Whale Scientists Story: Marianna Pinzone

Marianna Pinzone is a 31 years-old Italian marine mammalogist. She is currently doing her PhD at the University of Liège in Belgium. Here is her story…

Marianna Pinzone

Marianna’s Education

I completed my Bsc. in Biological Sciences in 3 yrs at the University of Rome in Italy. After this, I went into my master program and got to work in VUB, UGent and UAntwerpen in Belgium. I obtained my Msc. in Marine & Lacustrine Science and Management in 2012. In 2016, I started my PhD in Oceanography at the University of Liège in Belgium. I received a FRIA fellowship funded by the FNRS (Fonds National pour la Recherche Scientifique) to do my research.

What does Marianna’s research focus on?

I am a PhD student at the University of Liège. My research focuses on mercury contamination in Arctic seals. I want to understand how seals ecology and climate change impact mercury pollution from the 1800s until today. I work on three species: hooded seals, harp seals, and ringed seals that live and breed in the Greenland Sea. We evaluate the seal’s diets and interaction with other species by using stable isotopes of carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur. To evaluate mercury concentrations, we measure levels of mercury in different seal tissues. We are able to use very precise measurements on mercury. We measure different isotope ratios to determine the sources of mercury in the Greenland Sea. For this project, I collaborate with colleagues from Norway, Denmark, and France.

Marianna Pinzone
Ready for Arctic adventures! – Marianna Pinzone

Being a researcher gives you the rare opportunity to really do something important and tangible to help with the protection of the environment. Research often comes with a lot of traveling. During my travels, I was lucky to experience several cultures and countries, as well as people from all over the world. Sometimes though, doing research is a difficult job: funding is hard to secure and it takes a lot of effort.


In 2013, I completed a two months internship at UAntwerpen in the toxicology of freshwater organisms. After I obtained my Msc., I was involved in a 15 months research project at the German Oceanographic Museum in Stralsund. For this project, I studied the ecology of harbour porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) in the German Baltic Sea. Right before I started my PhD, I did a 2 months research project at the University of Liège. I worked on chemical contamination of 14 sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) involved in a mass stranding event along the North Sea coast in January 2016. I found my internships through faculty members involved in my different projects.

One of the stranded sperm whales on the North Sea coast in 2016 – Marianna Pinzone

The internships and research projects I did were all great experiences. They helped me develop my knowledge and my expertise in marine mammal ecotoxicology. I now use these skills in my PhD and it has been very helpful. Thanks to collaborations with so many institutes, I could develop a supportive and extensive network. I’m still in contact with most of my past colleagues. This will always be a valuable help during my future as a marine scientist.

Marianna’s advices to aspiring marine mammalogists

First, to understand if you really are interested in being a whale scientist you need practical experience: find volunteering activities and internships on different topics, from whale watching to laboratory work.

This will give you a 360° idea of what it means to be a whale scientist. It will also give you the opportunity to experience the good and the bad. If after getting some experiences you find that this is what you want to do, then try to focus on a good network of people working in your field. Do not be afraid to contact researchers you don’t know to ask for some internship opportunities. Email lists (like MARMAM) or groups on social media are a great source for volunteering opportunities. Don’t give up!

How about your future projects?

After I get my PhD, I really hope I can continue working in academia and become a full-time researcher in marine mammal ecotoxicology. I would love to help understanding pollution around the world and its link to climate change. Something I would like to be involved in is the study of pollution in communities that consume marine mammals.

Two fun stories at sea, working with seals and porpoises

A seal pup ate my gloves in the Arctic!

I did a couple of seal sampling seasons in the Arctic. The boat would leave from Tromsø, in Norway and it used to take us four days to reach Greenland. Unfortunately, I am a cursed marine biologist: I get seasick and it gets pretty intense for a while! Working while being sick is not easy. I needed to cut some hair from white little harp seals pups. They are very cute and not shy so they let me steal some hair on their back. Some of them would try to “scare me” by producing what to me sounded like the most adorable noise.

The hooded seal pups are quite bigger than the cutesy harp seal pups. They can reach 1m of length and weight 25kg when they are born. During one of my routine pup haircut, a hooded seal pup decided it wanted to eat my gloves. And it succeeded … It ate my two pairs of gloves! I had to work for the rest of the campaign at -18°C without gloves! It was… a challenge!

Cute little harp seal pup ready for a haircut – Marianna Pinzone

Porpoises stole my samples in the Baltic Sea

When I worked in the Baltic sea for the harbour porpoise project, I had to go at sea with the fishermen to catch fish because they are porpoises’ prey. We would go one day to set the nets and come back the next day to pick them up and collect the fish. We started to notice that some visitors seemed to be enjoying our work more than we did. Some harbour seals were waiting for us to steal codfish from the nets and have a nice and comfortable dinner without having to hunt. More than once, we found the net full of cod heads. Crazy porpoises!

Marianna Pinzone
Looking for the rest of the cod fish the porpoises stole from us – Marianna Pinzone

We would like to thank Marianna for sharing her story. You can contact her through Instagram down bellow or twitter.

Anaïs Remili & Marianna Pinzone
“Try to focus on a good network of people working in your field” – Marianna Pinzone & Anaïs Remili (from Whale Scientists) became friends at the University of Liège

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