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15/6/2022

FROM SEA STARS TO SEEING STARS: Part 2

FROM SEA STARS TO SEEING STARS: Part 2

Six Life Lessons Learnt on My Quest to Merge the Marine and Space Sciences: Part 2 of 3

Marine Biologist, PADI Divemaster, and human spaceflight aficionado Jenn Thomson calls herself an ‘Aspiring Ocean Astronaut’. In this second part in a three-part series, she shares further life lessons, learned through the pursuit of merging her sea-to-space passions… 

When I was little, I wanted to be an astronaut. And an Archaeologist. And a Marine Biologist.  And an Author/Illustrator. And an Architect. And most definitely, a Wildlife Filmmaker/Presenter!

The point being, I absolutely loved to explore everything and anything around me. My weekends were filled with rock climbing, playing the piano, art, and creative writing, and my school days were filled with genetics, evolution, and the planets. Thus, I really struggled to know what I wanted to study at university. 

Life Lesson 2- University Days: 

Yes, you will have life regrets. So what? Find another path that goes in the same direction.

Eventually ‘narrowing’ down my options to either marine biology, astrophysics, or zoology, I ended up choosing the lattermost. I wanted a science degree that allowed me to 1) take a range of modules from other disciplines, and 2) experience as many different ecosystems as possible. Then, I would truly know if the underwater world was right for me! And of course, there were the guys that sent tardigrades to space, right?

Studying tree frogs in the midnight jungle. Photo by the University of Manchester Field Team

From 2015-2019 I studied a BSc Zoology with Industrial Experience at the University of Manchester. I basically designed my degree - not only studying animal behaviour, cardiac physiology and circadian rhythms, but also learning Mandarin Chinese, British Sign Language, and computational biology!  

And then there were the field courses: In South Africa, I learnt spoor identification, animal tracking and megafauna physiology, whilst in the jungles of La Selva Research Station, Costa Rica, I beta-tested a smartphone app that identified tree frogs based on their night-time calls. From these experiences, I began to get more interested in the adaptations of animals to extreme environments and wished to link this to the space sector.  

La Selva Research Station. Photo by Hannah Shanks

So, I took an online Diploma in Human Spaceflight from KTH (Sweden) and asked my professors if I could write my own topic for my second-year dissertation. Here, I studied and contrasted the hibernation mechanisms of brown bears (my favourite animal!) and Arctic ground squirrels, from their whole-scale physiological functions to their molecular processes. I concluded that we could use brown bear mechanisms to fine-tune a ‘Therapeutic Hyperthermia’, for human hibernation on Mars missions, to limit both muscle atrophy and psychological stressors.  

However, you can imagine the surprise when I saw that the exact same thinking was published by ESA completely separately (and 6 years later), in the 2022 article ‘Hibernate for a trip to Mars, the bear way’... My 2016 self was onto something! 

Life Lesson 3- Desert Days: 

Skills are transferable; be idiosyncratic, and feel free to change your mind.

During my third year of university, I ended up living in the middle of the desert for 9 months (deep in the Northern cape of South Africa, at a research station called SKRS). I was here to start and develop a long-term monitoring project for an (actually, really cute!) mammal called the bush Karoo rat. Exceedingly little was known about their social organisation and general life history parameters in a natural and changing ecosystem. It was also another good experience to study the eco-physiological and behavioural adaptations of these animals in extreme environments! 

South Africa desert finds. Photo by Richard Askew

Starting with an empty field site, and a blank project, was a daunting task – however after a lot of effort, this long-term monitoring project has now become the one of the focal points of the research station, and now has been awarded funding to take on PhD students to study this animal. I am very proud of what it has become all these years later! 

I also learnt many important field skills: from radio telemetry, to tagging animals, to drawing blood for hormonal analyses in the field, and most importantly – the resilience to survive in an extreme and isolated environment.  

However, it was in the moments of introspection, when I was radio-tracking at night, and gazing up at the numerous stars, when I came to the conclusion: I wished to explore the space sector via becoming a marine biologist (such as astronauts Jessica Meir and Zena Cardman). 

The best photo I ever took. Radio-tacking at night. Photo by Jenn Thomson

Life Lesson 4- Diving Days: 

You don’t have to study marine biology to be a marine biologist but learn to scuba dive from the outset.

And so, when I left South Africa, began a fast-paced scuba diving and marine journey that would get me from a newly qualified diver, to a PADI Divemaster within a year. My final dissertation investigated the hypertrophic propensity of Greenland shark cardiomyocytes (basically how their hearts change with age!), to shine clues on their longevity in extreme polar environments. My studies were juxtaposed with 2 different jobs; working and saving up every penny, to get one more dive in, or to buy a new piece of scuba gear. Slowly I built up my diving experience at the weekends in frigid UK waters, before leaping over to Thailand / Mozambique in the longer summer holidays. 

In Thailand, I gained experience of coral bleaching and reef fish identification surveys, working with transects and cameras underwater. And in Mozambique, at the Marine Action Research station, I completed a marine ecology and PADI Divemaster internship, surveying whales, nudibranchs, and benthic communities on artificial reefs. 

Qualified Divemaster. Photo by Corey Rae

In the meantime, I expanded my science communication portfolio too, as a past editor and illustrator for the online initiative The Marine Diaries. I wrote blogs concerning ocean warming, worked with authors to edit their own content for publication, and created illustrations on recent papers / importance of seagrass ecosystems.  

Turtle ID training day 1 in the Maldives. Photo by Felipe Lei

From this, using my non-marine-related-but-still-transferable skillset from my zoological degree, and scuba diving abilities, was I able to get a job as the Marine Biologist at the Four Seasons Maldives! It just goes to show that a first degree is marine science is not mandatory! Here, I designed outreach activities for young children, conducted coral propagation programs, and led guest snorkels / cetacean ID cruises. From there, it was into the Red Sea as a Field Research Technician and scientific illustrator – deploying hydrophones, conducting coral reef surveys, sampling mangrove sediments, and designing field research plans. It has been quite the journey around the world! 

In part three, we’ll explore space and the future… 

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Posted in UAV/ROV/Submersibles | Diving | Marine | People | Space

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