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Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Smooth sailing - a story of one Master dissertation adventure

  Guest post by Annkathrin Sharp, Student Blogging Contest Series 2019

      Biting the bullet

“You have a decision to make, and only you can make it.”

Although we were talking over the phone, the matter-of-fact, intelligent voice of my course co-director left me feeling like I had nowhere to hide.

“Do you want to take on a Masters project which doesn’t have set parameters or a defined research question because it offers you the chance to do fieldwork at sea? Or will you choose the desk-based research project contributing to an established study, which will almost guarantee an excellent thesis with a high chance of getting published? One is not necessarily better than the other, but you have to make your decision and then own that decision.”

To many, this will seem like a no-brainer. A research cruise across the Atlantic Ocean, crewing a sailing research vessel to carry out multidisciplinary research with marine scientists? Obviously you’d be mad not to do it.

To many others, the exact opposite will also be a no-brainer. A project that would help you develop better statistical analysis skills, help to establish you as a “real scientist” with almost guaranteed publication and a great first step on the way to an academic career? Why would you pass that up?

It’s the typical battle between the head and the heart, the idealistic and the pragmatic. Finding a research project for your Masters thesis can often be a fraught process. My experience was no different.

When I left my corporate career to study a Masters in Conservation Science, I feared I would be an outsider from the start. Without a scientific background (my undergraduate degree was in Arabic and Spanish), I was conscious of the need to prove my worth, to show I had done the reading, that I was capable of contributing to our understanding of the complex and dynamic processes driving biodiversity loss and ecological degradation, and the science behind what might help prevent them. Getting a place on Imperial College London’s MSc in Conservation Science to pursue the career I had always wanted, to take my skills and adapt them for the service of people and nature, was the typical dream-come-true scenario. Living up to those ideals would require hard work.

I knew I wanted my thesis to focus on marine conservation, I knew I wanted to break out of my comfort zone and learn more about quantitative analysis techniques, and I knew I was most interested in anthropogenic threats to marine predators. PCB pollutants in cetaceans? Whale entanglement? Fishing pressure on sharks? A review of the scientific literature exploring the link between seismic surveys and mass strandings? Next, I had to figure out what had and hadn’t already been done, and who might be working on interesting avenues of study. I contacted various research organisations and NGOs, hoping that someone had a project in need of a student, or would be willing to develop one with me. One organisation that responded was Marine Conservation Research International (MCRI), a small, not-for-profit scientific organisation which sails the purpose-built research vessel R/V Song of the Whale all over the world to conduct conservation-focused research. Their Director, Anna, replied to my email to say that for some years now, her team had been gathering ancillary data on marine plastic pollution, an area which was gaining increasing scientific and public attention in 2018. Would I be interested in doing a project based on that? If so, Song of the Whale would be sailing a passage from Brazil to the Azores the following month, a voyage back to Europe from the Southern Ocean, that would also be an opportunity to study cetaceans in data deficient waters of the Atlantic[SA1] . She asked whether I would like to join the crew to trawl for microplastics and carry out distance sampling for floating macroplastics.

Cut back to the conversation with my course director.

As tempted as I was to ask her what she thought I should choose, I didn’t, because I feared she would recommend the desk-based project. And it was that split-second realisation that revealed I already knew what I wanted to do: gather my own data, contribute to every step of the process, and get a taste of conducting scientific research at sea and all the challenges that it entails. I’d still be learning how to conduct an analysis. I’d still write a great thesis. When she warned me that I had no set research question yet, that an exploratory study mapping the distribution of macro- and micro-plastics would not be enough, I told myself I would work it out, I would find a question worth asking and do my best to answer it.

It was a risk, and one I admitted I might live to regret, but I knew if I didn’t take my shot at getting out there in person I would regret it more. I would later question my decision at several junctures, but never enough to wish I’d made a different choice.

Ten days later, I was on a plane to Brazil with a folder full of plastics research and a stupid grin plastered across my face.

       Song of the Whale and the Atlantic adventure

Stepping on board the 21-metre, steel-hulled sailing vessel that would be my home for the next five weeks sent a thrill down my spine. Although it was past midnight, the temperature was well over 30 degrees as I climbed into my bunk in the cabin I would share with three other crew. I brimmed with expectation and my nerves melted away. For the first time, I’d be contributing directly to scientific research, and I’d be doing it at sea. Better yet, I’d be doing it in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. 

R/V Song of the Whale, as seen from the Atlantic when we paused for a swim at the Equator.
©Marine Conservation Research International

The first few days of the voyage presented a lot for me to take in. I got to know the rest of the crew: we were 10 in total, a mixture of sailors, scientists, and a couple of intrepid travellers who joined to contribute to the research effort. I threw myself into my duties. The rota split our watches into four consecutive hour-long shifts: port observation, helm, forms, and starboard observation. The first and last hours were spent on observation (standing on the A-frame, scanning the ocean for signs of life and floating debris). The middle two were dedicated to the helm (being in charge of the vessel, monitoring her course, the wind speed and direction, and so on) and completing forms (logging data on the ocean environment and weather; updating the effort sheets; logging sightings, and, four times an hour, putting the headphones to listen to the hydrophone). When not on watch, there was plenty to keep me busy. I carried out manta trawls for plastic fragments and processed each sample. I studied papers on marine plastics and tried to identify gaps that my research might address. The absence of internet and phone signal, beyond basic satellite email, was refreshing. I wrote in my journals, filling five exercise books with observations and sketches by the end of the voyage. I studied the charts at the navigation desk and learned how to read the weather reports we downloaded through the satellite link up each night. And I made a lot of tea.

On the A-frame observation platform looking out for cetaceans and plastic debris. ©Marine Conservation Research International
Listening to sperm whales through the hydrophone. ©Marine Conservation Research International

Niall, Edd, and Jack – the skipper, first mate, and second mate – taught me everything I needed to know about sailing, safety at sea, and how to help run and maintain the vessel. Vassili, the whale biologist, shared his insights into organisations like the International Whaling Commission. Taís, the Brazilian marine researcher, told me about her Masters thesis on the use of sailing vessels in whale research and let me practice my rusty Portuguese. And Claire, a whale biologist working at the Sea Mammal Research Unit, became my on-board scientific mentor. She didn’t sign up for the role, but through her patient answers to my endless questions about experimental design, distance sampling, writing scientific papers and a thousand other things, I adopted her as my de facto supervisor whether she liked it or not.

There was a great deal to get used to. I was constantly barefoot, and with the motion of Song of the Whale as she carved through the waves, I forgot what it felt like to be still. We sailed with a strong starboard tack from Brazil to the coast of Africa. This meant life on board was lived at a steep sideways angle, which made simple daily tasks more challenging. Showering is an interesting affair when the water sprays into the wall rather than falling straight to the floor. The on-board breadmakers were lashed to the shelf to stop them sliding off, so every loaf we baked was shaped like a triangular wedge as the dough conformed to gravity inside. The stove hung on hinges, and there is something slightly disconcerting about a whistling kettle full of boiling water swinging dementedly on top of a burning gas stove in heavy swell, leaving you feeling like you were either going to be drenched or set on fire any minute. But it’s actually quite a sensible solution that keeps the surface of the stove level in any weather and on any tack.

Though they prevented me from getting a good night’s sleep, I loved the night watches because I could spend them looking up at the stars. Out there, with well over a thousand kilometres separating us from either South America or Africa, with no light pollution and nothing to distract me, I spent hours staring up into the Milky Way and the Southern Cross, marvelling at the sheer number of stars in the night sky and how lucky I was to see them from this vantage point. I saw bioluminescence for the first time, and was mesmerised by the neon flashes of green and yellow light that glowed in our wake; the living twinkling below mirroring the sparkling firmament above.

For five weeks at sea, I lived and breathed ocean science. I read papers on oceanography, on currents and gyres, on Ekman transport and Lagrangian motion. I tried to formulate a specific research question I could answer with the data I was gathering, curious as to what my results might show. It’s important to acknowledge that there are bigger, more urgent threats to marine life than plastic pollution – illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, climate change, and discarded fishing gear are all extremely serious problems – but it’s an anthropogenic hazard to ocean ecosystems in need of study nonetheless. Most of the papers I was reading called for more and better data to help quantify the problem and calibrate models on a basin and global scale. Marine plastic modelling experts like Erik van Sebille pointed out that “the vast majority of the sea surface outside the gyres remains unsurveyed, introducing potentially large errors in global estimates of the amount of floating plastic.”[1] The only paper published on plastics for the Atlantic between the latitudes of 13˚N and 23˚S at the time featured data gathered in single passage sailed in 2010, which sampled only microplastics with the use of a neuston net. We were sampling microplastics ­and larger, surface-floating plastics, which gave me the opportunity to compare concentrations of the two at the same time and place. With every floating plastic sighting from the A-frame, and each sample we hauled out of the ocean with the manta trawl lent to MCRI by the 5Gyres Institute, I was adding to the dataset, working to build our understanding of the extent of the ocean plastics problem. My mind buzzed with possibilities.
R/V Song of the Whale towing the manta trawl provided by the 5Gyres Institute.
©Marine Conservation Research International
Hauling in the manta trawl. ©Marine Conservation Research International
Following an initial 7 days without any significant sightings, I encountered my first whales, dolphins, sharks and turtles, and was treated to a mind-blowing four-week parade of spectacular ocean life. Nothing prepared me for what it would be like to sail alongside a family group of sperm whales resting at the surface, clicking out their codas to one another like a disordered symphony of ticking metronomes. I was moved in ways I couldn’t have anticipated each time we were visited by acrobatic spinner dolphins or sleek Atlantic spotted dolphins. I felt a thrill race through me when I heard the haunting whistles of pilot whales through the hydrophone, and there was something transcendent about how the curious false killer whales seemed to make direct eye contact as they escorted us through crystal clear equatorial waters. I learned to discern between the shapes and angles of certain whale spouts when they surfaced to breathe in the distance, and marvelled at the sound when they exhaled and inhaled close to the vessel, stunned by the roaring rush of air being pushed from their cavernous lungs. As if by some sublime, poetic providence, as we approached the Azores on our last day at sea, the Pico volcano towering imperiously through the clouds in the distance, a blue whale crossed our path. I climbed the mast to the crow’s nest to see it from above. I will never forget the sheer size and grace of this whale, the intricate pattern of pale greys on its skin, and the icy blue it turned as soon as it submerged. It might seem unscientific to wax lyrical about the emotion of that encounter, but anyone who witnesses such a sight for the first time and isn’t moved has failed to grasp its significance. Each experience left me breathless with wonder, and the crew joked that they’d never get me off the boat.
Common dolphin off the coast of the Azores. ©Marine Conservation Research International

Needless to say, the end of fieldwork and the return to real life was a shock, and seemed to require far more adjustment than leaving my life behind me had done five weeks ago.

      Back to Earth with a bump.

I dived head-first into cleaning my data. It felt good to be working, but the frustration and fear at not being able to decide on a research question grew with each passing day. I felt like everyone around me was making headway on their projects, beginning their analyses, and I was falling behind. My course director had put me in touch with some experts working on plastic pollution, and after a lot of back-and-forth over one idea or another, I settled on a plan. I was going to use the data from our distance sampling of floating plastic debris to pinpoint each item’s coordinates at the time of its sighting. I would then use online models, which rely on a global network of marine tracers to predict the trajectory of floating debris, and run their algorithms backwards to try to identify approximately where the plastic debris could have originated. I produced what I thought was a solid proposal which could help shed more light on possible sources of plastic pollution in the Atlantic Ocean. I felt I was finally on to something, and I was keen to get going. When I presented my plan to the experts who built these models, my excitement was swiftly knocked out of me, to be replaced with disappointment and embarrassment. It was a solid enough idea, and could be very interesting, but did I have the time to run all these scenarios through the models? Did I have the complex computational power that this analysis would require? Had I considered all the factors? This didn’t really seem to be a feasible study for a Masters thesis due in three months’ time.

I was mortified. I felt way out of my depth. If being out at sea had made me feel like I was finally doing real science, like I was putting into practice everything I’d been learning, this reality check undermined it all, and made me question why I didn’t just take the safer option in the first place.

I was back to the drawing board, but I felt totally lost. I no longer wanted to touch my project. My enthusiasm disappeared. Why did I think I could ever make this work? That incredible voyage and those breathtaking wildlife encounters, laughing in the sea spray while hauling in the manta trawl with Niall and Claire, the pride I felt in learning to sail, the discussions about marine science underneath the stars on night watch, felt like another life. None of it was a comfort to me now. I had let down my course directors, and worse, I had let down Anna and the team who had invited me on board under the impression I was capable of making something useful of the incredible opportunity I’d been given. The thought of coming clean to them and admitting I wasn’t up to the task made me feel ill. Days became weeks. My coursemates tried to tell me that I’d be OK, that it couldn’t be that bad. I had never considered pulling myself out of the Masters before and throwing away everything I’d worked for, but it became an increasingly attractive option. But I didn’t want to give up. In the end there was only one person I could turn to. Writing the email was painful; admitting I was a failure stung my pride and my confidence in myself as someone who had hopes of being taken seriously as a conservationist one day.

       Help is given to those who ask for it.

I didn’t know what to expect in response, but when Claire’s words appeared on my screen I cried with relief. She praised me for reaching out and admitting I was stuck, and reassured me that she’d faced similar barriers in her own PhD at times, and that she would do her best to help me out. We both knew she couldn’t wave a magic wand and do the work for me; this was my project and I needed to figure it out. But she was pragmatic and business-like, sending me a to-do list to help get me started, suggesting I read papers on how to avoid common errors in statistical analysis, and pointing me towards the first steps I needed to take to get back on track. I booked myself onto the university’s free student counselling service to talk about my fear that people were going to realise I didn’t belong on the Masters with my brilliant coursemates. My closest friends helped me realise that being so self-critical would get me nowhere, and though I never managed to completely rid myself of my impostor syndrome, I looked to the capable women around me – my course director, my colleagues, and Claire – determined to be inspired, rather than intimidated.

With Claire’s support and Anna’s assistance, I began putting together a plan. Given that logistical constraints limit access to dedicated research effort in vast areas of ocean, it’s vital to understand how we can better exploit opportunities for data collection at sea. My thesis was going to examine the efficacy of exploiting a non-dedicated survey cruise to use my two different methods for quantifying ocean plastics – manta trawls and distance sampling – and compare their findings on the distribution and concentration of microplastics and large floating plastic debris. Claire’s help was a godsend. She even let me spend a few days working at a spare desk in her office at the University of St Andrews so she could advise me on the software and what to do when I ran into problems. Returning to campus I knew it was going to be a race against time to complete my analysis and write everything up, but now that I had something to work towards I found purpose and clung to it. A sense of belonging returned, and my coursemates and I pulled each other through. I put everything I had into my thesis, desperate to prove myself and make something valuable of the incredible opportunity MCRI had given me, and when the deadline came, I had managed to produce something I felt proud of.

With my thesis submitted, I took time to reflect on the mistakes I had made, and how I could have done better. I realised there were several important lessons I could take away from my project:

  • It’s OK to make the ‘less sensible’ decision, but you still need to approach it in a sensible way, with a methodical plan and a back-up for when things inevitably don’t turn out as you hoped. 
  • Being aware of your limitations is essential: don’t bite off more than you can chew. 
  • Don’t try to go it alone: consulting people with more experience helps to ground your expectations and reduces the amount of time wasted on ideas that can’t work. 
  • Attitude is crucial: honesty and self-criticism can help you move forward in a constructive way, but self-doubt gets you nowhere.

    Above all, it’s vital to remember that opportunities can reward you depending on how you approach them, and what you’re prepared to put in. Though my masters project turned out to be far from smooth sailing, with hindsight I would not have chosen differently – I gained so much from the experience beyond eventually earning a distinction, some statistical analysis skills and an improved knowledge of ocean plastic pollution. I have a better grasp of best practice in research design and execution. I built lasting friendships with scientists I met along the way. I discovered that asking for help doesn’t make you a failure, and I found new depths to my resilience, self-awareness and determination to succeed which will stay with me as I try to forge a career in the field.

    I hope that my account of these experiences might serve to help others who struggle with academic projects, and to remind them that if they’re questioning their decisions or they feel they’ve hit a dead end, there is always a way to take something valuable from the experience and turn it into a positive outcome.

    [1] Van Sebille et al, 2015. A global inventory of small floating plastic debris

    About the author 


     Annkathrin Sharp is passionate about addressing threats to marine ecosystems, and currently works as a Conservation Officer on the south-west coast of the UK. She studied Conservation Science at Imperial College London, and has additional experience researching cetacean populations in Hong Kong.

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