Cathrine Baungaard is a registered associate nutritionist (ANutr) with the Association for Nutrition (AfN) and a first year PhD student at The Rowett Institute, University of Aberdeen. Cathrine graduated with a BSc in Nutrition from Liverpool John Moores University in 2019 and has since worked as a project manager and technical advisor in non-profit organisations on sustainable diets and food systems. Currently, her research focus is on modelling healthy and sustainable seafood choices as alternatives in diets.
On 21st April 2023, the EASTBIO Livestock and Aquaculture thematic group held their second meeting exploring the concept of systems science in practice and what it means to be a systems thinker. The group was joined by two exciting speakers: Dr Martin Reynolds of The Open University and Professor Dave Little of University of Stirling.
The day was held at Kings College on the University of Aberdeen campus and started off with the session “The craft of systems thinking in practice (STiP)” where Martin introduced the concept of systems thinking in practice and urged us to treat systems thinking as a craft we can work on, much like how an artisan hones their skills over time.
So, what is a system? The Open University’s definition is: “a collection of entities that are seen by someone as interacting together to do something” (Morris, 2005). Martin explained that, at their core, systems always feature three aspects: inter-relationships, perspectives and are bound with a purpose. These aspects can then, in turn, be transformed into three principles of crafting systems thinking in practice: relational, conceptual, and adaptive thinking.
After a quick coffee break, Dave introduced the group to the importance of stakeholder engagement and understanding the dynamics between them from an aquaculture perspective in his session “Aquaculture stakeholders – a systems approach”. It was inspiring to see pictures and hear stories from various stakeholders who Dave and his research team have engaged with over the years. Dave explained what is meant by consultations and stakeholder engagement, how to conduct stakeholder analysis and the need to mitigate unintended consequences, also highlighting the need to consider long-term impacts specific to those stakeholders.
Dave also urged us to think outside of the box when identifying stakeholders to engage with in our research, highlighting an example of how some work in the north shore of Manila Bay revealed previously unidentified actors. These included gleaners (Mangangapa), locals who access the shrimp ponds after the main harvest to remove other unharvested aquaculture products, and their leaders (Degaton), who are affected often by top-down international standards. Lastly, we should consider how stakeholder engagement can become a social process, making sure to tailor solutions to the real, “on the ground” needs, instead of a static box-ticking exercise.
In the afternoon, EASTBIO PhD students took part in a workshop with Martin and Dave, where they put theory to practice using a case study about how the war in Ukraine has impacted the aquaculture feed industry. In this session, we drew rich pictures and used the snappy system (What does the system do? How does the system do it? Why is the system useful or important?), while getting to practice and discuss our relational and adaptive thinking.
As the world is becoming increasingly interconnected, we have a greater appreciation for how complex the world is, so it is ever more important for researchers to develop systems thinking skills, especially early career researchers (ECR) as we embark on our academic journeys. Incorporating and cultivating systems thinking practice as ECRs, we can:
- address complex problems
- identify unintended consequences
- promote interdisciplinary collaboration
- enhance our problem-solving
- relational and adaptive skills
- be better at navigating uncertainty
- be more impactful with our research.
As a first year PhD student on the EASTBIO doctoral training programme (DTP), we are tasked with co-organising a thematic meeting with others in our thematic groups. I am in the Livestock and Aquaculture thematic group, so I got to work with two other PhD students (Lauren and Max) from The School of Biological Sciences on this. I enjoyed the overall organisation of the session, finding our two speakers and collaborating on the case study, all requiring skills that I hope to use in the future after my PhD.
Systems thinking is something I have been interested in for a few years, so I was delighted when the thematic group agreed to having a meeting about this. In nutrition, we know that what we eat is a lot more complex than just relying on our nutritional or physiological needs. It also involves other factors such as economic, social/cultural, psychological, environmental to name a few. With these determinants come multiple actors, with often competing goals and power relations. For example, an aquaculture farmer will have very difficult goals than a larger supermarket chain, and both these compared to the individual citizen. These actors and their activities are what largely make up the food system.
This means that to effectively improve people’s diets and in turn their health, we need to shift away from breaking down our food system into small compartments and treating them in isolation, like only focusing on the individual’s food choices. Instead, we need to understand food systems holistically, learning how to identify the interrelationships, processes of change and the potential positive or negative feedback. As researchers, more and more we are being asked to put our research into wider contexts, identifying how it might affect other parts of the systems that we work in, but to do this we need the skills. I think this session was a really great first introduction to this sometimes-daunting concept and it made it even better that we had other Rowett PhD students joining the session! This event and experience have made it even more clear that I want and need to hone my craft in systems thinking as Martin Reynold’s talk suggested. I look forward to using this in my research in the future.
 Morris, R. M. (2005) Thinking about systems for sustainable lifestyles. Open University Systems Society (OUSys) Newsletter No. 39 (Autumn) 15-19.