In conversation with...Steven Cooke

30 September 2015 - By: Sarah Blackford

SEB Magazine Editor, Sarah Blackford, in conversation with … Dr Steven Cooke

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Dr Steven Cooke of Carleton University, Ottawa. Photo: Steve Lockett

I first met Steve at the SEB Meeting in Valencia 2013, where he was helping Oxford University Press to promote the recently launched SEB journal, Conservation Physiology (1), for which he is the founding Editor- in-chief. Recently elected to the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists (2), and a recognised leader in his field, Steve, who is based at Carleton University, Ottawa, describes his research interests as ‘eclectic’.

SB: Tell me more about the Conservation Physiology journal and its inception.

SC: When Craig Franklin, Tony Farrell and others from SEB contacted me in 2011, inviting me to get involved in this new journal, I saw it as an exciting opportunity to give people an outlet for sharing their work and helping to advance the field. I’d recently published a paper entitled Conservation Physiology and it seemed there were few publishing platforms available to those, like me, applying physiological knowledge and concepts to conservation; people who read conservation science journals tend to be rather different to those who read physiology journals, so we seemed to be missing a home for this kind of work. I see this journal as a unique interface for the topics I was trying to define at the time; being the editor gives me the opportunity to help shape the field.

SB: Tell me about your early career.

SC: My undergraduate degree was in environmental studies, which focussed on the policy and human dimensions of natural resource use and management. However, through various elective courses I got more into behaviour and physiology, focussing on this during my masters and PhD. This led me on to my postdoc at the University of British Columbia, working with Scott Hinch and Tony Farrell on Pacific salmon migration biology. My research has always been focussed on wild animals in the wild, so I’ve needed to ‘walk the line’ between behaviour and physiology. To my mind, you can’t think about animal behaviour in the wild without thinking about physiology, and vice versa.

SB: What is the focus of your research?

SC: My research interests are pretty eclectic. Most of the research we do in my group is focussed on understanding fundamental aspects of how animals interact with each other, their environment and humans. I’m using that knowledge to develop and refine management and conservation plans. I tend to work on species that are imperilled or commercially or recreationally valuable. My main focus is on fish, but I also work on other aquatic animals, such as turtles.

Lately, I’ve been going back to my undergraduate roots: I’m focussed on understanding how human behaviour influences individuals and populations, and then using that knowledge to develop and refine management actions. I have a PhD student working on knowledge mobilisation related to conservation science and, increasingly, we’re inserting a social science component into much of the work we do. Coming full circle in terms of my training, I’ve realised, through experience and reading the literature, that you can have the best science in the world, but if you don’t understand the human dimension there’ll be issues with uptake of that knowledge. Instead of using the ‘we know best’ attitude, we spend a lot of time with stakeholder engagement, developing partnerships on the front end, that is, co-creating the research agenda and helping to define the questions, rather than on the back end, which is how it’s often done in academia. It’s been useful and has certainly helped us to think about how we approach the research we do.

SB: How important do you think it is for scientists to engage with policy?

SC: As the director of the Canadian Centre for Evidence-based Conservation and Environmental Management(3), which is one of the centres of the Collaboration for Environmental Evidence(4) run out of Bangor University in the UK by Andrew Pullin, I spend a lot of time working with policy makers. We’re interested in using approaches such as evidence synthesis, systematic review and meta-analytic approaches to inform policy and decision making. We are still in the early phases of developing those approaches in Canada, but certainly the word “evidence” is one that we spend a lot of time thinking about.

SB: What would you say have been the highlights of your career so far?

SC: Partnership is something that means a lot to me and I have spent a lot of time building deep and effective partnerships in Canada and abroad. I really appreciate the fact that, in my institution, and in Canada generally, there is a flexible attitude towards researchers in terms of who and how they can work with others. I like the fact that I’m able to work along a spectrum, from fundamental through to applied research (not either or). This means I can do things that are purely curiosity driven as well as helping industry or government to solve particular problems.

I also see mentoring as a form of partnership. My interaction with trainees – undergrads, grads and postdocs – has been particularly rewarding; training them but also learning from them. Carleton is a Comprehensive university with a mix of undergrad and grad studies. Each summer we have a number of undergraduate students working in the lab and we try to give them meaningful projects, which contribute to our overarching research programme.

SB: How much of your time is spent on teaching and training students?

SC: Training students and mentoring is a major part of the work I do, but I prefer teaching in the context of research (anything but in the traditional classroom!). In this regard, I was fortunate to have recently won one of the six NSERC E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowships(5), awarded each year to science and engineering researchers under age of 40. This means, as well as providing funding for two more postdocs to join my lab, I have no formal teaching and administrative duties for two years, leaving me free to focus on my research. I plan to spend more time mentoring undergrad and grad students in the field while they are engaged in real projects. I am also working to develop a new undergraduate programme focused on environmental management and stewardship so I am delving into the curriculum development side of education.

SB: How has being a member of SEB helped to contribute to your research success?

SC: I’m a relative newcomer to the SEB, having joined about five years ago. I like doing experimental biology with wild animals and many SEB animal science members are lab focussed, so it’s great to be able to hear about what they are doing and reflecting on how it could be adapted to the ‘outside end’. SEB has a history of supporting students and its meetings are a really friendly, open and a global community that is exceptionally welcoming to new members. I think of myself as a supporter of students so I really like what the organisation stands for. The SEB provides a diverse conference environment, with researchers speaking on different taxa and questions. I’m pretty ‘fishy’, but increasingly find myself reading papers and listening to talks on birds, lizards etc. - I want my students to have that exposure too.

SB: What next?

SC: I’m planning to attend the SEB Meeting in Brighton next year, where the journal
will be sponsoring a three-day Conservation Physiology session, co-organised by Craig Franklin, Jodie Rummer and Connie O’Connor. Our speaker line-up includes plant and animal scientists, who will also be invited to contribute a paper to the journal. Currently, the journal content is quite animal biased, but we hope to encourage plant scientists to join our diverse community, where different physiological concepts are being applied to common conservation problems, whatever the taxa.

SB: It looks like you have a lot of interesting challenges ahead and your interests look set to become even more eclectic in the future. See you in Brighton!



Category: Animal Biology
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Sarah Blackford

Sarah Blackford is the Head of Education and Public Affairs at the SEB and the editor of the SEB Magazine. As a qualified careers adviser and MBTI practitioner, Sarah provides career development and support for SEB members and the wider scientific community. Sarah is also an active a number of initiatives aimed at improving gender equality and diversity in the science field.