How did you decide to become a professor?
I am an accidental academic. Neither of my parents went to college – and I didn’t know any professors before I started university. I ignored career advice at school that I was best suited to the law or diplomatic service and I did a marine biology degree because I liked the sea and had a notion that adventures could be had either on it or in it. Had I known such a program existed, I would have done Marine Affairs instead. I was always interested in the human interaction with the oceans and this led me to specialize in fisheries. I got interested in research while doing an undergraduate thesis and decided to stay on for a PhD but I have been in and out of academia over the last 20 years, mainly due to my other main interest, social justice, which has led me to work on international development issues, mainly in Africa and Asia. For much of my career I have been lucky enough to find positions that allow me to combine these two interests.
What do you like most about your work?
I enjoy learning. Professors do more learning than teaching – much of it from their own students. I also like the variety. One day I might be taking a class to visit an oyster farm on Puget Sound, the next I’m on my way to Nigeria to work with a community seeking fair compensation for an oil spill that affected their fishing grounds. I like the social aspects too; we are not ‘lone scholars’ who dwell alone in book-lined caves. Ideas are often generated and discussed with others, so I spend quite a lot of time working with groups of people – whether it is students in class or colleagues in interdisciplinary research teams. When you spend your working life with people who are trying to figure out how the world works and are passionate about securing the future of our coasts and seas then it’s easy to stay excited and motivated. Particularly if your work involves hanging out on the waterfront.
If you could have any amount of funding to conduct research, what would you do, and why?
I would go back to the coastlines I grew up by, the coral reef-fringed Swahili coast of East Africa and the windswept shores of West Cumberland in England. I would spend time understanding what had changed and how people felt about those changes. Only from a deep and empathetic understanding of what people value about the coast can we sustain and adapt humanity’s future relationship with the sea. To me, that is the essence of Marine Affairs.
How would you describe SMEA students?
Our students are adaptable, practical and focused on finding solutions rather than endlessly characterizing the problems facing oceans and coasts. I think they are sometimes impatient with academia and want to get on and save marine biodiversity or help secure the future of maritime industries, rather than just reading about it or arguing in a classroom about how you could do it in theory. I often feel that way myself but I’ve also realized how often our impatience leads us to misdiagnose problems and prescribe ineffective solutions or to overlook opportunities for positive change. Now, I’m more patient with the careful application of theory and academic method. Hopefully this makes me a more effective management and policy advisor. Managing coasts and oceans is incredibly complex and to do it well you need a whole workshop full of tools and the skills to know which ones to pick. I hope I can persuade my students that what we teach and learn at SMEA will make them better environmental managers, more ethically-informed entrepreneurs in the maritime economy or more effective advocates for environmental and social justice in the coastal zone.
What advice would you give to students who are considering studying at SMEA?
Come here if you want to be a contributor to a better future for our living coasts and oceans, working waterfronts and iconic land and seascapes. Be prepared to work with others from different backgrounds and with different interests to bring about that better future. You can expect your preconceptions to be challenged and your knowledge and skills base to expand well beyond the boundaries set by your undergraduate degree or previous employment. You’ll come out of the degree with a set of skills that prepare you for work or further study. Just as importantly, you’ll also have a network of friends and peers that stretches from the US Coastguard to USAID, and from coastal tourism to commercial fishing.
What is your favorite form of marine life, and why?
I have always been fond of the Indo-Pacific Yellow Boxfish (Ostracion cubicus). I grew up on the East African Coast and they were common on the fringing reefs close to where I lived. They are benign and nonthreatening but poisonous to eat so they don’t have to hide from view. You don’t see them in a rush to get anywhere. They remind me of childhood afternoons spent snorkeling and fishing instead of doing my homework.
Read more about Professor Allison and his work on his Faculty Page