From Hermit Crab Homes to Urban Agriculture and Sustainable Cities

Matthew Hammond is among the more than 150 Bermudians who have participated in the BIOS Bermudian Program since its inception in 1976. Designed to provide college-aged students (aged 18+) with hands-on research experiences in the marine and atmospheric sciences, the program allows participants to work alongside BIOS scientists in field and laboratory settings during full-time, paid summer internships that run for a period of four or eight weeks. Hammond, now a biologist and chief technology officer for a start-up company in Canada, describes the Bermuda Program as “the ideal opportunity to upgrade my skills from simply appreciating nature to being able to catalog, quantify, and protect it.” Here he is seen in Moulis, France where he worked on models of how biodiversity stabilizes ecosystems.

The Bermuda Program is part of a suite of five progressive education programs at BIOS known collectively as Ocean Academy. Considered the “capstone” activity for students in Ocean Academy, the Bermuda Program—now in its 45th year—offers opportunities for Bermudian students, ages 18 and older, to participate in intensive internships in the marine and atmospheric sciences alongside faculty and research staff at the Institute.

Each year, a handful of qualified students are selected to receive paid fellowships that allow them to work on specific projects of interest, full time, for periods of four to eight weeks during the summer. In addition to hands-on experience in field and laboratory settings, recent impact reports have shown that 75 percent of students who participate in Bermuda Program show an interest in pursuing undergraduate or graduate education in a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) field.

This was the case with Matthew Hammond, now 40 and a biologist and chief technology officer for a start-up company outside Toronto, Canada. Hammond, a Bermuda native and Saltus Grammar School graduate, returned to Bermuda in 1999 after his freshman year at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine in the northeastern U.S. where he majored in liberal arts with a specialization in biology. After graduating in 2003, he “followed his love of the ocean” and pursued a master of science in marine science from the University of Otago in New Zealand. He graduated in 2006 with a thesis that explored new ways of detecting pollution in estuaries.

After spending time working on various marine conservation projects in Bermuda, he relocated to McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, where he received a doctoral degree for his work studying the mechanisms that keep aquatic ecosystems stable.

Hammond said that the common denominator of living in several countries was “the connection to water that all islanders feel, the drive to understand how nature works, and the desire to help steward the delicate ecologies of the world.”

What made you want to apply to the Bermuda Program? What were you hoping to gain from the experience?
From my earliest days in Bermuda, I was drawn to the island’s unique biodiversity. Whether it was an eagle ray or a washed-up, stinking hogfish, it was all amazing to me. Most of my time was spent with eyes on or in the water. The Bermuda Program was the perfect opportunity to turn that love of nature into something more scientific, rigorous, and impactful.

Over the years, I had met a number of BIOS scientists who, without knowing it, had shown me that loving to observe and making sense of nature could be a career. So, what I hoped to find in the Bermuda Program was, yes, an excuse to splash around underwater, but also to learn how to do that scientifically. It was the ideal opportunity to upgrade my skills from simply appreciating nature to being able to catalog, quantify, and protect it.

You are one of 150 people who have participated with the Bermuda Program since 1976. Describe your experience when you attended in 1999.
I mentored under Kathy Coates, an associate research scientist and marine invertebrate biologist, on a project with graduate student Lisa Rodrigues looking at Verrill’s hermit crab, a Bermuda endemic species. The mystery to solve was why these crabs would sometimes live in calcareous worm tubes in the reefs instead of their usual shells. The work consisted of temporarily evicting the crabs to experimentally gauge their preferences for new homes. I loved the field component of collecting study organisms from Bermuda’s pristine habitats. I also recall a hefty dose of microscope-based work under heavy eyelids—the result of long days, which I learned were part and parcel of making progress in science.

Were there any memorable take-aways from your time at BIOS?
For me, the real lesson was on the experimental side: learning how scientists move from idea, to method, through experiment and finally to conclusion. I saw the systematic appeal of the scientific method and have carried that appreciation with me through a couple of decades in the natural sciences. I find myself relaying the same concepts to interns and team members at work today.

What is your current job and what does it entail?
I am currently a biologist and the chief technology officer for a green technology start-up company called HiGarden near Toronto, Canada. We develop nature-based solutions to make cities greener, healthier, and more sustainable. Our main focus is net-zero and waste-free urban agriculture that combines technologies like aquaponics and hydroponics. My job is to manage the research and design and subsequent rollout of these technologies. I design growing systems and educational programs, run experiments to test prototypes, and ensure compliance with regulations, such as those governing organic agriculture.

But since one has many jobs at a start-up, a day at work can bring anything from cleaning fish tanks to routine administration. What I enjoy most about my role is developing more sustainable solutions by drawing on a wide range of sciences, including aquatic ecology, materials and buildings science, horticulture, ecosystem science and more.

Do you have any advice for current students interested in following a similar career path?
My experience is that a career path is not a straight line. Pivots are part of the landscape and nothing to be afraid of, though they may be uncomfortable at times. Be flexible and patient when it comes to opportunities. This will make navigating the dynamics of a career easier.

A second observation is that working across disciplines is an important but underappreciated part of finding solutions to human-caused problems. There are worrying signs of climate and environmental feedbacks that threaten the planet’s delicate balance. But we now have better data and understanding for solutions that are technological, ecological, and sociological in nature. In the future, I think those who can easily move between silos of knowledge will have an important and growing role in pulling us back from the brink.