5 minutes with author, Senior Lecturer, and 'shark kid' Chris Pepin-Neff

26 October 2023
Diving deep into policy change
Dr Pepin-Neff's groundbreaking work on emotional issues, from shark attacks to LGBTQ rights, drives policy change and empowers communities. Learn more about their work and the advice they have for others looking to make change.

Dr Chris Pepin-Neff (MPP ‘08, PhD (Arts) 2014) is a Senior Lecturer in Public Policy, published author, LGBTQ lobbyist, and self-proclaimed 'shark kid'. Their fascination with sharks was sparked by a childhood encounter with Jaws, which guided them to explore the intricate relationship between public behaviour and shark attacks, leading to a landmark TED talk and research that has curbed public fear of sharks by 17 percent.

Chris co-authored pioneering legislation to repeal 'Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell' and contributed to landmark LGBTQ legislation in the United States. As a strategic fundraiser, Chris secured substantial grants, including funds for Aboriginal Higher Degree Research. Their financial acumen brought in significant sums from Save Our Seas Foundation and Sydney Aquarium Conservation Fund. They also crafted the first federally funded, gender-identity-based After-School Program, Gendertopia. A passionate non-profit leader, Chris elevated organisational budgets and ran a youth centre where youth attendance increased as well as introducing inclusive programs for marginalised communities.

What initially sparked your interest in studying public behaviour and its connection to shark attacks?

Jaws holds a special place in the hearts of every shark researcher. For me, I saw it when I was eight years old, and I was hooked. I went to the library and took out all the books on sharks (most of which I couldn't read) but the pictures of sharks were fascinating and yes - specifically the stories about shark bites had me asking very odd questions for an eight-year-old, like are sharks really the villains? I didn't think so, so I made a 10-foot cardboard cut-out of a Great White, painted it, and put it above my bed. So, I really was a shark kid, thanks to Jaws.

How has your research influenced public policy and strategies for mitigating shark attacks?

I have worked on shark bite policymaking in the United States, Australia, Reunion Island, and South Africa and it is never pleasant. These are terrible scenarios, where something awful has happened, and a community is traumatised. Part of the policy process is listening carefully to how people feel about a terrible accident of nature and then trying not to let a tragic situation be made worse by fearmongering politicians who are not concerned about actually reducing shark bites in the long term but to address a politically hot emotional moment in time.

So, to answer your question, I worked with Cape Cod off the East Coast of the US, to come up with a public advisory about sharks in local waters that was modelled on Cape Town and the way they educate the public to try to shift the way the public looks at the beach as a dynamic and wild ecosystem. I also provided seminars for the Western Australia Department of Fisheries to really think carefully about how multiple shark attack events are different politically and socially from isolated incidents in time.

How did your University of Sydney studies and experience help you in this career path?

The University of Sydney and the Discipline of Government and International Relations made an investment in this (rather odd) research and gave me a chance to get a master’s degree that began to carve out a new niche in social science research, and then followed that up by supporting my PhD in the "politics of shark attacks."

Each step of the way, the University of Sydney and its people took a chance and this research asked a question that was worth investigating. From Duncan Ivison, who was Dean of Arts when I began, to Rodney Smith who was my PhD supervisor, everyone just kept pushing me to see what new angle had yet to be explored. That hasn't changed since I started. I received a grant from the Sydney Environment Institute in 2022 to do more public surveys about sharks in beach communities and we surveyed Bondi around the issue of shark nets (they don't support them) and who is to blame for shark bites (it wasn't the sharks).

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

My TED talk on the "Myth of the Rogue Shark" was pretty huge. But I would probably say a survey that I conducted with my colleague Dr Tom Wynter at the Sydney Aquarium is my biggest achievement. We surveyed 800 visitors before entering the "Shark Tunnel" and after they came out. We found a way to reduce public fear of sharks by 17 percent by analysing whether the person going into the shark exhibit "thought the shark was looking at them." People who thought shark behaviour toward people was intentional increased their fear of sharks, but people who felt that shark behaviour towards humans was unintentional reduced fear.

This was the first study of its kind ever to lower public fear of sharks. As I always say; "We are in the way, not on the menu."

What advice would you give to those interested in pursuing work or research in public policy in their careers?

I would tell everyone reading that public policy is a question about how the policy process delivers power to powerful. This doesn't mean it's always one-sided, but it does mean that power is the mobilizing principle of policy studies. So, it is often about the way issues and people are rendered invisible by the process. I would also tell someone interested in public policy to specialise, specialise, specialise. Finding the hard questions to answer provides a path forward in your studies, career, and life. I like to think I've done that with my shark research.

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