03 Oct 2023

Welcome to the inaugural edition of our EuroMarine Researchers in the Spotlight series, where we engage in captivating conversations with prominent researchers within our network.

Today we welcome Irene Olive, a dedicated researcher based at the Integrated Marine Ecology Department of Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn (SZN) who led the PATHGRASS workshop - Pathways for connecting people and seagrasses. We have talked to her about her experience as a Foresight Workshop lead for EuroMarine.

  • To identify the framework and tools needed for a socio-ecological multiple values assessment in seagrass meadows.
  • To assess methods for developing and implementing multiple values assessment and leverage point approaches in seagrass ecosystems.
  • To build a research core group capable of applying these multiple values approaches to seagrasses and fostering collaborations with researchers already working on human-nature connectedness in terrestrial systems.


Irene Olive earned her BSc and MSc degree in marine sciences from the prestigious Universidad de Cádiz in Spain and subsequently completed her doctoral studies in Marine Ecology at the same institution.

Over the past decade, Irene has played a pivotal role in competitive research projects, often serving as the Principal Investigator (PI). Her extensive research portfolio encompasses a wide array of topics within the realm of seagrass and marine ecosystems. Notable aspects of her work involve the exploration of the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide (CO2),’ impact on seagrass physiology, the enduring effects of elevated CO2 levels on seagrass photosynthetic mechanisms, and the identification and distribution of seagrass meadows.

Irene's research extends beyond seagrasses to encompass critical investigations into the productivity, blue carbon dynamics, and nutrient cycling of marine macrophytes. She has also lent her expertise into research initiatives focused on environmental management, further solidifying her position as a leading figure in the field of marine science.

EuroMarine: A lot of your research to date is around seagrass – including the effects of CO2, the identification of seagrass meadows and more. How did you fall in love with this research topic? What led you down this path?

My journey into researching seagrass began during my university days when I pursued a degree in Marine Sciences. It was during this time that I delved into this field. Interestingly, my collaboration as volunteer student with the biology department, particularly their work on seagrasses, marked the beginning of my fascination with this topic.

It was truly intriguing to explore how these plants, originally terrestrial in nature, adapted to marine environments. Understanding how they recognized and thrived in such a different environment piqued my curiosity from the outset. Since then, I've remained dedicated to studying seagrasses.

And that was, that was the beginning. And since then, I just work with them, basically.

EuroMarine: Could you briefly introduce the specific research topic that your Foresight Workshop focused on and describe its significance in the field of marine science?

To begin, I'd like to clarify that this workshop wasn't solely my initiative. The foundational idea emerged during informal discussions with another researcher, Professor Antonio Castro from the University of Almería (Spain). Our paths crossed a couple of years ago, and our conversations led to the genesis of this workshop. It was a bit serendipitous, considering that Antonio's expertise revolved around socio-ecological systems in terrestrial environments, while my background was deeply rooted in marine ecosystems. This dynamic sparked the initial concept.

From my perspective, my extensive experience with seagrasses drove my interest in this endeavor. Seagrasses are unquestionably significant within the marine research community, but there's a glaring knowledge gap among the general public. Many people are unaware of what seagrasses are and why they hold importance. This raised a fundamental question: how can we foster care and concern for something that remains largely unknown? Moreover, there are even individuals who harbor a dislike for seagrasses, often associating them with the cast-off leaves seen on beaches. The key to addressing this issue lay in not just conducting research but also effectively translating it into tangible benefits for society. This was the driving rationale behind our workshop—to explore the intricate connection between humans and seagrasses. We aimed to understand how this bond is forged. Naturally, this concept extended beyond seagrasses alone; it delved into the broader relationship between humans and nature. However, we chose to focus primarily on seagrasses as a starting point for this exploration.

EuroMarine: How did the Foresight Workshop contribute to the evolution and advancement of your research topic? Did it help identify new directions, methodologies, or emerging issues that were previously overlooked?

The primary concept we sought to transform through the Foresight Workshop was the way seagrasses are perceived, particularly in terms of their importance. We recognized that to achieve this transformation, a multidisciplinary approach wouldn't suffice; we needed to be truly transdisciplinary right from the core.

Our strategy was to invite experts from various disciplines, all closely related to our subject matter. By gathering these diverse perspectives, we aimed to integrate their knowledge and discern which theoretical backgrounds and methodologies could be effectively applied. This endeavor was immensely fortunate, as some participants specialized in social sciences.

They introduced us to a model known as the "Five Dimensions of Human-Nature Connectedness." Without delving too deeply into its specifics, this model had been employed in terrestrial systems to evaluate how relationships between humans and nature are established from different angles. We saw the potential to adapt this model for seagrasses.

The workshop itself took on an immersive nature. We isolated ourselves for four days by the Marine Protected Area of the Cabo de Gata Natural Park, situated in the southern region of Spain, where seagrasses naturally thrive. Our objective was to understand how we, as individuals, experienced the marine environment and seagrasses. During this period, we rigorously tested the methodology on ourselves to determine its feasibility.

Ultimately, our aim was to validate this methodology and then make it accessible to the broader scientific community. We sought to bridge the gap between human perceptions of seagrasses and their actual significance through this innovative approach.

EuroMarine: How, how exactly does it work? What does it involve?

The methodology we're working with, developed by Yves et al., functions through a framework of five distinct dimensions. These dimensions offer a structured way to understand the various connections that humans establish with nature, ranging from a shallower to a deeper level.

At the first level, the Material Dimension encompasses what we directly obtain from nature, such as food or resources and sustenance. Moving forward, the Experiential Dimension encompasses how we engage with nature, including leisure activities and escapes from daily routines, for instance, we use nature for going for a walk, for a swim, for, uh, to gather with friends.

Progressing further, the Cognitive Dimension relates to our knowledge about nature, such us the basic biology of organisms, ecological processes and natural cycles. The cognitive dimension relates to what we know.

Delving a bit deeper, into feelings, the Emotional Dimension explores our feelings toward nature, which can range from positive experiences like serenity or joy to negative ones like fear or disconfort. Nature can give you peace or happiness, but also can be frightening.

Finally, the Philosophical Dimension delves into the most profound realm, involving beliefs, spirituality, and how we perceive ourselves within the context of nature. These dimensions provide a comprehensive framework for evaluating and understanding the intricate tapestry of human-nature relationships.

EuroMarine: How did the Foresight Workshop contribute to the evolution and advancement of your research topic? Did it help identify new directions, or emerging issues that were previously overlooked?

The Foresight Workshop undeniably contributed to a significant shift in my research trajectory. Coming from an ecological background primarily grounded in biological sciences, this workshop exposed me to an entirely new avenue of research that I find incredibly compelling. It has opened doors to fresh opportunities that I'm wholeheartedly embracing.

The methodology we explored during the workshop has immense potential, not only for seagrass ecosystems but also for a broader range of research domains. What's particularly appealing about this methodology is its transdisciplinary nature, making it relatively straightforward to communicate research outcomes to stakeholders, policymakers, and other domains that researchers might typically find challenging to engage with. This workshop has indeed marked a pivotal moment in my professional career, offering opportunities for growth, collaboration, and the exploration of new research frontiers.

I mean, as I say, social science is a huge and really well established discipline and this Foresight Workshop gave me the opportunity to start learning about it. Of course, there are other methodologies. I'm not just being exclusive on the methodological approach we choose, but I think that this one has potential and it can be implemented to seagrasses and to other biotopes and also has the potential of being transdisciplinary, because the outputs that you get from it can be somehow easily related to, to people, and it somehow may be easy to translate to stakeholders or to policy or to other arenas that somehow sometimes for as a researcher is difficult to get to it.

EuroMarine: What kind of opportunities in your own personal professional career did it open up for you?

It opened new research lines and opportunities for collaboration. For instance, we organized a special session on human-nature relationships at the ASLO Congress, a prominent event in marine sciences, last summer. Our fears of low attendance were unfounded; it was a blast! The session attracted significant interest from researchers worldwide, demonstrating the broader appeal of this interdisciplinary approach. Additionally, Antonio Castro presented our workshop's outcomes in a summer course focused on the blue economy in marine systems, further propagating the workshop's messages. We're now actively working on a proposal for a funded project to expand our research in this exciting direction. So, seeing all this potential, it was a really, really good rise of energy for us.

EuroMarine: What were the main outcomes or key findings that emerged from your Foresight Workshop? How did these outcomes shape your research or provide new insights into the topic of seagrass?

The key outcomes and findings from our Foresight Workshop were quite significant from my perspective, and I hope I can capture the collective viewpoint of all participants. One notably positive outcome was the shared willingness among individuals from various disciplines to collaborate. This was particularly heartening, as interdisciplinary collaboration is not always guaranteed. It was refreshing to witness our collective commitment to stepping beyond our disciplinary boundaries and our shared conviction in the importance of translating scientific knowledge to society.

However, we also recognized the inherent challenges in this endeavour. One major challenge arose from differences in semantics and the varying connotations of words and concepts across different disciplines. To address this, we initiated a critical step at the outset of the workshop: establishing a common understanding of the terminology we would use. This process ensured that when we discussed specific terms, we were all on the same page regarding their meaning. Such alignment was vital because even seemingly universal terms could carry nuanced meanings in different fields.

Overall, the workshop served as a promising starting point for our research journey, and it illuminated the potential future prospects of our endeavours. We could envision the road ahead more clearly, and this foresight was both challenging and invigorating.

EuroMarine: Did your Foresight Workshop lead to any follow-up actions or collaborations? Have you applied for additional funding to further develop your research? If yes, could you describe the subsequent projects or initiatives that resulted from the workshop?

Absolutely, we're setting our sights high for the future. Our aspiration is to secure funding for this initiative, and we're particularly interested in applying for European-funded projects. This aligns well with the current Horizon Europe framework, which places a strong emphasis on creating sustainable oceans and fostering integrated approaches to ocean management, including blue economy considerations. Our workshop's core idea of understanding how society interacts with the ocean and its ecosystems fits neatly within these European guidelines. Ultimately, the goal is to comprehend these interactions and relationships so that we can make informed decisions to better protect and sustain our oceans in the face of various challenges. While European funding is a significant target, we're also open to exploring opportunities with international funding agencies that share an interest in transdisciplinary projects. We're not ruling out local initiatives or partnerships with NGOs or governmental organizations either. Every avenue that allows us to start working towards our goals is valuable. This workshop was just the beginning, and we're taking measured steps while keeping the tremendous potential of our research in mind.

So, yeah, small steps at the beginning but keeping in mind that the potential is, is huge.

EuroMarine: Have you presented your research findings to policy makers or other stakeholders in the marine science community? If yes, how did the Foresight Workshop contribute to the development of your research into actionable insights for policy or decision-making?

Indeed, engaging with policymakers and stakeholders is a crucial part of our vision. While we're still in the process of developing a concrete product, we've taken steps to ensure that our findings reach the relevant decision-makers. The Foresight Workshop itself was highly transdisciplinary, with a diverse range of participants, some of them well-connected with policymakers and individuals from different social dimensions.

Although we're not yet at the stage of presenting a final product, we've already conducted talks and presentations that involved policymakers and stakeholders. This gradual engagement is helping us introduce our ideas into their domains. We're also working on a research publication that we believe could serve as a valuable tool to deliver our insights to policymakers and stakeholders.

The publication will demonstrate how our approach can be implemented, showcasing the societal perspectives we've gathered and identifying the most critical dimensions for driving change. While we haven't held formal meetings to deliver a final product at this stage, the feedback and interest we've received from these engagements have been quite promising. We're committed to maintaining contact with managers and stakeholders, as our emerging results offer practical insights that can be put into action.

EuroMarine: What advice or suggestions would you give to future Foresight Workshop leads in terms of maximizing the benefits and outcomes of the workshop?

My advice to future Foresight Workshop leads would be to aim high and take risks. When we designed our workshop, we felt we ventured into uncharted waters with a novel idea. We believed in its potential, but there was uncertainty about whether it would work. However, thanks to initiatives like the Foresight Workshops, we had the opportunity to pursue our idea, and it turned out to be a resounding success. So, if you have an idea that shows promise, don't hesitate to go for it, even if it's not perfectly polished. Additionally, I would suggest thinking beyond the workshop itself. Plan for what comes after the workshop. Consider how you can sustain the momentum and collaboration that the workshop generates. Workshops are intense and productive, but once participants return to their daily routines, it can be challenging to keep the collaboration alive. Having a post-workshop strategy in place can help ensure that the valuable ideas and connections continue to develop and lead to tangible outcomes, whether it's a project, a publication, or another form of meaningful impact.