Narissa Bax
(Photo provided by Narissa Bax)

Please briefly introduce yourself and tell us a little about what you do.

I have been a part of the Antarctic science community for the last decade – it has been an incredible experience, Antarctica has become an integral part of my identity, and I am proud to be here – thank you for the opportunity to share some of my story with you.

My main research collaboration is the Antarctic Seabed Carbon Capture Change (ASCCC) project which aims to understand the role of polar and subpolar seabeds in the carbon cycle ‘Antarctic blue carbon’, particularly in response to climate change. I recently joined the Centre for Marine Socioecology as part of the Future Seas Project, Grand Challenge: ‘Ocean resource use: building the blue economy’.  These projects, and other ongoing multidisciplinary collaborations, stem from my PhD work focused on Antarctic continental shelf and slope biodiversity, biogeography, connectivity, phylogenetics and conservation, primarily on deep-sea corals.

What drew you to researching marine biology and the Antarctic and the Southern Ocean more specifically?

I grew up in New Zealand where life was always connected to the ocean and I decided to pursue my childhood dream to become a marine biologist in 2005 after travelling the world – an experience that gave me the confidence to pursue a career that didn’t seem possible growing up. Travelling gave me the insight to seek out an adventurous career and my early aspirations focused on Marine Protected Area conservation in collaboration with Non-governmental organisations and communities. In my earlier career, these opportunities began to focus on tropical coral reef ecology following an exchange program at the University of Hawaii and a research placement at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. My tropical career shifted to Antarctica in 2009 and I moved to Tasmania for my honours degree (10 years ago this year!).

Narissa Bax diving in Patagonia.
(The photo was provided by Narissa Bax and the photo credit is to Mathias Hune)

Why did you choose to specialise in the research of coral?

Corals are important for the maintenance of biodiversity – they have a global distribution and live from shallow tropical seas to the deep Antarctic. Their diversity, distribution and abundance make them ideal ecological models – and their vulnerability infers a moral imperative to conserve and protect them, and the integrity of the ecosystems they support. Especially in light of increasing awareness of external pressures such as changing ocean pH (ocean acidification).

You have spent time in the Southern Ocean for your research. Did you have to learn any skills to undertake this research?

The key skills I had to learn at the beginning of my profession were how to identify the group of corals I specialise on – stylasterid corals, a group of stony corals, commonly called lace corals or hydrocorals. These corals are predominately deep-living (below ~50m), and found in field-like abundance in Antarctica at ~450 m – 500m.

Collecting deep sea Antarctic material is difficult and expensive – so I collaborated broadly in order to join research voyages, view natural history collections and access previously collected material that was unidentified.

What skills did you learn and how did you identify these skills as necessary for your work?

In order to progress my research, quantify the abundance, diversity and geographic distribution of stylasterid corals in the Southern Hemisphere – taxonomy, the science of defining and naming groups of biological organisms based on shared morphological characters, and genetics (their heredity) were the key combination of skills I needed.

In terms of skills specific to the Southern Ocean – my knowledge of broader invertebrate groups has improved along with my international networks and my knowledge of the issues specific to Antarctica has diversified and continues to build – I’m very lucky to know and work within teams of expert knowledge, where we can all contribute to different aspects and work together to understand ecosystems.

Why did you need these new skills?

I don’t know if it’s explicitly that I recognised needing new skills, it’s more that as opportunities arose I actively engaged in learning where I could. This included opportunities to learn aspects of sea ice navigation, how to read multibeam bathymetric data and nautical maps, how to improve my photography and engage in videography. The captain and first mate on the RV Nathaniel B Palmer made me a certificate for my sea ice navigations skills. At the French research station at Dumont d’Urville, as the only non-French speaker that year, they taught me conversational French and made a certificate to say I could hold a conversation ‘for 5 whole minutes’, if given the opportunity. I would converse with the ship’s crew to learn skills like rope making, welding and how to drive and captain the ship – I’ve been very lucky to drive every ship I’ve worked on…it’s not a requirement and to become truly skilled in all these areas would require complete dedication to retraining – these opportunities have been unique perks of my life at sea.

How did you incorporate them into your research?

Life at sea offers its own unique requirements that can enhance the effectiveness of an individual, and as often happens in science – my hobbies are also a part of my career passions. I dive for work and for fun, own a yacht and enjoy sailing and experiencing the awe of being in natural wild places. As part of a personal desire to spend more time in biodiverse isolated locations, and be competent if something goes wrong – I’ve taken courses such as wilderness 1st aid. I  joined the State Emergency Services, Search and Rescue Unit in 2017 and continue to push myself to learn at every opportunity.

In terms of these multiple interests, I think the most important skill I have been working towards – is to be a well-rounded individual, someone people want to and enjoy working with, and someone who is competent to rely upon at sea.

In 2017 you participated in the Antarctic Circumnavigation Expedition, where you were the principal investigator for the final portion of the voyage for the Antarctic Seabed Carbon Capture Change project. What was the purpose of this research project and how do you think it adds to our understanding of the Southern Ocean?

Antarctic cacifiers, such as corals, hold promise in terms of climate change mitigation. Like ‘trees’, hard corals essentially remove carbon from the environment and store it in their tissues and skeletons. The more carbon that is stored, the less is available in the form of greenhouse gasses. Although the biomass of deep sea corals is not nearly as significant as that of ocean plankton and microbes, they are such long lived organisms that they have the potential to sequester (or store) this carbon for hundreds of thousands of years, if buried after death in the sediment. My hope is that this concept of Antarctic blue carbon can be incorporated into international treaties as an incentive for Marine Protected Area designation.

The Antarctic Circumnavigation Expedition (ACE) in 2016/17 provided the opportunity to sample most of the sub-Antarctic, many of these areas had never been sampled before. By sampling a diverse array of calcifying fauna, we have shown that the Sub-Antarctic is a very important blue carbon store; patchy in blue carbon by habitat type, and which functional groups (organism types) that hold it.  Some of suspension feeders have increased growth in the last decade suggesting increased carbon storage with climate change. This boost to carbon storage could form one of the biggest negative feedback loops against climate change on Earth.

As someone who has been to the Southern Ocean on several occasions, what has been some of the most important lessons you have learned about undertaking fieldwork there?

The person I was during my first research voyage ~10 years ago, is not the person I am now. I have spent a considerable amount of time working in Antarctica, and with each field season and career transition, I became more aware of the barriers and can reflect on my personal experience.

At the beginning of my career – I was admittedly, blissfully naive to any barriers, my future in Antarctic marine science seemed wide open and even if I encountered what as I’m a bit older….I would consider inappropriate, at the time I never questioned it and a decade of social change, and discussions on gender have shifted in this time frame.

My first voyage, kindly taught me that dreams come true. When I look back on that experience, what I didn’t know was how much bigger that dream is because I got to share it with amazing scientists and friends who remain a part of my life and working groups. As the Australian ice-breaker, the Aurora Australis, is nearing retirement and after living through global projects like the Census of Antarctic Marine Life….I blessedly lived at a time, that can’t be recreated. I also learnt the pain of loss on that voyage, when my grandmother passed away and I would have no way to see her again – there is a price to pay working in isolated places. Sadly, I learnt that nowhere on earth is ‘pristine’, the camera on our first research trawl in a location never sampled by science – showed evidence of long-lining and a bottle on a barren seafloor.

The next few years of constant field-work and research placements taught me that as a community of passionate individuals, we can get caught up in chasing our next adventure/voyage…research grant, so much so that creativity and productivity suffer – reflection and down time have become very important to me recently, and I have become protective of my time – unfortunately, I have seen some of my colleagues lose themselves in their work and it is important to have an identity beyond our career.

As I look around at my peers, both male and female at the early career stage – I can’t help but notice the pattern of employment that is contracted, underfunded, soft contract work….some have left Antarctic science as a result, and changed research direction. Others have left science entirely, or are considering it.

What challenges have you faced while undertaking fieldwork?

I have encountered a diverse range of challenges over the years. Logistical, mechanical and weather related challenges are to be expected at sea in the Southern Ocean and when equipment fails (or is lost at sea), it feels organic, a natural part of the process and you adjust and push forward. What you can’t easily allow for is the behavior of individuals…and at times, your own behavior under high stress. The expectation to ‘just get on with it’ when you’re working in remote areas is strong, and I would argue necessary (you can’t easily get back and re-sample) – having strategies to communicate effectively within teams and with those working to support science at sea is challenging at times.

Narissa Bax and Rachel Downey 
(Photo provided by Narissa Bax and 
credited to credit Jean-François Lagrot)

Over the years I have experienced sexism and had challenging conversations in order to work at sea in a role that is traditionally seen as masculine. In the example that comes to mind, it was related to cultural expectations (on a Russian ship) and we talked about it and came to an agreement in order to work together. I have become more comfortable having those conversations, and I am a stronger person for it.

How did you overcome or manage these challenges?

There is a hope, as a relatively young scientist that things will get better with time  – I’m trying to live like I’m meant to be here, and it’s actually rare to feel that I don’t…but when it happens every now and again and I experience disrespect or see it towards colleagues I admire, it cuts deep. I think this is exacerbated at times, due to the uncertainty of this career stage, where long-term job security in science is rare. The idea to form a collaboration for women in the Australian Antarctic Program and undertake a survey was born out this experience (see Nash et al., 2019 – “‘Antarctica just has this hero factor. . .’: Gendered barriers to Australian Antarctic research and remote fieldwork”), and I engage in literature, discussions and projects focused on equity.

Women are actively entering science, and in higher numbers than ever before in many areas e.g., biology (my chosen field). The real issue is retaining women in science. This requires structural change, financial career support, especially post-PhD, as women transition from students to leaders in their chosen field of work.

Global conversational shifts need to happen to bring us towards the implementation of broad institutional change:

1) We need to reimagine what teams and leadership look like in the workplace.

As we know, people tend to hire those that they relate to, this leads to self replication. But we also know that diversity brings more impact and well functioning teams. In order to shift towards diversity, a purposeful reshuffle of those in higher positions, and transparency surrounding the process and funding is required – including a non-biased approach to hiring and recruitment, such as diverse panels and nomination processes.

Shine a light on the statistics as a global Antarctic community, and let’s work across the board to close gender gaps – as mentioned in the Nash et al., (2019) paper, we need to stop framing the issue as “women’s problems”, or perpetuating the idea that women need to change, it’s the system and the culture and we should all be engaging in the conversation.

Provide more investment in diverse people – this conversation extends beyond, women in STEM, to include multiple nationalities and identities. The benefit here is broad, and tackling issues such as biodiversity conservation and climate change requires diverse collaborative thinking.

To link this to polar marine research, more diverse leaders at sea, across roles, including ship captains, management and crew is needed. Normalise female leadership and provide the mechanisms to achieve it (e.g., easy reporting mechanisms for harassment, improve access to training and recognition), when it becomes the status quo, people will stop questioning the validity of women and power.

2) Financial investments in science need to provide longer-term job security and empower those at vulnerable career stages.

Many senior research scientists, men and women alike, have no long term job security. This means early career researchers leave. They no longer access the same career progression opportunities as their mentors.

Science is traditionally a hierarchical system, you progress from student to professional to a leader of students and early career professionals, with an aim to foster them forward to lead their own research groups. The in-between stages need to be financially supported in order for this progression to happen.

The learning stage of being a scientist is long, and extends from university study (which can take 7-10 years or more) – during the post-PhD transition, this creates a great deal of financial uncertainty and sacrifice.

To link this to polar research – students often volunteer their time to work at sea, as I did across my PhD, the incentive is the priceless experience of working in Antarctica. It is worth it, but it is not sustainable to volunteer your time long term and when you lose the title of student, you shouldn’t have to sacrifice field-work as a result.

Large-scale research investment is often infrastructure based (e.g., stations, ships, runways etc), thus researchers and their salary aren’t always a priority for funding allocations and continuity in science projects suffer as a result.

Antarctic research has a legacy, that requires mechanisms around workforce and succession planning, and project continuation – it’s remote, expensive and difficult to get there and we are in a time of unprecedented environmental change. By its nature, Antarctic science needs to be globally collaborative – retaining our collective knowledge and building upon that foundation is key to our scientific advancement.

What would be your key piece of advice to someone preparing to undertake fieldwork in Antarctica or the Southern Ocean for the first time?

The most important lesson I am learning at the moment is that there is great power in living well – the role models I admire, do this in line with values of integrity, a desire to make the world a better more equitable place, they think deeply and are a genuine pleasure to know: my PhD supervisors, research teams, collaborators and friends teach me this daily – the key to working well in the field, is working with good people, where you feel physically and psychologically safe as part of the group – the personal growth that comes from working under those conditions has created a world of amazing researchers.

‘Live well!’

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s