Whale Scientists Story: Rebecca Boys

Rebecca Boys is a 28 years-old British marine mammalogist working on her PhD in New Zealand. For her PhD, she studies how we can apply welfare science to cetacean stranding events. Here is her story.

Rebecca Boys

Rebecca’s Education

I attended Bangor University, UK for my undergraduate degree. This degree program was great as it was applied, providing me with a year working in industry, half way through my degree. This experience really allowed me to gain many useful skills before completing my degree. My undergraduate degree was 4 years long and in the end, I obtained my BSc in Applied Marine Biology.

Internships

Pre-university

Before beginning my undergraduate degree I volunteered. This began when I was in secondary school at the National Oceanography Centre. I then went to Archelon sea turtle rescue and rehabilitation in Greece . There, I worked on both beach studies of turtle nests as well as working in the rehabilitation centre.

Rebecca Boys
Sea turtle rescue and rehabilitation in Greece – Rebecca Boys

Undergrad internships all around Europe

I then went to the Seal Rescue and Research Centre in Pieterburen, Netherlands, where I interned. After starting my undergraduate degree, I searched for all available opportunities to continue getting experience. I took part in local initiatives with beach clean-ups, scuba diving surveys, rocky shore surveys and marine mammal surveys in my free time. I found an internship with Tethys, Italy and spent much of my first summer working onboard their research vessel. During my first year in industry I worked at Natural Resources Wales where I gained highly valuable skills.

Rebecca Boys
Seal Rescue – Rebecca Boys

My final dissertation project, looking at the fatal interactions between bottlenose dolphins and harbour porpoises, came about due to contacts I made during this industry year. After finishing my undergraduate degree I was able to take an internship position in the Azores, Portugal. I got this position by applying for funding through Erasmus+. This internship then became a contract position for a further 2 years.

The joys and struggles of internships

I spent a lot of time researching all the institutions I could find and emailing people that had previously interned, to help decide on places that would provide me with a valuable skillset and that were not taking advantage of young people. Joining the MARMAM mailing list early on certainly helped with this! Once I started my first internship, I networked with others interns and my superiors. They were able to give me further advice and also letters of recommendation for my future internships.

There are certainly challenges to undertaking internships, this mainly begins with costs. I spent many months working full time in bars to save money to enable me to do these internships. But I also did a lot of research to ensure that the places I went were providing some kind of support e.g. accommodation/ food etc… All of my internship experiences were extremely valuable, both in the skills I gained and in the contacts that I made. But internships will also always be what you make of them, so make sure that you are actively involved in the work. Making the effort to ask further questions will certainly help you get the most out of the work.

What is Rebecca up to now?

I went straight from my undergrad to my PhD. I am currently a PhD student in the Cetacean Ecology REsearch Group at Massey University, New Zealand,. My project focuses on applying welfare science to cetacean stranding events (when whales and dolphins beach themselves). This research involves a lot of field work. Most of my work is very last minute, since we can never predict when a marine mammal will wash up on our beaches. I must be prepared to travel at any time with my equipment to assist and record data on live stranding events. My work also involves a lot of outreach work as there are many stakeholders involved in stranding events.

Outside of my main research goal, I take part in team work. It is part of the bigger picture: we do dissections on deceased stranded cetaceans to understand why they died, if they were sick, etc. My work is incredibly interesting but also involves rapidly changing circumstances: as much as you plan, you never know what the situation may throw at you. I hope that my PhD will provide a number of publications that can inform decision-making at cetacean stranding events. I hope to continue working in this field and conduct research, but I also wish to have a family.

Rebecca Boys and colleagues
Necropsies in New Zealand – Rebecca Boys

Leadership in the marine mammal world

I started attending marine mammal conferences in the first year of my undergrad, by volunteering at the European Cetacean Society (ECS) conference. This allowed me to attend it for free in exchange for helping out. This was a really great way to begin attending conferences, as you meet many other volunteers who are all students, and it can make it easier to network with researchers. I began attending and volunteering at this conference every year. After attending my third conference I was voted in as the student representative for the council. This position allowed me to help in planning the conference generally, but specifically to engage and plan activities for students. I was offered my current PhD position because of my previous engagement in ECS!

The leadership, organisation and communication skills that you gain from these kind of positions are really valuable skills that go a long way for future research. If you can get involved in conferences then do! My position at the ECS led me to be part of the student organising team for the World Marine Mammal Conference in Barcelona last December. I am now also part of the committee for the Australia and New Zealand Student Chapter of the Society of Marine Mammalogy (SMM). The SMM student chapters run student led conferences each year in many regions around the world. It is a great place to start and it provides a more informal conference setting where you can network with other students and present your research to your peers. If you don’t know about the ECS and SMM, definitely check out their websites, as there are lots of great resources there for students!

Rebecca’s tips to aspiring marine mammalogists

From as early an age as possible read and question all areas of science. Do not focus solely on marine mammal based opportunities. Look at the broader picture and the skills that are transferable between different jobs. Take all opportunities that are available to you, and do not wait for these to come to you. You have to actively seek these opportunities out. This field is hard to get into, so be persistent and determined about what you want. Find out what skills would be useful and actively learn these. Never be afraid to ask questions!

Conferences are always great to attend. They provide a week-full of new scientific ideas and catch ups with all your friends. They are also an incredible opportunity to connect with experienced researchers. The buzz that you leave a conference with, can really get you through the next tough stage of your project! Not only did the ECS provide me with some great skills, the friendships we made have given me a marine mammal family that will remain for life. They are truly the people you need by your side in moments of research stress!

Stranding New Zealand
Live stranding – Rebecca Boys

You can find Rebecca on her research group’s website here, on ReasearchGate or down below:


Make sure to check out our other Whale Scientists Stories here.

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