Who am I? I’m mostly a marine biologist, but I also love making cartoons. People love looking at cartoons, so that’s working out really well for me!
At the moment, my marine biology research involves collecting seawater and looking for the DNA that is floating around in that water. We can then match the DNA to the species that it belongs to, and ta-da! Just like that, from a cup of water, we can start to answer questions about which fish are living in which waters.
To find out more about our cool scientific research (past and present), I welcome you to read some of the stories below. Otherwise, if you’re here for the cartoons- head on over to my SciComm page to see some of the science communication projects that I’ve worked on, or to the Teacher-Zone to download my recent teaching materials for free!
What am I doing now?
I am currently working towards my PhD in Zoology at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. I am describing coastal fish biodiversity in the region using an environmental DNA (eDNA) metabarcoding approach. You can check out my recent cartoon to learn more about these methods by clicking here.
I am researching the biodiversity of fishes across the South African coastline. Interestingly, these fishes (and all organisms) shed DNA into the environment as they move and exist in their habitat, and the DNA that they shed can come from things like their scales, their urine and their faeces. The oceans are therefore a big soup containing loads of amazing creatures, and also the free-floating DNA of these creatures!
Using an increasingly powerful method called environmental DNA metabarcoding, I am capturing the free-DNA (called environmental DNA or eDNA) and matching this DNA to known DNA sequences to identify which fishes are present along different areas of the South African coastline. It involves me travelling to many different shores, from rocky and sandy shores to seagrass meadows and mangrove forests, and collecting seawater. I filter this seawater to capture any DNA that is floating in the water, and bring it back to the lab for DNA extractions, followed by sequencing, and then computer-based processing and analyses (this whole process is known as DNA metabarcoding).
I am lucky to spend time in the field collecting water samples, but the really exciting stuff happens once we get back to the lab and process the data, which contains species lists for all the places that we visited! This method allows us to describe fish biodiversity without ever having to actually see the fishes that we are trying to describe. Most fish biodiversity estimates in the region rely on data from fish that are caught on commercial fishing vessels, which is very selective depending on the type of fishing gear you use and therefore not representative of what fish are actually occurring in those waters. Even using visual surveys (e.g. by SCUBA diving and recording the species that you see) can be biased towards larger species, surveys can often mis-identify cryptic or similar species, and require lots of taxonomic expertise.
We are therefore describing fish biodiversity across South Africa using the DNA metabarcoding approach instead, giving us rapid, cost-effective and more up-to-date information on fishes in the region. This type of data is vital for appropriately managing these important coastal resources.
That’s cool. What else have you done?
My journey as a marine biologist started at the University of Manchester where I began my BSc in Zoology, before transferring to Bangor University for a BSc Joint Honours in Marine Biology and Zoology. I graduated from Bangor with an MSci Master of Marine Biology with International Experience.
I’ve worked on various marine systems and organisms, from the effects of bio-acidification on shark development (University of Manchester), gene expression (AWI, Germany) and echinoculture (Bangor University) to mangrove biodiversity (Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute) and now coastal fish biodiversity in South Africa (Stellenbosch University). Here’s just some of the skills I’ve learned along the way:
Museum curation – I was honoured to work on the Manchester Museum crustacean collection for a number of years. Yes, that means I’ve spent hundreds (or more) of hours sifting through dead crabs! It’s fascinating, each day I was opening boxes that may not have been opened for >100 years, and unwrapping the 100-year-old newspaper to reveal the specimen of interest. You can read all about my museum adventures over on my blog.
Lots of field work experience – I am very experienced in the ‘field’, in other words I’ve worked on many projects where I designed experiments and field protocols, got familiar with local fauna and flora, and I have absolutely no trouble getting my hands dirty!
I love teaching – I have formal teaching experience in a range of settings- from university lecturing (undergrad and postgrad) to public speaking and even primary school teaching. I’ve also supervised university students, which has developed my teaching skills further.
Animal husbandry and aquarium set-up – I have worked on a number of animal physiology projects- namely with sea urchins during my MSc and during paid work on elasmobranch physiology at the University of Manchester. I have gained extensive knowledge in the set-up, maintenance and functioning of experimental research aquariums, and also have practical experience of the dedication involved in animal husbandry.
Public speaking – I am in the early stages of my career, yet I have spoken at many conferences and meetings. One of the highlights of this journey so far was when I presented at the United Nations REDD+ symposium, presenting our research on mangrove biodiversity and management to a high profile audience.
Boat experience & marine mammal surveys – I participated in regular boat and land based cetacean surveys over many years, so am familiar with boat-based research and also with marine mammal ID and survey techniques.
Laboratory set up, maintenance and management (and use!) – I have led a large laboratory setup in Stellenbosch University, and have thorough experience in the set-up, maintenance and management of a laboratory setting. This has included everything from laying floors (!) to ordering all necessary equipment, and then on a regular basis ordering and monitoring laboratory consumables.
Molecular skills and experience – I have high competency in a range of molecular methodologies not limited to, but including: metabarcoding, PCR, qPCR, gel electrophoresis, gel purification, MiSeq sequencing, PCR optimisations (including extensive experience with PCR inhibitor removals!) etc.
Community-based research – I have lived and worked with an amazing community in Kenya, where we worked together as researchers, fishermen, youth and adults to achieve amazing results for climate, biodiversity and community. See more about the Mikoko Pamoja project here.
There’s so much more to share- please do get in touch if you think my skillset can be of use in your workplace. I have an exciting combination of research and science communication experiences, and would love to throw around some ideas with you, so don’t hesitate to get in touch!