Alethea Shay Madgett is a third year PhD student based at Marine Scotland Science in Aberdeen, Scotland studying how organic and inorganic contaminants travel through the Scottish marine food web and whether organisms at all trophic levels are at risk from the concentrations present. Alethea has always been interested in the marine environment but didn’t realise until half way through her forensic science degree that this was her desired route! It hasn’t been smooth sailing to this point, but Alethea loves what she does, and the thought that her project will make a positive difference to such a vulnerable environment encourages her every day.
Briefly describe your current work and your research.
I am doing a PhD in marine chemistry/marine biology determining how organic and inorganic contaminants such as PCBs, PBDEs and trace metals travel through the Scottish marine food web and whether organisms at all trophic levels are at risk. Currently, assessment criteria are in place for these contaminants, but they do not consider secondary poisoning by bioaccumulation or biomagnification and we don’t know whether marine organisms around Scotland are affected by these harmful pollutants. In my project I am studying the feeding patterns and trophic interactions present in the food web using fatty acid signatures and stable isotope ratios to better understand our knowledge of Scottish marine ecology and am determining the concentration of organic and inorganic contaminants in a wide range of marine species, ranging from zooplankton to whales, dolphins and seals and everything in between! I am then going to calculate the trophic magnification factors of each pollutant, normalise the data and compare this against relevant assessment criteria to determine whether organisms at a particular trophic level are risk from the concentration of the pollutant present. I have had the opportunity to collect all my samples offshore, prepare my samples through dissection and packaging, analyse the samples using a wide range of methods and analytical instruments and interpret the results.
What do you love the most about your job?
I love that the data from my project will be used by monitoring organisations to assess environmental status. This can have a significant impact on a large variety of species and better our understanding of the state of our seas. Being able to help and contribute to this cause makes working every day more of a joy than a job!
How difficult was it to get where you are today?
My journey is a bit of a strange one. At primary school I never felt I was good at anything, stuck in the middle/lower groups for all subjects and dreaded coming to school every day (using “tummy aches” regularly to try and get out of it!). I can remember we started science in our last year of primary, on a Friday afternoon when most minds had already turned off for the weekend. The teacher went outside to pick a daffodil for us to dissect and as soon as I started this I finally found my subject, something that grasped my attention and I loved from the start! From an early age I was fascinated by the sea and had a bed full of dolphin toys and wall full of under the sea posters. This preliminary interest along with the newly discovered passion for science was building me up for a career combining them together. I moved away from this for a few years, maintaining the passion for science but fixated by the idea of becoming a crime scene investigator (after watching many crime television dramas!) and scraped the grades to get into an honours degree in Forensic and Analytical Chemistry.
During the degree I really wanted to start a new sport or hobby and after assessing a lengthy list of potential sports in the area, decided to start scuba diving. I had always loved the sea and go regularly as a break from the degree stress so thought it made the most sense. Little did I know when I went into the cold North Sea for the first time I would instantly fall in love with the marine environment and this experience ignited the old flame for marine science which had been dormant for a long time. I instantly knew what I wanted to do and decided to look at post graduate degrees to work towards. I was lucky as my degree contained a lot of general biology and chemistry modules and I had the opportunity to do my final year honours project in Marine Scotland, assessing the concentrations of PAHs in marine biota. As expected, I loved every minute of this project and decided I wanted to do a postgraduate at Marine Scotland. I continuously made my supervisors at university and Marine Scotland aware I was very keen to do a post grad and when the list of PhD projects came out I was initially uncertain. Did I really want to be a student for another four years? Would I be able to deal with the stress of a PhD? After a lot of thinking I decided to apply for one but wasn’t expecting anything to come of it, after all I hadn’t even achieved a degree yet! I also applied for a marine science-based MSc at St Andrews which looked ideal and was accepted into this. When I got invited to interview for the PhD I couldn’t believe it! Again, I went not expecting anything but had somehow managed to get a conditional for a first-class honour in my degree. After a lot of stress and sleepless nights I managed to achieve this and cried tears of happiness and relief for many days afterwards! I decided in the few months between finishing my honours degree and starting the PhD I needed an adventure and signed up to do a month volunteering for GVI marine conservation in the Seychelles. This was one of the best experiences of my life and enhanced my passion for marine science and scuba diving even further.
What was the biggest obstacle in your way before your career reached where it is today? How did you overcome it?
IMPOSTER SYNDROME. I can’t emphasise enough how much this has got in the way and affected me throughout the PhD and even in my third year now I still suffer with it. The PhD hasn’t been smooth sailing and I never expected it to be, but I hadn’t realised the little confidence I had in myself and my abilities as a scientist. I felt particularly in my second year (is when the stress gets real!) I didn’t belong in the laboratory and didn’t deserve to be doing what I am doing, and it made me mentally ill for quite a while. I started to dread coming to work every day and couldn’t sleep with worry – what if my supervisors realised I don’t deserve to be here doing this? What if everyone at work realised I shouldn’t be a PhD student? It was a continuous worry and I continuously compared myself to others around me. I had to take a step back from these insecurities and focus on why I am doing the PhD, what do I want to achieve? As soon as I re-ignited that spark and drive to help save the marine environment I focus all my energy on that, even when in the lowest moments. The key was to focus on the positives of what I am doing and not the negatives.
What are you looking forward to the most in the future of marine science?
Impact. The level of awareness raised in the last few years on the state of the marine environment, particularly plastics, has been incredible and is triggering a global change. Whether this includes individuals reducing/removing single-use plastic from their lives or stop discarding left over antibiotics down the drain, it is making a difference! I look forward to a greater impact through greater awareness (public engagement through Blue Planet or Sky Ocean Rescue for example) and the increase of marine scientists as a result, wanting to make a difference.
How do you think we can get more women involved within marine science?
Encourage more women into senior roles so it can be understood that being a high-power scientist can be an obtainable role. I do not currently see many women in these roles. As well as this, increase awareness and presence of female marine scientists in the media. I often still feel like I am spoken to differently from male colleagues in the workplace and externally at conferences, whether this is more “gently” or slightly more patronising. More tertiary aspects such as Girls That Scuba or PADI female dive day (although many consider this as a marketing ploy) does increase the interest and awareness of women in the sport and the marine environment and makes it feel like less of a male dominated sport.
What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring female marine scientists?
Don’t ever feel like you don’t deserve to be doing what you are doing! Whether this is due to dominant male influence or low confidence, you worked hard to get where you are, and you have the potential to have a significant positive impact on the marine environment through your work.
In one sentence, why do you think a career within marine science is a great career option?
It is a shock that something so vast, beautiful and still highly unexplored is so vulnerable to human activity – whether you are studying toxicology, genetics, conservation, renewable energy (and many more subjects!) there is a place for you and a place for you to make a positive change on this continually damaged environment.
Social Media Links
I would like to give a massive thank you to Alethea Shay Madgett for participating in this interview. I cannot wait to share more of your stories and I hope that you find inspiration in learning of other journeys within marine science.
Are you a woman working within marine science? Would you like to share your story and inspire the next generation? Please get in contact with me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to be involved with the Leading Women in Marine Science Interview Series.
Disclaimer: All responses to the interview questions belong to Alethea Shay Madgett. The biography and all photographs used also belong to Alethea Shay Madgett.