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BlueSci Podcast

Released 18th May, 2020

Ruby 0:05

Welcome to the BlueSci Podcast, brought to you by the Cambridge University Science Magazine.

I'm Ruby.

Simone 0:10

And I'm Simone

Ruby 0:11

Every two weeks we speak to local researchers, university staff and students and anyone who works in science to learn about their research and activities, hear about the work that they do, and uncover what goes on behind the scenes.

Simone 0:24

If you want to get in touch with a question suggestion, or just want to be featured on the podcast, just drop us a tweet. Our handle is @bluescipod.

Ruby 0:32

And you can also email us at

Simone 0:44

Hello, hello! Thanks for tuning in to another episode of our podcast. We hope that you've been enjoying our COVID-19 episode series so far, where we speak to scientists who are researching the virus right now. It's been super, super interesting for us as well. So yeah, we hope you've been enjoying those, but the Coronavirus is taking up a lot of the airtime. You know, it's it's constantly in the news, we're constantly reading about it. So for this week's episode - we thought would bring you something a bit different, some escapism, perhaps from every day. Before the lockdown, we had the opportunity to interview Dr. Anna Belcher, who is a postdoctoral researcher for the British Antarctic Survey. She spoke to us about what it's like to go to work on the ships that go to the Antarctic, to search for samples; she spoke to us about the importance of carbon capture by our seas and our oceans. And it was just so interesting to talk to her about, you know, a part of science and a part of the world that we don't really, that we don't necessarily think about or have kind of the opportunity to learn about very often. So we hope that you enjoy the episode: leave a review or rating if you do! And remember to subscribe so that you don't miss any future episodes so you know exactly when they come out. From the next episode onwards, we'll go back to talking to scientists working on COVID-19, so you really don't want to miss any of those interviews! So do subscribe.

Ruby 0:45

Hello, Anna, and thanks for taking the time to meet with us today! You're currently a postdoc at the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, and work as an ecological biogeochemist. And so first of all, could you give us a quick summary of your research? And what an ecological biogeochemist actually is?

Dr Anna Belcher 2:29

Hi, and thanks for inviting me. So yeah, I think it's basically, I love all types of science, so I have kind of squished every discipline into one title. So basically, look at how the biology affects the chemistry of the ocean. So particularly looking at how things like the plants and the animals, the really small animals. And of course, zooplankton can take up carbon from the atmosphere and help transfer it to the seabed. So it's all linked into kind of our climate, and the ocean plays a massive role in that. So I spend a lot of time looking at sinking particles, so like just dead bits of plants and zooplankton. Also, their faecal pellets, because they all contain awesome amounts of carbon! And the deeper they get in the ocean, basically, the longer you can get carbon away from the atmosphere. So I spent a lot of time looking at the animals. And then like sinking particles to see how much carbon these guys can transfer to the deep ocean, looking at basically how much the ocean takes up and how that's important for our climate.

Ruby 3:27

Yeah. So so the ocean is actually a massive carbon sink. Wow. Is it? Is it is the research in this field basically trying to assess the levels of that? Because Is it something that we don't actually know that well?

Dr Anna Belcher 3:40

Yeah. So I mean, we think that the oceans take about 30% of carbon that's been emitted in the last decade. And it's against understanding like how it will change as well because as the oceans get warmer, and like levels get higher. It's trying to understand if the ocean will become a better carbon sink, or if it will be weaker. And how we if we change the biology, what impact does that have? And this field did some cool modelling about this a while ago - that essentially if you model the ocean without the biology, then actually atmospheric carbon would probably be about 600 parts millions that are 400 parts per million, so about 50% higher. So showing that that kind of transfer of carbon, basically like trees on land, taking up carbon and story in the trees and the soils and stuff, you've had plants in the ocean, that photosynthesize, store it in their cells, and that gets transferred up the food chain and basically stuffs sinks down. And some of that then gets eaten by other things that have been deep in the ocean. But if you can get it to the seabed, then essentially you can get it locked away for thousands, if not millions of years. So it's all about understanding, I guess, just how much and how efficiently that carbon gets transferred, and how that might change. If you warm up the oceans and circulations change or anything like that, to understand.... Yeah, basically: if they're going to play a bigger role in carbon uptake in the future and how that would affect our climate.

Ruby 4:02

And in terms of like understanding all of that, and what are the applications of that, you know, obviously, on land we can plant more trees, you know, you go these schemes and the like, for every "like" we'll plant a tree. Obviously, it's not that easy in the ocean. So, getting to know this information, is there anything we can really do to try and encourage the ocean to take up as much carbon as possible with all the biological life in there?

Dr Anna Belcher 5:31

Yes, I think a lot of it is just about protecting what's there. I mean, the ecosystems that we have do a great job, with the plants and taking out carbon. So I guess it's just ensuring that we do protect these environments and that we've got the plants, the diversity. And in places like the Antarctic that we've got the krill which are a really important part of that ecosystem, and might be a quite a good way of transferring carbon to the deep ocean and say we fish fish, especially the ones that move up and down in the water column. They can complement them. So I think it's really about kind of protecting and think somewhere in protected areas. Because although I guess things like krill might be a good way of getting carbon to the deep ocean, as with many other things, I guess, I guess it's a bonus rather than really replacing any kind of reductions in emissions. I think generally, trying to keep temperatures [warming] below like 1.5 and things like that is only going to be beneficial for the ocean. And that hopefully then has the kind of nice feedback, in that the ocean can then help keep taking on carbon. Yeah, so it's like a "prevention is better than cure" type situation. I mean, there's always things like geoengineering, like whether you could seed the oceans for things like iron, to make the plants grow. I was hesitant with that kind of thing. I feel like there's a lot we don't understand to start meddling with it further... So I would go for you protecting what we have, and trying to [let it] keep that doing the job that it's doing.

Ruby 6:51

Yeah that makes sense. So you, you actually go out on ships and collect a lot of your data out there which, I think both Simone and I find really exciting... would you like to tell us what your sort of typical field trips like when you go out to collect data?

Dr Anna Belcher 7:11

Depends on the project that you're working on. I've been really lucky actually with this postdoc, and I've been to sea three times, or four times now. So it's kind of, I guess, once or twice a year. And again, that really varies. It depends on what position you have and what your project is.

So I've been to Southern Ocean a few times, down to the kind of sub-Antarctic regions around South Georgia, which is absolutely incredible place to be able to go because often you end up in the middle of the ocean, which is fantastic, but it's nice to have those glimpses of land. And with British Antarctic Survey, you often get to drop people off at the research stations. So having the chance to actually like, see some of these research bases in South Georgia where there's people that have spent the last 18 months there and you basically unload, give them some fresh vegetables. Get some very excited faces, who have not seen a fresh vegetable in many, many months. And then if you're lucky, you get to kind of scamper around and see some penguins and things. So there's a nice, I guess, element of the logistics as well as the science. And with the science, you probably go for about six to seven weeks, and it often takes a bit of time to get down there. And then maybe we often start from like the Falkland Islands, and about two or three days then just steaming on the ship to get to the region of South Georgia. So there, you're kind of setting up your experiments and trying to test everything works. And inevitably, you've forgotten something or something's broken. So you're kind of working with the engineers on the ship or with the ones who can to try and fix things and get things going. And then it's just really nice, actually, it's quite a simple life. You work hard. But I guess you are in like a bubble world. And you're basically doing science, you get fed three times a day, if you're on those ships, ideally get a bit of sleep, and then do some more science. Yeah, it's really great community. I guess, everyone's very much supporting each other

Simone 9:00

I guess if you're always stuck on the ship with the same people, you probably have to get along?

Dr Anna Belcher 9:04

Yeah, yeah. And everyone's so helpful, I guess because, you know, it's always like, Oh, I haven't got this or I've got extra that, I can lend that to you and Oh, wait, you haven't slept for a long time - here I can go wash those bottles for you, and that kind of thing. So, yeah, it's generally a real nice community and everyone, I guess, appreciates that. It's a hard place to work because the weather is not always in your favour, or kit breaks and stuff never really goes to plan, which is actually - although stressful sometimes at the time - is actually I think what a lot of us enjoy, is that problem solving and essentially being able to bodge anything with the duck tape. Yeah, and as we I think it's one of my favourite parts about the job is getting that chance to get to see and work with incredible people. And the ship's crew is absolutely fantastic. You know, they're all so passionate about what we do, and what they do, and we wouldn't be able to do it without them you know, they're on deck in sometimes miserable weather, helping you get the equipment in and just always so, so helpful. And then there's like the, the cooks and stuff that just make sure you're well fed...generally, too well fed recently. Yeah, it's a nice little atmosphere. I think, you know, a little community everyone wanting to help each other. And yeah, you don't have that great calm. So it's quite nice. Yes, you talk to each other more than we do in the real world. Yeah. Not too much time to scrolling.

Simone 10:20

And what kind of samples do you come back to, what kind of experiments do you set up on the ship?

Dr Anna Belcher 10:28

So during my PhD, I spent a lot of time looking at like, sinking like dead materials, a lot of dead plant cells, a lot of faecal pellets. This was all sounds glamorous with British Antarctic Survey, there is a lot of time in a cold room. Just timing how long it took a krill faecal pellet to sink from the top to the bottom of a measuring cylinder. So some of that use these big these big combs that you basically leave out for like a year, and they catch anything that's sinking down. Sometimes we'd like to just water samples, and then looking at things like the tiny plants that are in it. And more recently, I've been looking at krill and fish. And we actually do these net tows, so we kind of check this big, like, it's got like a five by five metre opening. And you put that in for a few hours, looking generally, in the upper 1000 metres. So you look at the stuff that's living in the kind of "twilight zone" that we call it when there's not really much light. And you get really, really cool things. I'm not a biologist by background, and I've been amazed by what lives in the ocean. I guess I'm used to just smashing stuff up and measuring its carbon. But to actually see like some of these fish and the small krill and, I don't know what some of the other things are, but there's things that you're surprised that they're alive because they're like these tiny little amphipod things super clear or have these big claws and stuff. So that's quite fascinating to see. I see what's there and to learn more about that. And that really ends up that you kind of bring in the sample on and then everyone's trying to sort things and take samples for experiments, or freeze things for like later analysis and that kind of thing.

Ruby 11:59

And as of very successful woman in science, in a field that sort of generally sort of associated being more male orientated. What what are your experiences in the field? And how have you found it so far?

Dr Anna Belcher 12:13

Yeah, so I think, um, I think, if you look back into oceanography, it is very much male scientists and even British Antarctic Survey, but you didn't use to send women to Antarctica. But it's very much the landscape that has changed a lot, I think is still changing, particularly in the kind of biology-chemistry field, there's actually, yeah, when I go to see now it's maybe 50/50 in terms of the scientists that's like female, sometimes you actually have more females. The crew was generally maybe like 90% male, so that again, I think that his tools changed a bit. There's more now like officers that are female. So it's, I think it's getting better. And I think it's kind of acknowledging that actually, we can all do this kind of job. I think physically oceanography tends to be slightly behind. When you see those cruises, they are maybe slightly more male-dominated. But again, it's definitely improving. Like for me, there are mentors, like senior scientists that are females that are doing really awesome stuff, which probably wasn't true for them like 30 years ago. So it's nice to see that there are people that have kind of progressed through, I guess, kind of up the ladder, and that the postdoc and PhD level, it's pretty balanced. I think you generally have got both males and females. That does seem to taper off a bit... But hopefully that is something that's changing.

I think on the ship, I guess, yeah, there's the kind of typical, like historical, again, male-dominated atmosphere sometimes, but it really has changed a lot, I think. Yeah, occasionally you might get looked at for being a scrawny girl and they won't expect you to pick that box up or something. But as soon as you shows people you can do something, then everyone's very accepting. It's only a small minority that I think would ever give you stick for being a woman on a ship. It doesn't really happen much anymore, which I think is really nice. It's generally just, you know, it's about your skills and who you are rather than anything else. So, yeah, I guess with everything, it really depends on like, who you've got around you, but like the team at BAS and the people that I've worked with previously, have just always been really supportive. And, yeah, if you're a woman, it doesn't really matter. You know, sometimes you can do something useful, and ideally not break too much at sea, then it's okay. Yeah, so yeah, I guess, I don't think I've been held back for being a woman at all. I think it's only getting better.

Simone 14:30

Well, that's great to hear.

Dr Anna Belcher 14:34

Yeah, I think it's yeah, I guess there's always like conscious and unconscious bias. So this is some things that are still more typical, like jobs that will be done by a man. But yeah, I think more and more now, it's just everyone's equal. Yeah, I wouldn't - if you're interested in marine science, I wouldn't be put off. I think it's very much an open playing field for anyone. And even especially, because you look at PhDs postdocs it's all very mixed. And it's I guess, always trying to improve things like that. And ethnic diversity as well, as something that marine science does definitely to work on. It's very international, but I think it's very Western International. And that is something that is kind of acknowledged and is trying to be improved to make sure we're encouraging everyone into marine science, because it's fascinating, if you like science, you like being outdoors. It's it's a great thing to do. Yeah.

Simone 15:23

Yeah, I guess one of the things that even if the field has changed, and inside it, you know, that there's absolutely no, maybe not no issues, but it's overall fine, I think that often the perceptions that people have of these people who go on ships to the Antarctic and do their thing, like, sometimes the public perception of things might be worse than the actual thing that is. So the fact that you're talking about it now, and hopefully people will listen. And I guess, that message of, you know, telling people they actually shouldn't be afraid of that.

Dr Anna Belcher 15:51

Yeah. I think it's making sure that yeah, if you do have outreach things, news articles that you are presenting everyone. You know, you can see me going to a school and then "oh I was expecting like a 50 year old male man" and you know, that's not really scientists anymore, scientists are very much like anyone. Especially the kind of assigned to the lab coat.... I mean, we do wear lab coats on we do and have several chemicals on the ship. But a lot of the time we're just in like, big warm outdoor layered clothes or boiler suits, and score some great pictures. And we're in all kinds of different like, outfits I guess. It's not really what you'd picture as your kind of stereotypical scientists, and if you're interested in chemistry, I would have thought that that would have taken me to like a lab with like conical flask and things that actually takes you out to the Southern ocean in some yeah, really warm semi waterproof clothes and a helmet trying to like drag in some fish and looking at carbon. So I think it's nice to see examples of how you can apply some of like the pure sciences in different ways. And yeah, I think the more we I guess showcase the different people that are working there. The more people will feel like, you know, I could do this for anyone.

Simone 17:02

Yeah. And also like what they could do that was what I'm doing now, you know, someone's like, oh, I've never considered oceanography. I did chemistry or I did physics or whatever. And then you don't really see the path from where you are to where you could be. Yeah. Do you think these people must have been somehow always fascinated by this thing? And like, it's been a lifelong passion to go to the Antarctic and some people yes, but other people you just kind of find your way there. Yeah. And knowing that those roots are open.

Dr Anna Belcher 17:26

And actually like having like the chemistry of the oceanography is super valuable. Because if you come at it from like the oceanography you're good, and you've got like a good overview of like, what the physics is doing, what counts in biology, but how somebody really understands organic chemistry, with the pure knowledge and same with like mathematicians and physicists and biologists, actually, it's a really nice mix. People come from those different backgrounds, and I think that's why it works well. Everyone has got maybe training in something a bit more pure, but then they're applying in different ways. You can really utilise that knowledge that everyone's got,

Simone 17:58

I guess you have all these different people. With all these different specialisations, yeah, come together on that specific problem.

Dr Anna Belcher 18:04

Yeah, exactly. Which I think is really great. I think that's what science is about, you know, using everyone's skills. There's no point in trying to reinvent the wheel yourself if there's someone that already knows how to do it so very much by working together, and I think especially when you're at sea like, you have to. You'd struggle to try and do everything by yourself, you'd end up with no sleep and being pretty stressed.

Ruby 18:23

Yeah. Great. Thank you so much for chatting to us. It's been really interesting learning about what you do.

Thanks for tuning in this week. We hope that you enjoyed this episode and that it provided a bit of escapism from what's going on in the world right now. Don't forget to contact us with any questions, suggestions or comments through our Twitter handle @bluescipod, or email us on See you next time.