Meet the Scientist

Research Fellow at the Lyell Centre

"There will always be a place in my heart for macaroni cheese!"

What scientific field do you work in?

 

I’m a marine scientist. My work mainly focuses on photosynthesis in coastal ecosystems and how it responds to biological or environmental change. This is important because photosynthesis is fundamental for so many processes in the oceans, but issues such as climate change are likely to impact the way these processes work, with lots of knock-on effects throughout the ecosystem.

Could you briefly explain what your job involves?

 

I currently lead a team of four researchers. Most of our research at the moment is focused on red coralline algae – a type of calcified seaweed found all over the world. This seaweed is also the deepest known photosynthetic organism in the ocean – it’s been found at more than 300 metres below the sea surface. Being so deep, there isn’t much light available for photosynthesis, so we’re trying to work out how they survive. We do this by making measurements in the natural environment as well as conducting controlled experiments in laboratory aquaria – set-ups which are much like the fish tank you might have at home.

 

I also teach environmental science, climate change and science communication to undergraduate and masters level students.

When did you decide you wanted to work as a scientist?

 

The first job I wanted as a kid was to be a palaeontologist, so I think I was destined to be a scientist from a very young age! I’ve always been incredibly curious about how the world works – I must have driven my parents mad by always asking “why”!

Have you taken part in any research? If yes, what was your most exciting project?

A lot of my time is spent doing research. I really love the moment when you’ve found something out that nobody knew before.

 

I’m super excited about our current project – finding out how algae can photosynthesise in low light conditions could change the way we think about life in the oceans.

What's your favourite food?

 

There will always be a place in my heart for macaroni cheese!

What educational pathway did you take to get to where you are now?

 

After my A-levels, I did undergraduate and master’s degrees in marine science at the University of Plymouth, UK. I then worked at Plymouth Marine Laboratory as a lab technician whilst I applied for PhDs; I secured a PhD at the University of Glasgow. This was followed by a post-doc at Glasgow and an independent research fellowship at the University of St Andrews. For a year, I then worked as an editor for the journal Nature Microbiology before joining the Lyell Centre in 2016.

"...cats make me happy!"

If you could be anyone in the world, for 24 hours, who would you be and why?

 

The head of a large socio-environmental organisation like the United Nations. As the saying goes, “with power, comes great responsibility” – I’m curious about how this is managed, how decisions are made and how groups try to influence decisions.

What was the best thing about your job?

 

The freedom. Academic careers, particularly on the research side, are extremely flexible and you are encouraged to undertake research which you are passionately interested in. Although there can sometimes be a high workload, you’re not tied to a 9-5 schedule, meaning work-life balance can be great (if you you’re your work under control!)

"I must have driven my parents mad by always asking “why”!"

What was the worst thing about your job?

 

Academia is extremely competitive and plagued by fixed-term contracts, especially for early-career researchers. Success rates for research grants are typically less than 10% so rejection is inevitable. A thick skin and perseverance are required!

If you could take one thing with you to an island, what would it be and why?

 

A friendly cat. Why? Because cats make me happy. (pretty sure I’m a crazy cat lady in-the-making…!)

Do you have any advice for young people who are interested in your career path?

 

Just go for it! If you are passionate about a topic and work hard, that will shine through – persevere if things don’t happen right away. Places on undergraduate and postgraduate degrees are becoming increasingly competitive, so do things to make your CV stand out from the crowd: volunteer, gain relevant work experience, develop an online presence (e.g. blogging, social media), establish a network

Twitter: @HLBurdett

Instagram: @heidi_burdett

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