From seahorses to sea turtles to people, Dr Noella Gray reflecting on Project Seahorse’s influence on her career

Dr Noella Gray was a volunteer with Project Seahorse and then did an undergraduate project with Amanda Vincent. She recently visited UBC and we took the opportunity to connect with her. Here she reflects on how her time at Project Seahorse influenced her career…

Dr. Noella Gray

When did you first become passionate about the ocean and about conservation?

It’s a fun question, because I grew up in Southern Ontario, nowhere near an ocean, but my father is from New Brunswick, so I grew up with stories of him having grown up next to the ocean. And his father was not a fisher – fished strictly to feed the family on the side. I grew up with stories of the ocean and visited my dad’s family in New Brunswick a couple times as a kid, and went on vacations with family to exotic places like Florida, or elsewhere on the US eastern seaboard. Interest in the ocean started then but it really cemented as an undergraduate at McGill university, where in deciding on the courses I was going to take, flipping – back then it was paper, you know – calendars, flipping through the course options, and seeing all these wonderful travel courses, as an undergraduate I was focused on mostly biological sciences, and so had the opportunity to do a tropical coral reef ecology course in Barbados. And that was the beginning of the rest of the story.

How did you become involved with Project Seahorse?

So again, when I was an undergraduate at McGill, when Amanda was at McGill, I was looking around for opportunities to get more involved as a student. And I approached her about volunteering in her lab, and my initial job was photocopying a large stack of papers that they were trying to back up. I was so committed, I thought “This is my in, I will stand in the photocopy room for however many hours it takes” and then after that I was able to get summer undergraduate funding from NSERC to do a research project . The project focused on collecting data from university labs and research institutions, on any information they had regarding the uses of seahorses in teaching and research.

Did Project Seahorse have an impact on your career?

One of the biggest influences from Project Seahorse was seeing the possibilities of what happens in a research lab in a university. As an undergraduate you tend to go to classes, and the whole research side of things can be a bit of a black box. So the chance to work in the lab and see what graduate students and postdocs were doing, being exposed to all of that, really opened my eyes in a lot of ways, to what was possible, just within a university setting.

Tell us about your career path after Project Seahorse

After Project Seahorse I worked for a year as an intern with a small environmental NGO, the Quebec-Labrador Foundation, which has two offices, one in Montreal, and one outside of Boston. I was stationed at the Boston office, but worked in conjunction with a board member who had a project running out of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, so I was exposed to everything that was going on at Harvard. After my undergraduate I thought “I need a break, I need to go get a real job.” And then my “real job” made me realize that no, actually, I like being at the university. I like the idea of research and so forth. So I went back to school. I moved back to Canada to do a Master’s degree at University of Western Ontario. I found a project that really interested me, looking at community-based conservation of sea turtles in Costa Rica. So I moved from seahorses to sea turtles!. Following that, I decided to do a PhD, and went to Duke University, in the US, where I spent a lot of my time at the marine lab, even though I was a social scientist. I was still very immersed in the marine world, but switched to looking at the people side of things.

From your professional perspective, what would you say are the most important conservation issues that we face as Canadians, but also as global citizens?

We could look at it topically – climate change – in some ways that is the problem that intersects with everything else. But, as a social scientist, I tend to think that, well, in order to solve climate change, what is the real problem here, right? And the underlying problem is one of institutions, and values, and norms, and incentives, and all of these things, right, that drive human behaviour, both individually and collectively. And so, I think, you know, my approach to thinking about things, is absolutely we all need to be self-reflective and do what we can as individuals, but pinning this thing on individuals is not going to get us anywhere, and to me doesn’t recognize the systemic problems. And so, the problem we face, is actually grappling with the kind of wholesale social, political and economic changes we need to actually shift where it’s a different way of living on this planet. And the reason I have a job, and so many other people have a job, is because we haven’t figured it out yet. But you know, I think we all do our part to find a piece of the puzzle.

What makes you hopeful or optimistic for the future of our ocean?

The number of amazing and passionate people I know that are working on finding solutions and ways forward. And I think the other thing that makes me hopeful is – kids. I have kids and I want a world for them. I recognize that it’s not gonna be the same world that I grew up in, that it’s changing, and at the same time I think having children orients you to hope for the future. I couldn’t get up every day and help them go through their day thinking they were doomed. And so, that’s not to say that things aren’t serious – they are. But throwing in the towel, to me, isn’t the way to go.

We all need be holding people to account – we need to be holding our elected officials to account, our companies, our employers to account, we need to be holding ourselves and our students to account, and you know, vice versa. And we need to demand change, and do it loudly, and do it in a way that people can’t ignore.

Dr Noella Gray is an Associate Professor at the University of Guelph. Her research focuses on the political ecology of marine conservation, examining how marine conservation policies are produced, the role of various actors and knowledge systems in informing these policy processes, and the consequences of these policies. She has conducted research in Costa Rica, Belize, Kiribati, and international policy venues. She received her PhD from the Nicholas School of Environment at Duke University, a MA in Geography from the University of Western Ontario, and a BSc from McGill University.