Diving deep for research in the Bahamas and beyond

What inspired you to become a marine biologist?

At school I always liked biology, so I thought biomedical science would be a good career path. But I rushed into the making a decision to apply on a course – not even factoring in that I hate the sight of blood!

I never looked at Plymouth when first applying through UCAS because it was out of my comfort zone, as I lived in Yorkshire, and none of my friends from school were applying. On results day I did not get the grades I needed and honestly thought it was the end of the world. Words can’t describe how disappointing not getting the grades you want are, especially when you have put in the work.

After getting to grips with not getting the grades I aspired to achieve, I decided to change my career path. I have always loved the ocean and found it fascinating, however, I was scared it wouldn’t lead to a good job... I was so wrong.

I looked all over for marine biology programmes but once I looked at Plymouth in more detail and discovered the Marine Station, I knew it was the place for me.

I decided it was fate telling me to go study something that I would actually enjoy. I really loved studying at Plymouth and am so excited to have a career that I can actually be passionate about.

 

Could you tell me about the research you were involved in?

In the Bahamas I was involved in two projects which were fantastic. This allowed me to gain double the experience and double the fun.

My primary project was on the effects of lobster discards on the surrounding benthic environment. This was such a great opportunity that involved both field work and lab work. I helped design the second predation part of the experiment which I thoroughly enjoyed. 

With the help of Dr Nicholas Higgs out in the Bahamas and Dr Emma Sheehan back at Plymouth, I used the data I collected to write my dissertation. Collecting data in my placement year really reduced the stress of my third year and gave me time to focus on the write up.

The other project I was involved in was on turtles with marine biologist and science communicator, Dr Nathan J. Robinson, who is the scientist who removed a 10cm plastic straw that was entirely embedded into the nostril of an olive ridley sea turtle in Costa Rica.

The video of this was shared all over the worlds gaining millions of view and shows just one consequence of the world of single-use, non-biodegradable plastic that we currently live in. You can view the footage on The Leatherback Trust's YouTube.

Dr Robinson's significant research has also included viral videos of him removing a plastic fork from the nostril of a different sea turtle and the first-time a live giant squid has been recorded in US waters and the second time this species has ever been caught alive on film.

Together with Dr Robinson, we deployed turtle cameras onto the turtles shells in order to observe their natural socialising, foraging and resting routines.
This was a really interesting project as it allowed us to gain valuable insight into turtle behaviour with minimal disturbance to the individual. View the turtle cam.

<p>Annabel diving as part of the lobster project</p>
Collecting data for her dissertation
<p>Annabel (left)&nbsp;researching sea turtles&nbsp;with Dr Robinson&nbsp;</p>
Researching sea turtles with Dr Robinson
<p>Annabel diving down as part of the lobster project.</p>
Diving down for lobster research

How did you get the opportunity?

The director of the Cape Eleuthera Institute out in The Bahamas, Nick Higgs, is a research fellow at the University of Plymouth. I found the opportunity online when looking for a second placement as part of my year in industry. My first placement was at the Australian Institute of Marine science looking at the effects of dredging on adult corals.

To be honest it was the best year of my life, I made such great memories and friends but most importantly it really shaped me into the scientist I am today and prepared me for life after my BSc.

My second placement was originally in Madagascar but unfortunately that didn’t work out as one of the researchers fell ill. I was really panicking as I had already done my first placement so needed to find a second one fast. I emailed many places and got lots of contacts from my lecturers (Dr Embling was especially helpful!) but I actually just found the Cape Eleuthera Institute online.

I was initially attracted to the many research options they had available, as well as the sun and amazing beaches of course. I got in contact with Dr Higgs and he allowed me to join as an intern, even though they were already half way through a new group of interns. I was really lucky and I’m not sure I would’ve got the opportunity if it wasn’t for Dr Higgs having a previous affiliation with the University. Dr Higgs was great to work with and he also put me in contact with my final year supervisor, Emma Sheehan, too.

<p>Annabel holding a sea turtle as part of a research project.</p>
Holding a sea turtle
<p>Annabel flying over the Bahamas</p>
Flying over the Bahamas
<p>Annabel on a beach in the Bahamas</p>
Annabel on the beach

The benefits of placements

Placement was such an important part of developing my scientific skills. I loved working in research as there was a combination of field, lab and office work. My placement was the reason I decided to follow my undergraduate degree with a masters.

My advice for students looking for a placement is to stay optimistic and send follow up emails. Even though my initial second placement was actually cancelled a month before I was supposed to go, this is the whole reason I ended up going to the Bahamas and getting all my dissertation data.

I would really recommend a placement as it eases the stress of third year and allows you to get a taste for possible careers. Most importantly it was so much fun and I made friends for life.


How did your course prepare you for this kind of research?

I really enjoyed my course as it has allowed me to do a combination of both marine biology and ocean science modules so I could tailor my degree dependent on my interests.

The degree prepared me for long days in the field! Not only on the trips to France and Sweden but also at our very own Marine Station in Plymouth.

Many skills from my undergraduate degree were transferable for my placement such as experimental design which was sprung upon us in our first year in France.

Taking a placement year really prepared me for my final year. It was the first time that I thought of myself as a scientist. I had to think on my feet and tackle a lot of new tasks.

The skills I developed from my undergraduate degree and placement have well prepared me for my masters in marine biology that I am now currently studying at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.


And what's your next steps?

For my research project, I’m working with a company on a new renewable energy system called the Tidalkite.

I’m involved in the ecological monitoring of the kite, particularly on how the underwater operational noise will affect marine mammals, seabirds and fish.

I am finding this very interesting and would love to explore this further for a future career.

Around 70 per cent of our planet is ocean with an average depth of 3000m. To understand the biology of this vast area, we must also understand the oceans themselves.

Develop a host of practical skills that will prepare you for your chosen career and make you attractive to employers. You will have the opportunity to gain the HSE PRO SCUBA qualification, for those with a suitable background in diving. You’ll also gain invaluable experience on a six or 12-month international placement during your third year, or working in a local host organisation alongside your studies.

Study BSc (Hons) Marine Biology and Oceanography