A university degree & the chance of a lifetime


Ananda Rabindranath on his academic adventures

As a new academic semester begins here at St Andrews, there are those of us who are embarking on a journey of higher education with anticipation, nerves and excitement. But within the rush of university life, do we really consider our futures beyond the next weekend? Have you ever wondered where your studies may take you? A career in academic research is not just for those who would like to attain a higher degree or be surrounded by books in a quiet library. It is also for the explorers among us, the thrill seekers and the brave.

My aim has always been to be outside, to leave the cramped confines of an office and stretch my legs somewhere inspiring. For this reason amongst others, I enrolled as an undergraduate in the biology BSc Hons programme. Within the School of Biology, there are nine research centres, two of which are based on the coast at East Sands – The Scottish Oceans Institute (SOI) and The Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU). During their undergraduate years, biology students are given many opportunities to sample fieldwork and a final Honours Research Project is the culmination of this process.The experience of carrying out my own work and attempting to answer my own questions was an inspiration, and I embarked on a PhD in Marine Biology at the SOI. The SOI maintains three research centres and four research themes, funded largely by the National Environmental Research Council (NERC) and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). Within this framework, there are numerous paths to funding and opportunity, and speaking to your advisors and supervisors is an effective way of identifying funding in your favoured department.

During the first two years of my PhD programme, I have made six fieldwork trips to the High Arctic where I study zooplankton distributions around Svalbard. My department specialises in marine acoustics, the use of ‘sonar’ to detect marine animals, and this is largely what I do. In August 2010, during my most recent trip to the Arctic, ‘once in a lifetime’ experiences just seemed to keep adding up. During training with high powered rifles, I had the opportunity to fire at targets out on the sea ice, and even witnessed my training come to fruition a few days later when a polar bear arrived on the ice while I was on guard duty. I was forced to use my projectile pistol and fire grenade rounds towards the bear to scare it away, and the experience of being face to face with the world’s largest land predator in its natural habitat will never leave me. We also used a helicopter to cover larger areas over the sea ice, and I was given the chance to fly out over a large glacier. We spotted polar bears on ice bergs, broke thick sea ice to retrieve oceanic instruments on the sea floor, travelled by zodiac and snow scooter, watched whales on the move and even dived into the Arctic ocean at a temperature of -1.5˚C with a safety line. These experiences and many more were all during a postgraduate degree at the University of St Andrews, which illustrates just how exciting on a personal level an academic career can be. International collaborations can be the key to creating a fulfilling field based experience, so identify and explore any such avenues. I have been lucky to work closely with the Norwegian Polar Institute and other High Arctic institutions, allowing me the opportunity to travel to Svalbard.

But don’t just take it from me. Amy Deacon, having completed a PhD at the SOI, said about her experience at St Andrews: “I was investigating what makes the Trinidadian guppy a successful invasive species. I got to travel to Trinidad for much of my fieldwork as this is where the species is native.” Her group’s research has even taken her to India during an outreach programme, “the aim of which was to convey how piranhas form groups for their own protection from predators, rather than in order to ‘hunt in packs’ as popularly portrayed in Hollywood”. Theoni Photopoulou, a third year PhD student at the SMRU, studies the diving behaviour of southern elephant seals and grey seals, and carries out her fieldwork on South Georgia Island in the South Atlantic. Among many inspiring experiences during life in a very remote former whaling station, she highlights “the most extraordinarily beautiful view” from her window, “the marvellous view of the Neumayer Glacier” as one of the most beautiful things she had ever set eyes on and the “evening reindeer commute on the way home”.

These experiences join hundreds of others throughout the many schools at the University of St Andrews and speak just one message: Take the opportunities before you with both hands and experience everything research has to offer.


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