Ellie Vaughan original

Year of graduation: BSc: 2014; MRes: 2015

Current employer: Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University

Current job title: PhD student

"I had already heard about Plymouth’s great reputation for marine biology, but it wasn’t until I did some work experience during Year 12 at the National Marine Aquarium when I was truly won over. The choice was made even easier after finding out how to become a marine biologist from inspiring researchers like John Spicer and Colin Munn at the open days."

Tell us what you have been doing since completing your studies.

After four years at Plymouth studying marine biology, I knew that I wanted to work in coral reef research, but was very aware that more advanced experience would be needed. After contacting Dr Ruth Gates about my interest in her research, I was offered a six-month internship in the Gates Lab to assist with work on coral resilience to climate change at the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB). To help cover some of the costs associated with the internship, I successfully applied for the Dr Manning Award from the University of Plymouth, and I briefly worked in the Customer Services team at the company Which?. Because of these experiences, I was offered a PhD at Lancaster University to study the effects of nutrient runoff on coral reefs, which I started last October. I recently went on a research cruise with the Seychelles Fishing Authority around the Seychelles to collect and compare different bioindicators of nutrient regimes as part of my PhD.

What is the best, most exciting or fun thing that you have done in your career?

I really enjoy working with local scientists and organisations in places like Seychelles, Israel, and Hawai’i, as I also get to learn all about their local lifestyles and culture. It gives you a completely new appreciation for the people and these places outside of the more familiar "tourist bubble".

Other highlights:

  • Coral spawning project with the Gates Lab: Selectively breeding thermally-resilient coral colonies to reduce bleaching events caused by climate change
  • Living and working on HIMB, a world-renowned research station based on the beautiful Coconut Island just off Oahu and surrounded by coral reefs (and resident sharks!).
  • Attending the International Coral Reef Symposium in Hawai’i and listening to talks by top legends in my field like Ove Hoegh-Guldberg and Charlie Veron (a.k.a. the “Godfather of Corals”!)
  • Being part of my PhD supervisor’s 23-year long coral reef monitoring study during the Seychelles research cruise and working with local scientists. 

What would you do differently since graduating?

Although I am extremely happy with the PhD project I have, the focus of my project has shifted slightly from my original research interests - i.e. from molecular/physiological responses of corals to climate change to the ecological responses of the reef ecosystem to multiple stressors. However, I quickly realised that I actually prefer this, as my project brings together many other fascinating aspects of coral reef ecology. It might have helped to get some more field experience in ecological surveys and learnt a broader range of coral reef taxonomy beforehand, but it’s also been a fun learning curve over the last year!

Imagine you were about to start university again - with the benefit of hindsight - what would you now tell yourself to have done differently?

Overall, I don’t know if I would change anything about my time at Plymouth, as all of my experiences helped me to get to where I am today. However, I wish I hadn’t left exploring the countryside and towns outside of Plymouth to my last year (which was mainly due to lots of fieldwork for my masters project). Many people choose Plymouth for its location, yet don’t seem to spend much time making the most of it!

What was your main reason for choosing to study your course at Plymouth? With hindsight how significant was this for you? 

I had already heard about Plymouth’s great reputation for marine biology, but it wasn’t until I did some work experience during Year 12 at the National Marine Aquarium when I was truly won over. I spent every evening that week either exploring the city or admiring THAT view from Plymouth Hoe, and I instantly fell in love with the place. The choice was made even easier after finding out how to become a marine biologist from inspiring researchers like John Spicer and Colin Munn at the open days. And, like many others, I was excited about the chance to get some professional dive training during the degree! The HSE course was intense but so worthwhile, as I met my undergraduate project supervisor through the 2nd year diving module, and it’s helped me to take part in scientific diving work overseas. 

How did we support you in your studies? If you used any support services whilst at the university how did they enable you to get to where you are today?

Receiving the Dr Manning Award in 2015 to help fund my internship at HIMB really did help to make it happen…Hawai’i is an expensive place to visit and live! It also gave me some experience in writing grant proposals, a highly valued skill in the academic world.

How did studying at Plymouth change your career aspirations and plans?

Without a doubt, the brilliant lecturers and staff who ran the courses inspired me to pursue the opportunities I did. For instance, I knew that I wanted to study coral bleaching and climate change for my undergraduate project, but no one specifically focused on that topic at Plymouth. However, after chatting to one lecturer, Jason Hall-Spencer, I discovered that he collaborated a lot with a researcher in Israel who did. He ended up becoming my co-supervisor and I was able to do my project on Red Sea coral thermal tolerance with his colleague at the Interuniversity Institute of Marine Sciences in Eilat (IUI). Because I liked the balance of the different roles and dynamics within research (i.e. between lab work, fieldwork, and science communication etc.), I decided that I wanted to do that as a career.

What is your favourite memory of studying for your degree at Plymouth? 

  • Marine biology field courses to Roscoff and Portugal, and day trips to local coastal areas (Wembury was a particular favourite).
  • HSE diving course: Using Full-Face (AGA) Masks to talk underwater, and when a huge basking shark swam right past the dive boat on the last week!
  • University societies (e.g. music): a great stress relief from coursework and exams, and I made so many great friends through them.
  • Working as a Host at the National Marine Aquarium: not many things are as motivating as seeing the looks of excitement on young peoples’ faces when you tell them some cool facts about sharks, corals, and tiny critters at their local beaches!
  • Doing my undergraduate project in Israel and scientific diving in the Red Sea. 

How well did Plymouth prepare you for the challenges that you have faced, or will face, in your career? 

One of the most important lessons I learned from Plymouth was how to be more resilient when things don’t work out the way you originally planned. I’ve quickly come to realise that science involves a lot of unforeseen challenges (and failed experiments), but what is more likely to help you succeed is the capacity to handle a difficult situation and then use it as a learning experience. It helped to have the great support network of peers and staff at Plymouth who could guide you when you were stuck, but they would still encourage you to think outside the box and start coming up with solutions yourself. Developing this independence and confidence in your own abilities is what helps you feel better prepared for the next stages of your career. 

Why would you recommend undertaking a course with the University of Plymouth?

Many marine biology courses at other universities also offered exciting field trips or interesting modules, but it was the people at Plymouth who made it so special for me. I was constantly having to learn multiple things at a fast pace, but I was surrounded by so many staff and students who were also there because they enjoyed the subject that it didn’t feel overwhelming, and it made the whole experience so rewarding for all of us. Plymouth also has an option to do a placement year, where you can gain numerous skills for your CV, or even set you up for a job after uni! Now I’m at a campus-based university, which involves a fair bit of travelling every day, it makes me appreciate how conveniently close everything was in Plymouth…from the SU and library to the Barbican. If you’re the outdoorsy-type, there is so much to offer just on your doorstep...there is no shortage of beautiful beaches (St Ives and Whitsand Bay), interesting little coastal towns (Looe in Cornwall), and scenic countryside for hiking and camping (Dartmoor). 

What supported you in your return to study?

I knew that I wanted to do a masters degree after I finished my dissertation, and I was keen to make the most of the opportunities in Plymouth, so it was great to find out about the MRes Marine Biology course and its close affiliation with the Marine Biological Association (MBA). Although no one at the MBA studied coral reefs either, they still did a huge amount of high-quality climate change research, especially in the intertidal zone. My masters project on intertidal limpets gave me more ecological experience than I’d had before, which gave me a much broader understanding of both the direct and indirect effects of climate change on marine life - like changes in competition between species and in the ranges they usually live in. This knowledge has really helped me to plan my PhD this year, so it just goes to show why multidisciplinary work is so important…you never know what you can learn from other fields of research!

Ellie Vaughan
Ellie Vaughan
Lecture on a beach on the Portugal field course