Whale of a time as marine biologist

My Career: Ailbhe Kavanagh, marine biologist and researcher at MaREI
Whale of a time as marine biologist
Ailbhe Kavanagh Marine biologist and work as a Post-Doctoral Researcher at the MaREI Centre

Name: Ailbhe Kavanagh.

Age: 37.

Lives: Wilton, Co. Cork.

Job title: I am a marine biologist and work as a Post-Doctoral Researcher at the MaREI Centre in University College Cork.

Salary bracket: No-one is ever going to be a millionaire working as a marine biologist!

Education background: Science degree from Trinity College, Dublin, MSc in Zoology from University College, Cork, PhD in Behavioural Ecology from the University of Queensland in Australia.

Hobbies: Anything that gets me in the ocean — swimming, snorkeling, free-diving, kayaking, falling off a surfboard… or simply just splashing about in the surf.

Describe your job in five words: Rewarding, exciting, challenging, varied, inspiring.

Describe yourself in five words: Motivated, organised, persistent, conscientious, resilient.

Personality needed for this kind of work? I think you need to be a jack-of-all trades to be successful in research. A hard-working and persistent personality will help you be successful and resilient when applying for funding throughout your career, while being a good communicator or good with people helps when working with industry or the general public.

Most importantly, I think being passionate about your research helps you maintain motivation and enthusiasm for your work.

How long are you doing this job? I have been working for MaREI for three years, but I have been lucky enough to have worked in marine research in some capacity since I finished my degree about 15 years ago.

How did you get this job? I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I left school, but I knew it involved science. My general science degree gave me a taste of a broad range of topics and helped me realise that my interests were zoology. I was never top of my class, but I was definitely one of the most hard-working, and I think it was this persistence (or stubbornness) that got me over the finish line.

My degree also offered me the opportunity to volunteer with a wildlife research group in Indonesia, where I really discovered my love for the ocean. I spent a summer there helping out on projects ranging from studying macaques in dense jungle, to counting fish on the coral reefs surrounding tropical islands.

Through researchers I had met in Trinity I got my first job after university, which took me to Donegal for two years to work for Board Iascaigh Mhara. There I worked with fishermen as an observer on fishing vessels spending weeks at a time at sea, and with seafood processors in the factories on shore.

After this, I decided to take a year out and travelled and worked in countries including America, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Hong Kong. I think taking some time out to travel and see the world helped me decide what I wanted to do in my career and made me realise that I wanted to go back to university to get my masters.

When I returned to Ireland I spent a couple of years working in Dublin as a research assistant and was involved in projects studying otters and badgers. This helped me secure a research masters studying seal diet in Cork, which in turn opened up opportunities to work and volunteer on wildlife research projects both in Ireland and Australia over the next few years.

I also gained invaluable experience driving boats around dolphins, processing scientific samples, and analysing data, and it was the contacts I made in Australia over these years that eventually resulted in me being offered an opportunity to work on humpback whales off Queensland’s sunshine coast for my PhD.

Getting to study and get up close and personal with such amazing, charismatic animals is easily one of the highlights of my career so far.

As with many of these projects, working within a lab of many researchers offered me the opportunity to help out on many other really interesting studies, travel to conferences to present my work, and to gain a wealth of experience. This inevitably is what got me to a position where when a job came up back home in Ireland I was a strong candidate.

After five years in Australia I moved back to Ireland to take up a post-doctorate position in UCC. Since then I have spent the last three years working on a number of projects studying marine mammals, such as whales and dolphins, and I have spent time offshore working on research vessels and carrying out aerial surveys over the wild Atlantic.

Most recently, I was awarded a Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Fellowship by the Irish Research Council which will allow me to continue my research in Ireland which focuses on the effects of anthropogenic disturbance on marine mammals.

Do you need particular qualifications or experience?

I think you need at least degree level qualifications to work in research, and more and more jobs require post-graduate qualifications. To be able to lead your own research a PhD is a really important part of the training. It sounds like a lot of study but throughout your education you get to work with a variety of researchers on many projects and this helps you build up the kind of experience needed to work in this field.

Describe a day at work: There are no typical days at work for me. Some days I might be glued to my computer working through spread sheets of numbers and information, analysing data, and writing papers. Other days I might have meetings, or be attending courses or conferences to present my work. Then there are the field-work days, the days that make it all worthwhile. If I am in the field I might be hundreds of kilometres offshore on research vessels searching for whales, listening to the underwater microphones, or collecting other data on environmental or sea conditions. Alternatively, I might be scrambling around on islands getting covered in bird poop while helping out with other projects on sea birds.

How many hours do you work a week? Generally about 40 hours a week, but if I have a deadline looming or I am in the field it can be much longer.

What do you wear to work? I wear something smart but casual to the office unless I have a presentation or meeting, then I might wear something more formal. During field work… in Irish weather… I wear layers and layers to keep warm.

Is your industry male or female dominated? Depending on the lab it can be either male or female dominated, but generally research is male dominated, particularly at higher levels, although I think this is slowly changing.

Does this affect you in any particular way? It means that female mentors and role models can be scarce for students and early career researchers in science.

Is your job stressful? How? Rate it on a scale of 1-10: There are days when my job is stressful when I have a deadline to meet, days when I have to work outside in bad weather or when I am office-based for long periods. But sometimes it’s these challenging days that turn out to be the most rewarding. On the flip side, there are days when I am offshore in beautiful weather with hours to stare at the ocean and I can’t think of anything more relaxing.

Do you work with others or on your own? Nowadays I think no research is achieved alone. I work with an amazing team of people here in the marine ecology research group in MaREI, and we collaborate with researchers in Ireland and others dotted all over the world.

When do you plan to retire or give up working? I can’t ever see myself giving up working. I realise I may not be able to clamber around islands looking for birds, or spend weeks offshore on boats when I am 80, but I imagine I will be still be involved in research at some level even then (hopefully on a tropical island somewhere).

Best bits: For me, the people I get to work with are definitely the best part of my job. I have had the opportunity to meet some amazing researchers over the years, and UCC is no exception.

The marine research team here in MaREI are passionate about their work and an inspiration to work with, we also have the best cake filled coffee breaks!

Worst bits: Job security is rare in this line of work, and finding funding to continue your research is a constant challenge.

Advice to those who want your job? Find what you are passionate about and work hard to achieve it.

Like I said, you will never be a millionaire as a marine biologist, but in my opinion job satisfaction is much more important.

I love my job, I enjoy coming to work most days, I’m not sure may people can say that.

For more about the MaREI Centre in University College Cork see www.marei.ie/

More in this section

Sponsored Content