By Lucy Hawkes (@DrLucyHawkes), University of Exeter
I am delighted to be joining the Soapbox Science Team for 2015! I love my research and I love sharing it with the public – and if I can inspire some future scientists to fall in love with biology then I’ll have done my job well! I also hope to show that being a scientist takes a wide range of really different skills, creative ways of thinking using different approaches and that having a different viewpoint to other people is actually really valuable!
I’m a biologist with a passion for animals that migrate. Having studied for a degree in Marine Biology at Plymouth University, I went to the USA where I ran my own sea turtle nesting project (sea turtles come onto land and to lay their eggs on sandy beaches in hot countries) and started attaching tracking devices to the turtles to work out where they went between times that we saw them. No-one really knew where these endangered animals went and it’s hard to protect something if you don’t know where it is. Most of the turtles were making long trips up to New York after nesting but others stayed closer to home all year. I then started tracking the same species of turtles in West Africa and found even more strange patterns – some turtles feeding off crunchy crabs and lobsters on the sea bed (which is “normal”), but others appeared to think they were extras in ‘Finding Nemo’ – whizzing round and round in the open ocean. There’s a really important story for conservation in this – you can’t protect one piece of ocean and expect it to be sufficient to protect a whole population. I then worked for the WWF for a year in the Caribbean, before I switched to working with birds, because they make the best and most astonishing migrations of any animal group. I’m still very much learning new things all the time.
I’m really lucky because I work on something that truly fascinates me. When I see amazing wild animals, more often than not it’s not through binoculars, instead I’m up to my armpits in water or mud trying to catch them, measure them and get a tag on. I’ve cuddled wild geese, been slapped by a sea turtle and nearly been sunk by a basking shark. And even more excitingly, I’ve discovered migration routes used by entire populations of animals that were previously unknown. The first ever animal to be satellite tracked was a basking shark (the 2nd largest fish in the sea), back in 1982, when researchers attached a 60 cm long, heavy electronic tag to a shark that they then followed remotely for 17 days, for the first time ever giving scientists a view into the shark’s private life. Since then, tags have become much smaller and the electronic chips more efficient and I have been able to use some of the most innovative and exciting technology out there. Our research team has tracked the migrations of American and African turtles for the first time, individual Caribbean hawksbill turtles for a record (almost) four years, high altitude geese making the world’s fastest climb over the Himalayas onto the Tibetan Plateau and the migrations of huge basking sharks south to Portugal for the winter. We’re still figuring out why all these different animals do what they do but it fascinates me.
At Soapbox Science 2015, I want to foster the attitude that science is fun and that science is for everyone. I recently read that: ‘soapboxing’ is “a hard but nevertheless necessary process in the development of revolutionary leaders”. While I don’t propose to lead much more than my own research group and my next expedition to the wilds of Mongolia in search of the world’s most amazing goose (!), if on my soapbox I could lead a part in a revolution in the acceptance, employment and empowerment of the best female minds in the country then I’d be delighted. See you at Soapbox Science 2015!