A day in the life of… Rebecca

I’m going to quickly set the scene of how I managed to bag myself a place at MBARI for the summer by explaining a little about my background in marine biology.  Then I’ll try to give you a 24 hour insight into my life as a summer intern.

Your narrator

I grew up in a small town about 40 minutes north of Belfast, Northern Ireland.  During the summers, my Dad would take my brother and I to our family’s cottage in Donegal.  It had no electricity or running water; we relied on candles, fires and a natural well in the back garden.  But it had woods, stone beaches, the sea and a small rowing boat that my grandfather had built – basically, it was paradise for two children.  We grew up by the sea shore and most of my time was spent exploring the tidal zone (which unfortunately has now left my parents with countless pictures of me caked in mud that they like to bring out to embarrass me with!).  So I suppose I grew up as a marine biologist before I really understood what that was.


After school I began a Marine and Freshwater Honours degree at the University of Glasgow in Scotland.  I was then accepted onto the Masters program which runs between the 3rd and 4th years of the normal degree.  During this time I worked at the Institute of Marine Research (IMR) in Norway, completing a project and writing it up as a Masters thesis.  This marked the beginning of my work on the deep sea – on the mid-Atlantic Ridge (MAR) at around 2500 m to be specific.  I was trying to find out the age of 7 species of grenadier as part of the Census of Marine Life project MAR-ECO.  These are one of the most common families of deep sea fish and are often referred to as the ‘cod of the deep’.  Grenadiers are bony fish (as opposed to cartilaginous fish like sharks or rays) and each one has a number of small bones in the ear.  I took these bones and cut very thin sections from the centre.  When these were looked at under a microscope I could see ring patterns, like the rings you see in tree trunks, which could be used to count the age of the fish.  This type of work has been done extensively for shallow fish, especially commercial species, but many of the species I looked at had never been aged before.  We were able to get new information on how old these fish get and what range of ages are found on the MAR.  I’m currently writing this up and hope to submit it as my first scientific article over the summer.

Norway was a beautiful place to live for a year, we had huge snow falls in Winter….

….. and blazing sunshine in the summer…..

Before returning to Glasgow I had the chance to go to sea for 6 weeks.  I joined a group of scientists working on the ECOMAR project and was able to try my hand at many different types of practical biology and oceanography.  I spent one great afternoon watching around 30 dolphins racing in front of the ship, although other times were certainly less glamorous.  Being woken up at 5 am to help bring a trawl in, then spending the next 15 hours on my feet processing the catch is one example!  But I loved every minute of it and hope to get away on another cruise sometime soon.

Bringing in a deep sea trawl

Pilot whales!

I returned to Glasgow and began my final year at university last October.  It was difficult being an undergraduate again after having worked for a year but I think the experience made my final year a lot easier.  I came across the internship advertisement by chance one evening over Christmas – its definitely a good idea to keep your eye out for this type of thing.

So, what am I doing here all summer?  My project is based on images taken by MBARI’s Benthic Rover.  One of the many tasks the Rover can perform is taking photographs of the seafloor.  I’m using software developed at MBARI to annotate all the plants and animals that appear in these images.  There’s quite a lot of life going on at 900 m so I have a lot to look for!  The computer logs everything I annotate so when I’m finished (no idea when that will be!!) I’ll have a huge dataset of the community in the area.  I can then run statistics to analyse this information, comparing it to previous years, looking for any differences in the number or type of things that are down there.  I should also be able to compare the results with environmental conditions (such as temperate, currents etc) to see what effect these have on the animal community.

A typical day for me usually begins after drinking too much coffee in my room whilst getting ready, then annoying all the other interns in the vanpool as I bounce off the walls.  We get picked up at 8 am so most people are still waking up!  Into work, up to my computer, more coffee, have a chat with Jake who is the lab research technician about our adventures the previous evening (adventures of falling asleep in front of the tv mostly…) and checking my emails.

Working hard annotating images

The majority of the day is spent sitting in front of my computer using the MBARI software to annotate images of the deep sea.  A great side of this is that I get to have my music on all day!  Then, depending on what day of the week it is, I have other activities to break up the time.  On Mondays we usually have a project update from one of the researchers.  This is a great way to keep everyone here up to date with what the other groups are doing.  After the update is the Monday cookie break!  A chance for all the staff and students to mingle over sugary snacks.  I also have an intern meeting, seminar and my own project meeting with my mentors to attend every week.  Sometimes we get a little fresh air at lunch time by walking down to the post office to check our mail box or shopping at the fruit and veg market.  Home time is 6 pm and by the time we’ve driven back to Marina and cooked dinner there isn’t a lot of energy left.  We are usually to be found piled up on a  sofa, watching a film and falling asleep.  All ready for another day…..

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