Dr Amy Lusher is currently working as a postdoctoral researcher at the National University of Ireland, Galway. She is a biologist and a keen science communicator. Here, she tell us how growing up in a seaside town and the support of family members contributed to her pursuing a career in science. Catch Amy on her Soapbox, in Exeter on the 11th June where she will be talking about “Big Plastic, Little Plastics and Plastic Fish”
SS: Amy, how did you get to your current position?
AL: Starting at the beginning, I completed my undergraduate and master’s degrees in Marine Biology at Plymouth University in 2012. Both my dissertation projects had focused on the effects of pollutants on marine organisms. My undergraduate project looked at plastic ingestion by commercial fish and my MRes project studied the reproductive development of cockles, under field conditions, but also when exposed to endocrine disrupting chemicals. I was very interested on the influence humans were having on the marine environment, in particular with plastics, which is why I used BPA as one of my chemicals.
I had originally planned not to apply for a PhD, I wanted a long holiday. But I made a condition with myself, if I found a PhD advertised with a similar title to what I would like to study in the future, I had to apply. Needless to say, just prior to the end of my MRes, a PhD was advertised, I applied and I was offered the PhD. Ergo; I was on my way to Galway, Ireland.
My PhD was based at Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, in the Marine and Freshwater Research Centre. I had an interesting few years at GMIT, and I had the privilege to be involved in a number of collaborative projects, research cruises, and various science events. I really enjoyed working with schools and explaining the impacts plastics are having on the marine environment. When I finished up, I wanted to have a short break, but not walk away from research entirely, this lead me to working with National University of Ireland, Galway (NUIG). I was asked to guest lecture on an MSc module, which included a research cruise with the students. As a result of the cruise a number of student projects were devised. I applied with a colleague for a short project funded by the Geographical Survey of Ireland and INFOMER. We had an idea, and thought, let’s try and get some funding and make the most of it. The project came from an amalgamation of my PhD work and the research focus of Dr Audrey Morley, in the Geography Department of NUIG. We saw ways in which we could use paleoceanography to support microplastics research and the dating of sediments. We were interested in the levels of microplastics in sediments from the Aran Islands, a primary Nephrops (Langoustine/Scampi) fishing ground for Ireland. We wanted to see the levels of plastics in the sediment and whether it could have adverse effects (be eaten) on organisms. The deeper you go in the sediment, either, the older the plastics you find, or evidence of bioturbation by organisms.
I am still working on the project, but have moved back to England, whilst I continue to write and finalise publications. I am still actively involved in research with international partners.
SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?
AL: I am not sure what inspired me to pursue a career in science, but I know there were a number of influential people in my life growing up. I was never the best in my class, but I have always had a desire to the find the answers to questions.
I grew up in a small seaside town, surrounded by different habitats, from rocky and sandy shores, to commons and woods. My hometown’s slogan is “twixt sea and pine”. I spent my childhood exploring the nature on my doorstep. This was greatly encouraged by my mother and my grandfather. My mother loved nature, she used to draw little pictures of animals and flowers, and we would go hunting for starfish and lobsters whenever there was a very low tide. Our collection of injured animals included bats, birds and hedgehogs, and there would always be a woodlice or worm collection in the shed. My grandfather was the warden of the local common, and collected insects as a hobby. I would spend hours watching him identify species and lay out his collection. He was awarded the Sydney Long Medal for services to nature conservation in Norfolk and he gave his collection of more the 17,000 insects to the Castle Museum, Norwich, as an education resource.
As a child I used to draw dolphins and whales and dream of seeing orcas one day. The seal colony in Blakney never quite held my attention. Somewhere along the line, my interests changed and I went to college to study sports science, so took biology and chemistry to A Level. In college we had to apply for work experience and start thinking about university. I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t want to study sport anymore, I was failing my two science subjects and I felt lost. My student advisor started talking to me about what I liked to do when was little, and we started looking into marine biology. I did work experience in the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, in Plymouth. I loved every minute of it, came home, took my mother on more beach safaris, and as they say, the rest is history. And I did get to see Orcas in the wild (ticked that off two years ago on a research cruise, and last year during a post-mortem)!
SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?
AL: I think the most fascinating aspect is seeing my research unfold, and formulating new questions every time I answer one. Working at the forefront of microplastic research has been a fantastic experience and it is brilliant to watch how the subject is unfolding. After all microplastics research is a relatively new field, and only really took off in the last 8 years. It’s exciting watching the subject develop, and receiving feedback from the media and the public, and to know that our research is fuelling governmental debate and the formation of policies which will be fundamental in protecting the marine environment from pollution.
SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?
AL: The opportunity for women in science to share their research and knowledge with different communities in creative, fun and exciting ways. To be able to engage with the public in a relaxed environment, away from the lab and lecture theatres.
SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? Fear? Thrill? Anticipation?
SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?
AL: Personally, I would change the difficulties there can be for early career researchers to make their mark on science, when it comes to funding and pursuing post-doctoral research. There is a tendency for researchers at my level to become disheartened and want to walk away from science because it is becoming increasingly difficult to get funding. Taking part in events such as public outreach, can often reengage researchers and spark their passion for research again.
SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?
AL: That’s funny; I was asked the same question by two female postgraduate students a few weeks ago. Confidence, confidence, confidence, believe in yourself and remember at the end of your PhD, you are THE expert in your subject area. You can apply this knowledge to further your career, in the same subject or a completely different topic. There will be challenges that come along, but perseverance, determination, and keeping an open mind will be a great asset. Staying connected with friends outside of academia will also keep you grounded if you feel academia is perhaps getting too much. Oh and holidays: make sure you take a break, like a real break, without the computer!