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How many of us knew what we wanted to be when we grew up and actually made it happen? For Dr Abigail McQuatters-Gollop, her determination from a young age has led her from land-locked Ohio USA, to a global reputation converting scientific data into useful evidence for policymakers and advising governments on effective marine environment management. 

“We went to SeaWorld when I was three – before we knew better – and though I didn’t know the name ‘marine biologist’, I knew it was what I wanted to do,” Abigail recalls. “As a kid it’s about dolphins, whales, reefs. Growing older, learning about overfishing, coral bleaching, climate change – those human pressures – showed me I actually need to understand people and connect them together. We can’t tell fish or reefs what to do, but we can help people make better choices.”

The realisation during her marine biology undergraduate degree at the University of Miami led Abigail to change her major to marine policy, also studying her masters in marine affairs and policy in parallel.

“It gave me the right background,” she says, “because that biology knowledge gives me credibility in what I’m talking about. I use those skills in conservation and policy every day. I still love the science, but what I really love is seeing good science happen and getting that information used to make better decisions about how we manage the marine environment.”

The post-9/11 economic downturn changed Abigail’s world as she knew it, with unemployment and uncertain job opportunities. She joined a friend in a transatlantic move to Plymouth, intending to complete a short-term work exchange programme.

“I’ve been here almost 20 years now,” she laughs. “Plymouth is my home. It’s really special to live somewhere that I can see the sea from my office and be there within 20-minutes’ walk. Living by the sea isn’t reserved for the wealthy in Plymouth. The marine environment really is for everyone and it’s such a great centre for marine biology with the University, Plymouth Marine Laboratory and Marine Biological Association all based here.” 

Abigail McQuatters-Gollop. plymouth pioneers

Abigail eventually returned to her marine policy path with a PhD under Professor Laurence Mee and Professor Martin Attrill, completing a thesis that formed the foundation for her work on plankton as biodiversity indicators of marine ecosystem health. 

“Laurence in particular was really influential in my career. He had the big picture ideas that inspired me to figure out how to implement them,” Abigail says. “The best thing he did was include me in a European project so I could build a network. Your network is one of the most important things you can have and I’m still in touch with some of those people today.”

The biodiversity indicators resulted from Abigail leading the first UK-wide assessment of the pelagic plankton community and are now used by UK and European policymakers. One of her proudest achievements is transforming the UK’s fragmented plankton research community into a tight-knit, collaborative team with the shared interest in ensuring their scientific evidence is used in decision-making.

Her career has included multiple prestigious Fellowships: one invited by the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science; two NERC Knowledge Exchange Fellowships; and currently as DEFRA’s Marine Systems Research Fellow.

At DEFRA, I’m the marine voice for big cross-cutting projects, and our goal is to apply holistic thinking to inform effective management of the UK’s marine environment, particularly post-Brexit. We face new challenges with Brexit and marine organisms don’t respect international boundaries, so working collaboratively with our European neighbours is essential.

Read more: The Brexit battle for marine biodiversity

Her determination and expertise has opened the doors to a spectrum of possibilities, from providing evidence in UK Parliament to leading multiple scientific working groups in the UK and EU, and having her advice sought and implemented in Australia, Japan, Malaysia and India. 

“My advice for early career scientists is to say ‘yes’ to situations outside of your comfort zone,” she says. “I’ve found that even if it’s not my area of expertise, usually I have something unique to contribute that no-one else in the room has. These moments lead to unexpected opportunities and realising that I can do or learn something that I didn’t think I could. I’ve even met the Emperor of Japan!”

Smiling as she reflects on the many turns in her career, Abigail cites her students’ optimism and enthusiasm to learn as a great source of motivation. She particularly appreciates how their questions and perspectives inform her own knowledge and improve how she communicates with non-expert audiences.

“Learning from my students, with their diverse interests and projects, provides more context and deepens my understanding of other places and organisms. I don’t think I’d have the same range of knowledge without them. And I take great pride when they go off into the world and I see them doing amazing things, becoming part of the wider marine science community.”

Abigail McQuatters-Gollop