Cullen Scholar – Maria Pafi

4 May 2021: The Marine Institute is highlighting the postgraduate students who are completing projects as part of the Cullen Scholarship Programme. The programme builds national marine research capacity and capability and equips graduates with the skills and expertise in raising awareness about our ocean, as well as Ireland's rich marine biodiversity and ecosystems.

Maria PafiMaria Pafi
Title of Research: The future of coastal landscapes: Perceptions and landscape-based conflicts in Galway Bay, Ireland.
Higher Education Institution: Queen's University Belfast (QUB)
Supervisors: Dr Wesley Flannery (QUB), Prof Brendan Murtagh (QUB) and Caitríona Nic Aonghusa (Marine Institute)

What is your area of research?
My research focuses on coastal and marine governance with an interest in public opinion on coastal landscapes and seascapes. The coast and the sea are an integral part of Ireland's maritime heritage and support many livelihoods in coastal communities. They are also important assets for other sectors of the economy, such as coastal tourism, renewable energy and aquaculture. This has an impact on coastal landscapes and seascapes and can sometimes create conflicts among different users, which requires planning solutions to be managed sustainably. Ireland has adopted policies that will lead to the growth of maritime economy, which will intensify the use of coastal and marine areas. It has also produced policies aimed at increasing coastal tourism, such as the Wild Atlantic Way project, which has been successful in increasing revenue and international recognition, but has also brought intensive tourism to the west coast with further pressures on host communities.

I am interested in understanding how local communities and tourists experience and value the landscapes of the west coast of Ireland within this context of increasing changes and pressures. If we understand how people interact with the coast, we can provide recommendations for policy and planning that will manage pressures and conflicts more sustainably. People-landscape interactions are, however, highly subjective, multi-layered and complex. To capture this complexity, I am using a combination of methods, such as interviews, workshops with community groups and tourist surveys.

Why is your research important to Ireland's marine sector?
The Marine Institute provides technical and scientific support for the implementation of the National Marine Planning Framework (NMPF), which sets out how we want to use, protect and enjoy our seas. It is a decision making tool for regulatory authorities and policy makers into the future. The Marine Institute also provides the evidence to assist the Government of Ireland in delivering a sustainable and inclusive model of growth beneficial for the national economy, and ultimately for the local communities on the Irish coasts.

Coastal communities are, however, facing increasingly complex and multi-faceted environmental, economic and social problems and although blue growth brings jobs and investments, it also brings increased pressures. When such pressures concentrate in particular places, they can cause unease and even conflict between communities and the government, with implications for the successful implementation of blue growth and marine spatial planning.Maria at Killary Harbour

This PhD will improve knowledge about local community perspectives of the changing coastal landscapes and seascapes. It uses coastal landscape (and seascape) as the means to investigate where and how these pressures are perceived and responded to. This is essential baseline information in support of the implementation of the NMPF. The data produced will be used to provide informed recommendations for sustainable governance and planning and will provide a better understanding of the issues at the coast for decision makers and communities themselves.

What has been the benefit of being part of the Marine Institute's Cullen Scholarship Programme?
One of the key benefits of being part of the Marine Institute's Cullen Scholarship Programme is that it encourages cutting-edge research that is also closely related to policy. This nexus of research and policy has allowed me to think about practical solutions to the issues identified at the coast and it is certainly what attracted me in applying for this funded PhD project in the first place. There have also been other important benefits that I got to enjoy as a Cullen Scholar. For example, I have had the chance to be part of a lively inter-disciplinary community of academics, practitioners and a great network of enthusiastic young researchers from Ireland and abroad. Working with the Marine Social Science Research Group (MSSRG) led by experienced academics from Queen's University Belfast and getting to meet with other Cullen Scholars at the Marine Institute, has made this PhD a fascinating journey.

Through the scholarship, I have been able to participate in international conferences, such as the MARE People and the Sea Conference in Amsterdam in 2019. I have also attended numerous workshops and seminars, received training and extra funding for networking activities. The Cullen Scholarship has provided valuable support at the beginning of my academic career and will enable me to contribute to marine research in Ireland and Europe in the coming years.

What have been some of the memorable experiences during your Cullen Scholarship?
Moving from Greece to Ireland to undertake the Marine Institute's Cullen Scholarship Programme has been a life-changing and memorable experience overall and I feel very lucky to have had this opportunity. One of the most memorable experiences, however, has been my fieldwork at the coast. Collecting social data can be difficult, as it involves numerous ethical considerations and plenty of time and energy to engage with participants and build trust and rapport. Therefore, undertaking research on the west coast of Ireland, had initially appeared like a great challenge to me. It turned out to be one of the most exciting and educational experiences of my life.

Completing this study amidst a global pandemic has been quite challenging, but I always remember the good moments, how lucky I was to have had the chance to spend time along the Atlantic Irish coast and meet people who generously shared their personal time, thoughts, emotions, concerns and even disputes. I felt welcome and supported and this is mainly what has inspired me throughout the long and windy road that is a PhD.

Maria Pafi has recently contributed a chapter to the book Researching People and the Sea: Methodologies and Traditions.


Editor's Notes:
The Cullen Scholarship Programme
The Cullen Scholarship Programme has provided grant-aid to the value of €3 million supporting 31 PhD and three MSc students from 2014 to 2020. The research addresses a number of the 15 research themes identified in the National Marine Research & Innovation Strategy 2017-2021. This scheme is funded by the Marine Institute under the Marine Research Programme with the support of the Irish Government.