"After all this time, I am still constantly blown away by the marine environment."

“Interdisciplinary research can feel like conducting an orchestra – different people working together in harmony makes the music better and much more than the individual parts. And of course, the better it all sounds, the more people will listen to you.” 

For over 20 years, Professor of Ocean and Society, Mel Austen, has conducted a broad spectrum of interdisciplinary projects related to the marine environment and ‘blue economy’, identifying where there are research questions and forming the links between the different disciplines. Her motivation is addressing the ‘so what?’ questions to help people see the value in supporting the sustainable management of our oceans, while navigating the trade-offs to find the most appropriate solutions.

Raised near London, Mel spent holidays at her grandmother’s in Brighton and in the Mediterranean exploring rock pools and snorkelling – “I was often told that I could swim before I could walk!” This love for the sea soon became a desire to study marine biology.

“I knew it is what I wanted to do. I think you have to follow your heart with what you’re interested in. And now the opportunities are extensive, people are beginning to understand the need to sustainably manage the marine environment and I don’t think it’s ever been more important.”

After completing her BSc Marine Biology at Heriot-Watt University, Mel relocated to Plymouth to complete her PhD at Exeter focusing on the interactions of organisms in marine mud.

“It fascinates me that one small pot of marine mud can contain the same biodiversity of multicellular animals, albeit very small ones, as the whole mammal community of the Serengeti.”

Mel joined Plymouth Marine Laboratory in 1987, quickly becoming a pioneer of mesocosm research – that is, looking at a whole community of small marine invertebrates (known as meiofauna) in their ecosystem within a laboratory, for example to improve understanding of biodiversity drivers and to investigate their ecotoxicology.

Through working on large EU-funded projects, Mel recognised the benefits of collaborative research. She implemented this in research undertaken in Norway, Poland and Greece, bringing together multiple disciplines to study the impacts of fishing on seabed communities.

“I found that the traction came when people understood that fishing affected the seabed and that it had a knock-on effect to the economy. That’s when I realised the social and economic aspect was really important.”

Keen that the oceans are appreciated and valued beyond their supply of fish, Mel recognised the further benefits to be found as long as the marine environment is managed and resources extracted in a sustainable, research-informed way. This drive to value the sea and understand the system as a whole, connecting different disciplines to produce research with greater impact, has been an undercurrent for most of Mel’s career. It is also what makes the University of Plymouth a fitting home for her ongoing research.

“The extent of marine research at the University is impressive,” she says, “with a passion throughout for the marine environment in both the science and teaching. Joining the University is an opportunity to broaden my horizons even further; many disciplines are well connected and there is a lot of potential to take that even further for truly whole-system research.”

Mel is currently a member of the UK Government’s Natural Capital Committee and of its Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC). She is one of the leaders for the NERC-funded SWEEP, which maximises research impact to deliver economic and environmental benefits to the South West UK, and the lead for UKRI GCRF-funded Blue Communities, which supports coastal communities of developing countries in South East Asia. Both projects involve uniting stakeholders, including policymakers, industries, local authorities and communities, to make research-informed decisions for the environment in a way that solves challenges in conservation and socio-economic aspects.

“I feel very privileged to do this line of work that benefits people who rely on the marine environment. It gets me up in the morning. I have a huge amount of respect for those who try to do their best for their local communities. And in the UK, I would love to see the Government embrace the possibilities of natural capital much more rapidly than we are currently. My eyes are opened more and more to understanding how we could manage our oceans sustainably and the trade-offs we should be dealing with. That’s why my research tries to support the Government decisions and action that are needed to help people see those different dimensions and perspectives.”

Valuing the sea as a whole system for Mel includes the role the ocean plays in human health. She advocates a future of ‘blue social prescription’ where GPs, armed with the evidence of the positive impact the sea and coastal living has on wellbeing, could encourage their patients into the marine environment.

“I think it’s a shame that some people have never interacted with the sea, or perhaps only to do beach cleans, rather than enjoy all that the coast has to offer. There are health benefits even just to smelling sea air.”

It is no surprise then that Mel can be found sailing the South West coastline, dabbling in marine mud or admiring the habitats along the Tamar estuary.  

While sailing in Whitsand Bay, I remember seeing perhaps 100 dolphins together along a standing wave that was coming towards me. It was incredible. Even after all this time, I am still constantly blown away by the marine environment.