During my twenties I was a Project Manager, working in the UK and abroad. In my early thirties I decided I wanted to come back to sciences and research and went to Imperial College to do my second MSc. My project was with the Zoological Society of London, on drones (the start of my PhD research). When my MSc concluded, I continued working with the Zoological Society of London as a paid employee, doing the same drone work. This then rolled into the PhD that I am doing now, which is titled 'Water-landing drone engineering for marine ecology, fisheries and plastics detections'.
I met my now supervisor at a conference, as he had been to my talk and was looking at my poster. He suggested I apply for a place in engineering and I thought that this would give me a unique angle for my work (being a conservation scientist). If I had stayed in London, I would have been in an ecology-based department, which meant my ability to design and build drones would be very limited. Loughborough University has given me the opportunity to take our drone work to the next level.
To give some context, over three billion people worldwide rely on fish protein (either wild caught or farmed) as their primary source of protein. However, the oceans are being polluted, overfished and overlooked, risking famine and ecosystem collapse. Governance in fisheries and marine conservation in marine protected areas and lakes, in developing or remote tropical nations, often have low success, leading to ecosystem degradation, increased pressures on wildlife and effects on livelihoods. Causes usually include lack of capital and poor infrastructure to match the scale of the areas, which can translate to ineffective enforcement and superficial conservation management. Weak governance invites illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, accounting for global annual estimated losses of $10-24 billion and includes harmful practises such as dynamite fishing and abuses of human rights through slavery on pelagic vessels. Conservation initiatives often suffer from unreliable funding and short-term projects led by international groups, doing uncoordinated capacity building. As a result, regardless of perceived project success, longevity and project integrity are low and ultimately environmental degradation continues.
Drone technology has been used successfully in beyond visual line of sight flights across Africa for conservation and patrolling, but there are engineering challenges in transposing the current technology into the marine realm, within a realistic budget, and this is what my PhD is focusing on.
Improving the ability for managers to easily enforce governance rules where funding and resource is low is challenging. Efforts toward this fortification will ensure local livelihoods, global fish populations and aquatic habitats are preserved, improving socioeconomic stability for people and less persecution on wildlife.
I believe that a bespoke fixed wing water landing multi-use drone with proven ecologically robust methodologies and an enforcement toolkit will be this technology - one which local governments can purchase and use without the need for sustained involvement from us.
I had started this research as part of my second MSc and my career change. The reason I did the MSc was specifically to get onto a PhD, so I chose my MSc research project and partner carefully to match my core interests and goals, and to compliment my work experience (technology, marine conservation and international projects). The project naturally had legs and we haven’t looked back since! The reason I wanted to do a PhD was because I was unhappy and unfulfilled in generic project roles and wanted a challenge targeting global problems.
One of the things I have enjoyed the most during my PhD is my team - it is small, but it is growing. We have built our expertise in quite a niche field, but it has spring boarded me into the interface between conservation and marine engineering. I am also learning a lot. The facilities are excellent (we want for nothing) and the support I receive for my PhD (which I brought to the University as opposed to applying for a pre-made title) has been instrumental to its success. I love that Loughborough is so sporty - it is inspiring, and I find myself living more healthily. It’s a lovely area and it’s very easy for me to go home and get to the zoo in London.
On a typical day, I wake up just before 8am and the first thing I do is check the weather (don’t ask why, it’s a habit!) and then emails. I’m at my desk between 8.45 and 9.15am and continue with emails and preparing for meetings. I work with a lot of international people so sometimes meetings are at funny hours. I try to prioritise tasks each day and I have a white board for notes.
As my PhD is half ecology and half engineering, it can be a little tricky to flit between the two, so I tend to have pure engineering days and pure ecology days (or at least split by am/pm). I sometimes have to go into the lab to carry out building work on the drones, but have recently built a little workshop at home. I’ll have a short lunch break, maybe play some video games, and then back to work. I run or go to the yard to ride my loan horse in the afternoons (or sometimes do this before work). I am active on social media and will monitor science and engineering news on it throughout the day. I am on the PhD Social Support Committee as the Academic Development Coordinator, so I may have a bit of work to do for that too. I am nearly always in bed by 10pm!
In 5 years’ time, I have no idea where I see myself, I must admit. I receive offers for jobs and opportunities from time to time and it seems options are varied. Perhaps a lot of this is to do with my work during my MSc, but also that I’m based in a well-respected engineering department - people view me quite differently now and I’m really grateful to Loughborough for this.
If I had a magic wand, I’d like to be head of marine conservation tech somewhere, or global lead on drone use in maritime governance in an organisation.
For anyone considering a PhD, I would say follow your passion. If you aren’t passionate about the subject, it will be the longest years of your life!