I am a recent postgraduate, with a Masters degree in Global Wildlife Health and Conservation and a huge love of nature with a particular soft spot for marine mammals. I currently work at The Natural History Museum in London as a Research Assistant for the Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme which focuses on exploring the causes of death in whales, dolphins and porpoises which strand along the UK coastline to monitor the health, distribution and status of cetacean populations in British waters.
Briefly describe your current work and your research
In my current work, I am responsible for responding to reports of stranded cetaceans, seals, sharks and turtles within England. These reports come to the Natural History Museum via phone, email and social media and it is my job to investigate them to determine whether or not an animal is suitable to retrieve for post mortem. This requires identifying the animal, usually down to species level, and the deciding whether or not it is fresh enough, and accessible enough, to be worth post mortem examination.
If an animal is suitable, I coordinate retrieval of the carcass to be taken to the Institute of Zoology at London Zoo where it is necropsied. During the necropsy, we analyse the animal and take many different samples to help understand the events leading up to its death. For example, we examine for injuries from human interactions such as fishing gear entanglement, propellers or ship strike, we take samples to analyse environmental contaminants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB’s) and monitor for evidence of ocean pollution (macroplastics) through stomach content analysis.
All the information surrounding a stranded animal is entered into a long-running national database which records the location of a stranding, the species, sex, length, stage of decomposition and if necropsied, then suspected cause of death. This database is then used to analyse trends in stranding events and allows us to observe temporal and spatial changes across the UK. Through this, we can determine ‘hotspots’ where strandings occur, for a particular species or particular reason e.g. bycatch death as a result of high fishing activity. Such research is used to advise the government and influence policy changes in UK waters.
What do you love the most about your job?
I love that every day is something different. Every day I walk into the office I don’t know what I am walking in to – will it be a mass stranding? Or a fin whale washed up on the shore? As sad as it is when such beautiful creatures die, I am extremely lucky to have the opportunity to see them up close, which many people don’t get in a lifetime. Most cetaceans live hidden lives at sea, only being observed by the occasional ‘blow’ or if you’re lucky, a breach out of the water. There is such beauty about them to appreciate, even under the circumstances that I get to see them. But knowing that by retrieving carcasses for investigation and understanding how they died, I am contributing to the science which underpins policy changes to protect cetaceans in the UK is something I am very proud to be involved with.
How difficult was it to get where you are today?
As an early career scientist, I can safely say it was a lot of hard work, and still is. I studied BSc Marine Biology for three years, and then did a year-long MSc in Global Wildlife Health and Conservation. Nobody prepares you for the hours of reading, researching and writing (particularly at postgraduate level!) that is required if you a serious about a career in marine science. I achieved top grades in both my degrees, published a paper with myself as first author at undergraduate level and have extensive field experience both overseas and in the UK and I still applied and was rejected from six jobs before I got my current position! I think a lot of young people think they will just walk into a job after university (I know I did), however the reality is you probably won’t, so be prepared for a long slog, however have passion, determination, patience and resilience, and this will put you in good stead.
What was the biggest obstacle in your way before your career reached where it is today? How did you overcome it?
I think my biggest obstacle was choosing a specific path in bioscience that I wanted to commit to. I am a wildlife lover, and so for me it was always about focusing on the animals and how we can conserve them. On top of this, I have a connection with the ocean that fuels my passion for the natural world and so I knew I wanted to combine these two in some way. I think I would be happy doing any conservation work, but there is something about the marine world that draws me in.
To overcome this, I decided to do a Masters in Global Wildlife Health and Conservation that was less marine focused, but would help me towards my dream of being a conservation scientist. As part of this I was lucky enough to go to the University of Western Australia to carry out research on freshwater turtles and got involved with several other conservation projects allowing me to gain a wide diversity of experience from dissecting seabirds looking for microplastics to genetic sampling endemic ring-tailed possums! Saying yes to such a variety of opportunities made me realise what I wanted to do, and so here I am, back in the world of marine science.
The other biggest obstacle for me was actually getting a foot on the ladder and getting my first job post-degree. I never appreciated how difficult this was going to be, and it can be so disheartening when you spend hours writing an application to be rejected, or not even get a response, or to be told the job received over 250 applications (how am I ever going to stand out?!). Thankfully I have the most supportive family and friends who keep me going even when I’ve felt like giving up. Marine science is what makes me happy and getting the opportunity to work and do what you love was enough to keep me powering on until I was given an opportunity and gain my current job!
What are you looking forward to the most in the future of marine science?
I am excited to see so many people getting involved in ocean conservation. Within the project I work for, we rely heavily on public engagement to report cetacean strandings to us and so it is crucial that people are inspired to help. With increasing awareness of issues such as plastic pollution and climate change, more and more people are realising they can do ‘their bit’ to help marine conservation, and you don’t need to have studied marine biology to help save the oceans. It is our job to encourage this and inspire change in everyone, not just those within our sector, if we want to make a difference.
How do you think we can get more women involved within marine science?
I think it is important to acknowledge how diverse marine science is. It is made up of biologists, oceanographers, geologists, computer scientists, engineers, palaeontologists and so many more. And women can be any one of those. You don’t have to want to grab a scuba tank and dive into the oceans to work in marine science – it’s so diverse and provides opportunities for many different disciplines.
What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring female marine scientists?
Always be passionate – it will take you a long way.
In one sentence, why do you think a career within marine science is a great career option?
More than 80% of the oceans are yet to be explored, and why wouldn’t you want to be part of that?
Social Media Links
NHM Strandings page: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/take-part/citizen-science/uk-whale-and-dolphin-strandings.html
I would like to give a massive thank you to Kate Swindells 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 and the biography belong to Kate Swindells. All photographs have been used with the permission of Kate Swindells.