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Science Week 2021: Q&A with Loughs Agency’s Head of Science, Sarah McLean

Science Week 2021: Q&A with Loughs Agency’s Head of Science, Sarah McLean

Date: 12/11/2021

Much of the work carried out by Loughs Agency revolves around science, and its importance in informing the management of the environment within the Agency’s catchments. To mark Science Week 2021, we caught up with our Head of Science Sarah McLean for a Q&A session on a variety of scientific topics.

  1. How did you first become interested in science as a career path?

I grew up in the countryside and was always interested in wildlife. From an early age I was always interested in watching the garden birds – I knew what species all of them were and was very interested in their behaviour, what they liked to eat and how they interacted with each other. I remember getting involved in “The Big Garden Birdwatch” every year with my mum and I enjoyed it so much that I started keeping my own records of the birds in the garden throughout the year. I guess that’s where the “observe, count, record” mindset that eventually led me to becoming a Biologist really began.

  1. Take us through a typical workday as Loughs Agency’s Head of Science.

There is no such thing as a typical workday as Loughs Agency’s Head of Science! The scientific work the Agency is involved in is extremely diverse which is what makes it so interesting. The Agency’s biologists cover a huge range of species and habitats and as Head of Science I have the pleasure of being involved, on some level, in all of the Agency’s scientific projects. In any one day I could be working across projects in the marine, in freshwater, projects on salmon, projects on other fish species, projects on invasive species, habitat restoration or enhancement works, environmental issues, marine telemetry and water quality to name but a few. The list is extensive! So, I balance my time between planning for future projects, keeping up with progress and learning on existing projects and reporting/advising on the scientific work of the Agency to Loughs Agency Management and external stakeholders. It is important the science produced by the Agency can be used to inform environmental enforcement and management and it is my job to make sure that the evidence we are producing is robust enough that it can be used to protect the fisheries and marine resources of the Foyle and Carlingford areas.

  1. What tasks do you enjoy the most in your role?

I enjoy the fact that I am always learning. With such a wide range of projects it’s impossible to know everything and I enjoy constantly learning new things from the experts working in specific areas and making linkages between work areas. Even the things we think we do know are constantly changing as the more investigations we do, the more questions that get thrown up! I enjoy seeing an idea for a piece of work come to life. Sometimes in the planning stages it all seems a bit overwhelming, but when I get out onto a river or out in a boat and see an idea which was once a spider diagram on a page implemented out in the environment and making positive change to the natural world, it gives me the incentive to carry on planning and collaborating and coming up with ideas. There is always more to learn and more to be done!

  1. In your view, what is the most exciting scientific project currently being undertaken by Loughs Agency?

I honestly cannot choose! I find all of the scientific work we do exciting! Anything we can do or learn that will benefit the natural world is hugely exciting to me. I am always interested in what we will find every day. I am very excited by all of the Habitat Improvement works that we do. All the restoration and enhancement projects are hugely important, and I think it’s great to see nature-based solutions becoming more mainstream. The shift towards recognising that we must work with nature rather than against it is brilliant to be involved with. I suppose in terms of big novel work, the SeaMonitor project is right up there on the excitement scale – we have so many unanswered questions and the marine telemetry work gives us an opportunity to start to get answers for some of these questions and to collaborate with scientists across the world. I’m excited to see how this work can be developed and expanded on in the future.

  1. There is so much going on in the world of science outside the remit of Loughs Agency. Is there any particular project from around the world that you have been keeping up to date with?

I am interested in lots of areas but at present I am pretty much consumed by the Climate Crisis. It’s the terrifying thread that links almost all of the biology going on right now. The natural world is in the balance and our actions have upset that balance to the point where nothing is able to function the way that it should. I read a lot about seabirds and am particularly interested in how climate change is affecting them. I am also very interested in invasive species and how species distributions are changing as a result of anthropogenic activity.

  1. How big of an impact is climate change having on your work?

The reality is that Climate Change is having a huge effect on all areas of life. In terms of the work of Loughs Agency, all the species and habitats we work with are at risk from the effects of climate change. Changes in habitat characteristics, availability, and integrity because of climate change will have huge knock-on effects for biodiversity with changes in species distribution and changes in food web interactions being a very real issue in all areas of the ecosystem. The scientific work that the Agency carries out allows us to constantly monitor the health of the systems and to pick up changes as they happen. This information means we are better equipped to put in place mitigation and management measures to help protect the Foyle and Carlingford ecosystems. Mitigation measures that we can put in place to help combat the effects of climate change include habitat restoration work, for example. Rising temperatures and more frequent storm events mean that the river habitat restoration work that the Agency carries out is more important than ever.

  1. What is the main goal you want to achieve with the work you are undertaking?

I think the main overarching goal that ties together all my work areas is to provide strong, clear, well-documented evidence which is robust and can be used to make sound management decisions which will ultimately protect the environment. In doing that, I also want to raise awareness of the issues that the environment is facing and how our actions affect the natural world around us. I want it to be clear that whilst the Loughs Agency has responsibility for managing and protecting the aquatic environment in the Foyle and Carlingford Areas, everyone shares this responsibility at the base level, and everyone has a responsibility to protect the natural world. My goal is to make people as passionate about the natural world as I am so that everyone does their bit to protect it. So, I hope that the work of the Loughs Agency inspires people to get out into the Foyle and Carlingford areas and to see for themselves just how spectacular they are, and why they are worth protecting. I have a favourite quote from the great man himself Sir David Attenborough which I think sums it up much more eloquently than I can: “No one will protect what they don’t care about, and no one will care about what they have never experienced”.

  1. What advice would you give to someone wishing to embark on a career in science?

Be interested. Get involved. Be ready to learn…. Always.

The best biologists, environmentalists and naturalists that I know are not defined by their academic accolades. They all have in common an inbuilt passion for the natural world. Getting involved in projects in your local area, volunteering and personal learning are all just as important as perusing the formal qualifications. You need the formal qualifications for formal jobs but without the passion for the work it will just be a job. Talk to people already working in the scientific discipline you are interested in – scientists love an opportunity to talk about their work to a willing ear! Absorb information and advice from people who are already working in the sector – often they can give you a steer in the right direction. My other advice is: don’t get too caught up on the big enigmatic species, be willing to learn about the components of the ecosystem that are maybe less obvious – it’s all fascinating!

The great thing about environmental work is that you don’t need the formal qualifications to get involved! There are always volunteering and community initiatives to get involved in where the environment can benefit, and you can learn more.

  1. When you aren’t at work, what do you like to do in your spare time?

I am a keen horse rider and have two horses of my own which I compete at show jumping. My husband and I have a cottage smallholding in Co. Antrim. The cottage is around 200 years old, and we are in the process of renovating the house, the grounds, and the yard so that keeps us pretty busy! I keep my horses at home along with our two dogs, two cats, two frogs, two ducks and 24 chickens. So, basically every aspect of my life revolves around animals in some shape or form!

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

21 April 1926 to 8 September 2022