Science at Sea – My BBSRC PhD placement with the British Antarctic Survey

This is a blog post from, Megan Sørensen, who is a PhD Candidate with the BBSRC DTP Mechanistic Biology, working with Professor Michael Brockhurst in the department of Animal and Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield.

groupI had the most incredible placement with the British Antarctic Survey. I spent the first half in the Antarctic ocean onboard a research ship, the RRS Discovery, helping with sample collection for a long-term ecosystem monitoring project. For the second part, I was based in British Antarctic Survey labs in Cambridge, where I helped to prepare samples for stable isotope analysis.

The Science

Iceberg with penguins-MAR_5909_DxO copyMultiple projects are happening onboard the ship, but the priority is getting the data for the long-term monitoring project that has been conducted for the last 30 years. The dataset has become an important reference for how Antarctic ecosystems respond to climate change and changes in fishing regulation, and has direct application to marine protection policy. For example, this year the South Sandwich Islands were included because their marine protection status is being reassessed. Some of the additional projects included: studying nanoplastics, plankton sequencing, and thermal tolerance testing of Krill eggs.

My Role:

On board my role was to assist with sample collection through net deployment, and then sorting, identifying, and recording the catch. 20181231_182004It can take up to 7 people to deploy the large nets and pulling them back onboard with a full catch is hard work. Plus, the ship is always moving, which makes everything more difficult and means you work in a harness. The nets sample krill, invertebrates and small fish. The strange and wonderful invertebrates, most of which I had never heard of, were a favourite, especially the luminescent jellyfish. The nets get deployed multiple times both day and night, so you had to constantly adjust to the shift pattern.

Life on the Ship:IMG_1996

The RRS Discovery is a purpose-built research ship and houses 5 different labs. There was a bar, film room and gym for downtime, and a canteen everyone ate together. In total there was 50 people onboard; half crew and half scientists/marine engineers.

Science at sea comes with its own unique challenges – I hadn’t realised that we would spend the first two days drilling scientific equipment into place because anything not secured was sure to end up on the floor. Working in the cold, at night, outside on deck in a harness was daunting at first, and the complete opposite to a controlled lab environment, but it was exhilarating and far more exciting than pipetting.

It was tough at times; especially when the storms hit, and you had to deal with sliding boxes, chairs piling up against one wall, drawers flying out of cabinets, and even one time a rogue fridge… On the flip side, on those other (calm) days we were in the most fantastic environment. We visited the stunning South Georgia Island home to hundreds of penguins and some rather terrestrial Fur seals. We were also lucky with whale sightings and saw several Humpbacks very close to the ship and a pair of Blue Whales, which was unbelievable. Both aspects came hand in hand and dealing with the practical challenges was part of what made the experience so satisfying.

OverallIMG_2507 2 (2)

It was the most incredible experience that I have learnt so much from and I am very grateful for the opportunity. It will stand as one of the highlights of my PhD, and I hope placements continued to be supported as part of the BBSRC program. My main piece advice for anyone arranging their placement is to go for it and follow whatever it is you most want to do. Especially if it seems absolutely crazy and unlikely to happen, because it might just work out.

Megan also shared her experience of the trip through a contribution “A day on RRS discovery”as part of a collection of blogs from the ship: Adventure in Whale Counting.

Megan was featured on the British Antarctic Survey website as part of their international women in science day:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s