Under the sea: What it’s like working as a marine scientist

19 Jan 2022

Image: Prof Louise Allcock

Prof Louise Allcock shares her experience exploring deep-sea habitats and discusses her research into squid DNA.

Marine science can unlock a whole world of unexplored habitats beneath the water of our planet. From finding new, undiscovered species to the effects of the climate crisis on our oceans, marine scientists have a unique role in the world of research.

Prof Louise Allcock is a marine scientist at NUI Galway who has explored Ireland’s deep-sea habitats and is an expert in octopuses, squids and cuttlefish, along with sponges and corals.

Future Human

In 2019, she was part of a major exploration mission to delve into the depths of the Indian Ocean, often considered the world’s least-explored but most at-risk ocean.

Later that same year, Allcock was part of a research team that discovered octopuses from deeper in the ocean had wartier skin when compared with those from shallower depths.

There are many reasons scientists get into the work that they do. Some might just be curious about the world and find their strength as they study, others are actively interested in a particular area from the beginning, be that health, genetics, climate or animals.

So, what first stirred Allcock’s interest in marine science? Jacques Cousteau, the French explorer who was involved in the development and testing of scuba equipment.

“He had a documentary series called The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau when I was a child in the ‘70s, and it was fascinating,” she said. “He brought underwater footage to our TV screens that was really remarkable for the time.”

Exploring deep-sea habitats

Allcock’s work has led her to explore Ireland’s deep-sea habitats, which she describes as a privilege.

“We are often the first people to see a particular habitat and although we can predict what we might see, we never know for certain what we will find and sometimes get surprises,” she said.

“We also get to work far out at sea, and with very high-tech equipment. Mostly, we use the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Holland I, which we deploy from the research vessel Celtic Explorer. Holland I is equipped with high-def cameras, so we get a live feed up to the ship. and it has robotic arms so that we can collect any samples that we want.”

‘As scientists, we have a duty to share what we know with people who aren’t scientists’
– PROF LOUISE ALLCOCK

Her current work mostly focuses on the chemistry of various deep-sea corals, the aim of which is to try and find new compounds that might have potential as drugs.

Allcock also carries out conservation assessments of vulnerable deep-sea habitats as well as DNA sequencing of certain species.

Last year, she was part of a team of scientists that found new relationships between oceanic squid using DNA analysis, helping us better understand how these creatures evolved.

“I’m modelling the species distribution of around 20 deep-sea corals to see where conservation hotspots might be in the deep sea, and I’ve been sequencing the DNA of a squid species and am currently doing a lot of bioinformatic analyses to try and pull the information I want out of that DNA,” she said. “Octopuses and squids were my first love, before I started to work more on the deep sea.”

Outside of deep-sea exploration, Allcock has also written a book entitled Octopus, Squid & Cuttlefish, which she marked out as a career highlight. She hopes it allowed “lots of people to geek out about cephalopods”, the group that includes squid, octopus and cuttlefish.

“I really like sharing knowledge. I think, as scientists, we have a duty to share what we know with people who aren’t scientists.”

Biggest challenges

A common challenge faced by women in STEM is often the fact that they are in a minority, or at least they were for much of their career. Thankfully, Allcock said this is changing.

“I think the biggest challenges were early in my career when there were far fewer women working at sea. You have to overcome people’s preconceptions about your capability. But there are many more women on vessels now than there were 30 years ago, so I think this has changed already.”

Another challenge she still finds difficult is when others assume that she has three months off during the summer due to the fact that she works in academia.

“I usually try and grab a fortnight away with my husband and kids in late June after exam boards, but that’s it. The pandemic has scuppered even that the last two years,” she said.

“I love my work and I don’t mind that it’s all encompassing, but when you work 12-hour shifts on a vessel for a few weeks and then someone asks if you’re enjoying your holidays, it can grate a bit.”

For future marine scientists, Allcock said getting a lot of work experience while studying is key. “This is the very best way of finding out where your interests lie, as marine science is a very broad subject and there’s lots of opportunities for different careers.”

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Jenny Darmody is the deputy editor of Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com