Sebastian Valanko, 36 year-old Finnish marine ecologist and PhD, realized his calling early on in life. "I spent summers in the Finnish southwestern archipelago, always a good 2-3 months a year when I was a kid," he describes on the subject of what first piqued his interest in aquatic life. "We did a lot of fishing, boating, swimming, and snorkeling. Having seen all these Jacques Cousteau documentaries, I had decided from a young age that I would become a marine biologist."
Although a passion for outdoor pursuits like those of his childhood has endured, it is Valanko's academic and professional journey that has seen him ultimately mature into the role he once idealized. The road to get there, it has since transpired, has turned out to be both a multidisciplinary and multinational one.
Having received his bachelor's degree in marine biology and coastal ecology – which also involved studying invasive species – from the University of Plymouth, UK, Valanko went on to complete a Research Master's in Coastal and Ocean Policy at the same institution. For the requisite dissertation he embarked on a project with the Ministry of Environment of Finland for the Baltic Sea. "In 2003, we looked at how to regionally apply the ecosystem approach and develop Ecological Quality Objectives (EcoQOs)," he explains. "They're basically a set of indicators that best describe a healthy ecosystem."
Following a stint at HELCOM as EcoQO Project Assistant (during which he also produced an animated public outreach video on Baltic Sea environmental problems entitled 'Lord of the Things'), he secured a post as commercial scientific diver at Millport Marine Station in Scotland, where, alongside taking part in dive-related research projects, he was also an attendant of the emergency hyperbaric unit.
He then headed homeward to begin – and, in 2012, defend – his PhD for Åbo Akademi University in benthic ecology whilst working at the Marine Research Centre of the Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE). "There (at SKYE) we carried out diving experiments to look at the dispersal of benthic invertebrates, so how much different bivalves and polychaetes move. We examined disturbance and recovery, in other words laying out different sized plastics to kill off sections of the seafloor and monitoring how these plots recovered in contrast to undisturbed control areas."
Valanko's expertise in the field of experimental benthic ecology and metacommunity ecology, though just one string to his bow, will assist him in his advisory role at ICES. "The emphasis in my position will be on the ecosystem approach and Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). My role will evolve, linked to ICES new Strategic Plan and the development of Integrated Ecosystem Assessments (IEAs)."
"I think embracing complexity and just being pragmatic," he continues, when considering the potential challenges of IEAs for ICES and marine science in general. "I believe ICES will remain in a position to be a focal point for the cutting edge marine science being done on different fronts, and I think one of the key challenges to come will be to better synthesize across working groups and disciplines to provide integrated advice."
"A key will be to acknowledge both our strengths and weaknesses as individuals so that we can together better bridge science and policy to meet the future challenges marine ecosystem will face."
Outside of his new workplace and advisory duties, Valanko will continue immersing himself in the ocean literally and figuratively through both his al fresco interests like diving and his other sea-related pastime – cooking. "I was in the navy as a chef, and I love seafood," he smiles. "In one of our first marine biology labs, we had some squid samples that hadn't been dissected. I asked our Spanish technician what he was going to do with these unused ones, and he said take them home and cook them. I took a few myself and made a nice stir fry!"
Valanko's love of seafood evident in the story nicely illustrates how he perceives the part humans play in the world around us. "Human activity isn't side by side with the ocean, it's automatically in there. That's also an aspect of the ecosystem approach; whether we like it or not, we're an integral part of nature. It's important, especially for us scientists, to keep a connection with nature, to better comprehend and appreciate."
This connectivity, coupled with a fondness for the great outdoors, means a lot to Valanko. Though, whilst his early summertime experiences have helped put him on a successful career path, he does admit to having found at least one difference along the way.
"My romanticized view of what being a marine biologist – or Jacques Cousteau – would involve has changed a lot since I was growing up. It's not just diving and driving boats!"