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Case Study: Rachael Plunkett

Personal details
Degree:MRes Marine Mammal Science Profile picture
School(s): School of Biology
Year of Graduation:Nov-2011
National of: United Kingdom
Employment details
Organisation: SMRU Marine
Job title: Project Scientist
Occupational Sector: Science Research
What has been your route to getting your current position?
I did my undergrad in Marine Biology at Aberdeen University. After that I spent the summer getting some field experience by volunteering with the Cetacean Research and Rescue Unit and the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust. I then completed the MRes in Marine Mammal Science at St Andrews. After that I spent 8 months as a volunteer research assistant in New Zealand working on a project that investigated the impacts of swim-with-dolphin tourism on dolphin behaviour. I then came back the the UK and worked as a volunteer research assistant at the Aberdeen University Lighthouse Field Station for two summer seasons where I was involved primarily in the long-term bottlenose dolphin photo-identification project as well as helping out on other projects such as land-based observations, harbour seal photo-identification studies and acoustic studies in order to broaden my skills base. After that I moved to SMRU Marine (my first paid job out of Uni) where I have worked for a year now as a marine mammal environmental consultant. So, in summary, I spent 5 years at Uni and 2 years volunteering before I got a paid job in my field of interest.
What does your job involve ?
Visual survey work: Scientist on projects involving visual marine mammal surveys including designing surveys and protocols, acting as survey co-ordinator and analysing and reporting data. PAM work: Scientist on projects using acoustic methods to detect cetaceans and conducting analysis of data for baseline site characterisation. Experience with noise level monitoring during construction works. Data handling: Developing GIS skills through involvement on projects requiring mapping of marine mammal visual detections, seal telemetry data and designing surveys. Developing R skills through collision risk modelling for tidal devices and running PCoD simulations.
What are the best bits of your job ?
What I like best is the broad scope of work that I do. I am involved in many different projects and therefore get to experience a wide range of techniques and skills. I loved my time as a volunteer doing practical field work but I often found I missed the analysis part afterwards, I enjoy diving into the data and pulling out conclusions, which is one of the things I enjoy most in my current job.
Why were you successful?
I honestly don't think I would be here today if I hadn't done the two years of volunteer experience that I did. While it was often frustrating not getting paid for my work, it gave me the experience and the contacts that I needed to get into my current job. The trouble is that most places require you to have experience not just a degree... but it's difficult to get the initial level of experience without volunteer/intern work.
What skills/ knowledge from your degree have you found particularly helpful in this role?
It's important to note that marine biology and marine mammal work is not just fun fieldwork! The best skills that I learnt at university that have helped me with my career have been: GIS mapping skills and statistics and analysis skills (especially with R).
What advice would you give to students wishing to follow the same path?
Data analysis is key - its not always the most fun thing to learn at university but it is hugely important. There is no point in collecting lots of data if you don't know what to do with it afterwards! Don't be surprised if you have to spend time as a volunteer/intern, experience is usually desired by employees and its difficult to get the experience without volunteer time. Also, remember that the world of marine biologists (especially marine mammal biologists) is small, and often its about who you know not just what you know. Get yourself known by speaking to lecturers, people at university and at conferences. Don't be afraid to send speculative emails to people asking for work - that's how I got my position at the Lighthouse field station by emailing the person in charge and asking if they had any vacancies.