Whale Scientists Story – Agathe Serres

Agathe Serres is a 29 years old French postdoctoral marine mammalogist currently conducting research in China. She tells us how she traveled from France to China, following her passion for dolphins. She also tells us about how she used her good adaptation skills to learn mandarin and start a new life dedicated to the conservation of endangered dolphins. Here is her story…

Agathe Serres

A master’s in behavioral sciences

I obtained a Biology Bachelor degree from Rennes 1 University (France), followed by an Ethology Master’s degree from Paris 13 University (France), and a Hydrobiology Ph.D. degree from the Institute of Hydrobiology of the University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (Wuhan, China).

My first research project was conducted during the first year of my Master’s. I analyzed the effect of mother hens’ social rank on their offspring’s behavior. I conducted this project in the EthoS laboratory at the University of Rennes. It lasted two months. This first internship was very short, but it allowed me to get familiar with behavioral observations, adapt to working with animals, and practice scientific skills.

During my second year of Master studies, I conducted a project aiming to study social play in bottlenose dolphins under human care. The goal was to investigate if we could use it to assess their welfare. I did this six-month project at Parc Asterix, which is a well-known amusement park in France. During these six months, I got familiar with the study of dolphins, the observation of their behavior, and concepts like animal welfare for example. This internship also allowed me to build a research protocol, conduct observations, analyze data, and write scientific manuscripts. After this experience, it was clear that I wanted to continue this way.

My two first research experiences (during my two years of Masters) were both opportunities proposed by professors from the University I was studying at or partners of this University. I got selected for the internships after several rounds of selection (motivation letters and interviews).

Welcome to China

At the end of my Master, I wrote dozens of emails to professors around the world who I knew were researching dolphin species to find a potentially funded position. I finally got a positive answer from my future Ph.D. supervisor in China. He invited me to apply for a Ph.D. fellowship from the Chinese Academy of Sciences. I applied for this fellowship and got selected. Then I packed my suitcase and started a new life at the Institute of Hydrobiology (Chinese Academy of Science) in Wuhan, China.

Agathe Serres
Finding a PhD supervisor is no easy task – Credit: Agathe Serres

I conducted a study focused on the behavior and welfare of captive odontocetes (toothed dolphins). My subjects included two porpoise species and bottlenose dolphins. Thanks to my Master’ experiences, I was able to build and conduct my Ph.D. project with full autonomy. This research project brought several new skills (e.g., the study of acoustics). It also allowed me to continue improving my analysis and writing skills. It took four years for me to finish my PhD.

A long way from home: Culture shock

In September 2016, I packed my stuff and moved to China with absolutely no contacts there, no reliable information about the country and its culture, and of course, zero skills in mandarin. That was an experience, but thanks to good adaptation skills, I quickly adapted to my new life and learned to love my new home.

The Chinese culture and communication (not only the language but also the behavior, attitudes, etc.) are entirely different from what I experienced in France. It is a constant learning process. Luckily, I currently have a good level of mandarin, without which it may be hard to understand the Chinese way of life and culture fully. Regarding the research work in China, since the language of Science is English, most of my colleagues have a decent level of English which I appreciate when speaking in depth about research projects.

Since I started my Ph.D., I have chosen to work on species that are endemic to or emblematic of China and that are threatened by human activities. I focused on the Yangtze finless porpoise (Neophocaena asiaeorientalis asiaeorientalis) during my Ph.D. project. Now I work on the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin (Sousa chinensis) for my postdoc projects. It is essential for me to work for the conservation of these species that are only found in China/South Asia and that need attention and protection. I see it as participating in the protection of the biodiversity of the country that has been welcoming me since 2016.

Postdoc life

Today, I am conducting my own research projects as a postdoctoral fellow. I started my postdoc in 2021. I am now based at the Institute of Deep-Sea Science and Engineering (Chinese Academy of Sciences) in Sanya, China. Some of my research projects include studies of the body condition of Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins (i.e., shark bites, tooth-rakes, injuries, and skin lesions). I also study their behavior (e.g., aerial behavior), their welfare state (i.e., the building of a welfare assessment tool), and their acoustic productions.

Two Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins off Southern China – Agathe Serres

The advantages of my current position are the relatively high freedom in choosing and designing my research projects and the support from my team and institute to conduct these projects. The drawbacks of this position may be related to the location of my Institute, which is far from my family (France-China).

Agathe’s tips on how to become a successful whale scientist

I have no clear idea of how to become a successful whale scientist. However, I believe that people interested in cetacean research should think about two main points.

Passion

First, this work is strongly related to passion and values. Therefore, I think that only people who are drawn to cetaceans and deeply want to participate in their conservation should consider following a career in marine mammalogy. Working on these animals often requires much time at sea, looking for animals in uncomfortable conditions. I think these aspects can only be accepted if the person has real motivation and passion.

Research skills

Second, you need to consider the “research” part. One may be passionate about cetaceans but not possess the skills required for research. These include research ethics, good organization, the ability to build and conduct research protocols, and the ability to analyze the collected data and transcribe it into publishable articles. Even though one may possess these skills, not everyone likes this type of “office work,” which is part of the research. There may be some positions only requiring one of these two points. However, I think most positions involve both passion and talent.

Doing research requires a lot of skills. Here, Agathe is flying a drone to observe the behavior of Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins – Credit: Agathe Serres

Manage the pressure and anxiety

Another important thing is worth mentioning. As an anxious person, I would like to say that research involves pressure (e.g., pressure to collect data, get funding, and publish articles), and pressure management skills are crucial. I believe that social skills are a plus since we often work within teams. Indeed, we often have to present our work to the public, and networking is important. I would advise whale scientist aspirants to try and get a research experience on cetaceans or other animals to ensure that they like the “research process,”. Don’t forget always to stay motivated. Finally, do not hesitate to contact researchers for information, help, or advice.

What does the future hold for Agathe?

I am not someone who makes long-term plans, and I prefer focusing on my current work. However, I hope to finish all my ongoing projects and start new ones in the coming two years. After that, I hope to obtain a research associate position to continue working on Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins and/or other cetacean species.

Agathe’s research boat approaching a pod of Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins – Credit: Agathe Serres

Playing hide and seek with young dolphins

Many fun or less fun events do occur at sea. Last year, two of them happened consecutively to me on the same day. Let’s start with the fun event: Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins do not approach the research boat very often, but on that day, a small group of juveniles approached very close (we could have touched them if wanting to). They seemed to play hide-and-seek around the boat, whistling loudly: that was a magic moment. After that, we left this group and encountered a single dolphin, and when arching myself on the side of the boat to measure the water depth with a depth sensor. I saw my brand-new phone falling and sinking into the water. I had forgotten to close my coat’s pocket; RIP my phone. That was the less fun event of the day!


We would like to warmly thank Agathe for sharing her story with us! If you’d like to get in touch with Agathe, you can reach out to her here: agathe.serres11@gmail.com

Make sure to read our other inspiring Whale Scientists Stories here:

Whale Scientists Story – Jasmin Groß

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