Future Earth Coasts

FEC Dialogue with Academy Members – Dr. Sebastian Ferse

Dr. Sebastian Ferse, Senior Scientist at Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Research, former FEC Executive Director in Bremen, Germany

Sebastian’s work addresses the link between biodiversity and ecosystem functioning in coral reefs as well as human usage of coral reef resources. Sebastian was FEC Executive Director at ZMT in Bremen, Germany, until January 2022. Using an approach that combines assessments of both taxonomic and functional diversity in reef systems, he aims for a better understanding of the impacts of both natural and anthropogenic changes in coral reefs. In examining coastal livelihoods, institutions and mariculture techniques, he is trying to gather insights into options for sustainable resources uses and into strategies for the development, implementation and improvement of these uses.



(1) What is the career achievement of which you are most proud of? Then how has it contributed to your field of coastal sciences?

Many scientific careers are built of small, incremental steps so I didn’t have this one breakthrough moment or anything. But one particular thing that I’m particularly proud of because it’s sort of marked a step change in my career was when I established my first working group and that was based on a third-party funding that I was able to apply for. And that was successful in that application. And it brought together researchers, PhD students, other students from different disciplines. So, it was an interdisciplinary working group. And that is something that I am proud of. And I think it’s increasingly important in not only coastal science, but particularly in coastal science because it’s an area where so many different things converge. Coasts are zones of conversion between land and sea, but also between humans and nature. So to look at issues at the coast interdisciplinarily or even transdisciplinary across different fields. And so that’s what we were able to do in this working group that I established. And my institute was the first real interdisciplinary working group. Within one group, we had PhD students that were affiliated with different faculty, social science, natural science. And so that was new. Has it contributed to my field of coastal sciences in the bigger picture? Like, I don’t think it made a big dent in the global picture of things, but I think with regards to how science is done, and also in the way that science is organized, that’s my particularly institute. This was a step forward. And I think it did make an influence on the careers of the people that were involved in this group.


(2) What do you enjoy most about being a scientist? And what really motivates you to continue your work?

My particular expertise is on tropical coastlines. I work on coral reef systems, and I say systems, because I don’t just look at the ecological component, but I also look at the social or the human components of the system. So integrates social ecological system. And again, to me, coastal systems, in particular, in coral reefs are a good example of that are really diverse. They bring together a lot of diversity in the natural system, biodiversity. Coral reefs are one of the most biodiverse systems on the planet, but also a big diversity of human relations, methodologies, and so on, and also a plethora of anthropogenic impacts. And so the challenges, the stakes are really high. And I think that goes for coastal systems. In general, they are focal areas for human activity and for environmental change and societal change that’s happening. And so that to me is really fascinating, their microcosm and the prism of issues that we’re currently seeing in many different systems around the world. And this is really focused and highlighted on coral reefs. And I particularly enjoy this diversity. Every day or every new scientific question that you come up with is different from the previous one. It’s a very diverse field where you can combine different questions and different methodological approaches. It’s always exciting and I particularly enjoy working with people in the field, so whether that’s colleagues in different parts of the world, or with local coastal communities that I encountered during my work.


(3) What do you think is the most exciting, recent, scientific advances in the field of coral reef research or others topics you are interested in? how these advances really contribute to the sustainable and resilient future of coastal areas?

For coral reefs, it is probably well known, coral reefs are sort of at the spearhead of ecosystems that are changing because of anthropogenic climate change. They’re really one of the most vulnerable systems. And actually, it’s been estimated that they’re the first ecosystem that we may lose on a global scale because of anthropogenic climate change. But what that really implies or means or what is coming sort of after that what the future of coral reefs looks like for a long, long-time sort of late in the dark. What are these systems transforming into? How are they functioning in the future? How are they going to be composed? And what is the sort of resilience also that these systems have? What’s the scope for them to continue functioning in some way to provide similar ecosystem services to humanity in the future? And for a long time that was guesswork, and I think, again, there is no one single epiphany or one single advance that I would highlight. But just looking at how my field has developed over the last 5 years or so, there were several exciting studies that started to look at and show in real time how these systems are changing, what the new composition will look like and also showing some signs of hope that corals actually (and it’s fascinating) are actually much more adaptive as some of them at least than was previously thought. Is that going to be sufficient to ensure future coral reefs as we know them? Probably not, but some species are much more adaptive and can evolve due to a combination of factors, much more rapidly than we had thought previously. So it’s exciting and provides insights for systems other than coral reefs as well.


(4) Based on your experience and observations, what are the key characteristics of a successful scientist in coastal sciences? And how can younger generation of scientists really develop these kinds of qualities?

So there are a couple of things that I think are important. And it’s maybe not just restricted to coastal sciences, but applies in general, but something that’s also specific about coasts. Because their diverse systems and at the interface of society and science and nature and humans, thinking, gearing, being curious as to me, the most important basic condition, and starting with a basic curiosity, and not giving up on that curiosity, but fostering it further and not giving up if there is setbacks in your career, or if you’re not able to make that one advance or career step not giving up and sticking to it, I think, is important, but also having this sort of interdisciplinary outlook and even engaging also beyond the science. So what we’re increasingly seeing is that science or academia is called upon more so than in the past to contribute to societal, solving societal issues and problems. We are seeing more and more of a call for science to engage better with policy making and with society. And this means that we also need to foster skills like co-design, transdisciplinarity, and interfacing with policy contributing to policy. And that calls for skillset sin the past wasn’t necessarily part of the classical academic career and also are not necessarily fostered or weren’t fostered so much in academia or taught in university. And it’s an exciting time for young academics, but it’s also challenging, because you need skillsets that are not necessarily taught in university, but that require networking cooperation with other like-minded people and mentorship. So to seek for those sort of networks such as what Future Earth Coasts can provide, I think it’s important in being a successful young coastal scientist.


(5) If you were not a scientist, then what are the job or profession do you think you would have pursued?

There are two things. The first one which brought me to science in the first place is that I was interested in being a journalist, actually, so a nature journalist or a science journalist. Because of that interest is why I started studying marine sciences to begin with, because some advice that I received early on before starting to study was don’t study journalism if you want to be such a journalist, but study something else. be good in that field. And then you have a characteristic that’s unique like a unique selling point. So that’s why I started to study marine sciences. And I almost after my PhD then took another turn to actually focus on journalism. And for many reasons, I stuck with being a scientist. I don’t really regret it, but I have a lot of respects or interests also in journalists. And I try to work as much with journalists as possible. And the other thing is the diver or dive instructor and also (I was) almost there because of course I do a lot of diving or used to do a lot of diving for my job but I think it’s quite a different profession working with tourists and in the tourism industry. In the end I’m quite happy with the choice that I made.


(6) Apart from your work, what do you enjoy doing in your spare time? And how does it help you to maintain a balance between your personal and professional life?

A couple of things that I’d like to do. So sports like go running frequently. I try to do that as often as possible. And it just helps me to focus and get energized. So just running in the park here and you know enjoying quiet time to myself to think and to focus. Yeah, and to get my mind sort of free is really important. I enjoy cooking a lot, so whenever I have time, because it helps to feed the family, but it also gets my mind of things. And I really enjoy that, also cooking for friends. So that’s another thing that I do. And I love spending time with my family. So particularly our kids, so that really helps me stay focused and stay sane and find a balance with my professional life and enjoy being with a young kid.


(7) As Future Earth Coasts faces new challenges and opportunities,I think you’re actually at the best position to apply to this question. What do you consider to be the biggest challenges or opportunities for the initiative today? And how can coastal science community address them effectively?

So this goes a little bit back to the science in society nexus that I mentioned before. I think increasingly, society is looking to science, to supply answer, to this multitude of pressing issues that we have seen at the moment. Kind of it’s ironic that, on the one hand, we see increasing skepticism in society towards science and that’s maybe because there are increasingly hard truths to be faced. And it’s becoming increasingly difficult to deny the reality of anthropogenic climate change that we’re living in. And (it’s) people are increasingly maybe subconsciously realizing that they have to change dramatically. And that’s scary. And so people tend to turn away. It’s a sort of a thing of shooting the messenger I guess. It’s an uncomfortable truth. And so you rather try pointing the finger and saying that there is a vested interest in scientists then to face the reality that maybe science isn’t so wrong about some of these things and has things to tell the society. So re-establishing this or establishing this compact between science and society and finding new ways how we do science together with and for societies?

Engaging societal members in a new interest in academia and understanding of that science is complex doesn’t necessarily provide simple or easy answers. But the things are complex. And that doesn’t mean that there can be a solution, but there are no easy answers. And yeah, that’s part of the process. And just because there is disagreement in science, doesn’t mean that science isn’t clear. For example, if we think of climate change. It’s not that there isn’t a consensus in the scientific community. It’s just about nuances. And there is debate. And that’s part of how science works. So engaging in society better and supporting societal transformation, and you know developing some sort of a positive futurism, like what could be desirable future (is)? How can this be informed by science? And how can society be supported by science to make these sorts of transitions? And also how to sort of decolonize the academy and overcome this sort of traditional academic centers that were in modern Europe or in northern America? But to move away from the sort of the north to the south divide and foster more partnership and more initiatives, south-south partnerships and having a truly global coastal science. And I think for all of these things, a better compact with society, supporting transformation, informing policy and academic networking. This is where I think Future Earth Coasts is very well suited to make a contribution.

Well, I’ve now worked with FEC for a couple of years, but (I’m really a in a way) I’m also a newcomer. LOICZ has been around for quite a long time. I really only have worked with Future Earth Coasts and this amazing community for like the past 5 years or so in more detail. And I think it’s contagious to see the energy there and to identify with the goals because there are relevantly important goals that Future Earth Coasts has.


(8) What kind of advice would you have for young scientists in the FEC network really to inspire them to pursue a career in coastal sciences? And you just mentioned some qualities, and do you also have some strategies that you would like (to) recommend them to succeed despite challenges and difficulties?

Yeah, I think it’s important to be very clear that an academic career is very challenging. And it’s a difficult environment that’s characterized by a lot of uncertainty and power issues and so on. So it’s not the easiest workplace. But at the same time, it’s one of the most exciting careers that you could take, because you can really pursue your interests. You can be, to a certain extent, be independent and what you do shape your own career. You’re essentially your own employer to a certain extent. Yeah. So you are the master of your own destiny for better or worse. I think it’s important to realize what are the benefits of that, but also not to be overly idealistic about the challenges that are involved. It really takes a toll on personal life, for example. And to some extent, you’re also dependent on the decisions that are beyond your immediate control, like, where are you going to spend your life? Or do you have to move and so on. So really being realistic about your work-life balance. How far are you willing to go? Don’t compromise, necessarily. You also don’t forget. You have a personal, private life that’s just as important, particularly to withstand the pressures of academia not to burn out, I think it’s really important to find that sort of safe place for yourself, whatever that is and to find that balance. And then let curiosity drive you. So I think that’s the key thing that we have. A scientist is the sort of curiosity that’s driving us forward and to pursue our sincere interests and not giving up on that.And there are of course a few strategies that one could use to support this, like finding good mentors, also looking around that you know what is the best opportunity for you, not only where you work as a scientist, where you contribute, but also particularly early in the training like for PhD position, don’t compromise too much, but really see where there (is) are the best opportunities for you. What brings you forward? What offers you the best training? You are also a resource and have something to offer and don’t forget that. But at the same time, where is a place that you could as a person of being with friends and family and whatever under your carrying in a positive way. Where does that fit? So to find this balance, but also to think strategically and find allies that accompany you along the way. I think it’s very important.


(9) As a FEC academician, so what kind of support and resources are you willing to offer to help FEC fellows? And how can they access and benefit from your expertise and experience?

Well, I think most scientists that are at a more advanced level (they) have to balance two things, right? So on the one hand, you got an increasing demand on your time with choices and duties and so on that (makes) make it more and more difficult to spare time. But at the same time, you have more experience to share. And I think all of us and most of us are really willing and burning to pass on that sort of experience and knowledge and insights and so on. So yeah, I think that as with most senior scientists or academics reach out to me or to us. See where we can find time or opportunities to work together and the sort of you know mentoring or passing on advice. Even you know sometimes it doesn’t have to be very extensive, but it can already be helpful just you know to share thoughts, or a get a reflection on an idea that you have or a career step that you’re considering or choices that you have to make what you should go for, or to establish, to develop the research ideas further. And all of these things from very small to something that’s more extensive and could be a more formal way of collaborating and working together. Usually academics like myself are very open to that, so just reach out to us and we see what’s possible and how we can best help. That’s my offer.

Sometimes it’s difficult not to get jaded, but it’s also important you know to stay positive and to find sources of strength and to be able to pass that on and to reassure each other. It’s something that’s unique about science, I think, is that the link between private life and professional life is fluid, more probably more so than many other professions. It’s difficult to divide this. That’s why it’s important to find yourself a safe space like what remains private and personal, but also to use the positivity that can come from you know doing something that you personally and privately also enjoy doing and that you burn for and brings that positive energy into a good job. And I think that’s important to make the best of this merger, but also to be mindful that your professional life doesn’t overwhelm you as a private person. I think that’s important to find this balance.

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