How to become a marine researcher

Dr Dan Exton explains why volunteering is vital while pursuing a career as a marine researcher. 

Dr Dan Exton scuba diving

How did you become marine research and operations manager at Operation Wallacea? 

I have an undergraduate degree in Marine and Freshwater Biology, a Masters in Environmental Governance, and a PhD studying the response of marine organisms to environmental stress, all from the University of Essex, UK. While they are certainly not essential, and I know several excellent colleagues who ended their studies earlier, the skills they taught me have been invaluable.

As an undergraduate, I spent a summer as a volunteer in Indonesia with Operation Wallacea (Opwall), which opened my eyes to the research being done in the field by marine scientists. The following summer and subsequently each summer since (seven years), I was invited to return to work as staff as a general marine assistant, dive leader, student supervisor and eventually assisting with research coordination. Once I had finished my PhD, I was employed by Opwall to manage their marine expeditions around the world.

What are your key responsibilities?

We now have 10 marine expedition sites operating in seven countries, and my job is most easily described as developing successful research, conservation and educational programmes at each site while ensuring the staff and volunteers are safe and the logistics run smoothly. This ranges from building collaborations with universities and local in country partners to directly supervising postgraduate students. I will spend as much time each year working on logistics, budgets and health and safety as I do on the research itself, but this is an important aspect of a career in science, and finding the right balance is key.

What skills are essential to do your job?  

As well as the academic background to allow me to supervise such a diverse range of research projects, a strong background in scuba diving is essential and on expedition this gives me the flexibility to be involved with all aspects of the projects. I also completed my PADI dive master qualification, which allows me to lead dives.

What is your favourite marine life hotspot? 

For me, nothing beats the spectacular coral reefs of Indonesia, for the shear scale of life and the breathtaking structures. However, a close second is a newly discovered reef system called Banco Capiro off the coast of Honduras, which is unique in so many ways, and literally took my breath away when I first descended onto it in 2012. 

What advice would you give to aspiring marine researchers? 

As a rule I would say the vast majority of people I work with, both at Opwall and in the field in general, have spent time volunteering and would agree that it formed the foundation of their career. In my opinion, volunteering is pretty close to essential as it not only builds experience, but it also proves your ability to those you are working for. Experience leads to confidence and ability, which can open doors for further opportunities if you are seen to be committed, passionate and able.

Find out more

Operation Wallacea (Opwall) is an organisation that runs biological and conservation management research programmes. 

Professional Organisation of Diving Instructors (PADI) provides information on scuba diving courses. 

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