Globe Trotters, Award Winners and STEM Women; An Incredible Marine Biology Alumni Event

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SU:Media's very own Science Editor, Katharine Clayton, tells our readers why you should value your alumni events; we gain intriguing enlightenment to the world of Marine Biology, and what Plymouth University graduates become post uni. 

June 10th marked the Marine Biology alumni event, celebrating 20+ years of the degree programme at Plymouth University. A series of talks were organised by staff and graduates to bring together this academic family, providing not only a reunion but a fantastic networking opportunity for everyone.

Being greeted with a wall of career update posters, a running slideshow of memorable photos and a programme to guide the attendees through the day, it was obvious an interesting and inspiring day awaited. Kicking off the day was the founding father Dr. Geoff Wigham’s story telling the conception, gestation and birth of this famous degree course here at Plymouth. Describing Plymouth as the ‘beating heart of Marine Biology’ Dr. Wigham took a captivated audience on a journey of how he and colleagues pulled off the ‘marinisation’ of a degree. Following on from the history of marine biology at PU, Prof. John Spicer turned the lecture theatre into a classroom with his simple group work requests of describing marine biology in a sentence and a word – unexpected but enjoyable nonetheless. Of course, it wouldn’t quite be complete without a reading from John Steinbeck and a casual motivational speech ending with a prominent statement, ‘Marine biology is about talking to people not just giving talks’. The final speaker in the session was Dr. Emma Ransome introducing her diverse experience researching microorganisms since graduating from Plymouth. Three main things leapt out at me during her talk; travel, collaboration and change all of which she has mastered and put to excellent use, evident with her successful career as a researcher at Imperial College London. 

Swiftly moving through two cups of tea and a group photo – the latter the less enjoyable but important still, we headed back into Devonport for the second session. The first round of career updates commenced, including all sorts of combinations of the following - globe trotters, award winners, PhD’s, Post-Docs and positions within the Wildlife Trust, not forgetting the fabulously titled ‘How Not to Retire’ by Andy Osborn – a former software developer turned dolphin researcher down under. Spiders helping coral reefs was up next – strange concept, you think? I thought so too, until I was enlightened by Tim O’Brine and his work on coral restoration in Indonesia. By using metal frames (fashioned into resembling a spider) and covered in pebbles to create a substrate for corals to attach and grow, the whole reef seems to be recovering after years of destructive practices. A really innovative talk with the added element of hope for the future of other damaged coral reefs. Up next was Lorna Dallas, Chair of Women in STEM Plymouth, who spent her time from BSc through to PhD at PU and has since been on a journey to the aquarium, Bahamas and back, all whilst that stressing Plymouth has always been her home. Since then she has had a radical career shift and is now a nuclear engineer working towards the inclusion of more women in STEM careers. Finally, the session concluded with ‘a true gentlemen of science’ as described by Prof. Spicer, Prof. John Davenport. This masterclass into the feeding and breeding of leatherback turtles was a truly enjoyable mini-lecture, filled with wow facts and even an image of a CT scanned turtle head. What more could a marine biology student want?

Lunch satisfied the appetite that had been worked up over the past two sessions and the third session began slightly later than planned. Another bout of really diverse career updates from the alumni resumed, including museum curators, citizen science coordinators, conservation advisers, and of course practicing researchers. Kimberlie Ward then provided a wonderful insight into the newly founded Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST), which should definitely be on your radar if you’re seeking opportunities in marine biology abroad. Terri Souster closed the session by describing the research she undertakes in Antarctica with the British Antarctic Survey on benthic biodiversity.

The final session started off with a member of the original cohort of marine biology students from 1997, James Strong showcasing his map making skills of the seabed and the importance for conservation. Dr. Oli Tills followed describing his quest which occupied his time from BSc to Post-Doc, designing software and hardware to produce automatic programs that map the phenome of developing organisms. And last but certainly not least was Roger Haslam, the much-trusted, much-appreciated and occasional life saver of final year students; the head technician of 6th floor Davy presented a history of the evolution of equipment at PU, but the buckets have surely not changed!

This event provided a perfect venue to network with friendly and extremely experienced people, many of which praised the organisers and described the day as a trip down memory lane. Bekah Cioffi, Plymouth graduate now working for the JNCC advising the government on conservation thanked the organisers for providing an opportunity to experience ‘a diversity of talks with old and new faces, I can’t wait for the next one!’ Jo Warwick-Dugdale also commended the ‘passion and commitment of staff here at Plymouth and the level of work presented is inspiring, every time I travel to Plymouth I feel like I am coming home.’

Thought-provoking remarks from Dr. Pete Cotton wrapped up an emotional day for some and I will end this article using a quote from the first speaker, who addressed to the entire alumni community near and far, ‘I hope you’re proud of Plymouth, because we are proud of you’

I would like to thank the orchestrators of this event Dr. Colin Munn and Dr. Stacey DeAmicis for facilitating an event which will be remembered and hopefully replicated in the future.

All students who graduate from Plymouth University are eligible to join the alumni community and access benefits and services, such as alumni events and careers support. Find out more atwww.plymouth.ac.uk/alumni

Katharine Clayton

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