MSc Graduate in Focus: Rachael Edwards

This year we are launching two new MSc courses in Marine Environmental Management and Marine Vertebrate Ecology and Conservation and applications are open now for 2020 start. We are looking back on some of our MSc graduates who have excelled in conservation around the world since studying with us.

Today we meet Rachael Edwards, MSc Conservation and Biodiversity graduate (2016) and now a PhD student at the University of Waterloo, Canada and working as a Community Champions Project Manager and Volunteer Coordinator for Sustainable Merton, UK

Hi Rachael! Why don’t you tell us a bit about what you have been up to since studying with us?

For my Masters at the University of Exeter, I evaluated the outcomes and outputs of the Marine Turtle Conservation Project in North Cyprus. This research was recently published in the Journal for Nature Conservation. After completing my MSc, I went directly into a PhD programme at the University of Waterloo, Canada, where I study cultural diversity in the use of parks and protected areas and methods of fostering connection to nature. I am now in the final year of my degree. Although my PhD is through a Canadian University, my research is U.K. focused and I have returned to England for field work. I also work part time for a sustainability charity in London.


What did you enjoy about studying in Cornwall?

The smaller size of the Penryn campus created a strong sense of community among the students and faculty. I enjoyed always running into people I knew, both on and off campus. It felt like a campus family and am so thankful for the many friendships I formed over the course of my programme. The surrounding scenery was also breathtaking and there were so many unique habitats to explore.

Campus life, and life in Penryn more generally, was vibrant and laid back at the same time. There were so many clubs to get involved with and, because of the smaller campus, it felt like a very tight knit community. I enjoyed meeting people from outside my program and the campus organizations did a great job of putting on events, organizing trips, and keeping us informed on opportunities to get involved with the wider community.

The combination of Penryn’s beautiful scenery and the friendly campus community is something I think you would be hard pressed to find elsewhere. You really feel like you are a part of a campus family. There were so many opportunities to meet new people, take up a new skill, explore the outdoors, and learn about the Cornish culture right on your doorstep.


Rachael exploring the English Coast

Excellent, what skills did you learn that helped you to develop further in your career?

For my PhD, I study outdoor recreation and wellbeing in public open space. The social science research skills I learned while studying at the University of Exeter were invaluable as I began my doctorate and the wide variety of courses and seminars that were offered allowed me to tailor the program to my specific career goals.

The variety of skills and hands-on experiences the course provided were very beneficial as, like many Masters students, I wasn’t exactly sure which direction I wanted to take in my academic journey. This programme exposed us to the many career options that are available, provided the opportunity to learn new research skills, and offered us a wealth of opportunities to contribute to the wider conservation community (I volunteered for the Cornwall Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty during my time in Penryn).

Prior to entering the programme, I didn’t have any experience with social science research methods. Thanks to the numerous courses, lectures, and seminars on human dimensions of conservation offered over the course of my MSc, I left feeling confident in a wide variety of such methods and was inspired to pursue a social science doctorate. Interdisciplinary collaboration is essential for solving complex conservation issues. To promote effective collaboration, it’s important that natural and social scientists are exposed to each other’s research processes and my Masters programme did an exceptional job of this.

I extensively researched Masters programs, and found that the sea turtle conservation work emerging from the University of Exeter’s Marine Turtle Research Group was among the most cited and of a very high standard. I am very thankful to have had the opportunity to contribute to this body of research through recently publishing my MSc dissertation in the Journal for Nature Conservation.


On the Kenya Field Course during her MSc

Finally, why did you choose you career and do you have any advice for anyone looking to pursue a similar career?

I grew up interacting with nature on a daily basis and having quality local green space is still essential for my mental health. Through my doctoral research, I aim to promote equity in the planning and management of public open space to improve community health and wellbeing and foster connection to nature. I enjoy the opportunity to speak with a wide range of people as part of my research and appreciate the challenge and creativity that it takes to design green spaces that meet the needs of such diverse communities. I also enjoy the research and scientific writing process as a whole and having the freedom to immerse myself in new areas of inquiry.

The best advice I can give for someone thinking of starting a PhD is to take initiative over your own studies, embrace opportunities that come your way, and follow your research interests, even if they seem like they are in flux. I think one thing that holds people back is worrying about whether they are making the “right” or “wrong” decision for their career path. What I have learned is that you should stay open minded to new opportunities and it’s never too late to change direction. Chances are things won’t go exactly as expected, but what would be the fun in that?

Thank you Rachael!


If you want to find out more about any of our suite of #ExeterMarine Masters and Undergraduate courses use the links below!


My Exeter PhD: Understanding marine citizenship, Pamela Buchan

To make change happen, we need to understand what motivates people to act. Today we hear from Pamela Buchan, PhD student with the University of Exeter who is studying Marine Citizenship.

Words by Pamela Buchan, PhD researcher at University of Exeter and elected councillor with Plymouth City Council.

There is a new environmental movement sweeping the world, spearheaded by Greta Thunberg, and carried forward by young people who are demanding a better future. Climate change concern in the UK is polling higher than it ever has before, and even the British government has caught wind of the desire to reduce plastic consumption. The global climate strike saw 7.6 million people around the world take to the streets. People are protesting, signing petitions, switching to electric vehicles, changing their behaviours, and making more sustainable choices to create cleaner seas and a sustainable future for everyone. This is environmental citizenship in action.

School children strike for climate, 20th September 2019. Credit: Pamela Buchan


Global climate strike in Plymouth, 20th September 2019. Credit: Pamela Buchan

For three years I’ve been investigating the idea of marine citizenship in a bid to better understand what drives people to become active marine citizens, what it is about the sea that is particularly motivating, and how do policies and legislation work to promote or hinder marine citizenship actions. Actions that benefit the marine environment are likely to benefit the climate also, and this might be a gateway to broader environmental citizenship. As someone who grew up in the middle of the moors with little access to the sea, it was the desire to be near the sea that first took me to Newcastle University to study marine biology and later relocate with my family to Plymouth to benefit from the ocean culture in this city and region. For me, it’s all about the sea, but what about others who are active in marine environmentalism? Does the sea as a place occupy others’ hearts in the same way?

Greta Thunberg departs from Plymouth for the US, aboard the carbon neutral Team Malizia yacht, on 14th August 2019. Credit: Pamela Buchan

Research around creating environmental citizens is often focused on environmental education and awareness raising. If people understand, are aware, and know what to do, then they’ll crack on and do it, right? This leads to lots of research investigating the perceptions, attitudes, and knowledge held by the general public, which then provides the basis of programmes to increase pro-environmental behaviours. See, for example, the list of research informing the DEFRA Framework for Pro-Environmental Behaviours, which probably explains why the goal for reaching the “unengaged and unwilling” is to: “encourage and support more sustainable behaviours through a mix of labelling, incentive and reward, infrastructure provision and capacity building (e.g. through information, education and skills).” (Emphasis mine.)

Research contributing to DEFRA Framework for Pro-Environmental Behaviours, 2007.

Undoubtedly, knowing effective ways to act is an important part of environmental citizenship but clearly it is not the whole solution. If we only ask questions about what people know, then we will only find answers that relate to knowledge. And despite many attempts at environmental education, carbon emissions continue to rise, oceans continue to be exploited and polluted, and even littering and flytipping seem to be on the increase. Knowledge isn’t changing people’s behaviours towards the environment so we need to look more deeply and holistically for other factors.

One field to turn to is environmental psychology and theories around values and identities. Social psychologist, Susan Clayton, has developed a theory that environmental activists share an environmental identity. Other researchers have argued that environmentalism is based on self-transcendent values, such as benevolence and universalism (e.g. Stern et al. 1999 and many since). We must acknowledge that not all people hold strong environmental identities or altruistic values, yet there is a lack of evidence exploring how different kinds of people can be motivated into environmental citizenship. If we are to tackle the environmental problems of today, we need at the very least for all people to be open to policy changes.

Enjoying the sea. Credit: Pamela Buchan

My PhD[1] seeks to fill this gap, specifically for marine citizenship. I set out to create space in my research design that would accommodate all findings relevant to this idea. Though my research design draws on theories from environmental psychology, human geography, and environmental law, my use of mixed methods allows me to piece together these theories with emergent findings. In my research, I surveyed, interviewed and shadowed active marine citizens, using psychological metrics and open ended interviews side by side. I found my population through case study marine groups and the national citizen science programme Capturing Our Coast and, using my survey data, I purposefully selected as broad a range of interview participants as I could. Selecting respondents with low self-transcendent values, higher self-enhancing values, a wide range of demographic variables, and as wide a range of relationships with place as was possible from the survey population.

My goal was to find the stories of people who are different. How do people who don’t fit the existing research models come to be active marine citizens? In my final year, I am still analysing my data and pulling it all together, but I have some surprising and tantalising headline findings emerging. The data has been telling me that marine citizenship is not so much a set of pro-marine environmental behaviours, but rather such behaviours are an expression of a marine identity. This marine identity is triggered, developed, or maintained, through sensory experience of the sea that promotes attachment and dependency. It seems that for marine citizens, as with myself, it is the sea itself which motivates citizenship. But there is diversity in marine identity, with people’s values shaping their motivations and types of actions they participate in. It does seem that people with a range of value sets can and do become active marine citizens via their connection to the sea.

There is already research showing that aligning climate change messaging towards specific values will encourage concern in those who are previously unconcerned (see for example Myers et al., 2012). My research points to the potential of the sea as a means of public engagement, which is arguably exemplified in real time through the ‘Blue Planet effect’ in which people have been spurred to reduce single-use plastics. If the experiential qualities of the sea can help people develop a marine identity and, from that, a willingness to perform pro-marine environmental behaviours, then it may be a valuable pathway towards improved ocean and climate health.

South Milton, Devon. Credit: Pamela Buchan

[1] ESRC funded on the interdisciplinary Environment, Energy and Resilience pathway, now known as Sustainable Futures

Further reading:

Read more about the psychological aspects of marine citizenship in my paper Citizens of the Sea: defining marine citizenship, delivered at the International Conference on Environmental Psychology, 2019.

I’ll be presenting on my PhD research at the Coastal Futures conference in London in January 2020.

Follow Pam on Twitter.

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