An Interview with WiseOceans… Sarah Nelms from University of Exeter and Plymouth Marine Laboratory

This week we’re with Sarah Nelms, PhD Researcher at the University of Exeter and Plymouth Marine Laboratory.

Her advice is to stay determined. The marine conservation field is very competitive and you may experience rejection, but stay motivated and work hard and you will get to where you want to be.

Name: Sarah Nelms

Job Title: PhD Researcher

Organisation: University of Exeter and Plymouth Marine Laboratory

  • What inspired you to pursue a career in marine conservation?

I have grown up near the coast and the sea has always been an important part of my life. As I learnt more about the marine environment at school and college, I realised just how valuable and interesting it is. I also learnt how human actions are threatening the oceans and I just felt that I needed to help protect them.

  • What steps did you take/are you taking to achieve your career goals?

I studied for an undergraduate degree at the University of Plymouth and did a lot of volunteering. After working for a few different NGOs, I went and worked on a sea turtle project in Costa Rica and absolutely loved the data collection and research side of things. When I came back to the UK, I decided to go back to university and I did a masters in Conservation and Biodiversity at the University of Exeter’s Penryn campus in Cornwall. This led me to do a PhD.

  • How did you land your current job/position? 

For my masters thesis, I was lucky enough to be supervised by Professor Brendan Godley, an expert in marine turtles. He became my mentor and has helped me to develop into a marine scientist. Getting good grades also helped!

  • Which part of your job do you enjoy the most?  

It is really important to me that my research helps us understand the problems that affect the marine environment and what can be done to help fix them.

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

When our research is cited by government policy documents it’s a good sign that someone is listening.

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

There is no direct route to the perfect career. I have done many short term jobs and volunteer positions and it took me a while to figure out what I wanted to do, but that time and those experiences have in no way been wasted. Many of the skills I learnt have been very useful during my PhD, even though the work wasn’t directly related. Also, rejection is part of life and it makes you stronger and more determined. It definitely doesn’t mean failure!

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

I didn’t realise that my organisational skills and time-management abilities would be so important to a research career. In fact, those things can make a big difference to how smoothly projects run and how successful they are.

  • What advice would you give to budding marine conservationists?  

Be determined! Marine conservation is a very competitive field so be prepared to get rejected over and over again. Don’t take it personally but do ask for feedback. Use that information to improve and build on what you already have. Also, be open-minded – marine conservation isn’t usually very glamorous. Be prepared to do a lot of dirty, smelly, uncomfortable, tiring field or lab work, possibly without even setting eyes on the animal/ habitat you’re working on.

  • What is your favourite marine creature and why?  

This is a very difficult question….it sounds unoriginal but I have a fascination with whales. Ever since I was a child they have captivated me and the more I learn about them the more I am amazed.

  • What is your most unforgettable moment in the sea?  

One of my favourite moments was during a trip to California. We went out on a boat and were surrounded by a super pod of common dolphins, humpack whales, sea lions and we saw sea otters. It was just incredible!


Thank you Sarah, for this great insight into starting your career in the marine conservation field. Sarah has also recently published a children’s storybook called “The Tale of the Turtle and the Plastic Jellyfish”  educating children on the impact of plastic on our marine life, click here to read.

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