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  • Writer's pictureDr A Bashir

38 Discovery

Happy 2023! I’m truly delighted to kick off the new year with a deep-dive into Salomé Buglass' story. Salomé is a Marine Ecologist at the Charles Darwin Foundation and a PhD Candidate in Geography at the University of British Columbia. Our conversation begins with discussing her dynamic academic journey to date. She then shares stories from her international upbringing, which has included stints in Germany, Spain, the Dominican Republic, Trinidad and Tobago, Ecuador, England, and Canada. Importantly, we discuss the nuance of growing up multi-racial in a white world and the identity crisis that she faced as an undergraduate student at UCL. As you learn about Salomé, her life, and her amazing research on deep-water ecosystems, we hope you are encouraged to learn more about the world around you.

You'll find the audio version of Discovery on our website, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Soundcloud, Spotify, and more.

The transcript of our conversation has been prepared for accessibility purposes, with minor edits for clarity and brevity.

Salomé Buglass: I want everyone to make the ocean their playground—their respectful playground—because I think those interactions with seeing the organisms will make you a more conscientious consumer of marine resources.

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Dr Asma Bashir: Hello world, and welcome to Her Royal Science. Thank you so much for joining us for today's episode. Today, we'll be chatting with Salomé Buglass, a Marine Ecologist at the Charles Darwin Foundation and a PhD Candidate in Geography at the University of British Columbia (UBC). She previously completed her BSc in Geography at University College London and her MSc, also in Geography, at UBC. In addition to being a National Geographic Explorer, Salomé is a proud member of Black Women in Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Science, an NGO that aims to create supportive spaces for Black women in her field. I'm super excited to kick off the year with a lovely conversation with Salomé about her upbringing and her journey to present day, but let's start from the very beginning—Salomé, what's your story?

SB: My story is that I'm a marine ecologist dedicated to studying deep-water ecosystems, and I am very lucky to be doing this in the Galapagos, these isolated islands that have spectacular marine biology, and it's got this unique biodiversity and so much abundance of life as well. So, I just feel very lucky to have been able to kick off a marine ecology career in this space.

To be honest, I never imagined that I would be a marine ecologist, a scientist, or a researcher. It's a bit crazy to now be having a little bit of an interview and discussion about myself as a researcher-scientist. It's just not what I ever envisioned for myself, and that's because, I mean, I'm a geographer! <Laugh> I started in geography and not in marine biology, so I'm one of those marine ecologists or marine biologists that every now and then people ask something about the marine world and I'm just like, 'Let's quickly Google that!' <Laugh> I've kind of been learning as a grad student about the marine world.

And yeah, as I said earlier, I never thought I would be a scientist. It's partly because I was never really good in school <chuckle> or never felt like I was very good in school. I was never academically inclined and there are many reasons for this in my life journey. One of them is my family and I moved around a lot. I was born in Germany and then I moved to Spain, Ecuador, Dominican Republic, back to England, and then Trinidad and Tobago, so I changed school more than ten times, and languages more than three times. Every time in school, I had to kind of catch up when I was starting in a new language and also adjust to my new environment.

I learned later as an adult that I was dyslexic, but that kind of explains why as a kid I never enjoyed school. I just found reading and writing very challenging. And if you had asked me between 7 and 10 what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always said either a hairdresser or a seamstress! A, there are major pros, which is I can make my own clothes <laugh> and make a living. I don't have to read and write a lot. Or I would learn how to style my hair, and at the time, I was definitely one of those mixed-race Brown kids who had lots of... I have really kinky hair and I just fought against my hair so much. I always wanted to have straight hair, so I thought, 'If I'm a hairdresser, I can get free hair straightening!' <Laugh> For a while, I always thought those were excellent career choices, which they are!

AB: Yes, they are!

SB: But they were kind of what I thought would be easier for me because I just did not enjoy reading and writing. Luckily, my parents were, for good or for bad, very adamant about and worried that I just didn't read a lot or I didn't enjoy reading. I never read books as a kid, and I tried to dodge as much homework as I could. Needless to say that by the time I did high school, I actually failed my first year in high school and I had to start again. So, yeah <laugh> never really thought I would be an academic.

AB: How did that feel though, the moment of realizing that things might not work out academically? How did you deal with that?

SB: You know, I... I think about this... With my parents, I talk about this a lot. We've talked about this several times, because I know it happened and I have memories of it happening, but I can't even remember the state of mind that I was in because I must have been so determined. But in the vague memory I have, I remember the teacher who liked me a lot was just like, 'Sal, we think you're great and we think that you have potential to do better, but you've unfortunately, you've got marks that are kind of...' They weren't failures, but they were marks that aren't good enough for university. Because they liked me, they suggested I repeat the year and they thought that in a year I would catch up. I think, honestly, having those teachers was great. Those teachers made that difference, right? Instead of making me feel like I'm doing badly, they just made me feel like, 'I can do this. I just need a little bit more time.' And I worked my butt off and I got good grades and I got into UCL, which was great, <laugh> and also really, really hard! <Laugh>

I applied for geography and geography was the subject that I just really liked because it was the only subject during my high school in which it just came naturally. It was learning about the world, about different countries, about countries' different social and economic contexts, how they managed their environment, and the different natural environments in these spaces, and I felt like because I had moved so much throughout my life between Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean, I had seen the tropic versus the north or the higher latitudes and been in these different countries, from developing to less-economically developed, so I kind of felt like geography was a little bit of all the life experience I had. But I quickly learned at UCL that... So UCL, for those who may not know the British university system, it's probably where all the Oxford and Cambridge rejects go, and I was very proud to have gotten in, and then when I got there I was just like, 'Uh oh.' That's when I got in touch with the not belonging, inferiority complex. That part of me started to grow—a lot of insecurity, a lot of not belonging. Undergrad was a tough place. That's where a lot of anxiety started and maybe even depression. Maybe... I'm not sure. I didn't really think about it that much, but I felt like I was continuously trying to... I was heavily paddling and swimming to stay above, because I was surrounded with people who were A* students all of their life. Also, UCL at the time had 40% kids who came from private schools, so not only was I going from someone who wasn't much of a nerd or a study-kid to being in a place where everyone has been trained to succeed at this university. So, I was completely out of my depth <laugh>.

I got really lost there, in terms of the confident extroverted self in me; [it] got overshadowed by a very insecure [person]... I don't know... This insecurity of not belonging and not being good enough and always trying to prove that I can be at UCL <laugh>. And also, I studied geography, which took me a long time to realize is a luxury subject at university, and that made it a very white subject, so I was one of two more minorities or let's say Black, someone who's Afro-descending.

It was also the time of my life where I was having an identity crisis, a little bit. I remember there being an Afro-Caribbean society and I remember walking around the day where you get to meet all the societies and they were just like, 'Hey, where are you from? You should join the society!' And I was just like, 'Oh, no, no, no, no!' <chuckle>. I was in that space where I really wanted to be validated by white people and I wanted to have white friends, and I think it was from being raised in Latin America, which is a space where proximity to whiteness is proximity to success and comfort and betterment.

Some context about where I'm from: my mom is Trinidadian-Venezuelan. My dad is English and German. So, he's white, and my mom, I would say ethnically is Black and Indian. And even in my own family, my Afro-Venezuelan grandad would do this thing that happens across all Latin America, which is improving your race.

AB: Yeah, mejorando la raza.

SB: Mejorando la raza! So, within that context, I was one of these messed up undergrads who was out of her depths, just trying to keep up academically with all the work, surrounded by high-performing privileged kids, and then I was trying really hard to be accepted into that group and probably neglected myself from being able to have a community that would support me. But it's a reality of something that I've had to explore during Black Lives Matter, putting a mirror in front of myself.

AB: We can compare that with the association that you're now a proud member of, [which] shows your own growth in time. Early on as an undergrad, [you felt] like you needed to be friends with a different group of people to feel like you were one of them, closer to that, better off, likely to succeed, but you can get all of those things amongst Black women too! I'd love to hear the story of Black Women in Ecology, Evolution, and in Marine Science (BWEEMS ), if you don't mind sharing that, because that is quite the transformation.

SB: BWEEMS was born out of the time of the pandemic in 2020. This was in, I think, July. But as you know, I think June kicked off this whole Black Lives Matter movement, online at least, because that's where we all were, in front of our laptops. There was so much information and I was obviously sucked into it. As someone who is Afro-descending, I'm like, 'Oh, this is about me or something about me. Lemme read more.' I'm reading and I'm consuming more and I'm learning more about all these conversations about race and how this makes us feel, seeing Black people murdered for being Black. It created a lot of sadness, a lot of learning, because just because you're Black or you have Black blood, it doesn't mean you know about Afro-Caribbean or Afro-American studies, right? <Chuckle> You're not an expert in ethnicity just because you're ethnic! For me, this was like having all this bite-size information about how Black people feel and how white people feel and was just an amazing opportunity for someone who is partly Black but hasn't been immersed, because I've mostly lived in a white world, or in a Latino, Black-rejecting world, so I've never had the chance to have this information. And it's not something that we unpacked as a family, so a lot of feelings, a lot of tears, just so many emotions.

Then, on top of that, I was getting so many requests suddenly to give talks, to share my point of view amongst the marine research community. And I'm a Nat Geo Explorer, so even National Geographic was like, 'Hey Sal, we wanna celebrate you today. Can we do a story about you?' Or other professors from other universities were like, 'Hey, do you wanna give a talk to our class?' In the beginning, I was just like, 'Wow, someone cares about me,' or 'Someone thinks my science is good!' <Laugh> For a minute, it was a mixture of validating or feeling like it's important that I talk about this because I realized I didn't have what I can offer, which is I never saw any Black women doing marine research. It's probably partly why I never thought I would be a marine scientist or a scientist. If you don't see anyone like yourself, then how can you imagine yourself in that position? So, I thought, 'Okay, it's good that I can give these talks because it'll be good for undergrads, especially any other Black or Brown women out there to see me doing a PhD in this strange field that is usually led by white men.'

But after a month or two months of this, I was also exhausted from these requests. Then, I saw a post out there by one of our members saying, 'Isn't it interesting that people are recognizing how bad slavery was, but now they're expecting us to do more free labor by giving free talks and filling the gap that they have been not addressing, which is ensuring that there's representation, ensuring that all types of voices are being amplified within this field?' And then we're being asked to do more free labor at an emotional time, it was a bit of a double whamy.

Nikki Traylor-Knowles, who's the founder of BWEEMS, who's a legend <laugh>, she put out this call asking, 'Are there any Black marine scientists out there feeling overwhelmed? <Laugh> 'Put your name on this sheet, on this Google sheet. Let's get together and chat.' That first Zoom congregation that we had was just amazing. I had never actually been surrounded by other academic Black women. I mean, in Geography, it's been a lonely place in that regard, and it's something that I'd never even thought about! I just felt like it was normal, that this is just my life, right? My life is just, 'I'm mixed-race Salomé who is in a white world and I'm part of it.' <Laugh> 'That's just how it is!' It was just so great to talk to so many other women. And we are women because as we know, we have different experiences than men as well, so it was really important for [BWEEMS] to be women and then of color.

It was just so nice to hear that other people had shared similar experiences, and to discuss these things that before you were just internalizing, sometimes you're ignoring, sometimes you're worrying about it and then you decide not to think about it too much. It was just amazing to know that other people share these realities. And then hashing out different reactions, what is helpful, what isn't helpful, and getting advice. One of the great things that came out of that was, 'Do not do any free labor!' <Laugh> And that was liberating!

We even went as far as a Slack channel! We have our website now, but the Slack channel is great. The slightest thing that might be distressing you, that we think is maybe related to race or something like that, you type it there and there's always a sister who is answering. There's over 200 of us now and I can't always be there, but anytime I see something pop up in the Slack, I quickly look and if I think I can have any advice, I'm also there typing. It's just been great to have that kind of network of women who understand.

There's other Afro-Latinas on there too, and we might all share that melanin gene, but in different parts of the world, it has a different context. Definitely white supremacy is still within the system in most of the spaces of the different communities that our members are from. But there's definitely shared experiences that are valuable for each other to share. I feel like if I graduate and I don't know what I'm doing next and I need a job, if I type there, 'Any jobs out there, ladies?' <Laugh>, they've got me sorted. I've even had two of them asking me if I'm ready to consider positions and I'm like, 'Still trying to finish!' <Laugh> It's just great to have a network like this, and I think we all genuinely really care.

AB: Yeah! Before we talk about the ocean, because I know that's a topic that also gets you quite excited and I can't wait to hear more about the work that you do, I do want to touch upon one thing that you mentioned, about the conversations that you didn't have with your parents growing up. Since 2020, have you started to have more of those conversations about how you felt in undergrad or even before that, when you were living in the DR or living in Germany? Have those conversations come up and how have those conversations been, if so?

SB: Yeah. They've been spontaneous and they've been more like mini-eruptions because I don't live with my parents now. When I do see them, there are moments where I'm canceling my dad constantly! <Laugh>

I saw my parents in 2020, December, after Black Lives Matter, after being part of BWEEMS, and I wanted answers as to why we never spoke about this. My mom was a little bit in shock—my mom who's the Black one in my family—she was kind of speechless. I realized how, I guess, just like me, they're good people and I think they did their best. These were just conversations and topics that weren't at their fingertips to share with me, and that's something I realized. So, we're taking it a step at a time, but I think they are as woke as they can be for their age and they are so willing to keep on learning. When I tell them how certain things are no longer something we should say or do, or we need to change our perspective on something, I just love that they're so willing to take it in and re-learn and be flexible.

There was a lot to be unpacked. For example, my sister is much more darker-skinned than I am, and we have a completely different experience of the world, and these were things that we never spoke about because you're just living life. And now I have so many moments of remembering things that I feel, with the information I have now, I think we could have dealt with many things differently. Especially for me, because I definitely had a lot more privilege just by being a little more light-skinned in the Dominican Republic, which is where we were teenagers.

AB: How old is your sister? Is she older or younger than you?

SB: She's older than I am. She's three years older and she lives in the UK. She's married to a Kenyan, and she was living in Kenya but now lives in England. And just as an example, I think she never was that interested in moving back to Latin America or the Caribbean because it was a place and space that, when we were teenagers, it was easy to feel how you were just treated better, the lighter you were in skin color. I think she just felt a lot better in England, and it's crazy to think that the historical colonial, enslaver country that bears so much responsibility and needs to give so many apologies, is one of the places where she felt more comfortable, valued. Maybe you can have a part two and have a talk with her. I think she would be a great person to talk to. She is about to start her postdoc in England, after being a full-time mom, house renovator <laugh>; she's been very busy. She has three beautiful kids, and she's finding her way back into academia. Me and her haven't had a proper chance to really talk about unpacking so many experiences, but I myself am curious to see how she feels about many of these things! <Laugh>

AB: <Laugh> I'd love to give you a chance to talk about what the ocean means to you before we talk about the work that you do within the context of the ocean. We can talk about it that in relation to your identity or we can talk about it as a standalone. What does the ocean mean to you?

SB: The ocean means the world to me, <laugh>. We're on a blue planet, so the ocean means the world to me in every sense and form. It's my playground. It's also my job, and it is a world that we know so little about, so it just gets me very excited. My research is focused on deep-water ecosystems, so I also get to be part of this new scientific revolution, [where] we now are able to study deeper parts of the ocean as technology is getting better. I'm part of this new community of scientists who gets to be pioneers again in a place that we know so little about, which is the deep sea. And I love it because I get to be an explorer and <laugh> in the best sense, not in colonizing others and claiming to be discovering things that other people knew about <laugh>, but in a sense of just getting to shine a light into places that humans have never gotten to see, and bringing this information to the surface and sharing it. It feels like a privilege to be able to do this.

I use affordable ROVs to explore shallow seamounts. Those are the seamounts that are underwater mountains...

AB: We should say what ROVs are!

SB: Oh yeah! ROVs are remotely operated vehicles <laugh>. But essentially, they're like a drone, an underwater drone with a long cable, because GPS doesn't work underwater, so you can't actually remote control at a distance, like a drone. [Instead,] you have to have a cable, and your cable has to be as long as the depths that you want to go down to, times two. If you want go to hundred meters, you need a 200- to 300-meter-long cable, and that's because we have the thing called currents <laugh>, which is my biggest enemy <laugh>.

So, I proposed to explore these shallow seamounts, and by 'shallow' I mean those that are not so deep, so within like the [first] 100, 200 meters and that's what we call the mesophotic zone or the Twilight zone, where after 40 meters we lose almost all light except for blue and green light. Then, blue and green light can penetrate almost as deep as 150 meters. It kind of depends where you are on the earth and how transparent your water is. This is a zone where we still have light influencing the productivity of our marine ecosystem, so that's why after 200 m, when it gets pitch black, you have a different dynamic because light, photosynthesis, and primary production is out of the deal. I was interested specifically in these shallow seamounts because these shallow seamounts are key fishing sites in Galapagos for the artisanal fishing fleet, and it's what we call offshore fishing sites. The only reason why they're fishing in these offshore locations is because there's a seamount, and seamounts create habitats of different dynamics. We're getting important fish resources here, and we don't know anything about the habitats. And it was nerve-wracking, I was terrified, and it didn't work half of the time. The currents were just too harsh on the ROV or we didn't find any seamounts at all where the GPS coordinates were.

On the last day, we lowered the ROV and we hit the summit—the summit of the seamount—and when we got there, I'm looking at the footage. While you are driving the ROV from a laptop, you can see in real-time what the ROV is seeing through a camera. Suddenly, we are seeing these green long things and I'm like, 'What the hell is that?' I thought it was maybe a big coral—I was hoping to find some coral gardens—and I'm like, 'Whoa, these are the weirdest looking corals.' As we get closer, I realized that this is just some massive seaweed. I remember telling the pilot drivers of the ROV, 'Oh my god is that... Is that kale?' And they're like, 'Kale, Sal? Do you mean kelp?' And I'm like, 'Yes! <Laugh> 'I think that's kelp!' I was just like, 'What the hell is kelp doing here?' Kelp is a cold-water species that you typically find off the coast of Halifax or BC [British Columbia] or the poles. It's just like penguins and polar bears. They do not belong in the tropics <laugh>. But Galapagos is this special place that has upwelling of cold water and the Humboldt current comes there too, which is why we have penguins in Galapagos. We have sealions and we have this incredible biomass.

When I found this kelp forest, that's when the scientist in me was born. I just had so many questions. I was like, 'What is this kelp doing here? How is it so deep? How is it operating at depth with such little light? How is it so big? Who else is living here? Is this a new species?'

AB: Wait, is that likely to be the case? Could this be a whole new species of kelp?

SB: Yeah! I just published a paper on the first characterization of this kelp forest and we think it might be a new species to science, but we still have to confirm a few more things. That's when I think the academic in me was born from a genuine place of curiosity and just wanting to find out, suddenly thinking about what all the tools and methods that I can use to get more data.

What I'm trying to figure out about these kelp forests, if they are shallow kelp communities—which most kelp forests are because they need light and they should be more shallow—that have migrated into these deep-water spots where there's just about enough light because things have gotten too warm, and maybe these are the last pockets of tropical kelp forests that are able to survive in these few deep-water spots where there's just enough light. Maybe these are what we call remnants, the last remnants from a species that might be at the end of being able to tolerate the warm seas that we are in now. Or they're just well-adapted mesophotic kelp forests, so instead of being the last remnants, maybe we just don't know that there's just heaps of kelp forests at deep-water and that's because we don't know anything about what's going on in deeper water. So, maybe the last remnants, maybe an abundant and very important ecosystem.

One of the reasons contributing to why Galapagos is so special: you have kelp forests and kelp forests are known for being ecosystems that support myriads of life. They're just like trees on land: they're the trees underwater. If you have trees, you have a forest. And if you have forest, you have a rich ecosystem full of life. The same as underwater: if you have lots of kelp, you have a marine forest. And if you have a marine forest, you've got a bounty of life and primary production that is probably supporting life in deeper water.

I'm trying to find out about their resilience in a time where we have a warming ocean. I'm really interested in learning about if we have this phenomena called a deep-water refuge hypothesis, which is, [since] water gets colder with depth, currently with climate change and marine heat waves becoming more abundant that are killing coral reefs globally and they're changing our coastal ecosystems globally, maybe slightly deeper waters—where temperatures are not getting that warm—maybe this is a place where a lot of species can survive because they're buffered by it being cooler.

Now what is interesting is because conditions are different as you go deeper, maybe your community is also different, so maybe it's not a refuge if your community is distinctly different to the community above or in the shallow water. That's kind of what we are finding out. We know so little about what's going on in the mesophotic depth zones that we just need to survey and explore and describe and compare and assess and see what we have down here and what role it is playing in making our ocean coastal communities more resilient. And that's where my PhD is and that is what I am currently doing.

AB: That's so exciting. But it's also quite nerve-wracking to hear that so many things can change on a global level because of climate change, beyond what happens on land but also in the ocean. I'm hoping that you can share with our audience something that we might be able to do on an individual level because I mean, we can't necessarily prevent oil spills and things like that on an individual level, but can we do things to prevent really horrible things from happening within the ocean and within water ecosystems?

SB: Yeah! Depending on the day, I feel like our individual efforts are maybe not enough, but then I do think, obviously if we all changed at the same time, it is totally enough. I think what my 2 cents for that is: it's where we put our dollars. I would like everyone who likes the ocean and wants to do more for the ocean and is aware that we're destroying it to think about the ocean resources you use, and if you eat fish, think about the fish that you're consuming. How is it fished? The fishing that we are doing is causing so much damage and change, and that's because industrial fishing is just absolutely terrible. There are these huge nets that are catching huge amounts, tonnages of fish indiscriminately, out of which they only really want to target maybe 10% of what they're catching.

Literally every five years that I go to a fish market, the fish that is being sold is a different species. That's because we're literally fishing down the food web. If you're in a place where you can buy sustainably-caught food, or if you can find a certificate that shows that your fish comes from small-scale fisheries, that is a way to make a difference, because it's a double whammy. Industrial fishing is bad for the ocean, but it's also bad for jobs and it's bad for people. [With] industrial fishing, companies are making most of the money and it doesn't hire as many people. Small-scale fisheries hire more people, is more artisanal, hires more poor people from coastal communities, especially in the less economically-developed parts of the world, and industrial fishing is killing fish stocks that these fishermen and fisherwomen cannot fish anymore. It's bad in every way.

It is really important. It does matter what fish you're buying and I think we need to be more conscious and think more about the fish we eat. I only want to eat fish that has been caught at a small scale, but also I only want to eat fish that are low on the food web. You don't want to eat the fish that are equivalent to tigers and lions or wolves. That's usually the big fish. You want to eat the small fish, or mussels and oysters. That's great! They're filter feeders. They reproduce fast.

And I spend so much time underwater and fish are 100% sentient beings. I've seen fish of the same species and one doesn't behave like the other. They have personality, they're curious. Some even come and interact with you as a diver. And this is why I want everyone to make the ocean their playground, their respectful playground. Those interactions with seeing the organisms will make you a more conscientious consumer of marine resources.

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