Creating Healthy Working Cultures in Marine Science Education

Below you’ll find a document I’ve been thinking about for more than a decade. I teach marine science field skills to undergraduates and graduate students at Field School and the University of Miami, and I’ve had a lot of opportunities to observe science and scientific learning in action. This is my best effort to distill the key principles I’ve learned about creating a healthy, supportive working environment. Starting the year, my students at Field School will all read and sign on to these principles before working with us.

It feels important to add that cultures are the product of choices and actions (or inaction). They don’t create themselves; they are created by the people within them. That means, sadly, that in every toxic organization there are people who choose, and benefit (or think they benefit) from that toxicity. The good news is that it also means we can choose something else. It’s not out of our hands.     

I’ve spent a lot of my time thinking about how to create welcoming, supportive learning environments for all of my students. And no: I don’t believe compassion and acceptance mean you have to sacrifice scientific rigor—in fact, I think students learn and grow more in these settings.

If you are also engaged in looking for solutions to the systemic problems in how we train future marine scientists, please feel free to join me by sharing this, implementing it in your own teaching, or reaching out with suggestions for how it can be improved based on your knowledge and practice. If you are a student who is struggling with these issues and you need advice or a friendly ear, please know that you are not alone, and my inbox is always open to you.

Expectations for marine field research with Field School

Learning to do marine field work is a dream come true for many, and should be a structured, meaningful, safe, and rewarding experience for every student. Sadly, there’s evidence that young scientists are often harassed, mistreated, discriminated against, or otherwise made to feel uncomfortable, especially in the early stages of their careers, and that few organizations communicate directly with trainees about (or have set policies around) their working cultures.

Below are some of the key principles that guide our organizational thinking and planning; other labs and training organizations should feel welcome to use and adapt these principles as needed (crediting their origins, detailed below).

We succeed as a team or not at all.

Our professional and personal contributions to our work are based on essential principles of collaboration and mutual respect, regardless of any individual’s position within our team. Everyone is here to learn, share their knowledge, and work to improve. Supporting the success and learning of everyone on the team (without compromising anyone’s safety or well-being) is our priority. We commit to building a culture of constant improvement, where we aren’t focused on whether someone is good at something, but whether they’re trying and getting better. Mistakes are a natural and unavoidable part of learning.

Safety is everyone’s responsibility, and depends on everyone’s actions. Lack of attention or avoidable errors may have dangerous consequences for others, which means no one should ever feel uncomfortable asking for help if they need it or if they’re unsure what to do. We would like to stress that the safety we want to establish is emotional as well as physical. Everyone should be welcoming, encouraging, uplifting and supporting their teammates—both to their faces and in conversations with others. Occasional (very private) griping to close friends may be a healthy safety valve for frustrations, but publicly disparaging or shaming others reflects poorly on the person doing it, and is not welcomed or accepted on our team.

Everyone (from PhD to brand new trainee) should leave their ego at the door. Every task that contributes to our success as a team matters, and all types of contributions are worthy of recognition and appreciation. No one is above simple or menial tasks. We operate in our fieldwork from the philosophy that “no one’s done working until everyone’s done,” so it should be a habit to turn to a teammate and ask how we can help.

We recognize and affirm that how we treat and interact with others reflects strongly on us as individuals and as an organization.

We are committed to respect for others, including our research subjects.

We believe that respect for people includes an interest in their professional and personal goals, a commitment to their physical and emotional well-being, a desire to build meaningful and lasting relationships, and a goal of supporting students in building such relationships with each other. Respect fundamentally includes a commitment to core principles of kindness, inclusivity, and generosity. Every member of our team, students and staff, should know and feel that they are valued and belong.

Our commitment to respect for our research subjects includes taking every step possible to appropriately train our team to conduct marine field work; compliance with permitting and protocol requirements; minimizing physical discomfort and stress to research animals to the greatest extent possible; and mitigating unavoidable harm, including through iteration and ongoing best practices development. Our respect for our research subjects further encompasses a commitment to generating and sharing high quality conservation- and policy-relevant science that supports the health and protection of the ecosystems and animal communities we study.

We agree to abide by the expectations set by our team.

Our staff are committed to meeting the goals of safety, transparency, and openness, for working to help students meet educational objectives, and for modeling behavior that creates a supportive and inclusive work environment. We also (genuinely, always) care about each of our students.

The creation of a positive work culture is a collaborative task in which students must also participate. Our expectations of students are that they will complete pre-trip tasks as required, engage deeply with educational materials, exercise attention-to-task and detail in their work, and carefully follow instructions provided by staff. Most importantly, we expect that students will treat each other with kindness, generosity, and respect. Discriminatory, hostile, aggressive, demeaning, threatening, intimidating, or otherwise damaging behavior is never tolerated. Creating a good working environment demands recognizing and adhering to team expectations in regards to upholding the physical and emotional safety, well-being, security, equality, and dignity of all.

We acknowledge the vital role trust and communication play in building a good team.

Before students begin working in the field with us, we discuss as a group how to securely and confidentially report a problem; this is information every organization should provide. Students experiencing issues or challenges that will affect them or their teammates can and should bring them to a member of Field School’s staff.

We recognize that emotional safety and comfort are complex, gray areas exist, and different organizational responses are appropriate to different situations. That said, students bringing a problem to us can trust that we will take it seriously, care deeply, handle their concerns sensitively, treat them with respect, and do everything necessary to protect them and their well-being.

Students agree to disclose information necessary to our staff (which may include matters relating to health, psychological and physical well-being, security, equality, confidence, or interpersonal relations) prior to and during field work as needed. This information is shared confidentially in the expectation of complete privacy unless urgent medical, safety/security or other legal intervention is required.

We commit to protecting individual and group well-being and safety during field work, including providing a safe, secure, and welcoming working and living environment.

Working in the field can be exhausting, intense, challenging, and emotionally demanding, especially on a research vessel. Things occasionally go wrong, and quite often don’t go exactly as planned. Fishing has inherent uncertainties, equipment sometimes breaks, and the weather can be uncooperative. People can find themselves under physical or emotional stress that may shorten tempers or fray patience. We all commit to an effort to bring our most compassionate and generous selves to our work, apologizing for our errors and forgiving the errors of others.

Our staff commit to working to make decisions collectively as a team wherever possible, acting to protect student safety and comfort, and maintaining ongoing and open communication. We ask our students to commit to being honest and transparent about any difficulties they are facing and to working with staff to seek solutions.

Our ultimate metric for success includes not simply the quality of the work we do, but the quality of the working environment we create together.

We take these commitments seriously. We are dedicated to enforcing these standards, even when it’s awkward or difficult. They are fundamental to our mission and to the reasons we founded Field School. Students can trust that we will always enforce them, even when it’s inconvenient, or costs us collaborators, funding, or opportunities. We do not and will not work with any person or organization unable to commit to abiding by these principles. We believe this kind of enforcement—from all scientists, as a community—is the only way that lasting cultural change will occur in our field.

This document draws from principles for archaeological field schools written by Sara Perry, and is also informed by the work of archaeologist Lisa Westcott Wilkins. Both of these sources, as well as Field School, can be cited in future iterations of this document.