Examining the behaviour of marine invertebrates
I’m a perpetually damp and muddy marine biologist and behavioural ecologist (in training). Though there are many incredible topics to examine in the marine sciences, I chose to look at the behaviour of marine invertebrates, particularly crustaceans. Currently, I spend my days in Davy on the 6th floor using the common European hermit crab, Pagurus bernhardus, as a model to look at animal sentience.
When I was deciding where to apply for postgraduate study, I spent almost a year looking at every marine biology programme in the UK and worldwide. I decided to come to Plymouth because of the people who work here, especially my two supervisors, and the resources available to marine researchers in the area.
During an MRes you don’t take many taught modules. The focus is on research. However our course tutor did an excellent job coordinating the modules we had. My favourite was MBAM5106 Advanced Research in Marine Biology. Every class, we had one to two different lecturers from the School of Marine and Biological Sciences come to give a talk about research past and present. It was a fantastic way to meet people working at the University and learn about all the intriguing topics the faculty are researching.
I remember precisely when I wanted to become a marine biologist. Though it may sound awfully cliché, I wanted to study sea life since I was a very small child running around sandy beaches after crabs, mostly fiddlers and hermits, during a seaside holiday. I was probably about five or six years old at the time, couldn’t swim, and lived in the middle of the USA, thousands of miles from the ocean. However, I was so enthralled with the animals I saw scuttling about tideline I couldn’t imagine spending my life doing anything else. Over the years, my interests developed into a broader passion for biology and animal behaviour, yet I never lost my desire to study marine life.
I study hermit crab behaviour
More specifically, I am looking at awareness and sentience in hermit crabs. Last year, decapod crustaceans were listed as “sentient” by law. This is wonderful in terms of animal welfare and ethical treatment of living things! However, there is not sufficient evidence to convince me, as a scientist, that crustaceans are sentient as the word is usually defined. It’s a topic that will require a great deal of time and effort to examine thoroughly. Plus, animal sentience is an interdisciplinary subject integrating the fields of behavioural ecology, animal welfare, cognitive neuroscience, and neurobiology. Looking at this subject means I can delve into a wide array of literature on many different topics to help synthesise a better understanding of whether and to what extent crustaceans are sentient. In other words, it’s a challenge… and I love a challenge.
Plymouth is an extraordinary place
I must confess, I have lived in 23 cities in 7 different countries. I am a nomad of sorts and have spent more time moving than staying in one place. Choosing a “home city” is no easy task. I have lived in some pretty jaw-dropping places, too: Phnom Penh, Beijing, Avignon, San Francisco, and London, to name a few. However, Plymouth is an extraordinary place that stands out as the first place I could easily describe as home. It is a city of fascinating collisions: old and new, land and sea, city and country. At the edge of Devon and right next to Cornwall, it’s only a train trip to historical sites, adorable seaside towns, and incredible windswept walks.
The diversity Plymouth has on offer means there is always something to do, something new to explore, and lots of hidden gems to discover.
I’ve spent so much time exploring the area and getting to know the community in which I live. In my free time, I like to chat with people from the University and the area in and around Plymouth. I can’t point to one favourite moment in particular, but rather the collective experience of meeting so many different people, learning about them, and hearing their stories, experiences, concerns, frustrations, and aspirations.
This collective experience has helped me feel part of a community, probably for the first time in my life. I think that is one of the things that makes this city and this University so special. There is a tendency for people here to be interested in one another, to share moments that form the fabric of a community.
One thing that makes this university so special is the sense of community
The University gave me loads of support and assistance before I arrived, making sure all my visa documents were in order. Having a helpful, friendly, and responsive team made my journey to Plymouth much easier.
My advice: don’t be afraid to reach out to people. Many students worry that they are bothering people by reaching out with questions of interest or concern. It can be particularly hard for international students, especially if English is a second language. However, there are so many enthusiastic and engaging people to learn from and with at the University. The people here are really understanding and generous with their time. I have gained so much from reaching out to other people, including teaching and support staff and other students. It’s something I recommend every student try to do.
A future full of possibilities
My biggest challenge has been regarding my concerns for the future. When I started the MRes, I knew that I wanted to apply for a PhD looking at the behaviour and ecology of marine invertebrates. I had a few schools in mind and reached out to many professors to discuss potential projects. However, halfway through my first term, I realised I wanted to stay in Plymouth to do my PhD. It's a huge decision, one I was very nervous about making. However, after spending time in the labs and talking to faculty and staff, I feel confident in my decision to try and stay here for a doctorate degree. I just submitted my application – if I'm successful, I will be lucky enough to stay at the University for at least the next three years!
I want to continue in academia and then preferably find work as a lecturer. I love teaching. I also love research and lab work. I know it won't be easy to see this dream to fruition, but I'm excited to try my best. When all is said and done, it's hard to know where I will end up, either professionally or geographically. I'm not sure where I will go after I leave Plymouth. Since I have not lived in one place for more than 18 months in a very long time, the prospect of staying put for a while is really enticing. However, it's a big world, with many rocky shores to study and explore.
I think I will see where opportunity takes me and use what I have learned whilst at the University to create a future that is full of possibilities.
MRes Marine Biology
Marine biology is a broad and dynamic subject, reflecting the diversity of marine ecosystems and the fantastic array of life they contain. Biological marine processes exert massive influences on the Earth's climate and biogeochemical cycling. Closely linked with the diverse research pursuits of scientists at the Marine Biological Association (MBA) and University, this programme allows you to develop research skills in a marine context that are widely applicable.