How I got to study the rarest whales in our oceans: Meet Kirsten Thompson, marine scientist and mother of three

Kirsten Thompson is a marine mammal geneticist and Associate Research Fellow at the University of Exeter. Here she describes her fascinating journey into science and the challenges of her next step. You can come and meet Kirsten and hear her speak about her work with deep diving marine mammals at Soapbox Science in Exeter on the 22nd of September.




By Kirsten Thompson 

Beaked whales are an enigmatic group of mammals. They are medium-sized, deep diving oceanic whales that we know nothing about. There are 22 recognized species of beaked whale but only very few species have been studied or even observed alive. Many species have only been described in the past 50 years after becoming stranded on our coasts. My work has used samples from stranded animals, together with DNA-based methods and morphological analyses, to try to better understand the lives of these deep ocean whales. I have investigated genetic population structure and ecology, morphology and social organisation in Gray’s beaked whale – a species that lives in the Southern Hemisphere and is only very rarely seen alive. In researching this curious whale, we also uncovered the external appearance of a mystery species – the spadetoothed beaked whale – that was previously known from only three bone fragments. Amazing that there are still 5 m long mammals that live out in the deep ocean and are still a mystery to science.


How I became a whale biologist

My first inspiration, Shetland where I grew up

I grew up in Shetland and my childhood was spent running around in the wild studying the birds, seals, wild horses and digging around in rock pools. There is one high school in Shetland, overlooking the sea. At the weekends I spent my time working on a farm, riding horses and working with my dad on his boat. Shetland is an inspiring place, full of wilderness and extreme weather, it would be hard to grow up there and not have a relationship with wildlife. I studied zoology at the University of Glasgow and tried to get as much experience in every summer holiday. In 1990 I spent a summer as a deckhand on a Greenpeace ship ­– life at sea is fun, every day is different and driving huge powerful inflatables is a blast.


My first job after graduating was as a research assistant surveying for otters around Shetland. I wrote numerous letters to one of the most prominent mammal biologists, Professor Hans Kruuk, who I knew would be assessing the impacts of the Braer oil spill on the otters of Shetland. Eventually Professor Kruuk must have wondered who this crazy girl was that kept pestering him and telephoned me inviting me to join the survey. I worked as a research assistant on several field projects – radio tracking red squirrels and pine marten, surveying barnacle geese – before moving to the University of Oxford to work on badgers. Working as a biologist is a privilege – you are able to see some of the most beautiful species, up close in a way that only few people can.


Getting hooked on venturing out to sea, one of the research vessels I worked on early in my career

In Oxford I worked for the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit on several projects, ultimately leading me to work on marine mammals. I was offered a job on a research yacht and was hooked. I spent extensive periods at sea, sailing the waters of the Azores, Caribbean and the Mediterranean while researching sperm whales and other cetaceans – acoustic tracking, recording behaviour and using photoidentification to monitor individuals and populations, and analysing the data in Oxford. At that time, I had bought and rebuilt a narrow boat and lived on the Oxford Canal. Field work is fantastic because it is so varied. Sometimes we would track and follow a pod of sperm whales for 10 days and nights, film them underwater and record the intimacies of their lives. Other times we spent days ashore talking to local communities about our research and analysing data. I worked on many field projects at sea, with different focal species and different techniques – aerial surveys, photoidentification, behavioural observation.


I met my husband and within a couple of years we started a family and moved to New Zealand. I started a PhD at the University of Auckland, which I postponed to raise my boys. My return to work was part-time on a large humpback research project run by a colleague and friend at Auckland. I was lucky to be part of an active research group with marine mammal conservation projects running over the South Pacific. I contributed to data management, photo-identification analyses and later curation of one of the largest cetacean tissue collections in the world.


Another adventure, publishing!

My interest in genetics stemmed from working with many talented ecologists and geneticists – some of the scientists working in New Zealand are leaders in the field of conservation genetics so I took the opportunity to upskill. I enrolled in a Masters by Research part-time, got a student loan for fees, commuted, worked four part-time jobs, did homework with my boys, never missed a sports day and shared running our home with my husband. After publishing my first lead-author paper, I managed to get a university scholarship and some external funding. I listened carefully and learned from fantastic supervisors, collaborators and the highly skilled technician in our laboratory – and managed to get a First (top marks)! When we moved back to the UK, I carried on publishing our work and put together my PhD by Publication at the University of Exeter.


Now that I have my PhD, I am faced with the tricky task of trying to find funding for research or an appropriate postdoctoral position near where I live. It’s not easy. As scientists in an academic environment we apply to funding bodies to get money to pay for our research and for someone in my position, our salary. I am applying for Fellowships alongside working part-time as a consultant for Greenpeace Research Laboratories. I have a small grant to carry out more genomics work on Southern Hemisphere beaked whales, with collaborators in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.


Soapbox Science is about women in science and it is about changing the outdated expectation in academia that professors are old men in white-coats that stay in the lab and waffle on about science in a way that no one else can understand. Social media – #kindnessinscience, #womeninscience #oceanoptimism – tells us that the times are changing. Let’s gently and respectfully change the paradigm of science and in doing so break the mould!


Three words for women seeking a career in science: listen, learn and persist.


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