Written by Freija Mendrik
I’ve never really had a plan, I just made sure I followed what I was passionate about. I grew up spending as much time in the water as possible; I always wanted to be at the beach, in a rock pool or building sand creations. We lived right by the Jurassic coast of Devon, UK and would love it when a storm arrived as it meant it would be the perfect time for some fossil hunting. I remember my brother getting annoyed because all I would ever want to watch on TV was wildlife documentaries! My mum loves to sail and is an incredible painter so even when we couldn’t get to the beach we would be making or creating something to do with the ocean. Our house is full of fish and mermaids! It only felt natural that I would pursue a career in Marine Biology, although it has not been that simple.
Everyone expected me to go to Art School, it’s what I was known to be good at. I remember vividly going from GCSE to A-level and the new head of biology sitting me down and saying in a what felt to be quite patronising tone that I would have to work reeeeally hard if I wanted to get an A in A-level Biology. She didn’t even know me and I had got an A at GCSE so it just made me really annoyed and determined to prove her wrong (maybe that was her tactic!). I was never top of the class and was always shy to answer questions even if I knew I was right but biology had always been one of my favourite subjects and I had the best teachers for it. I got the A and got into all my choices for university to study Marine Biology. I decided to go to Swansea Uni despite getting into Southampton which ranks better. I don’t know why but when I went to Swansea for the open day I just had a feeling that I had to go there and I would be happy there.
The summer I left school I went on a scientific expedition with the British Exploring Society to Namibia for 5 weeks – I don’t think many people can say they celebrated their 18th birthday in the Namib Desert! I had been working as a waitress and saving all the money I could so I could go. I guess it seems odd that I went to a desert when I wanted to go into Marine Biology but I’ve always wanted to go to Africa and I thought that experiencing such extreme conditions would be an amazing challenge! This is when I definitely knew I wanted to be some sort of explorer.
We were helping collect data for several different research projects including elephant conservation. My group was down in the dried up river bed after a week of searching for the elephants with no luck. We had heard from the locals that a poacher had killed one of the herd and so they were panicked, making their location unknown. We reluctantly decided to make the call to head back to base camp. We set off early in the morning to get a head start on the desert heat, all walking in single line (for safety) with the mood at a definite low. I was somewhere near the front of the pack and I remember clearly looking up and seeing something long and grey swaying far ahead of us… Just as I realised what it was our leader turned to say as loud as he could while still whispering “ELEPHANT!” We all scrambled up the side of the valley as fast as we could to witness one of the most incredible experiences I have been lucky enough to see. A herd of at least 30 wandered past, including 5 young ones which were so adorable. We all sat in silence, completely in awe of the magnificent creatures who seemed not to notice us. After they were well past us we went down to look at their footprints. I know elephants are big but I was still so surprised at how huge they were when I put my foot in the print they left behind!
Something that really stuck in my mind is that one lunch time while we waited out the midday sun, our leader said:
“Only dead fish go with the flow”.
I never wanted to go into a regular desk job and I don’t remember an exact time when it hit me, but I knew that I had to at least give it my best shot to have a career in science/exploring!
I had the best time at Swansea, with a highlight finding myself on the beaches of Puerto Rico in my final year taking coral surveys, searching for manatees and clambering through mangroves. I fell in love with field work even more then, even though it was hard getting up super early and working long into the night; I loved the challenge and the rewards! I fell in love even more with research when it was time to do my dissertation. I had a brilliant supervisor who is probably the reason I got into the field I am in today. I was looking at how plastic derivatives effect phytoplankton photosynthesis and growth. This opened my eyes to the world of ecotoxicology and plastic pollution. I found that I also really enjoyed days in the lab and the writing up wasn’t so bad as it was completely my own project. I surprised myself and was awarded a prize for my dissertation at graduation which made me realise that maybe I could actually go into research and be good at it!
I then had a year of uncertainty. I didn’t want to rush into a master’s and make the wrong decision, so I moved back home. I also had to make money so I could afford a master’s and finally get qualified for SCUBA diving, so I couldn’t really do anymore volunteering for conservation projects (in the second year of my undergrad I went to Antigua and was part of the Jumby Bay Hawksbill project). I felt really lost that year and was so fed up of not being challenged mentally or having much to do with research. I was so excited when I foundo out that I got into MSc Marine Systems and Polices at Edinburgh University – it promised to have both the science side of marine bio but also the law and policy which is so important for conservation work too!
The MSc was pretty full on and I decided to take two law modules with no previous knowledge – that was really challenging but I probably learnt the most from these classes and was lucky to have an amazing teacher again! Part of the Msc was in the Maldives where we got to learn how to do more conservation work and social science, and I had the most incredible dive with manta rays! I was missing the lab though but managed to get talking to a coral biologist at the uni who was interested in doing some microplastic work – perfect!
It was getting to Easter time and again I had to make that dreaded decision of what I wanted to do with my life. I started looking at jobs in research and conservation, but most of them required a PhD. I thought okay, I’ll have a look and I’ll only apply if something really grabs me… I found one pretty quickly: A source to sink approach of microplastics in Antarctica, with at least one field campaign! I definitely fancied going to Antarctica! It was at the same time that I was writing my final law essay that I had to make the application so I was pretty stressed. However, it was the first time in my life that I was actually confident I would get a call back, and I did! I was really excited but then I realised I would actually have to go for an interview…
The interview went really well, but I didn’t get the position. My heart sank which is when I realised I actually had my heart set on doing a PhD. However, they said that they were impressed with my interview and really liked me so were trying to sort out funding for a different project, looking at microplastics in the Mekong River, SE Asia! I couldn’t believe it, it would be in a completely different place in the world but my experiences were mostly tropical anyway. They offered me the new project and after a bit of deliberating I decided it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
I’m now towards the end of my first year as a PhD researcher and I’m so glad I took the chance and decided to do it. I know it’s not a typical conservation route but I’m looking at the ecological effects of microplastics and also their transport mechanisms which involves uptake by organisms. After all, you need to know how microplastics move in order to create effective mediation methods and protect ecosystems. I’m also managing to incorporate my Marine Biology side as we plan to sample in mangroves and coral reefs and get to be in the lab too hopefully doing some experiments as well.
I had my first experience of the Mekong last November and loved it and will be off again in July! It’s pretty harrowing seeing all of the pollution in the river and being a PhD student can definitely feel lonely as no one else shares your project. It’s frustrating doing all this research but not being able to make a difference. However, as part of the research we will also want to document how local communities perceive plastic and how local campaign and action groups are trying to tackle the issue of plastic pollution. I think understanding the perspective from the community is so important if we really want to make a difference. It’s hard working in the sticky humid heat, with long days and the language barrier but I feel really grateful that I get to go to these places for my work. It’s given me the opportunity to meet amazing people and I’ve already presented some work at a big conference in Vienna!
I doubt my 16 year old self ever would have imagined I would be here and I definitely get the feeling of impostor syndrome but I can’t imagine myself doing anything different. I’m not really sure how I’m going to achieve everything I’ve planned but I’ll try my hardest!
I’m also trying to live as plastic free/zero waste and eco-friendly as possible and share what tips I discover along the way with my Instagram and blog. I really believe that if we can all make small changes, like using a reusable bottle, eating less seafood and walking to work we can make a huge difference. We have to be more responsible for our consumer habits if we truly want to conserve our planet!
For more of Freija, visit @fray_marine on Instagram