Interview by Kelsey Archer Barnhill
Alycia has joined the iMirabilis2 cruise as part of the three-person Benthic Lander Team from Heriot-Watt University. I spoke with Alycia to find out more about her work on board and on shore.
Alycia Smith, postgraduate researcher
Alycia Jane Smith is a deep-sea ecology PhD researcher at the Lyell Centre, Heriot-Watt University. She holds a MSci Marine Biology from University of Southampton. During iMirabilis2, she is a member of the benthic landers team.
Q: What research do you do for your PhD?
My PhD, which I started a year ago, aims to quantify seafloor biogeochemistry and ecosystem processes and functioning in the NORI-D licence area of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone before and after polymetallic mining begins. This work is part of The Metals Company baseline project and the data will be used to make informed decisions and generate mining technologies that have as little environmental impact as possible.
Q: What interested you in studying the deep sea?
I first became aware of marine biology when I lived in Mauritius a decade ago. I remember I was studying my A-levels and we had an opportunity to write an extended project on any topic of our choice. I came across a news article that mentioned bioluminescence. I had never heard of that before so I started reading up on it and from there learned about hydrothermal vents, methane seeps and other deep sea environments and was immediately obsessed. I remember thinking how strange it was that I knew nothing about the deep sea. That is why at this stage in my career, I’m always so keen to do outreach because this is important science but is not common knowledge. I feel like people don’t care about the deep sea in the same way they care about dolphins or coral reefs. I wanted to have the chance to research this environment we know very little about and share it with people so they will also care about it and protect it.
Q: What do you do as a PhD Student?
A bit of everything! It surprised me how many different tasks we do and what we have to be involved with. On top of reading up on the subject to have an up-to-date view on the topic, we plan for these expeditions, deal with logistics and organisation, conduct lab work onshore and then come and join cruises which take huge chunks of time out of the year. Even before coming offshore there was required training to join the cruises as well as practical training to learn how to operate landers including electrical work such as servicing computers and housings. Before starting my PhD, I was only expecting mostly theoretical and lab training, I did not expect the variety of practical work we’re involved in. We also write a lot: cruise reports, progress reviews, and presentations for conferences to share our research. It’s also important to make all the work we do accessible for the greater public and get involved in outreach, which I really enjoy doing.
Q: What do you think about working at sea and how often do you join expeditions?
By the end of 2021, I will have spent 5 months at sea this year. I had never sailed on a cruise before and because I didn’t have any idea what was coming, I was very sceptical at first. However, the first cruise I joined was even better than I could have hoped for. I love the sense of camaraderie you build with both the science team and crew. You spend all this time with people every day for weeks on end, so you become really close to the people you work with. You can’t help but make some friends along the way and I am still in touch with people from that cruise now. It’s hard work and you need a break afterwards from the long days, but since I enjoy the work, it is a great experience and one I wouldn’t trade for anything else. My first time at sea made a huge difference in my understanding of my own work. Before going to sea I had only seen protocols or bits of equipment here or there, or chatted to my supervisor about what we would be doing. Once I was on the ship, I saw how everything works and ties together. Now when I do the ordering for my next cruise, I know why we need thousands of one item and 3 types of another, as well as their uses. I also understand deck layouts and why we want bits of our stations in one place or another. I overpacked the first time, I think I was worried about regretting leaving things behind and being so far away. Now I have a good idea of what is essential, which is mostly snacks. I really enjoy being out at sea, it’s good fun!
Q: What advice would you give to someone hoping to get into deep sea ecology?
Don’t be afraid to look for your own opportunities. Back when I started, I felt there weren’t many opportunities in deep sea research and it can be quite dissuasive when you are looking but can’t find anything. So, don’t be afraid to get in touch with people in the field, most of them are friendly. It’s amazing the things they can come up with to help you get involved to build up your experience before getting to your next stage. Try to keep on top of literature, as impossible as that is, but just set a search alert for a few key words so you have a baseline knowledge of your topics of interest. Also, don’t be afraid to narrow your interests. When I was at university, I was advised to keep my interests broad because it was hard to find a position in deep-sea science, but don’t let go of what you really want, even if you detour along the way! You’ll find other opportunities just as valuable, so take them. In the future, I would love to study other deep-sea habitats, such as hydrothermal vents. Also, make sure it’s right for you because it is hard work. If you try it out and it isn’t for you, don’t be afraid to change your course. Finding a team that supports you also goes a long way – shout out to mine for putting up with me!
Q: What is your favourite part of doing deep sea science?
Part of the reason I wanted to do marine research is that you become part of an international community. My favourite part of this job is getting to travel. When I woke up today, I could see both Brava and Fogo islands outside my window. I love being in the lab, but I feel my happiest when I am travelling, just having the time of my life and seeing someplace new. My PhD allowed me to travel to San Diego and see the United States of America for the first time, and now I’m off the coast of West Africa! The opportunities this field gives you for international travel are unmatched, it’s truly a global collaboration. Now I have friends working in deep sea all across the world!