Whale Scientists Story — Clare Andvik 

Clare Andvik is a 33-year-old marine mammal toxicologist from the UK. She is currently doing her PhD at the University of Oslo, Norway, studying the effects of pollution and other stressors on Norwegian orcas. She is also mother to a 2-year-old (with another on the way!) and tells us what it is like to combine being a whale scientist with raising a family – including bringing her daughter on orca fieldwork in northern Norway and Western Canada. Here is her story…

Credit: Clare Andvik

An unconventional start

Despite always wanting to be a whale scientist, my journey to become one was unconventional. Some not-so-encouraging teachers convinced me that I’d never find a job studying whales, so I decided to do a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy at the University of Durham (UK), as I loved reading, writing, and debating. After my degree, I worked on a horse and husky farm in Lapland, taking tourists to see the Northern Lights, and then backpacked in South America for 6 months.

Scuba diving in the Galapagos islands re-ignited my passion for marine biology, and I remembered my childhood dream of studying whales and dolphins. I had lined up a graduate scheme working as a forensic accountant in London, and this actually turned out to be the final catalyst I needed to follow my dream! In fact, hated the job so much that I spent all my spare time googling how to re-train as a marine biologist. I landed on Norway…

Learning Norwegian and studying in Norway

I decided to come to Norway to study for a few reasons. Firstly, education is free here (even for non-Norwegians!) and I had found out that to become a marine biologist I needed to do at least half of a bachelor’s in biology, and the tuition fees in the UK were eye-wateringly high. Secondly, Norway was a beautiful country and had a plenty of whales and dolphins! Thirdly, I had met a Norwegian whilst traveling (my now husband) who showed me the healthy and family-friendly work culture in Norway that was a far cry from corporate London. 

I got into a bachelor degree in biology at the University of Oslo in 2014, that also included a (completely free) year of Norwegian language course. This was because (almost) all bachelor degrees in Norway are taught in Norwegian, so to increase the number of international students coming, they offered a year of Norwegian language with the aim of getting you fluent enough to start a bachelor at the end. It was hard but also rewarding studying in Norwegian (luckily all the textbooks were in English!) and I only needed to do two years of the bachelor due to already having a bachelor in philosophy. I am extremely grateful today to have had that time to devote to becoming fluent in Norwegian.

The internship that changed everything

In 2016, and towards the end of my bachelor’s degree, I was lucky enough to work with the Norwegian Orca Survey (NOS) for the summer in northern Norway. NOS is a non-profit research organization that is dedicated to studying orcas in Norway through all seasons, and is curator of the Norwegian orca ID catalog. I assisted with their photo-ID work, and learned a lot about how to study orcas both on the field, and all the work that happens when back on shore! NOS had just received a permit to start taking biopsy samples to learn more about the diet and levels of pollution in the local orcas.

They knew I was interested in ecotoxicology and asked if I would be interested in doing a master’s thesis with them. This was a dream project! After a bit of organization, I began my master’s project in 2017 with Professor Katrine Borgå from the University of Oslo as my main supervisor, and Director / principal scientist Dr Eve Jourdain from NOS as my co-supervisor. It would turn out that this incredible internship and opportunity was the start of all my research in Norway!

Incredibly, this was my very first orca encounter! – Credit: Norwegian Orca Survey

Clare’s research in Norway

For my master project, I investigated the levels of lots of different pollutants in Norwegian orcas and how this varied with diet. We found out that some orcas in Norway were at higher risk of health effects from pollution than previously assumed, because they eat marine mammals as well as fish. After finishing my degree, I worked as Research Assistant at the University of Oslo for a year. I published my thesis as an article and then analyzed pollutants and stable isotopes (diet) in lots of samples from whales that had stranded along the coast of Norway and had been collected by NOS. One of these samples was from a very young orca, estimated to be just 10 days old, that had very high levels of pollutants in his body. This will have been unwittingly passed from the mother, primarily in her fatty milk.

Some of the pollutants we found are still being produced and used every day, and this kind of data can help authorities to ban and regulate them. I learnt more about the regulations of chemicals in Europe when I worked in the chemicals department at the Norwegian Environment Agency for a year afterwards. Whilst not academia related, this was such a valuable experience and some of the knowledge I gained from that year I still use in my PhD today.

This is a quick summary of what I did and found out during my master thesis – Credit: Norwegian Orca Survey

I was initially unsure if I wanted to do a PhD, but attending the World Marine Mammal Conference in Barcelona in 2019 was such an inspiring experience! PhD projects on whales are, however, few and far between, and those that do exist are incredibly competitive. I realized that if I wanted to do a PhD on whales, I would need to create something myself. Luckily, the dream team from my master thesis had the same ambition, and together we created a proposal for a project called MULTIWHALE, that would assess the effect of multiple stressors on orcas in Norway. We applied to the Norwegian Research Council, and had to wait 7 months for a reply, all whilst knowing the success rate was about 5%… In December 2020 though, we got the best Christmas present. Our project had been granted funding!

Presenting at the World Marine Mammal conference 2019 – Credit: Clare Andvik

The next adventure: starting a family

Around the same time I found out that our project had got funding, I also found out I was pregnant. Whilst in many countries this might have been a disastrous combination, I am lucky that in Norway (and other Scandinavian countries) this is a completely normal thing to happen during a PhD and is just a reason for congratulations! Almost everybody in my research group has been on maternity/paternity leave at least once, and my main supervisor Professor Katrine Borgå (who has kids herself) has always stressed on us the importance of a healthy work/life balance. I started my PhD in June, helped get the project up and running, and then went on maternity leave with my daughter in August. 

Together with my co-supervisor Eve Jourdain starting the MULTIWHALE project. 7 months pregnant – Credit: Clare Andvik

I was determined, though, to not miss out on fieldwork, and my husband and 2-month-old daughter (and dog!) joined me for a month in northern Norway in November 2021. Daylight is short at that time of the year, so we were typically only out on the boat for 5 hours at a time, which meant I could feed my daughter before and after and then pump milk once whilst out on the boat. My husband adored having some one-on-one time with our baby, and went on lots of snowy hikes with her safely in the baby carrier, and they even saw orca from land a few times!

We did this again for summer fieldwork in July, and I am so grateful that the Norwegian parental leave system made this possible (each couple gets up to 1 year parental leave fully paid that can split and distributed as they wish). After the child turns 1, childcare is guaranteed by the state and heavily subsidized, costing the parents just 2000 NOK (200 USD) a month for a full-time spot.

After fieldwork: dinner with a view – Credit: Clare Andvik

Doing a PhD whilst being a parent has generally been very positive. I definitely don’t have as much spare time anymore, and can’t work in the evenings and weekends as I used to, but I don’t think that should not be the norm for anyone in academia. It has been tough watching people who began their PhD after me graduating already, and seeing them churning out lots of papers whilst I was still on maternity leave, but I also know that research (and parenthood) is not a race. Time has also taken on a whole new value. Whilst before I could procrastinate all day and evening, now I know that if I have two hours to get something done before having to pick up my daughter from daycare then that’s it, it has to be done! I have also seen the value for my daughter of having a whale scientist working mum.

I have just returned from a 4-month research stay in Vancouver, Canada. My daughter gained so much confidence and language skills by being in a new country and environment, and even saw wild orcas, dolphins, and sea otters for the first time! We met many other whale scientists there too, many whom also had kids, and it was great watching the kids play with their seal and orca plushies whilst the adults chatted whales. As she grows older I think it will be only positive for her to have a mum who works, and loves her job. 

My daughter seeing orca for the first time! – Credit: Clare Andvik

Clare’s advice to aspiring whale scientists (and parents)

To future whale scientists – seek out new opportunities and don’t be scared to send 1000 emails to different people! It only takes 1 to reply for you to get the break you need. Take courses in statistics and programming – these are such useful skills that will set you apart. And choose a thesis or project based on the skills and techniques you will learn rather than the study species – most can then be applied to whales too. 

To future parents – check the parental leave / childcare policies at your institution / country, and if these are unacceptable join a union / other organizations that petition for a change in rules. If you can, choose where you will work / study based on this. You should not have to choose between being a whale scientist and being a parent – and it is so important that the two are normalized! I know that my experience in Norway is unique and privileged, but hope that it can serve as an inspiration for what is possible, and what should be normal. There is rarely a “perfect” time to start a family, and sometimes it can take longer than you think. Those of us who wish be in academia should never have to feel that that part of our lives needs to be put on hold.

What’s next for Clare?

Right now I am focusing on getting as much work done as possible to get some more papers out, as I will be busier than ever early next year with another little girl on the way! 

If you’d like to get in touch with Clare or follow her research, you can contact her by her website or on Twitter.

Thank you for reading Clare’s story. Discover more unsual whale scientists stories here:

Whale Scientists Story – Francesca Soster

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