The importance of finding your “why” as a young researcher

When I first became involved in seafood and fisheries work, I read every book, journal article, and report that I could find. I wanted to know everything, so that I could use facts and data to back up my arguments.

What I learned however, was that no matter how convincing or reputable the facts were, people don’t respond to numbers and statistics. 

This is true with anything, but even more so with seafood. If you’re not near an ocean, seafood is not usually top of mind. I could scream facts at people until I was blue in the face, but it wouldn’t make a difference. Without a personal relationship to seafood, people remained disconnected and uninspired to change.  

It wasn’t until late into my undergraduate degree that I realized that my approach to changing the seafood policy landscape was all wrong. I was explaining to a colleague what I hoped my graduate research would focus on: restructuring seafood value chains, supporting more transparency in the industry, and getting people to consume more locally-source seafood. 

This simple question changed everything about the way I approach research and science policy: “How did you get into that?”.

I proceeded to share the story of my upbringing. I was raised by two Azorean parents in a large, Portuguese family that centered gatherings around seafood. I explained the cultural significance of seafood products to my family and the economic significance of seafood consumption to small fishing communities, like the ones on the islands that we call home.  

I noticed a look on this person’s face that I’d never seen before when explaining my research goals with data and facts. It was a look of curiosity, interest, and an eagerness to learn more. They had been nodding along politely before, but when I started sharing my personal story, their entire demeanor changed. Their eyes got a little wider and they leaned in closer, as if they were scared to miss a single word. 

By sharing my “why”, I created a unique connection that can’t be cultivated with scientific data. And suddenly, I had their full attention. 

This was the lightbulb moment for me. The way to connect with people was not to tell them what I do, it’s to tell them why I do it. These personal narratives offer more comprehension, interest and engagement.

So when I submitted my policy proposal for the 2019 CSPC Youth Award of Excellence, I led with my personal narrative. Before I explained the issues of seafood fraud in Canada, I shared why good seafood policy mattered to me. I told stories from my childhood and personal experiences with seafood. I shared that in the Azores it’s common practices to pull limpets of volcanic rocks. I told stories of spending Christmas peeling mountains of shrimp with my cousins. And I asserted that every fisherman I’d ever met was the biggest defender of the ocean. 

Not everybody is as passionate about seafood as me, but everybody has a family to feed and cultural traditions that they value. Finding this common ground in my own work and the life of a stranger is how I’m able to communicate what I do in a way that resonates with them. 

The 2019 CSPC Awards Gala remains one of the most memorable nights of my life. I particularly remember two selection committee members approaching me at different points in the evening to express their appreciation for my personal story in my policy proposal. “I really liked that you talked about your family background and why this was important to you. It made your submission very impactful.” 

As researchers, we talk a lot about impact and I am a firm believer that if you want to maximize impact, you need to tell stories. Maximum impact results from human connection.

My experiences at CSPC further validated the role of storytelling in the science policy landscape. Winning the 2019 Youth Excellence Award inspired me to work even harder to promote cross-sector communication in my own work. Since winning the 2019 CSPC Youth Excellence Award, I’ve been co-hosting a podcast with my advisor Dr. Phillip Loring and colleague Dr. Hannah Harrison. Here, we use the power of storytelling to share experiences of fishermen from around the world. We show our listeners how seafood harvesters are dealing with the impacts of COVID19 on their seafood business. 

I’ve also combined science, policy, and storytelling in my online travel business. Here, I connect with people around the world online to share unique culinary experiences and advocate for change in our global food systems and tourism industry. 

In my graduate research, storytelling remains the glue that holds the interviews, data sets, and manuscript drafts together. 

It’s time that we rethink the way we approach research and science policy. Young researchers should be encouraged and supported in finding their “why” and using it to improve their work in science policy.

The science policy nexus is a critical partnership that CSPC has done an incredible job of nurturing in Canada. I propose that a third facet be added to this collaboration to strengthen the impact of the work of scientists and policy makers in Canada. 


Why does science policy matter? Why does it matter to scientists and policy makers? And why should it matter to the rest of Canadians?

We talk about evidence-based policy, but policy makers are people too. As we’ve witnessed in responses to climate change and a global pandemic, many people don’t act based on science. Science alone isn’t enough. Establishing a human connection through storytelling allows us to tap into human values and build a stronger connection with decision makers. This connection is the key to driving policy change in Canada. 

A common phrase in the marketing industry is, “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”. This same concept can be applied to policy. By combining scientific data with stories that cultivate a personal connection, science policy can move the needle in Canada like never before.  

The stories behind the science policy decisions need to be told. I urge young researchers to focus on this right from the beginning. Get to the bottom of why you do what you do.  

Everybody has a story and your story is powerful. Start telling it.