another lab? Write it down. Did you attend a lecture series on starting a company? Make note of it. Two years from now you may be crafting a cover letter and some obscure class you took or skill you have may make a difference. Not everything in the file needs to go into your resume, but you’ll appreciate having the documentation when you do get around to the updates.

Why start and maintain an achievements file?
Such a file provides a rich source of material that can be drawn upon for:

Cover Letters
Kalish notes above how invaluable such a file can be when composing a cover letter. Specific examples certainly strengthen cover letters.

CV/ Resume
Kalish couldn’t be more spot on with regards to the frequency, or lack there of, with which one updates their CV. I’m certainly guilty of this. Having all of that extra “source material” may also come in handy tailoring your CV and/or resume, especially for those considering jobs outside of academia!

Reviewing your file, or parts of your file could help refresh your memory as to what you have done and in turn arm you with numerous tangible examples that can be drawn upon while interviewing for a job.

There is no lack of applications to be filled out including scholarships, fellowships, grants, and jobs to name a few. As above, specific examples will help to strengthen your application and you never know when some of that extra “source material” may be just what you needed for a particular section or question! Even once you have a job, you might find it useful for grant applications (part of the continuous search for funding) or perhaps when going up for a promotion (e.g. tenure).

What to include:

Various activities that you might note include: service, teaching, presentations, guest lectures, workshops, mini courses, seminars, outreach, etc. I would argue that it is important to include not only what you did, but how you were involved. Furthermore, wherever possible, note specific impacts or outcomes. For example, note what occurred during your tenure as a graduate student representative to your department’s curriculum committee and how you personally contributed. Or perhaps you organized a workshop that not only had strong attendance but also inspired a secondary workshop. These are important details to record while they are still fresh in your mind.

Not only include the award, but note the criteria that are used. In other words, what does the award recognize or look for (i.e. service, leadership, innovation, merit).

It is never too early to start scoping out and noting altmetrics (which has seen a recent rise) to document the wider impact of your various activities. Jason Priem and Heather Piwowar even recently published a paper in the Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science and Technology entitled The Power of Altmetrics on a CV (sorry behind a paywall).

Annotated Resume
A few years ago, as part of one particular graduate school application, I was required to include an annotated resume that was not to exceed nine pages in length. This was by far, one of the most challenging, yet beneficial exercises I had encountered. Turning a resume into an essay where one not only includes various educational experiences and seminal jobs, but also notes how those have contributed to your personal, academic, or professional growth requires significant reflection. I believe this same idea of an annotated resume, though perhaps only requiring bullet points, serves as a useful model to think about maintaining an achievements/ activities file.

The key is that the file should not just be a laundry list. Rather, strive to include as many pertinent details as possible. Looks like I’ve got some work ahead of me!

“Charting a New Course for Marine and Coastal Protection” in the Caribbean

The Caribbean Summit of Political and Business Leaders was held this past weekend (May 17th & 18th). Despite a fairly mundane sounding title and minimal international coverage leading up to the event, this was an important meeting for the future of marine conservation in the Caribbean as indicated by the tag line for the summit; “Charting a New Course for Marine and Coastal Protection.” More specifically, this summit served as the platform for launching the second phase of the Caribbean Challenge Initiative, an initiative first launched in 2008 whereby eight Caribbean nations committed to protecting 20% of their near shore marine area by 2020.

The issue at hand is that coastal areas and communities of the Caribbean are highly vulnerable to marine degradation and environmental change, including climate change. Increased storm intensity, coastal erosion, coral bleaching, invasive species (e.g. lionfish) and declining marine fisheries threaten the region.

While this is about protecting, preserving and conserving biodiversity it is also about people. The livelihoods and wellbeing of millions of coastal people are reliant on healthy coastal areas with benefits ranging from food security (e.g. key source of protein) and coastal protection to jobs and income. For example, coastal areas and coral reefs contribute to a 1.2 billion dollar fisheries industry in the Caribbean, which supports over 1.5 million people.

These numbers may seem like an abstraction, however one only has to take a stroll

A Landing Site Crowded with Boats for Sale on the Southern Coast of Jamaica. Photo: S. Alexander

A Landing site dotted with boats for sale,  Jamaica. Photo: S. Alexander

through the local fish markets or landing sites to see the tangible impacts ranging from smaller fish on average to the numerous boats for sale.  Furthermore, it is not uncommon to hear fisherman speak of having to travel further to sea and spend longer hours at sea in order to return with similar catches from years past.


It is evident that there is a need to develop effective strategies and mechanisms to manage coastal areas that address the marine degradation and better cope with the challenges of environmental change.

The Caribbean Challenge Initiative has already resulted in the establishment of new marine reserves (no-take zones) across the region. For example, the Caribbean Fish Sanctuary Partnership has been working with communities in Jamaica and Grenada. Among the objectives of phase two are announcing new, innovative public-private partnerships and promoting collaboration among multiple stakeholder groups.

However, with such a significant focus on establishing marine reserves to protect 20% by 2020 there is also cause for concern. While marine reserves have been shown to provide a variety of benefits (e.g. protecting biodiversity, increases in biomass and contributing to the spillover effect), they must not be seen as a silver bullet. As policy makers, government leaders, NGOs and private partners move forward it will be critical to a) ensure that these marine reserves are effectively embedded in broader management frameworks so as to avoid being islands of protection and b) ensure that the establishment, design and management of marine reserves consider both the ecological AND social context. Otherwise, rather than improve the problem, they may exacerbate the problem, shifting fishing activities and effort from one place to another and possibly resulting in new stocks and new species being exploited in addition to increased competition and conflict among resource users.

While the Caribbean Summit has come to a close, we have yet to hear of any formal commitments made by the participants in attendance. Based on the objectives of the summit and Phase 2 of the Caribbean Challenge Initiative I am optimistic. It certainly has the potential to result in new partnerships and arrangements that could serve as models of what marine conservation and governance looks like in the twenty-first century. However, it also serves as a reminder that now, more than ever, it is imperative to both consider and better understand the social dimensions of marine reserves in hopes of increasing the resilience of coastal communities and coral reefs alike. It is this concern that fuels my own research which seeks to examine if and how marine protected areas and marine protected area networks can serve as effective governance strategies for coping with environmental change.

Pollinators, Pollination and Perceptual Ecology

Once again I find myself drawing on the work of ecological philosopher Mitchell Thomashow. As mentioned previously, in Bringing the Biosphere Home: Learning to Perceive Global Environmental Change, Thomashow proposes the practice of a place-based perceptual ecology, the coupling of the sensory and the scientific. In the introduction to the book he writes; “I stress perceptual ecology because learning about landscapes, habitats, and species is both a perceptual and an ecological challenge, requiring specific observational skills and practices.” Continue reading

A Naturlist’s Manifesto (Pt. 2): Natural History & Nature Journaling

The impetus for this four-part essay stems from a recognizable trend regarding the fading art and practice of natural history and nature journaling. Here I will speak to two specific reasons why I believe that natural history and nature journaling should be taken up and promoted as a daily practice.

Event Map

The Danger
There is a great danger in relegating natural history observation to a quite meadow or a remote alpine lake. Whether it is our intent or not, we are sending a message to our students about where nature is and is not. While this could be considered an overreaction, there is a significant problem that we face in an urbanizing world in which many students grow up believing that nature does not exist in their city and schoolyard. I certainly don’t believe any one of us who brings students into the field wants to contribute to such a bifurcated view. In fact, I’d guess that most would want to do any and every thing possible to promote the idea that we can see and experience wildness in the everyday. Continue reading

A Naturlist’s Manifesto (Pt. 1): Preamble – Planetary Perceptions

Naturalizing from a cruising altitude of 35,000 ft……

I write this from the cabin of a plane. With three flights to get me from Burlington, Vermont to Bozeman, Montana, it’s going to be a long day and has required an early departure.

Cold River Country

On the first leg of my travels, while still groggy, I find myself gazing intently out the window. Flying at an unusually low altitude this morning, the opportunity for observing the landscape passing by below is outstanding. I peer out in time to spot several bodies of water. Soon I’m able to recognize our approximate location. Long Lake, in the heart of the Adirondacks, stretches out below! It’s all too familiar, having spent many a days wandering around its outlet. The Cold River, which flows into the Raquette River near the outlet of Long Lake, is perhaps my favorite place in the Adirondacks. The wild blueberries in August are a delightful addition to a breakfast of pancakes.

Continue reading