Congratulations Sofia :-)
Favourite Thing: Netting aquatic insects, catching frogs and snakes – Getting out there and see what is happening in the field! Could be a pond in Leeds or a lake in Cameroon!
St Anselm’s College, Birkenhead; University of Aberdeen; Imperial College London
7 GCSEs, 3 A-Levels, Bachelor of Science in Zoology; Master of Science in Advanced Methods in Taxonomy & Biodiversity; Driving license
I have worked a lot in the field in Africa (Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Guinea, and lots of work in Cameroon), catching frogs, snakes, bugs, finding out where they live and if they need protection. Have worked for: Natural History Museum, London; Zoological Society of London; United States Fish & Wildlife Service; Knowsley Safari Park; Southport Zoo. Lots of more menial jobs too, such as a labourer, a bar man, a car valet, a coffee shop barista.
University of Leeds
Me and my work
Aliens in our water – I look at how introduced crayfish, crabs, newts, plants, microbes affect rivers, lakes and ponds – should we worry?
So! There are 177+ microbes, plants, animals in freshwaters of Britain that were plonked there by people. They didn’t ask to be put there, but were either nabbed by a Victorian traveller, released by a disorganized/lazy pet keeper, accidentally picked up on someone’s boots or a ship’s ballast water, or hitched a ride on another exotic species. On arrival they may have difficulty settling in and getting on with the locals. In fact, they may get on terribly with the locals, and either bully them, push them around, make them sick, ruin their homes or even KILL AND EAT THEM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Well, maybe. It certainly happens for certain species, such as American Signal Crayfish doing all of the above, causing great trouble for the native White Clawed Crayfish. Another new arrival is the Chinese Mitten Crab, hitched a lift on trading ships. It is happy living in rivers when grown up, and it is spreading round rivers in Europe, including the Thames. Their impacts are still uncertain, other than their keen burrowing activities in river banks. If you like river banks, this is a problem!
So that’s two of the 177. What about the rest? Is it just the one, similar species they affect? Do they have an effect on the whole ecosystem? Do they form a new ecosystem? If we keep adding foreign species, can we improve the biodiversity and ecosystem functioning? Should the “old woman” of Britain’s freshwater ecosystems keep “swallowing” things to “catch the fly”?
Work I do involves first seeing what lives in rivers where exotic species such as American Crayfish have invaded. I then make experiments where ecosystems are created then challenged with these invasive species. I measure what different creatures live in these ecosystems (biodiversity) after the aliens have been added, as well as how much oxygen is used up, indicating the productivity of the whole ecosystem. I also look at the structure of the food webs – what eats what, the shape of the pyramid, etc. This is done in isolation from other freshwater ecosystems to make sure we don’t release further creatures into uninvaded sites. To decipher finer scale influences, I do laboratory experiments on things such as leaf litter decomposition in response to different alien species – this is an important aspect of aquatic ecosystem processes.
My Typical Day
Observation, experiment, reflection: Whatever it is, it involves seeing how exotic invasive species alter their new environment, whether in the lab or in the field.
Always lots to do. Of course it might start in front of a computer, but could then be in a workshop making experimental streams, or on the university’s farm digging in water tanks for other experiments. There are days I go out with a net and catch aquatic invertebrates, or trap crayfish. Or check on the crabs and crayfish being kept in the lab, experimenting to see how quickly they break down leaf litter. During the summer I could be running the water tanks, each one replicating a small lake ecosystem, some with crayfish in, some without. And there are days when I either sit and consult the scientific literature over a coffee or attend talks by my colleagues in Geography and Biology and elsewhere in the university about the interesting work they do. And I may bump into my supervisors and glean valuable advise on how to study invasive species, food webs and ecosystem processes.
What I'd do with the money
Just been told I can’t use it for a hollowed-out volcano = Bummer! So shall be thinking of ways to raise awareness on invasive species, water quality and ecology.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
obsessed with ecosystems
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Tom Lehrer – “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” – Like lots of songs by comedians, such as Billy Connolly and others, many too rude to mention here.
What's your favourite food?
Garri, chicken and tomato sauce – its a Cameroonian/Nigerian dish I often make for myself.
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Dressed as the wolf from Red Riding Hood one Halloween – dressing gown n’all
What did you want to be after you left school?
A scientist working in the field, notably on snakes in Africa.
Were you ever in trouble in at school?
Yep! Saturday morning detentions for trading illicit materials! Impressed with my enterprising initiative that seems to have left me since.
What was your favourite subject at school?
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
Expanded knowledge on one small crater lake (Lake Oku) in Cameroon, which is quite unique, but poorly understood.
What or who inspired you to become a scientist?
Many things! Ghostbusters! All of them had PhDs (except for Winston) – Look them up. Oh, and people like my father who is a doctor but also an academic, my science teachers, plus people such as Gerald Durrell. And really, when working as an auxillary zoo keeper, a lot of the problems facing my colleagues were often answerable by scientific inquiry, hence my incentive to get further training. And the Loch Ness Monster – it was always zoologists and limnologists seriously scrutinizing the evidence.
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
In the following order: 1) get my PhD with a minimum of fuss; 2) get comfortable resources to set up an array of field studies centres in Cameroon, maybe elsewhere; 3) get on with not only conducting research but applying it to solve real world problems
Tell us a joke.
Who’s the best person in any hospital – the ULTRASOUND person
Some American Signal Crayfish we found marauding in a Scottish Loch, clearly overstayed their visas, letting their countrymen down by fulfilling the American stereotype of over-eating!
One of my field-experiments: Each water tank represents an ecosystem in miniature. Each starts the same with microbes, plankton, plants, invertebrates. After these ecosystems have had time to build up, I add American Signal Crayfish to some, Chinese Mitten Crabs to others, native White Clawed Crayfish to some more and a bunch are left alone as a control. Note the fence around the ponds, this is to stop the crayfish and crabs walking off should they manage to escape the ponds. We are measuring the rate of oxygen consumption in each of the water tanks – this measures community respiration, and from this we can calculate ecosystem productivity.
Close up of one of the miniature ecosystems.
Even closer-up close up of one of the replicated ecosystems – with added Chinese Mitten Crab.
One of the Chinese Mitten Crabs we are caring for in the laboratory.
In the lab: one of the leaf litter breakdown experiments, with a native crayfish popping its head out. Do alien crayfish and crabs break leaf litter down differently in British freshwaters?
Best equipment isn’t always the fanciest to do good science – the leaf litter decomposition experiment uses about 100 lunchboxes as microcosms. Some have American Crayfish, some have Chinese Crabs, some have native crayfish, some have nothing as a control.
Back out to the field – dip netting for aquatic life in a lake outside of Leeds. No, I don’t play a banjo!
Back in the office – have we been infiltrated by the invasive crayfish????? Or is it “poacher turned gamekeeper”??