A conversation with Heather Leslie

Director of the Ira C. Darling Marine Center for Research, Teaching, and Service at the University of Maine

Heather Leslie, Director of the Darling Marine Center, University of MaineProfessor Heather Leslie is a marine scientist with expertise in coastal marine ecology; human-environment interactions, particularly those related to coastal marine fisheries; the design and evaluation of marine management strategies; and the translation of knowledge to inform policy and practice. She was named director of the University of Maine Darling Marine Center effective Aug. 1, 2015.

Why the Darling Marine Center?
The Darling Marine Center is an incredibly important and special place. For the last 50 years, Darling Center researchers have been observing the coastal and ocean ecosystems of Maine and the world, discovering new species and connections among them, and creating new knowledge vital to coastal communities and economies. In this era of global environmental change, marine laboratories like the Darling Center are vital to our environmental intelligence, enabling us to gather information about the natural world and people’s connections to it. Yet there are surprisingly few outposts along our coast like the center. We need this knowledge, translated in ways that are relevant to policymakers and resource users in particular, in order to help make informed decisions about marine resource use and stewardship.

I’ve had a longtime connection to the center. One of my first professional positions, right out of college, was at Darling. In the last decade, I’ve had the good fortune to return to the center with my students, to lead research projects on the responses of rocky shore ecosystems to nutrient stress and other environmental changes. I’m so thrilled to be back in Maine and working at the Darling Marine Center. I cannot imagine a better place to be.

What are your goals as director?
My goals as director are to make sure that the stories of our scientists’ and students’ amazing discoveries reach a broader audience, and to support and grow the excellent research and education activities underway at the center. I want every citizen in Maine to know about the great work of UMaine marine scientists, and the impacts our scientists and students are having on coastal economies and ecosystem health. Every citizen should see the center as his or her place, one he or she is welcome to visit. Creating more opportunities for people in the midcoast and throughout Maine to connect with the center, both in person and virtually, will be a big part of my job in the coming years.

While many think of the Darling Center as the “birthplace” of Maine’s oyster farming industry, our role in sustaining Maine’s lobster fishery, developing tools for monitoring environment change and cataloging the tremendous diversity of marine life are no less important. Many of these accomplishments are directly related to conversations that center researchers have initiated with fishers, shellfish growers and other community partners. As director, I will seek to catalyze more of these conversations among UMaine researchers and our potential partners in commercial, government and nonprofit institutions throughout Maine.

Will you teach, as well? If so, which course(s)?
This first year, I’m focused on learning about the center and our neighbors, so as to facilitate those conversations I just mentioned. So I will be doing as much learning as teaching.

I love teaching and also sharing my science with community groups, legislators and other decision makers. I very much hope to have the opportunity to talk with a number of such groups in the coming months, as I get to know the region and learn more about how UMaine marine science relates to community and industry interests. I see great potential for deeper partnerships between UMaine and Maine’s coastal and island communities, and I look forward to learning more about how we at the Darling Center can be more useful, both as researchers and educators, to the people of Maine.

Describe your impressions of the Darling Marine Center and surrounding communities:
The Darling Center is a really special and close community. Every person I’ve met at the center, whether they’re an intern who’s just arrived or a faculty member who’s seen generations of students pass through, has deep affection for the place and a strong commitment to our mission. It is a great privilege to be part of this community again. Since I left Maine 17 years ago, I’ve been trying to figure out how to get back.

What are your research interests and how will they contribute to the center’s research/outreach/education?
I am a marine conservation scientist and work closely with a diverse group of researchers and practitioners with expertise in both the natural and social sciences. Right now, my research is focused on Mexico’s Baja peninsula, where we are investigating how environmental and economic change shapes the resilience and outcomes of both the ecological and human dimensions of coastal marine fisheries.

UMaine has great strength in integrative studies of human and environmental systems like the one I’m studying in Mexico, and also in connecting that knowledge to policy and management. I’m excited to develop a project like this in Maine in the coming years.

How did you first become interested in marine science and how did that interest evolve?
I grew up by the coast in Massachusetts. Summers I was sailing, when I wasn’t belly down on the beach, looking for tiny snails. Cape Cod Bay seemed cold until I moved to Maine, but regardless of the temperature, there’s no place I’d rather be than by the water.

I’ve always been interested in people’s connections to coastal places. As a high school student, I served on a town committee that advised selectmen on beach management. In college, I studied shorebird biology and communicated our research results to beachgoers and town and state decision makers. When I thought about a career, I knew I needed to be by the ocean, but I was really torn about whether to pursue science or something that seemed closer to the “action” of management and policy. I haven’t ever really resolved that tension; my science is always guided by a desire to be useful to people who are making decisions about coastal stewardship and policy, and I do what I can to share the work I’m doing in ways that are relevant to ongoing conversations. I’m looking forward to contributing in this way in Maine.

Anything else you would like to share with readers/the community?
I’m just so happy to be back in Maine and to welcome people to the center. We have an opportunity coming up soon: on Saturday, Aug. 8, visitors can see the work of our scientists and students firsthand as we celebrate the Darling Center’s 50th anniversary. From 10 a.m.–2 p.m., we are opening the doors of our waterfront laboratory to the community. There will be free, hands-on marine science activities for all ages.