This is where we live!

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog piece for the University of the Highlands and Islands on my relationship with the outdoors as an environmental scientist. It goes without saying that being outside, close up to mother nature, feeling the wind in my hair, the goosebumps on my skin, and the damp ground seeping in through the mesh in my shoes, is essential to me. It’s part of who I am.

I think this affinity to nature is really common in environmental scientists, and also in people working in the renewable energy industry. I’ve met more than one CEO or director of a renewable energy on the beach with a surfboard or kitesurfing kit. I’ve met PhD students on mountain ridges, after teaching them about environmental impact assessment, and seen senior lecturers at their best/worst at the mid-camp of a mountain marathon. It seems like somehow, our work, play, and sense of self are linked by a connection to nature.

I thought I’d share what I wrote for UHI here, but you can find the full article, including pieces from other UHI staff and students here.

 “This is where we live!”, exclaimed a close friend and colleague many years ago, expressing the joy of living and working in a beautiful place, with endless opportunities to run in the hills, swim in the sea, cycle anywhere and everywhere, and pursue many other outdoor activities. It is a saying that stuck with me, shouted from the top of a mountain climbed after work, or shivered between shaking teeth after a butter-smooth swim in the sea on a sparkling winter day. Like many environmental scientists, I love to be outdoors (even when it’s wet). I could say that this is because I can see in nature the very principles that I study in my work, or that because of my training I see greater detail in the plants, animals, and landscapes around me. Or perhaps, at the intersection of working in environmental science and loving the outdoors is a deep-rooted fascination and curiosity about the natural world. The latter is probably the most accurate statement, but in reality, it just feels really, really good to exercise outside in the wonderful highland landscape right on our doorstep.

In normal times I would be one of a handful of people washing away a stressful morning with a swim in the sea at lunch, looking out for local seals that following our progress. Or I would pound away a day’s ruminations while running up a local hill after work, leaning in to the incline, feeling the wind on my skin and laughing as I sink a foot into a deep bog. During lockdown, our worlds have suddenly become squeezed by the added stresses of uncertainty and homeworking, combined with a government-mandated travel restriction. We could no longer escape to the office for a change of scenery, and we could no longer escape from the office to the sea or to the hills to clear our heads.

In my case, I know that outdoor swimming, running, and cycling are essential to my wellbeing. In the final year of my PhD thesis I signed up for a challenging triathlon, which provided a different focus away from the stresses of work. The expansive views from mountain summits, on the other hand, are where I find seek comfort when the world feels like it is spinning – this was particularly true after my father died in 2013.

But in lockdown, it felt different. Suddenly the small things mattered more. Since March, I’ve watched frogspawn turn to wriggling tadpoles, the gorse flower and die back, jellyfish bloom in the nearby sea loch, and the bracken shoot up across the mountains. I’ve discovered countless new paths, leading to intriguing ruins, waterfalls, or hidden oak groves in the middle of plantation forest. I’ve explored the five mile radius of my village more deeply than ever before, and after every excursion, I come back with some new finding, some treasure that makes me smile – a welcome relief from so many hours spent working in the home.

With lockdown easing, it has become clear to me that the mental health benefits of outdoor exercise don’t come from aching muscles and burning lungs (although for some people that helps!). Perhaps it is the scientist in me, or maybe it’s mindfulness, but I think noticing the detail and richness of what is around you, from vast landscapes to the tiniest of garden insects, can help us to feel happier, more relaxed, and grounded in our surroundings.

wooly socks and leather sandles

Finally! I’m starting to get to grips with some labwork which I’ve been meaning to do since May this year – analysing my vertically stratified zooplankton samples from my cruise earlier this year (see the post here!). To jog my memory about what I should be doing, I’ve been going through my old lab log books and notes, some from as much as 10 years ago! While doing so, I came upon an entry in my notebook from 2010, which contained a poem I must have scrawled in a fit of frustration – probably during a conference or meeting, and quite possibly when a very senior scientist (or two!) was talking over a more junior one… here goes:

Wooly socks and leather sandals.

The speaker cannot get a handle

on your probing question.

Gloating now you make your speech;

wise and learned, out of reach

ignoring his suggestions.

Sometimes scientists are the kind

who fail to show an open mind

to embrace a new technique.

For crying out loud!

Will the learned crowd

just listen to someone speak?



How we see the sea…

…an exploration of the role and ethics of communicating science.

A couple of weeks ago I participated in an event at the Edinburgh Science Festival, where I was part of a panel discussion involving a filmmaker, an arts curator, a creative art-science advocacy organisation, an ethnographer, and myself as a practising scientist. I’d hoped the discussion would centre around the role of arts and creativity in communicating and engaging people with the environment around them. Instead, the conversation shifted towards the role of scientists in creating and communicating knowledge, and whether or not scientists should advocate for environmental protection, and perhaps for conservation.


On the big screen in the theatre at Our Dynamic Earth

Its a tricky discussion to have. At SAMS, where I work, a seminar on research ethics sparked a wider debate on the role of scientists. Is it our job as scientists to present scientific outcomes in peer reviewed journals, leaving others in society to interpret, implement, and apply our conclusions? Philosophically and traditionally, this might be our most appropriate role, and one that enables the scientific community to maintain its objectivity, and avoid bias (although, it must be said that we as scientists are all inherently biased – more on that in another post).

Alternatively, should scientists not only communicate their results through different media, with the risk that those media are no longer objective – for example though news outlets with particular perspectives, or by working with organisations with particular value sets. But in doing so, do we begin to forfeit our scientific objectivity? Going a step further, there is substantial debate in the scientific community about whether scientists should or should not advocate for particular actions or activities which are associated with their results.

In essence, at what point does the ‘sciencing’ stop? At the point of manuscript publication? At the point of media interpretation? At the point of public engagement? At the point of advocacy?


The panel discussion at the science festival centred around a particularly divisive topic for Scotland: the designation of Marine Protected Areas. The SHORE project, with funding from Creative Scotland, had commissioned two filmmakers to create films about coastal communities’ interaction with their local marine environment. Ed Webb-Ingall’s film, I walk there every day but I never saw it that way focused on the community-led designation of an MPA and no-take zone around the coast of Arran, while Margaret Salmon’s film, Cladach, explored the omnipresence of the sea in the daily life of coastal communities. The films sparked questions about ownership of the sea, pollution, human activities in the marine environment, and environmental conservation, shaped by the experiences of the people and communities who live there.


Ed Webb-Ingalls talks about his film as part of the SHORE project

I had attended a previous panel event for the SHORE project in Broadford, on Skye. At both events, the most vocal audience members were those supporting the designation of marine protected areas. Often, these voices were also disapproving of marine industry such as finfish aquaculture and capture fisheries. In Edinburgh, an audience member asked, “surely, if you [scientists] don’t advocate for the environment, then who will?”

In some sense I agree. As scientists, we are privileged to have the knowledge and skill not only to develop new understanding of how the ocean system works, but also to interpret this knowledge, and in some cases, to apply it. It would be a shame to provide such understanding, without suggestion of how it might be applied to challenges such as MPA designation and development of new marine industries. However, in my opinion we must also be mindful of others with opposing perspectives to our own. It is all too easy, as an academic, to perceive scientific predictions or outcomes as the most valuable perspective on an issue (because, inherently, we value it!). For example, there are  detrimental impacts on the marine environment from finfish farming (for example, seabed discharges, disease, and interactions with wild stocks – see Marine Scotland’s guidance here). However, at the same time there is a need to provide people with sources of protein and income, particularly in developing nations or in areas where overfishing is pervasive. We, ‘society’, must weigh up the potential environmental impacts of finfish aquaculture with the potential benefits offered in terms of food provision and employment.


Collage of thoughts, notes, and words collected by the SHORE project team from the 9 locations around the Scottish coastline visited by the project.

There are no straightforward or black and white answers to these challenges. However, what has become increasingly clear to me, though participating in the SHORE project, and my other recent public engagement work, is that there is a clear appetite for science and/or a scientific perspective on many of the complex environmental issues we face. The audiences I have worked with want to know what the scientific evidence suggests or predicts – what are the facts? People are looking to us for the answers.

So to me, it is incumbent upon us to communicate scientific outcomes to the people who need them, or who are interested in them. Just as when writing a manuscript, there is also a need for clarity in distinguishing what the evidence base tells us from the actions we suggest could or should be taken. As a community, we must be mindful of what is objective (the evidence) or subjective (how that evidence is interpreted) in our work, and aware of how we, as a community are perceived by those who we interact with. In my experience, we are looked upon as knowledge providers: people who can distinguish truths from stories and fact from fiction. It gives us the ability to influence outcomes, but this is a role which we should not take lightly.

I am still developing my own perspective on how far scientists should interpret or apply their conclusions and to what degree we should advocate for particular policy or societal outcomes, but taking part in public engagement continues to shape my thinking. Its something I’d be interested in discussing further with like-minded people from different disciplines and sectors. If there are any science philosophers out there, I’d love to hear from you!


Seated and ready to watch I walk there every day but I never saw it that way and Cladach, before the panel discussion.


Five reflections on fieldwork

Last week I embarked upon my first fieldwork campaign in eight years. Yes – you read that right.

The last time I was on a research vessel (even one as small as the Scottish Association for Marine Science’s (SAMS) Seol Mara) was in 2011. It was the second research cruise of my PhD, and I was out with one of my supervisors for a week to collect zooplankton samples at different depths in the coastal waters near our marine lab. I had the support of my PhD supervisors, and I’d been on a research vessel at least once in each of the two years previous. I didn’t entirely know what I was doing, but I also had a bit of a safety net.

This time it felt different. I became a post-doc in September 2018, five years after finishing my PhD. In the meantime, I’d done lots of interesting things, mainly working to interpret, communicate, and generate impact from marine science, specifically in the marine renewable energy and climate science fields. What I hadn’t done in those years was plan and execute a ship-based fieldwork study.

Suddenly, I was the lead scientist (the only scientist!), responsible for everything from booking ship time to purchasing and/or testing kit, from writing risk assessments to finding an extra pair of hands to help out. No longer, could I rely on PhD supervisors to guide me – I had to figure it out myself. I learned a lot!

In the interest of being honest about research and its up and downs, I wanted to share a few of my reflections on planning a fieldwork campaign.

1) It is never too early to start planning – especially when you are working from a new perspective and/or have to learn ‘the system’.

It was November, two months after starting my new post, when I decided to go ahead with this piece of fieldwork. I had unfinished business (unanswered science questions!) from my PhD, and I really wanted to get the SAMS plankton pump back into regular use. I also wanted to write my paper on the vertical distribution patterns of barnacle larvae in well-mixed coastal environments, but needed another year of data to do it.

Four months seemed like a reasonable length of time, but with Christmas in the way and a few key obstacles to overcome, the weeks quickly melted away. For example, my grasp on how to book a research vessel at SAMS was fuzzy, at best, and had changed since I last used the vessels in 2011. I’m based at SAMS, but am employed as a researcher by the University of the Highlands and Islands, to which SAMS is affiliated, and it was no longer clear if I was an ‘in house’ researcher, a commercial client, or an external researcher. I had to ask a lot of questions! Furthermore, my main piece of equipment, the plankton pump, hadn’t been used in eight years, and needed PAT testing for electrical safety before I could use it. The PAT test machine at SAMS had other ideas, and promptly went out of service as soon as I needed it! Luckily, the PAT tester was repaired in time, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I could finally test my equipment prior to fieldwork deployment – except that the vessels were fully booked in the days/weeks before my cruise dates, so I wasn’t able to give my equipment a full test before fieldwork day 1. Thankfully, after spitting out a bit of rust, the plankton pump worked, and we were able to sample from the beginning.


Plankton pump with CastAway CTD attached, and CTD side by side

I’d like to say that I had everything planned and ready to go weeks before my scheduled ship time, but I would be lying. For the sake of honesty, I definitely admit to having a refresher on CTD operation at 4pm the Friday before my week of ship time. It happens. But these things didn’t derail my fieldwork because I’d thought in detail about what I was going to do and how I was going to do it well in advance and spoken to the right people. Planning is important folks!

2) Ask lots of questions

Do it! Ask away. Ask lots of questions.

I discovered that most of what was simultaneously making me anxious and making me procrastinate in fieldwork planning was dealing with the unknown. There were many things that I didn’t know, from who was going to operate the winch on the vessel (I hoped it wasn’t going to have to be me!), to whether or not lunch was included in my vessel booking fee (turns out it was). I didn’t know if my plankton pump was going to work on our smaller vessel, Seol Mara, or where its transformer/fuse box would sit in the cabin. I didn’t even know if I was going to be able to get some help from willing volunteers on some of the days!

In hindsight, the solution was to ask lots of people lots of questions. I think the technicians were pretty fed up of me by the time my fieldwork week came around (thank you for your help, if any read this!), but they were also able to give me all kinds of information and ideas. For example, one of them suggested putting a CastAway (really tiny!) CTD on my plankton pump so I knew its exact deployment depth. Speaking to so many different people was also great for giving my science a bit of visibility in the lab, and served to ease my anxiety and give me confidence in my plans as I approached my fieldwork week.

3) Things don’t always go to plan

I’ve already mentioned the PAT tester needing repaired just as I needed my plankton pump PAT tested, and the vessels being booked when I wanted to do a test run of my equipment, but those weren’t the only things that didn’t go to plan. My fieldwork volunteer also fell ill the weekend before we were due to go out on the ship, and the weather meant that I wasn’t able to visit many of the sampling stations I wished to go to. Luckily, sufficient planning and the connections I made by asking all those questions came to my rescue!

I’d discussed my work several times with one of the technicians at SAMS (we also happen to be friends), and they were able to take my volunteer’s place for the first two days of sampling. This gave me enough time to find some wonderful student volunteers for the latter part of the week. I’d also discussed my planned sampling stations with the ships captain two or three times before my planned work, which meant that together we were able to select alternative sites which would provide adequate data, but which were also safely accessible, given the weather conditions.

4) Be nice to people

That statement should be obvious, but in this specific context, having good relationships with people was really important in order that my fieldwork was successful. I needed to negotiate dates for my fieldwork with the SAMS Enterprise team (SRSL), and I’m not sure I would have been able to do so successfully without knowing the team fairly well. The facilities team were incredibly helpful in getting my kit PAT tested as soon as they were able, and helped me retrieve equipment from the locations in the ships shore where a forklift was needed (thank you!).

When poor weather struck during the week, I was able to work with the captain of the Seol Mara to select new sampling sites that would work for us both. To be honest, the ship’s crew were fantastic all week, helping me get to grips with my sampling routine, instructing the students on how to deploy equipment safely, and providing excellent jokes and conversation all week. Good relationships matter, folks!

5) You definitely know what you’re doing – own it!

I realised this on day three on the ship after selecting new sampling sites and teaching one of the students how to transfer a plankton sample from the net to a jar for preservation. We were having a cup of tea while the plankton pump whirred away (you need to leave it 10-20 minutes to collect enough samples), and as I stared out across the Firth of Lorn towards the Isle of Mull I thought, “I am doing this. I feel confident. I can problem-solve. I understand how these decisions might affect my results. I’ve weighed things up. And it’s all going well!” I have learned that it is important to reflect on the times when you are confident in your work, and when things go well. Why did they go well? How did it feel? What are the signs that things will go well again?

On reflection, good planning and having many discussions with the ship and technical team before my fieldwork were really important (see above!). For me, reflecting on positive outcomes also really helps ‘imposter syndrome’ feelings, which I succumb to from time to time. I am a scientist – I led my own fieldwork campaign last week, all by myself (!). If I can do it once, I can do it again. Such a small thing might seem trivial to some, but it adds to the picture of other small successes that add up to feeling happy and confident in the job I do. And I definitely (some of the time!) know what I am doing! Say it with me: “I own this fieldwork! I am in charge! I know what I am doing!”

It’s now the week after my four days on Seol Mara. I can honestly say that the 45 jars of plankton samples, with their shiny blue plastic lids, give me more happiness than is probably reasonable for most non-zooplankton scientists. I can’t wait to look at them in the lab. I can’t wait to have all of the data together, and to compare it with my findings from 2011. Ecological fieldwork is not easy, to plan, or to carry out. In investigating the ins and outs of mother nature, you are also at her whim. Fieldwork is challenging, but oh so worth it

Science with people who aren’t like you

It’s February 25th, 2019 – the warmest February day on record in the UK, and I have spent most of it on the train. I’m still on the train – this time the Eurostar, heading towards Ostend, Belgium, via Brussels. Given the alarmingly warm weather, I’m feeling quite good about my choice not to fly to Brussels. Instead, I’ve traded my office for seats on a bus and three trains. While it will take me 14 hours to get to Ostend, it’s generally a much more enjoyable journey.

I’m looking forward to this week’s meeting. I’ll be joining the International Council for Exploration of the Sea (ICES) Working Group on Marine Renewable Energy (ICES WG MRE) again after a two year hiatus. I’ll be meeting with other scientists and regulators from across Europe to discuss development of the sector from an environmental perspective. This year we are also providing advice to OSPAR on the sector, along with the ICEG Working Group on Marine Benthal and Renewable Energy Development.

For me, it’s also an opportunity to get outside my ‘research bubble’ and spend a few days interacting with decision-makers – people whose job it is to make decisions about if and how developments are consented. The UK might generally be a world leader at the moment in terms of development, but other nations are hot on our heels and developing strategies to advance the sector. We share the latest research, but also the dilemmas each country faces in balancing development with environmental sustainability.

I’ll be presenting some of my recent work mapping the pathways through which environmental scientists can influence decision-making across the offshore renewable energy sector. There is a general feeling that industry, policy and regulatory decision should be based on sound scientific evidence. But where do industry professionals, policymakers, and regulators consume their science? How do they get a hold of it? And how important are meetings like the ICES WG MRE meeting this week for knowledge exchange and idea generation?

It turns out that while scientists are involved in a lot of steering groups and committees, our ability to communicate across and influence the network is likely down to our sheer numbers. The influence of individual scientists on knowledge exchange pathways seems to be substantially less. From the lens of an environmental scientist, site developers and other ‘industry’-related professions are cliquey. They aren’t well linked in to our network, meaning that the flow of scientific evidence to these individuals is sporadic. This could be a reason that scientific evidence doesn’t always support industry decision making.

So what can we do? Reach out to industry members, for a start. Or join their groups and engage. This is easy to say but hard to do, as it often seems like we have little in common, apart from a general interest in offshore renewable energy. But the survivability of their devices and consenting decisions depend on it, so we’ve got a leg to stand on. Perhaps we should be inviting industry representatives to our ICES meeting would make for an interesting change – maybe some new ideas would come out of it. In fact, they probably would: most studies of social networks seem to suggest that individuals with more multidisciplinary connections have great ideas, are influential, and experience success.

Which brings me back to where I started. What I always look forward to most about international meetings is interacting with people from different countries and different disciplines to my own. Inevitably, we end up talking what it’s like to live, work, and do science in different places. We talk about our similarities, and also our differences. It gives a broader perspective on our field of environmental science and offshore renewable energy, but also on being a scientist and a global citizen. I wish more fields of work were as international as science – perhaps it would provide the empathy and collaboration we need to truly take action on some of the global problems

New year, new job, and future ‘me’

It’s January 2019. It’s a time when we tend to review our achievements from the last year, and to start thinking about the next 12 months. I’ve been thinking quite a lot about what has changed – quite a lot, and also about how to embody my vision of myself for the future.

In September 2018 I left my previous post as a Knowledge Exchange and Communications Manager at the Scottish Association for Marine Science. It was a difficult decision to make, as I was working with a brilliant team through the Blue-Action project. I was also learning a lot about climate science, large-scale oceanography, and how the changing Arctic is linked to environmental change in other parts of the world. It felt good to know more about one of the greatest issues facing humankind, inside and out. It was challenging – translating the subtleties and complexities of climate modelling to meaningful take-home messages that people like my mother could understand – it was never easy!

Even so, I always missed being actively involved with the research. It’s the second time in my life I’ve experienced that feeling of being on the periphery of the action, but knowing you had the skills to take part. This was the reason I decided to leave a business development role back in 2008 to pursue an MSc in Marine Science. Ten years later, I took a similar decision. An opportunity appeared at the University of the Highlands and Islands to work on a new project, called the Bryden Centre for Advanced Marine Energy Research.

I am now a post-doctoral researcher on this project, which focuses on marine and bioenergy development in Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Scotland. It’s funded through the Interreg VA programme, and all of a sudden I have a research budget, and three years to develop a research area of my own! Amazing, right?
Yes. It’s wonderful to start with a clean slate, to be fairly well funded, and to have the opportunity to work on almost anything (provided it’s related to marine renewable energy!). But it’s also intimidating to start from zero, to generate and pursue my own ideas. It’s hard to be vulnerable and to ask for help and advice, particularly when it seems everyone in the field is time-pressured. It’s also challenging to avoid feeling overwhelmed when delving into a new (but exciting) field when reviewing literature – there are so many unknowns and so many promising avenues for research. But there are also discrepancies in methodologies and approaches to experimental design – which are the best? How will I decide what to focus on?

I spent yesterday talking about these feelings with my ‘Learning-Action Set’ within the LF Aurora HE leadership programme, which I am taking part in this year. It was an opportunity for each of us to discuss a particular challenge we face in a safe, and non-judgemental environment. Our group then asked open questions to help each of us develop strategies or come to a few actions that we could start to put in place to help address what we’re facing.

I chose to discuss strategies to address the overwhelm, decision anxiety, fear of failure and creeping imposter syndrome that I regularly experience. None of these feelings are consistently strong, or sufficiently present that they truly affect my day-to-day work. However, it can be a battle to keep these feelings under control, such that they don’t grow or become paralysing. Nevertheless, these feelings are a persistent undercurrent which I want to address. I want to just be a little bit less burdened and a bit more free with my creativity and ideas.

Two interesting strategies emerged, which I wanted to share. First, it can be helpful to ‘pretend’ to be the person you want to be. What would it feel like to be successful? And can I imagine myself embodying that feeling? Can I ‘pretend’ to be successful me? Maybe just ‘try it on’ for a while – by which I mean step into the shoes of that other me – what would they say?  It’s along the lines of ‘fake it ‘till you make it’, which is another favourite of mine.

So I have been thinking a bit about what I can do to start to embody this ‘me’. One suggestion that I love is to take a look at my digital profile – do my Linked In, Twitter, and website profiles match? And do they describe ‘future me’? Mine didn’t – some were still linked to my old job! So I have spent a bit of time updating these for consistency across all my channels. The next step is to start keeping my website (this one!) more up to date. That’s more of a challenge for me, but I think its worthwhile endeavour, if only to start profiling what I’m working on now. I’ll do my best to stick with it!

We moved out of the stone age not because the stones finished…

New Year… New Effort to Write!

It’s 2018, and I’m taking a bit of time to reflect on the last year, my achievements, and to think a bit more deeply about what I enjoyed most in 2017, what challenged me, and what really motivated me to ‘keep doing what I do’. I find January a questioning month, as the year stretches out ahead and I begin to plan for projects, events, and travel in the next 12 months.


Image: Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (

After two relaxing weeks spent with my partner’s family, it has been a flying start. Last week I spent three days in Aberdeen taking part in a workshop as part of the SciBAr Installations Network. We were a very international group of academics from law, environmental science, social science, policy, and consultancy, backgrounds; all of us interested in the future of marine energy installations in the Arctic. As the three days unfolded, we discussed the potential impacts, opportunities, and wider consequences of Arctic energy development, and how science could support decision-making.

It is clear that the Arctic poses new challenges for all kinds of marine installation, including offshore renewable energy and floating nuclear (yes, you read that right!), as well fossil fuel extraction. The physical environment can be extreme, is changing rapidly, and can be challenging to predict – working on the H2020 Blue-Action project has driven this home for me. The risks posed by the Arctic environment must be considered across all phases of development, from exploration through to decommissioning, to ensure the safety of human life, assets, and the environment itself.

The latter was of particular concern for those of us with marine science backgrounds. Many parts of the Arctic are under-studied – it is a difficult, and expensive place for researchers to work. Consequently, much fundamental knowledge about the system is lacking. Programmes like the UK National Environment Research Council’s Changing Arctic Oceans programme are endeavouring to shed light on how the physical environment influences the Arctic ecosystem, while across The H2020 Arctic Cluster climate scientists are beginning to unpick the drivers of Arctic weather and climate to improve our ability to predict weather and climate in both the short and long term. All of these projects can help to establish an environmental baseline in the Arctic, against which we can assess potential impacts of marine installations, and any impacts which may, indeed, occur. With this in mind, we were left wondering whether the pace of research and establishment of environmental baselines could be outstripped by the desire for energy development – a worrying thought. Industry best practise may not stand up to operating in the Arctic environment, and will need to evolve to address its challenges – if development is to happen at all.


View from the Sir Duncan Rice Library, University of Aberdeen, where the first SciBAr Installations Network workshop was held. Jan 10-12, 2018.

As an environmental scientist and a strong proponent of renewable energy, exploring the potential for renewables in the Arctic was an interesting exercise, particularly from a marine perspective. The resource is there, whether from the wind, the sun, or the tides, but the challenges for any structures offshore are substantial. In the case of wind, it was pointed out that there was no real reason to go offshore in the Arctic – the space on land exists and terrestrial developments could be substantially less expensive,  although constructing foundations atop thawing permafrost is not without challenge, either. Numerous tidal straits offer potential resource, but while designing devices to withstand ice is within the realm of possibility (some device developers have been successful), I’m not aware of any companies who have successfully operated through an Arctic winter – a challenge for those willing to take it up!

Finally, solar energy seems promising in the Arctic in the summer months, but presents a real challenge in the winter – this is perhaps where true integration of different renewable energy sources could be demonstrated. Floating solar energy farms are planned worldwide, and could be towed into place for the summer months – a sort of plug and play seasonal renewable power station. My inner ecologist immediately asks what the impacts would be, and whether there might be a threat of invasive species, or whether a floating solar farm might provide new shelter or habitat for marine species – but the potential for clean energy is appealing.

The allure of energy in and from the Arctic is strong, but in the case of fossil fuels it is imperative that we consider the impacts and consequences of exploiting that resource. There is a wider question about whether we should exploit fossil resources at all, as renewable energy technology accelerates in development and costs come down. The Arctic is an expensive and risky place to invest. One of the workshop participants summed the dilemma up perfectly: “we moved out of the Stone Age not because the stones finished, but because technology changed”.

I very nearly didn’t attend the SciBAr workshop, feeling the pressure of travelling for work and spending much time away from home (as I write this I am sitting on a plane to Italy for a project meeting). In hindsight I am thankful that I did. It reminded me of some of the topics that I love/would love to work on: the impacts of industrialisation of our oceans, understanding how science contributes to wider decision-making, blue growth, and the Arctic. I think it’s important sometimes to take time to do things and to contribute in ways that you enjoy, as well as carrying out the day-to-day. It might just re-invigorate your enthusiasm, get your creative juices going, and uncover some new opportunities for the future.

Live, breathe, swim marine science

It’s a beautiful, sunny morning at the Scottish Association for Marine Science – there’s fresh snow on the hills and a chill in the air – refreshing! Days like today are why I love working here – the view is always spectacular, and really gives you a lift as you go about science-ing for the day. 20150119_092034

I’m currently training for a triathlon, and considering swimming in the sea on my lunch break today – cold… yes, but it’s also beautiful and calm, and the water is crystal clear. As a marine ecologist, I love inspecting the creatures living on the seabed and in the seaweed and kelp as I swim past. How many people get to live and breathe their jobs – the fun bits of their jobs –  on a daily basis? I particularly love seeing peacock works, whose beautiful striped fans retract so quickly into their tubes if you get too close. That and hermit crabs – I’ve had a life-long obsession with them. I love how they shuffle across the sea bed leaving trails behind them as they drag their shells across the sand. I’ve never seen one of them change shells before – but that’s on my bucket list of things to see before I die (that and the Himalayas!).

We’re also lucky enough to have curious seals come to visit as we swim around the headland. So far, they haven’t come too too close, and in a sense, I’m glad of that. To me they look like marine rottweilers – bit and stocky, and probably with pointy teeth! I’m sure they wouldn’t harm me, but I must admit that I’m a bit paranoid about a seal playfully mouthing my neoprene bootie a bit too hard and getting a bit of flesh!

I’ll be armed with my 6mm wetsuit today – I can’t tell you the water temperature because our data flows aren’t working at the moment (we’re currently updating the SAMS website). However, you can see the beautiful conditions for yourself through the SAMS webcams – both above and below the water! Check out the live feeds here.

Happy science-ing!

*UPDATE – as of 14:00 this afternoon, I can report that the water is, indeed cold, that the tide was ebbing, and that the spring phytoplankton bloom is starting up – the water was very cloudy! No seals of hermit crabs to report, but I did see a beautiful red and orange sun star, a bit like the one below (Crossaster papposus?).


Crossaster papposus or Common Sunstar – image credit: Keith Roper, Felixstowe Beach, August 2010







Live on air!

I have so much to write about at the moment but so little time – Antarctica, International Women’s Day, bits and pieces of public speaking… but I thought I’d start with something short, and exciting!


Gentoo penguin at Barrientos Island, Antarctica (image: Raeanne Miller)

Last Friday I did my first ever LIVE radio interview! I was invited to take part in BBC Scotland’s ‘Out for the Weekend’ show, and to be interviewed by Fiona Stalker who hosts the programme. You can listen to my piece until April 10th, 2017, here:

I did two segments, which were split by a brilliant piece about the penguins at Edinburgh Zoo, with their penguin keeper Lorna Moffat, who talked about their gentoo penguins.

To do the interview, I had to go to the BBC studio in Oban – sounds glamorous, but I assure you that it wasn’t! The studio is a small box – or a large storage cupboard (!), in a block of flats. To access it, you have to ask for a key at a local hotel, let yourself in, and turn on the power. It was a little daunting – I must have read and re-read the instructions about ten times. I had arrived in plenty of time, so I sat and ate a bit of lunch – a mozzarella, sun-dried tomato, and pesto panini from a shop below.

I must have been nervous… with 7 or 8 minutes to go, I got a bit of roll stuck, not in my throat, but in that awkward space between your throat and your nasal passages (you know how it’s all connected?). I coughed and spluttered and sniffed and frantically tried to drink my soda to dislodge this little crumb of panini for the next five minutes – what if I couldn’t go on air because I was coughing so much? What if I spluttered into the microphone? What if everyone listening heard me struggling with a rogue crumb of bread stuck somewhere in the wrong tube?

Luckily, it didn’t come to that. I managed to mostly get it under control, just in time for the BBC studio team in Aberdeen to call in. It was very strange – I could hear the radio in the background, but I wasn’t connected – I guess the Aberdeen team had to switch me on. After the news at two o’clock the programme started, and Fiona welcomed me to the show. I was nervous at first, but gradually settled into it, talking about Homeward Bound, Antarctica, and what it was like on board the ship.


Gentoo penguin with a pebble at Barrientos Island, Antarctica (image: Raeanne Miller)

I loved listening in to the piece about penguins, and having the opportunity to react to it – we also saw gentoo penguins in Antarctica – they were picking pebbles to maintain their nests, and stealing them from their neighbours. Most had eggs, although some were still attempting to mate – and more than anything, they were smelly, and noisy! The sound of a penguin colony is not something you forget anytime soon.

Next time (hopefully there is a next time!) I don’t think I will be so flustered – it was a good learning experience! Often, I hate listening to my own voice when it has been recorded, but listening back – this time I don’t think it was so bad! Again, have a listen to the programme here and see what you think!

Hopefully this is the start of some more frequent posts again – one of our Homeward Bound Faculty, Marshall Cowley, wrote in a facebook post today: “It’s only too late if you don’t start now”. Great advice! So… watch this space!


A pizza in Buenos Aires: self evaluation, digging deep, and the adventure of a lifetime

I sat down at an Italian restaurant in Buenos Aires this evening to eat a pizza and have a drink, as well as to watch the world go by, enjoy the atmosphere, and clear some mental space for the next 21 days of my life. I know, pizza in Argentina, what was I thinking? I was thinking ‘simplify’ and ‘decompress’ and get in a place to truly ‘show up’ to the Homeward Bound programme expedition.

In less than 6 hours I will leap out of bed and catch a taxi to the Airport to make my final connection down to Ushuaia, the ‘town at the end of the road’, at the southern tip of Argentina. There, I will board the MV Ushuaia for three weeks of adventure and self discovery, hoping to develop as a better leader for science, and for the planet.

Wow. Saying that is incredible. One year ago I found out that I had a place on the programme, and now here I am, far, far away from my little town on the Scottish west coast. Where did the time go? 

I know where it went – we have been busy! Media pieces, public engagement events, and new projects. Interviewing female change agents and project managing across borders. Learning ,ore and more about myself, my motivations, and values than I ever have before. It is amazing how things come together.

In the past few days I have been reviewing all of the “brainfood” drip fed to us on a weekly basis by HB central, going back over things that now have so much more insight for me when taken together, as a whole. And it hasn’t been comfortable, either. Starting to truly examine myself has been hard – asking why I sometimes feel directionless, or lost in my career, or why sometimes I dwell on thoughts for too long, turning them over and over and over again in my mind, but not reaching any productive conclusions. There is a lot of good in there too (don’t worry!), but also a lot more to work on. And now, I really WANT to work on these things, rather than just knowing I should. “Want to” is so much better motivation than “have to” – see Susan Davids excellent talk for more on this! I am a little afraid to confront all of these things, but now I feel ready to “face my thoughts, emotions, and stories with kindness, curiosity, and courage”. I am ready to show up!

I packed my bags last week, and now the adventure really begins! To anyone reading this from the Children’s University, Imhave my CU passport and a pack of bubblegum, as voted key items for a trip to Antarctica by the awesome CU Fridays group of Queen Mary University. Neville, my toy macaroni penguin is also by my side. I’ve also got a collection of beautiful Crubag silk scarves to keep me warm, and a new travel yoga mat so I remain sane (or else I would be running laps around the deck of the ship).

The departure messages of all the other women travelling to Ushuaia to join the programme have been flooding in – it feels like something big really is happening, like a pilgrimage of sorts to renew both ourselves and our motivation for science, sustainability, and a positive future. And this is just the beginning…..!

I will do my best to post updates from the ship here when I can, although internet connectivity may make it difficult. You can, however follow the programme as a whole on Facebook, on twitter (@homewardbound16), and on instagram (@homewardboundprojects). 

It is left for me to say ‘thank you’ to everyone who supported me to get this far: the Scottish Association for Marine Science, The UK Natural Environment Research Council, Accenture UK, colleagues, friends, and family. Thank you!