How to start out in marine biology?

Leila Fouda is a marine mammal conservation scientist. She is lucky enough to be able to travel to far flung and beautiful places studying whales, dolphins and other marine mammals for her job. She tells us what it’s like to work as a marine biologist, and provides advice for people looking to work in the field.

How would you describe your job?

I’m a marine mammal conservation scientist, studying cetaceans like whales, dolphins as well as other marine mammals, depending on the research that is being done at the time.

On a practical level, my work involves doing things such as photo identification, and analysing underwater acoustic recordings for understanding the acoustic environment of the ocean and the impact of oil and gas explorations on it. In addition to that I do a lot of marine mammal observation  work from both vessels and land.

This past summer I have been working on a project called the Behavioural Response of Australian Humpbacks to Seismic Surveys (BRAHSS), which is the biggest study of its kind in the world.

What are you most proud of in your career so far?

Getting the chance to work with and learn from one of the world’s leading bio-acostitions and underwater noise researchers. Working with Dr. Chrstine Erbe  while in Australia was an amazing opportunity for me and has been a great learning experience. She is someone I really admire.

What education do you have?

I did a BSc(Hons) degree in Marine Biology the University of St Andrews in Scotland, during and following that I did a lot of internships to develop my skill set before doing a Masters in Conservation Science at Imperial College London.

How did you find your internships?

I found many of the  internships through postings on the internet and mailing lists such as Marman who list jobs, internships, publications and PhDs. I also checked university and organisation websites looking for opportunities and spent time talking to senior scientists and peers to find out what was available. Talking to people isn’t always easy, but once you’ve built up a relationship and have shown them your abilities many times they will often think of you and send along internships opportunities or job postings – so don’t be shy! 

For my internships I’ve worked in British Columbia studying gray whales with the Society for Ecology and Coastal Research, which was my first internship and taught me a lot about how to conduct surveys and collect data. The next one was with the Pacific Whale Foundation on Maui in Hawaii doing humpback whale photo identification work and snorkel reef surveys. After that I was a research assistant on Sperm Whale research project in Kaikoura, New Zealand, where I learnt to do land-based surveys and use new equipment including hydrophones.

What are the biggest challenges or frustrations you face in your career?

The biggest challenge would probably be that many internships and voluntary placements available require that you cover your own expenses, which can be quite difficult early in your career.  There is a culture now where a lot of positions available, on any career path, want you to work for free especially at the beginning. This can be tough when you are just starting out and trying to get your footing  but if you have the chance to do them then you should as you do get to build a great skill set in return and also meet lots of amazing scientists and peers in your field.

How important is having a Masters?

I used to think I wanted to go straight to a PhD, but there has been a real lack of funding recently, and I was stuck and not sure what to do next. I knew I wanted to work on marine mammals and conservation, and then I came across the Masters at Imperial and applied. As it seemed the most logical and interesting next step.

I don’t think everyone has to have a Masters to do what I’m doing at the moment – you just need the skillset which you can build up from prior jobs and internships. However, if you want to move on you need a PhD, and for that, in most cases, you need either a first class undergraduate degree or a Masters.

Getting on to a PhD is obviously very competitive – many scholarships and funding organisations want you to have published already, and your Masters project provides a great opportunity to try to do this.

What key bits of advice would you give others seeking to follow in your footsteps?

Say yes a lot! If someone offers you something and you think you can do it, then say yes and be open to new experiences and to learning new skills. The best things have happened to me when I’ve said yes and made things happen.

What has also worked for me so far is talking to lots of people, and taking opportunities that come along like introductions to new people and learning opportunities. It can be scary and you need to be confident, but you’ve got to get out there and meet with anyone you can within your field of interest. They might not be able to offer you a job or a PhD, but they will be interesting to talk to and might be able to help you in the future with advise from their career experiences.

There’s also a lot of luck involved, so don’t get disheartened and keep trying!

What’s your favourite song?

At the moment it’s ‘Fade Into You’ by Sam Palladio & Clare Bowen from the Nashville soundtrack but, my forever favourite song is Everlong by the Foo Fighters

You can read more about Leila’s by visiting her blog at: http://deepblueconversations.wordpress.com/

Conservation Jobs & Careers Advice

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