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UCL Home  /  Geography  /  Blog  /  Blog Entries  /  How I evolved from being a UCL Geography graduate to a marine scientist in the Galápagos

How I evolved from being a UCL Geography graduate to a marine scientist in the Galápagos

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at Nov 21, 2017 11:20 AM |

This is the first in a series of blog posts from UCL Geography alumni, talking about how their degree led them to where they are now….

by Salome Buglass

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Fig 1: Salome in front of Darwin’s Arch at Darwin and Wolfe Islands, the most northern islands of the Galápagos. Waters here harbor one of highest biomass of sharks and top predator fish species (photo credit: Salome Buglass - Charles Darwin Foundation)

When I decided to do a BSc in geography at UCL, I never imaged that would end up being a marine ecologist working in the Galápagos Islands, as part of the first ever characterisation of deep-sea seamount ecosystems in the archipelago. I definitely never thought I would be tagging tiger sharks to study their movements in the marine reserve.

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Fig 2: Seeing tiger shark swim off after successfully tagging it with a satellite and acoustic tag (photo credit: Harry Reyes- Charles Darwin Foundation/Galapagos National Park)

In July 2016 I touched down in the Enchanted Islands and dodged iguanas as I crunched up the gravel path to meet the team and start my new job as a marine ecologist at the Charles Darwin Foundation. My work here focuses on researching key questions on inter-tidal and deep-sea ecosystems, commercial fisheries and shark populations to support informed decision making for the Galapagos Marine Reserve. When I’m asked how I got this job, my short answer is “Saw the ad, applied, got lucky!”

The long story is …. I studied geography. I have always been interested in organisms, nature, conservation, people, and development, particularly in the context of Latin America and the Caribbean, as my maternal roots come from this region. No other degree except the multi-disciplinary subject of geography enabled me to mix and match courses such as ecology, palaeoclimatology, hydroclimatology and coastal systems, with courses on people and cities, development and poverty, natural resource management conservation and livelihoods. For my BSc thesis I did a baseline study on water quality and macroinvertebrates communities of a high-altitude river catchment in the Andes (with Anson Mackay as my supervisor) and collaborated with Cuenca’s (Ecuador’s third largest city) environmental management department.  And this, fortuitously, 8 years later, proved to be a key stepping stone to the Galapagos, as it provided me with a letter of recommendation from an Ecuadorian institution underscoring my scientific and Latin-American credentials.  However, there were a few more serendipitous detours before all the stones lined up to create my water-logged path here.

I graduated from UCL at the peak of the global economic crisis in 2009. A time when the word firing was more commonly heard than hiring across the UK and Europe, principally in the environmental non-profit and public sector. So, I went to try my luck in the job market of the twin island nation Trinidad and Tobago. This wasn’t random. I’m part Trinidadian, I had a student loan, and no savings, and I needed a free roof. I was lucky enough to join my parents, who had just moved there for my mum’s work. I ended up living in Port of Spain for three years, working as a brand analyst in a major marketing firm after unsuccessfully trying to find paid work in my field. While I welcomed the chance to pick up a complete new skill set, one that I value to this day, I continuously sought opportunities or ways to be involved in some environmental or nature related activity. From supporting the Green Film Festival and assisting the set-up of a plastic recycling non-profit, to training as a diver and volunteer coral reef surveyor in Tobago.

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Fig 3: Salome distracted by a curious sea lion while counting macro invertebrates along a transect line for the ecological monitoring project (photo credit: Patricia Marti Puig - Charles Darwin Foundation)

It turned out that reef checking experience was exactly what my future supervisor was looking for and it was my ticket to being accepted for a two-year master’s research degree in climate change at the Geography Department of the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Canada. I also have to thank Coca Cola, because working on their marketing campaign to get more kids drinking sugar across Trinidad schools made it clearer to me than ever that I had to find my way back into my true calling in science and conservation.

Rainy London had prepared me well for Vancouver, aka Raincouver, where I researched climate change impacts on tropical marine ecosystems with Dr Simon Donner. I got to lead my own field study in Tobago to investigate the resilience of coral reefs to mass bleaching events driven by  sea surface temperatures whilst also affected by terrestrial pollution. Apart from all the fascinating science at UBC, and earning extracurricular scientific diver certificates (which later set me apart from the competition to help “land” my job as marine scientist), I also got a good handle on the complex relationships between coastal communities and their seascapes.

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Fig 4: School of endemic salemas dodging hungry sea lion (photo credit: Salome Buglass - Charles Darwin Foundation)

However, tying up my thesis was followed once again with having to face the daunting task of securing a permanent job. I definitely felt a bit of professional identity crisis at the time. I entered full job-search mode, selling myself as many things, e.g.  aquatic ecologist or environmental scientist to suit many different job openings, everything except geographer. I worked for six months as a junior ecologist consultant for a river health assessment programme, followed by working at an NGO on water resource management and governance. Both jobs were excellent experiences, but I was hoping to find full time employment in Vancouver. Due to the economic downturn in Canada this was turning out to be a tough nut to crack. I also applied for fantasy jobs, like marine ecologist in the Galapagos. Additionally, I followed my supervisor’s advice to take advantage of not being too busy (a euphemism for being between short-term contracts), to publish my thesis in a journal as soon as possible after graduating. Thanks Simon, because it turned out to be a major must-have for getting my current job.

As I had applied for so many jobs and some time had passed, I was gobsmacked when the good news arrived from the Charles Darwin Foundation. At the beginning, I admit I felt a bit like an imposter, having the marine biologist dream job, though technically I was a geographer (if titles mean anything really). However, after being here for over a year doing applied research to improve policies and management in the Galapagos Marine Reserve, I realized that my multidisciplinary background is actually a great fit for working in this place. The Galapagos Marine Reserve is one of the largest and most famous marine protected areas in the world and faces major challenges related to problematic governance, the exponential growth of visitors, pressures from legal and illegal fishing, El Niño events -- and all of this superimposed by current and future effects of climate change (interesting right? Read UCL’s Peter Jones’ paper for more info on these intricacies).  Now when I find myself bouncing from fisheries management planning meetings, to doing logistically challenging field work to assess marine habitats, to writing papers on spatial and temporal distribution of species, or in a climate change workshop, I have really come to appreciate having studied geography as it could not have served me better.

For more details about the work I am currently doing, please do visit my website: https://salomebuglass.wordpress.com/

To expand your personal network and connect with UCL alumni like Salome please join the UCL Alumni Online Community https://uclalumnicommunity.org