To celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science on Saturday 11 February, we sat down with some ladies dotted around Plymouth Sound National Marine Park working in the marine sector. We discussed their top tips for entering into the field, their favourite project they ever worked on, what ignited their interest in marine life and much more to show women in the Plymouth (any anywhere else) can make their mark in the sector.

Dr Louise Frith is a marine ecologist and Associate Professor of Marine Ecology at the University of Plymouth with an obsession for limpets, Michaela Buchbauer is Sea-going Research Technician at the Marine Biological Association (MBA) and Freja Azzopardi is another Research Technician at the MBA.

What is your favourite marine animal and why?

Michaela – the animal that has influenced me a lot are sperm whales. In my teenage years, I joined a trip with Tethys Research in San Remo, Italy. All the amazing things I learned about these animals, behavioural, acoustics and more, mesmerized me.

Louise – Limpets.  They are globally distributed in coastal habitats. If there were no limpets, rocky shores would look very different. They are also the underdog. Other molluscs such as mussels and oysters get a lot of attention and respect, but people’s main association with limpets is kicking them off the rocks. I have made it my life mission to “fly the flag for limpets” and share how intriguing and important they are.

Freja – It’s a difficult question to answer as there are so many cool marine animals. I would have to say my favourite animal is the Great Hammerhead (Sphyrna mokarran) because of its impressive size, predatory behaviour and importance to its habitat. . Sharks are also one of the most threatened groups of marine animals, mainly due to commercial fishing and are therefore of high conservation importance.

What first sparked your interest in Marine Science?

Michaela – Multiple separate sparks, information I learned, trips to the ocean, things I saw on TV as a child. I have been drawn to the ocean from a small age. As someone born and raised in a landlocked country any contact and experience I had with the marine fauna and flora was a special moment, which is why I decided to do my part for the marine wildlife when I was around 10 years old.

Louise – Rockpooling. I was fascinated by the fact that you got an insight into the marine world when the tide was out. Only for a few hours…. And then the tide was back again. What a privilege?! I spent a lot of time admiring the world of rockpools and loved the colours and witnessing the behaviours of the crabs and shrimps within.

Freja – In my living memory, I have always been drawn to the ocean. My father is from Malta so I spent most summers there exploring the clear blue waters for small reef fish, crabs and octopi by swimming and snorkelling. I learned to SCUBA dive as a teenager which was a game changer as I could stay under the water uninterrupted, which meant more time to watch the creatures and their interactions with their environment. I would live and breathe in the ocean if I could but I’ll happily settle for being a SCUBA addict and marine scientist!

How did you enter into the sector?

Michaela – I decided to study marine biology when I was around 12 years old, researched how to do it and where to do it. Around 10 years later, I moved to Australia to do my MSc in marine biology and ecology, after doing multiple marine science related optional subjects during my BSc in Vienna.

Louise –  I did a zoology degree and did my final year project on marine ecology – on limpets! I then went on to do a PhD on limpet ecology in relation to climate change. I then did a few postdocs in Hong Kong, Florida and Bangor, Wales before taking a lecturing position in Galway Ireland. I got my job at Plymouth in 2014.

Freyja – Before university I worked as a SCUBA Instructor teaching diving and raising awareness of the threats to the marine environment. I was motivated to pursue a career in marine science for conservation, especially after having witnessed the effects of fishing and pollution underwater as a dive professional. While I was at university, I was awarded a scholarship to undertake an internship in Bermuda where I was able to combine my passion for diving and marine biology by scientific diving to study coral optics i.e. their colour and ability to fluoresce!

What has been your favourite project to work on?

Michaela – I have had many great experiences on many diverse projects. I particularly like new projects, learning new things, working in a changing environment. If I would have to choose one of my favourite projects at my current job it would be the Fish Haul surveys, you never exactly know what you are going to get and you can gain a lot of hands-on experience.

Louise – The Theseus project (Innovative coastal technologies for safer European coasts in a changing climate, 2009-2014) which involved coming up with novel ways of making space for nature in artificial marine habitats such as seawalls and breakwaters. It was ground-breaking at the time and gave me an opportunity to start working on urban ecology and ecological engineering. This is very much my main field of research today.

Freja – My favourite project was without a doubt my master’s project. It was incredibly rewarding to use a large existing dataset from the Global Shark Movement Project to address key questions in shark conservation and fisheries management, namely quantifying exploitation of specific shark species – one of which is endangered and facing continued population decline – through space and time. I am currently working with the Sims Lab to publish these results alongside the results of additional analyses, which is very exciting!

How would you encourage more women and girls into the sector?

Michaela – Depends on the type of work, but I would do outreach projects, open door days, volunteering opportunities, holiday internships/work placements organised in cooperation with colleges and universities.

Louise – You can make a difference. Marine science is a big field with room for many different outlooks, interests and skills. Marine science is a great platform to become whatever you want to be.

Freja – My advice to women and girls (and anyone!) is if marine science is something that interests you, then do not hold back and go for it! Have confidence and know that you deserve to work in this sector if it is something you want to do. Educating women and girls about the marine biology sector and the avenues within it is the key to encouraging more to get into it. Marine biology is a varied sector with plenty of opportunities.

What is your top tip for women and girls looking to get started in marine science?

Michaela – Do not rush into anything, marine science is a large field, take your time and use volunteering and internships to find out what you want to do/work on, use the opportunities and experiences offered at your universities – try to get the most out of those educational years.

Louise – Take risks and learn from them. Don’t be afraid to fail. We all learn from our mistakes.

Freja – Grab every opportunity you can and don’t be afraid to create your own opportunities, because you deserve it! I cannot emphasise enough how easy it is to send an email to a researcher or professor to ask questions or to ask to volunteer and gain experience. Very often just asking leads to good things professionally, at least it has in my experience. Of course behind every success is a majority of rejected applications, but being persistent pays off. I do not see myself as a woman in science necessarily- I see myself as a person who deserves to apply to things, gain experience and pursue my dreams. I encourage any woman reading this to gain the confidence to feel the same way. Do not undersell yourself because you deserve anything you wish to pursue.

What was your most memorable experience in, on, under and next to the water and why?

Michaela – Too many memorable experiences in many diverse situations all over the world, one of which was spending about an hour on a sailing boat with a very social and interactive humpback whale.

Louise – Spending the day on the shore in South Africa with Professor George Branch (the number 1 limpet expert on earth). He showed me all sorts of species and invoked them to do some very interesting behaviours. He showed me so many wonderful species associations and patterns. For me, South African rocky shores are the most amazing habitats on earth – no lie, I was happier on the rocky shore than spending lots of money going on safari seeing lions, rhinos and elephants! Even in his 80s, he was still fascinated by the organisms he was showing me. It was a very special experience. A true naturalist.

Freja – One of my most memorable experiences must be when I was out on the MBA Research Vessel to collect samples at one of our survey sites. We were underway when we passed a huge feeding frenzy. It was something straight out of a nature documentary. There were tuna rushing under the surface causing the water to boil. Common dolphins were herding them into a bait ball, driving them up to the surface to make them easier to catch. The dolphins would shoot out of the water while cormorants were rocketing from above into the bait ball. It was a spectacular chance encounter and one I will never forget.

L-R Michaela Buchbauer, Louise Firth and Freja Azzopardi