Kirstina Loosen, Marine Biologist and PhD Candidate - on a boat. An Interview with WiseOceans

This week on ‘An Interview with WiseOceans’ we spoke to Kristina Loosen, a Marine Biologist and PhD Candidate

Name: Kristina Loosen

Role: Marine Biologist and PhD Candidate

Company: Stellenbosch University/ SEA Token 

Top Tip:  Do not underestimate the importance of project management skills

Quick Fire Questions

1. What inspired you to pursue a career in marine conservation? 

I can’t pinpoint an exact moment when I decided to go for a career in marine conservation and biology. I just remember watching a whole lot of marine documentaries when I was about 10 years old, which mesmerized me. The feeling of adoration for the ocean started to grow and ever since then I just knew that marine research was my goal and destiny

2. What steps did you take or are you currently taking to achieve your career goals?

I studied Biological Sciences for my bachelors in land-locked Germany. But already then I had the plan to become a marine biologist. It’s just a little harder when you grow up 800 km away from the nearest ocean.

After I graduated I did internships, volunteered and gained hands-on experience in the field of marine biology and especially shark ecology. With these skills in store I did my postgraduate studies in Applied Marine Sciences at the University of Cape Town. 

Besides my studies I also tried to gather a good set of extracurricular skills, which might come in handy. I got scuba and freediving certified, gained educational outreach and leadership experience and tried to learn anything that could help me in becoming a fully-fledged marine biologist. 

Now in recent years I have also obtained my skippers license and learned to operate a hyperbaric chamber. You never stop to learn as a marine biologist

3. How did you obtain your current position? 

There was a post in the ‘Marine Biologist network and jobs’ Facebook group from Alistair Sharp where he mentioned that he had Master and PhD projects in South Africa available. So I reached out to him, we chatted a bit and he was so happy with my experience in shark ecology in South Africa that he passed me on to my now supervisor. So in hindsight I was pretty lucky

4. Which part of your job do you enjoy the most?  

Being out there in the field, be it on a boat or in the water, is just incomparable. To see sharks in the wild with my own eyes is a dream come true and I can never get enough of that.

When you are out on or in the water every day and you learn to read the behaviour of wild animals is an especially accelerating feeling. You get to see that individual sharks have different behaviour, different approaches and might even show different characters.

The same happened when I was a sea turtle biologist for Olive Ridley Project in the Maldives, where I took photo ID shots of sea turtles. Many of the turtles were residents to the local reefs and I saw some of them every day. I knew exactly how I could approach the different animals and I knew which ones didn’t like company. I even could tell when there was a shift in their behaviour.

Sometimes a usually quirky and interactive turtle appeared stressed and scared and I was certain that the turtle had been stressed or even touched by snorkelers or divers. No one else would have been able to see that change but since I knew them so well I could at least try to understand their behaviour

5. Are there aspects of your position which make you feel that you are really ‘making a difference’? 

As a marine biologist you always hope to make a difference and sometimes it doesn’t feel like it. However even the smallest impact can bring about change. So I love when I talk to the public and I see one persons love for the marine environment awaken and even their habits changing. 

On a larger scale I think that my cooperation with SEA Token and the SEAstarter initiative can really change the way marine research will be funded in the future. My PhD is fully funded through SEA Token, a blockchain project designed to feed organisations working to save our seas with financial resources.

For every trade or purchase of their cryptocurrency SEA a 2% tax will be deducted which will then finance ocean conservation project. SEAstarter is the Kickstarter platform for this endeavour, where research projects will receive bigger funds to enable their research. Without this great initiative I would have not been able to fund my research and would have needed to wait for other grant opportunities or even take up a student loan.

I think there are many marine researchers in the same situation, and through the system developed by SEA Token there is the potential to provide far more money than usually is available for marine conservation or research

6. What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were starting out?  

The thing is I knew, but I ignored it. Ever since I started telling people that I wanted to become a marine biologist I often received the answer: “But what about money? There are no jobs in marine biology!” As a teenager you hear these remarks and just brush them off because you don’t really care about these things. However, once you graduated and call yourself a marine biologist you then realize that these people were right.

I still don’t really care about money and getting a high salary but you need to live right? There are several aspects to the problem. One: There is very few jobs with very high competition. Two: There is not enough money provided for research, since it is not really a profitable industry. Three is the biggest problem: There are jobs which require you to have a full set of experience and a degree and they are UNPAID! These jobs rely on the fact that you are passionate about what you do and that you care more about the ocean than about money. This exploitation is a huge problem. But it is not all bad as there is a growing interest in marine conservation in the world, which provides more and more positions for biologists such as us.

It can be quite difficult at times but my advice is to put in the effort and be patient. It also takes a bit of luck and then you might be able to have the best job in the world! 

7. Are there any skills you never thought you would need but did?

Project management is a skill that is very important but often side-lined in marine biology study programmes. Aspects such as budgeting and scheduling are essential for any research project. If there is the chance to do a course on project management in your programme I would advise it.

8. What advice would you give to budding marine conservationists?

The one advice that I give every budding marine conservationist is to get hands on experience. Study programmes are all nice and well and will provide you with the theoretical knowledge that you need for research and conservation. At the same time, it is as important if not even more important to work with the animals in the field, learn monitoring methods and specially to interact with local communities. See what is really happening out there, talk to the people that interact with the animals every day like fishermen or tourist operators. They hold crucial knowledge about changes in behaviour or the ecosystem

9. What is your favourite marine creature and why?

Definitely and undisputed the magnificent great white shark. White sharks are the reason why I wanted to become a marine biologist. Today, they are still the animal that fascinates me the most. I love the way they move with such grace and power. Also, they are the perfectly adapted apex predator

10. What is your most unforgettable moment in the sea?

It has to be the first time I ever saw a great white shark. Up until that moment I had just seen white sharks in documentaries and smaller shark species in aquariums. So I didn’t even know how I would react. Would I be scared or would the encounter not be as amazing as imagined?

I was volunteering for Oceans Research in South Africa and on my fifth day I went out towards the small Seal Island off Mosselbaai. I waited anxiously and then one of the crew members exclaimed: “Shark!” and there it was, my first ever eye to eye encounter with a great white shark. It was a juvenile male of around 2.7 m or 9 feet who calmly cruised around our boat. Luckily the moment was even better than my expectations. I was so happy I cried. It is till today one of the best moments in my life.

I haven’t seen a white shark for four years now. As such, I am so happy to get back to South Africa for my PhD project at Stellenbosch University. Here I will finally see white sharks again. I think the moment will be comparable to the first time I saw them! 

The one advice that I give every budding marine conservationist is to get hands on experience

Kristina Loosen

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