Ben Halpern is the director of NCEAS and a professor at the Bren School at the University of California Santa Barbara. He is also among the newest group of distinguished scientists to become a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences. Ben is passionate about science, and finding solutions to protect and manage oceans.

In this installment of Beyond the Lab, Ben discusses the importance of looking at the “bigger picture” when it comes to ocean conservation, and how he is still an optimist about the fate of our oceans.

What inspired you to become a scientist/researcher?

I sort of stumbled into it. Several years out of college I finally figured out I wanted to do something to help protect and manage oceans, and realized I needed a graduate degree to get a good job in that space. It wasn’t until well into my first year of graduate school that I discovered how much I love science, and the importance of science in informing how to do good ocean conservation. Then I was hooked.

What problems in science are you most interested in solving?

In graduate school I got really excited about understanding where and how to use marine protected areas to set aside the last of the pristine oceans.  It didn’t take long to learn that the problems, and the solutions, are much more complicated than that.  So now I find myself drawn in many different ways and towards many different problems. Everything from climate change to land-based pollution to overfishing and fisheries management to expanding use of ocean space. Most recently I’ve gotten into marine aquaculture and how it fits into global food systems. Important to me is to then pull back and fit everything into the bigger picture.  That interest has been a key motivating factor for the work I’ve lead developing methods for assessing the cumulative impact of human activities and the Ocean Health Index.

How do your colleagues help you achieve your goals?

In so many ways. I love collaborating. Most problems require multiple skillsets and disciplinary expertise to solve, so if I didn’t collaborate I wouldn’t be able to do most of the science I’m interested in. Collaboration also helps me learn, and learning-while-doing is part of what makes science (or really any job) exciting. In the end, it’s also just way more fun, and a key goal for me is to have fun doing my job.

What gets you going every day (besides coffee) and how do you stay motivated?

I’m still an optimist about the fate of the oceans. I think we have a chance to make a big difference in protecting and managing the oceans sustainably in a way that’s much harder on land. But that window of opportunity is closing.

What are your greatest limitations/challenges as a scientist/researcher?

Time. I know that sounds a bit trite, but it is so hard to find enough time to do everything I want. I deeply value my family and time off from work, so that commitment to work-life balance (appropriately) constrains how much time I have for work.  Scientists also need to do a lot more than just science if they want to make a difference, including producing and doing effective communication, beyond just publishing papers, and helping advise policy and decision making.  It’s extremely rewarding to engage in these activities, but they all take a lot of time. 


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