Growing up in London I never imagined that I’d be spending 40 days living and working in the Southern Ocean on the Royal Research Ship Discovery. And yet I’m typing this ten days into my voyage; swaying side-to-side, hearing waves crashing, and looking out my porthole at fog hanging over the water. So how on earth did I end up here? And if that sounds exciting, how can you end up doing something just as adventurous?
I’ve always loved nature, and so Science and Geography were my favourite subjects at school. I decided to study Biology at University, doing a very cool course involving field trips to coastal Wales, the volcanic island of Tenerife, the forests of Canada, and the Bornean jungle. It was both difficult and fascinating, but I survived and graduated. After a bit of volunteering at a local nature reserve, and an exciting job working in the labs in the Veterinary Department at London Zoo, last year I achieved my dream of working for the British Antarctic Survey. I took a chance and applied for something a little different; working in Information Services. This was a career choice I was never told about at school, but as someone who likes everything in order, it suits me very well. And it’s resulted in me ending up on this amazing trip!
On board there’s 24 scientists and 24 crew, and then there’s me – the Data Manager. Every scientist has their own research project, and at the end of the voyage all the data that’s been collected is saved in the Data Centre where I work back at British Antarctic Survey. This is held for ever, and is open for anyone around the world to come and use for their own research. My job is to make sure the data is organised in a logical way, and is labelled in detail so it can be searched for easily and has all the explanatory information needed for someone else to re-use it in future. This information is called ‘Metadata’, and tells you what the dataset holds, when, where and how it was collected, and who collected it. To do this properly I need to know what’s going on, so one advantage of my job is that I get to talk to all the scientists to find out what they’re working on, and hopefully get involved!
So far I’ve helped unload all the cargo onto the ship, and tied lab equipment down so it doesn’t move and get damaged in rough seas. I’ve sorted through strange sea creatures freshly caught from the water, and looked at them under the microscope. And then there’s the added bonus of ocean travel in this part of the world; I’ve seen icebergs and glaciers, albatrosses, seals, whales and penguins. I’ve been to places most people will never visit in their lives, and seen sights that only tourists spending thousands of pounds might get to see.
But the best bit is that my hard work supports the science that underpins the fight against climate change. I’m supporting studies into what plastic waste is doing to sea life and the research that ensures that people don’t fish so much that it damages the ocean ecosystem. I feel like the luckiest person in the world.
Alysa Hulbert is Data Manager at British Antarctic Survey. This is her first research cruise. For more information on BAS, see https://www.bas.ac.uk/data/uk-pdc/