Interview with Dr Kate Robb, Founding Director & Head of Research at the Marine Mammal Foundation
Written by Dr Narelle Tunstall, Managing Editor, Graduate Research Impact
When Kate was completing her PhD research and got the unexpected DNA results showing she had identified a new dolphin species, it was a pretty exciting discovery. Whilst you might expect there would be a few high fives from her supervisor, in a world where we hear more about the loss of species, than the discovery of new ones, there was still so much work to be done.
She tells me that what her supervisor did say was, “that’s great, what’s next?”.
Well, as it turns out, what was next for Kate was a research career quite different to the average academic career.
Based on multiple lines of genetic and morphological evidence Kate went on to describe and validate Tursiops australis, also known as the Burrunan dolphin, as a separate species of dolphin (side note: Kate worked with Boonwurrung elders to come up with the name). She also investigated the conservation status and population genetics of the only two known resident populations in Victoria.
But Kate has also since set up a not-for-profit registered charity organisation, the Marine Mammal Foundation (MMF), managed to get the Burrunan listed as ‘Endangered’ under Victoria’s Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act, and is now working to make sure the Burrunan’s environment is protected through various campaigns like the Marine Litter Project education program. She’s also inspiring the next generation through her Marine Champions youth program.
So how did all these impressive outcomes and impacts come about?
Her curiosity about dolphin populations in Port Phillip Bay was clearly part of it, but she tells me it really all started when she started a new hobby.
From photographer to scientist to Marine Mammal Foundation
Originally becoming a photographer and designer after high school, it was taking up scuba diving that kick-started Kate’s passion for the marine environment or our ‘watery backyard’ as she likes to call it.
Her thirst for knowledge about the critters she was seeing under the ocean, how they interacted, and thinking about how she could protect the environment that she so loved, brought her back to Uni to start a Bachelor Degree in Science. But after completing that, she still had too many questions and realised she needed the skills to properly answer those questions, which led her into a PhD.
During her PhD she was answering her questions and learning more about genetics, taxonomy, distribution, conservation, and anthropogenic threats. But with her exciting genetic results, she also started getting opportunities to speak about her species discovery and was meeting lots of people interested in her research.
Meanwhile, with two teenagers Kate already had plenty on her plate, PhD’ing part-time and working part-time to top up her income, her PhD took 6 years to complete.
She then took up an opportunity to work as a Lecturer for Conservation Biology, Population Genetics, and Evolutionary & Ecological Genetics. An academic path was opening up in front of her. But it was also becoming obvious to her that the opportunities she wanted were not available in a University setting.
During her PhD she had conducted her genetics research in a drosophila (fly) laboratory in order to access the equipment she needed to study dolphin genetics. The lab-based set up she needed just wasn’t available at the time and it was clear she was going to be limited with what she could do if she stayed in the university environment.
And she wanted to do research that would have specific outcomes, “not science for science sake” she tells me.
“I wanted to further understand the species I’d discovered but also work towards conserving them and I wanted to have a voice in the community and reach into government policy”.
Leaps of faith, choices and research
It seemed the most logical way forward to achieve her desired research outcomes – conservation and environmental mitigation by guiding policies to protect the value of natural and built coastal assets – was through a foundation. So, in 2013, one year after finishing her PhD, Kate took the leap of faith to set up the Marine Mammal Foundation.
She very quickly had to learn a new language, with terms like DGR (Deductible Gift Recipient) status, ACNC (Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission), as well as learning about advisory boards, legal matters, and figuring out what not-for-profit funding streams and government grants she was eligible for.
Her research skills were suddenly being put to use a bit differently, but having been a mature-age PhD student she also had some handy life skills to help her along the way.
“My photography, design and advertising background suddenly became very useful again!” she says as she tells me about setting up her foundation’s website and marketing material.
These days her ability to ‘wear all the hats’ is essential.
“One day I’m editing a video, then writing research publications and grants, and next I’ll be presenting to a high-end business group about corporate sustainability, then it’s working with kids in our education programs”.
We talk about the additional training that comes with a PhD program these days and she says “I wish I’d had access to leadership or science comms training during my PhD”.
We talk about the work the foundation is doing now and how the foundation has grown over time.
“Whilst I do wear a lot of hats, I have an amazing team at the Foundation that share my drive and passion. This has enabled us to grow both with our scientific endeavours but also in raising community awareness.”
While her research started on the Burrunan dolphin it has morphed into so much more. The MMF’s vision is to be a leading Australian marine mammal conservation organisation, protecting the marine environment through its research, community engagement and education.
It sounds impressive, but also a lot of hard work. Kate tells me she does incredibly long hours for not much monetary reward. But she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s my choice. There’s hard work in every industry, the expectations on academics are immense, but it’s hard work in business too. I could probably earn three times the amount elsewhere but it’s my choice to make a difference through the foundation. And as the Head of Research I’m able to do the research I want to do, and enable greater conservation and protection for this endangered species, and their environment!”.
Doing research outside a University
Kate is a conservation geneticist and researcher, she just happens to do that through her own Foundation. And apart from the obvious autonomy, I’m interested in how this is similar or different to doing research in a university, which in Australia is usually where research occurs.
I ask her about publishing and if there’s less pressure to publish as a foundation, to which she quickly replies “We’re not a fluffy-love-bunnies organisation!”
We laugh and talk more about peer-reviewed papers being core to scientific progress.
“As a research organisation you have to walk the talk. You can’t be in all grey literature, you need the peer-reviewed publications to give you the credibility. When I’m presenting ideas for government policy, I have the data to back it up”.
As Head of Research at MMF, Kate has numerous peer-reviewed scientific publications aimed at informing positive conservation and management outcomes of marine mammals. She has instigated and supervised numerous applied marine mammal research projects covering robust population modelling, population genetics, phylogenomics, geospatial mapping, social structure and alliance, acoustics and toxicology. Through MMF she has built strong affiliations with organisations such as DEWLP, RMIT, Monash, Curtin and Deakin University, Museums Victoria and Zoos Victoria.
She has successfully biopsy sampled 150+ dolphins, attended over 40 cetacean strandings, conducted 30+ gross post-mortems and has been involved in numerous University-based applied research programs relating to isotopes, acoustics and contaminant loads of dolphins.
Kate was also the President of the Australian Marine Sciences Association (Victorian branch), a Naturalist on Expeditions in Antarctica, an Honorary Fellow at Deakin & Monash University, and a Research Associate at Museum Victoria.
Kate has been involved with major media coverage from international agencies such as BBCs History Channel, National Geographic, BBC The World, NBC USA; Australian agencies such as The Age, The Australian, Herald-Sun, major TV news networks; children’s shows such as Totally Wild and SCOPE. And a highlight of Kate’s career was personally meeting Sir David Attenborough in 2013.
As I discovered, the research activities are pretty much all the same, it’s just her office that’s a bit different.
From curiosity and questions to outcomes and impact
Kate started a PhD because her interest in scuba diving turned into questions about what was going on under the water and wondering if it could all go extinct in her lifetime.
Kate’s passion for the underwater world has gone from asking those questions about population biology, and investigating the answers DNA could give above and beyond the looks of a species, to a passion for protecting endangered species and the environment they live in.
Kate’s foundation through its applied research programs, education and outreach initiatives is having impacts that will ensure the Burrunan are not only better understood but protected for future generations to enjoy.
And what she’d say to anyone studying a Higher Degree by Research is this:
“Enjoy your PhD while it lasts, it really is a wonderful chance to focus on one area, to really narrow in on that pinnacle of single focus”.
But what she’d also say, when you’re finishing your Higher Degree by Research is this:
“You don’t have to fit into the square box, there are other options”.
Image from the Marine Mammal Foundation.