Last week, I attended a fascinating conference: a three day collection of research from fellow students. We were treated to an overview of microbiology, cetaceans, plastic pollution, and fisheries. There were so many different topics which made the event really engaging because you could learn something completely new at each session. It felt a lot more relaxed than most conferences because it was students who presented their research and students who organised the event.
Here are some particular favourites of mine:
Thomas Stamp, PhD student, discussed how saltmarshes work as nursery grounds for some species. We’ve lost many of our saltmarsh areas due to urbanisation, and if we were to try and restore them it could take up to 100 years.
Elise Laetz, PhD student, is working on sea slugs that are able to ‘steal’ chloroplasts and use them to harness energy. What an incredible evolutionary skill to have!
Matthew Speight, PhD student, explained how, due to their enormous size, whales shouldn’t be able to live as long as they do. By about 70 years old their bodies should be riddled with cancer, he’s analysing the genetics to try and determine why they live for decades and decades more.
These are just snippets of the fascinating work that postgraduate students are working on. They came not just from Plymouth, but Exeter, Liverpool, Newcastle, and even as far as Germany.
By coming together like this and sharing research early on, students can build connections and networks that can help in forming collaborations in the future. You never know when introductions like this will become valuable. As this networking skill is so important, there was even a workshop in the conference courtesy of Alexandra Spencer from the Royal Society of Biology. She worked with us to improve our techniques in approaching strangers in conferences, engaging with people and possibly most importantly, how to explain your research. When people ask what your work is about and you try and explain it to them, have you ever found they soon wear a dazed and slightly bored look? Alexandra coached people on how to explain their work in a simple concise way - a skill many scientists seem to lack.
There was also a captivating workshop on science communication from Dr Jon Copley. He has had an amazing career exploring the deep sea and has perfected science communication. He is a co-founder or SciConnect a company that train scientists on how to communicate their work in the media. He ran two workshops, helping us to understand how to get our work across in a very short time frame. If you get an opportunity to attend a SciConnect workshop, I would certainly go for it. Even if you think you are a good communicator, you will still learn something. Jon had a lot of time for everyone and would answer specific queries - what applies for one project might not for another, and so the individual approach is often needed.
The key note speakers of the event shouldn’t be missed either. Nick Higgs gave a fascinating insight into his own career background - bone eating worms that feed on whale carcasses in the deep depths of the sea. An interesting point he made is that although it’s best to be flexible with research topics, you never really leave your PhD work behind. Even now after working in many different areas, including lobsters in the Bahamas, he still gets calls asking for advice about deep sea whale bones.
Matt Frost from the MBA gave an intriguing talk on the history of marine biology; its history is something I’d never really considered before. He made some excellent points that marine biology is the study of the sea and sea organisms, which means one of the most early marine biology references was made by the Egyptians when they noticed that ‘the sea is big’. Although it's basic, this was actually is the first step in understanding the marine world.
An especially important session in the conference was the careers panel. We welcomed Dr Louise Firth – University of Plymouth, Catherine Andrews – Wembury Marine Centre Devon Wildlife Trust, Sarah Clark – Deputy Chief Officer at Devon and Severn Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority, Anna Yunnie – PML Applications, and Dr Sarah Lane – University of Plymouth. All of whom gave us an insight into their different jobs within the marine sector and answered questions about their work. There was so much interest that they stayed answering questions long after the conference was supposed to have ended. It was wonderful to hear from different perspectives and gain advice about careers paths and applications.
It wasn’t all hard work - we had many fun events included in the programme, with a delicious dinner at the Marine Biological Association and a drinks reception at the National Marine Aquarium. This was a particular treat as we were there after closing time and got our own personal tour of the aquarium along with some nibbles. It was a shame that some of the residents were sleepy in the evening and had already gone to bed.
This three day conference was both interesting and informative. We were all able to learn a lot share our work and broaden our understanding of our own study areas. This conference runs annually and I would fully recommend any other postgraduate students to get involved next year.