An Interview with WiseOceans… Dr Steph Gardner

This week we talk to Steph Gardner. She has a PhD in Marine Biology, specifically coral physiology and biochemistry, and her work focusses on how corals protect themselves against environmental stress caused by climate change. Her ultimate personal and professional goal is to raise awareness for and diagnose the problems facing coral reef ecosystems today and expected into the future in order to safeguard these vulnerable marine ecosystems.

Name: Steph Gardner

Job Title: Postdoctoral Researcher – Marine Biologist

What inspired you to pursue a career in marine conservation?

I grew up in Sydney, Australia and a huge part of our lives was spending time at the beach and in rockpools. I was one of those kids who told their school teacher I wanted to be a marine biologist (when I was 7 years old), and since then I haven’t looked back! When I learnt to SCUBA dive I distinctly remember taking my first breaths underwater and I knew then I would dedicate the rest of my life to understanding the ocean. I have an incredibly supportive family who have always encouraged me to do what I love, and now I consider myself one of the lucky ones whose passion and profession overlaps!

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

I studied a combined Bachelor of Science (Marine Biology) Bachelor of Business (Tourism) and then completed a Bachelor of Science (Honours) in Environmental Science. After the Honours year, I spent some time in the Seychelles doing marine conservation work with GVI. I loved being out in the field conducting underwater surveys of the fish and coral communities, but I missed the research side so I started thinking seriously about doing a PhD. In my spare time, I started reading scientific literature, applied for a PhD scholarship and 2 months later it was the first day of my Doctor of Philosophy. So in total, I spent 10 years at University!

Which part of your job do you enjoy the most?  

I love that I get to spend so much time in and around the ocean and that I learn something new every day. There’s not a typical work day for me. Some days I may be in the laboratory, processing samples on various equipment, others I may be on a tropical island in the water sampling coral, some days I may be reading literature and writing manuscripts, grant applications, or giving presentations about my work or teaching. Science is very collaborative and I’m lucky enough to work with scientists from many different countries and backgrounds, with a range of experiences and ages. I also love engaging with the community and sharing my experiences as a marine biologist to spread the word about how we can best protect our fragile marine environment.

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

I wish I knew what the state of the ocean would have been like. Just in my 10 years of study and research, we have seen huge changes in the ocean that we could have started preventing or slowing much earlier. In particular, the changes we are seeing that are driven by climate change, such as the increased frequency and intensity of storms and increased seawater temperatures. If we really knew how bad it would be (for example we had unprecedented back to back mass bleaching events between 2015-2017 that decimated reefs worldwide) there may have been a call for action earlier. It’s incredibly important we use our voices to speak up about how we want to change the way we care for our planet, and the best thing each of us can do is to minimise our carbon footprint, tell our governments to stop supporting fossil fuel industries and to support and invest in those companies who are doing the right thing.

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

Probably perseverance. A lot of research doesn’t go to plan and there is a lot of people saying ‘no’ in terms of your manuscripts being rejected, grants aren’t funded, no luck with job applications. It’s incredibly competitive out there and without perseverance, it would be a real struggle. It’s important to take a step back sometimes and reconnect with why you do what you do – because you love it and you are wanting to make a difference. It helps to remember your passion for the marine environment is what drives you and if you get knocked down, you get back up stronger!

What advice would you give to budding marine conservationists?

Never pass up an opportunity – you never know where it will lead. Even if you may be out of your comfort zone, just say yes. That’s where you will learn and grow the most.
Do what you love and love what you do. If you are passionate about something then stick to it. If you know what you want, don’t let anyone or anything get in your way.

What is your favourite marine creature and why?  

That is such a hard question!! I love sharks because they are so powerful and graceful at the same time, turtles always excite me and the hatchlings are adorable, corals because they are seemly simple, but have incredible complexity, and weedy seadragons because they are incredibly beautiful.

What is your most unforgettable moment in the sea?  

Definitely when I learnt how to SCUBA dive and taking my first few breathes underwater. I remember the feeling of being weightless as the water supported me and then realising how much more of the ocean I could explore by breathing underwater.


Thank you Steph. Follow her advice and find your next opportunity and then say YES! Sign up to our weekly job alert emails and keep an eye on our Wise Work pages so you don’t miss your dream opportunity in marine conservation.

(photo credits to Matthew Nitschke )