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Life as a marine biologist and PhD candidate with Dina-Leigh Simons

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Dina-Leigh Simons (pronouns: she/her) is a passionate marine biologist and PhD student at the University of Liverpool in the UK. Her research focuses on developing innovative methods using environmental DNA (eDNA) to monitor marine biodiversity along the UK’s coastlines, particularly in rocky shores—a fascinating environment filled with starfish and anemones. Navigating the path of a PhD in marine biology is a journey filled with unique challenges and rewarding experiences. Dina-Leigh shares her insights on what it means to pursue this field, emphasizing the importance of networking, self-discovery, and finding a supportive community.

Life as a marine biologist and PhD candidate with Dina-Leigh Simons | #itsawildlife

DINA’S JOURNEY

Dina’s journey into the world of wildlife and marine biology was less conventional. Coming from a family that wasn’t particularly into nature, she didn’t grow up immersed in greenery or camping trips. When Dina met her partner, he opened her eyes to the opportunities for hiking, camping and the amazing wonders of the great outdoors.

During school, Dina had a broad interest in all sciences but took time to decide on her future direction. Initially, she was set on studying English literature, a path quite different from where she ended up. However, once she decided to pursue biology at the University of Sheffield, there was no turning back – she knew she had made the right choice. The environmental modules resonated with Dina, and a transformative year abroad at the National University of Singapore further cemented her passion for marine biology.

The opportunity to experience the diverse and interconnected tropical ecosystems of Singapore was mind-blowing. It highlighted the importance of conservation and the sheer volume of undiscovered species—86% of species on our planet are yet to be discovered! This realization fuelled her desire to continue in this field. Dina is now in her third year of her PhD. With most of her practical fieldwork done, she now spends her days immersed in coding and data analysis, striving to compile her findings into meaningful results.

EmbracING Science

Dina’s journey hasn’t been without challenges. Coming from one of the lowest-ranked state schools in the country, she found there were limitations in academic resources and teaching quality early-on in her education. However, once Dina entered the university environment, enabled by the amazing support from her parents, the doors of opportunity opened wide. Access to resources and daily interactions with experts ignited her realization that biology was a viable career path.

And once she was in, Dina shares that balancing the identity of being both a student and a researcher is tricky, especially as a woman in STEM. Imposter syndrome is a frequent companion, but surrounding yourself with strong, supportive mentors and supervisors is crucial. Having a robust support network that reinforces your worth and capabilities makes a significant difference.

SHARING IS CARING – SCIENCE COMMUNICATION IS KEY

Dina is a strong advocate for science communication and demonstrates every day that effective science communication is integral to the impact of her work. Whether through social media or participating in initiatives like the “3 Minute Thesis” competition, Dina has seen first-hand how breaking down complex scientific concepts for the general public is essential. It’s not just about sharing knowledge but also about building trust in science and inspiring the next generation.

One of Dina’s favourite outreach projects is “I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here,” where she engages with school children across the UK, answering their curious and often profound questions about science. This interaction not only promotes science but also encourages children to see themselves as future scientists.

Promoting Inclusivity in Science

Academia has traditionally been a male-dominated field, and while progress has been made, there’s still a long way to go towards creating an inclusive space with diverse and equal representation. Promoting inclusivity, not just for women but also for minority groups and neurodivergent individuals, is a cause close to Dina’s heart. She believes that the academic system needs to adapt to accommodate different ways of thinking and working, making the space accessible for everyone. Dina believes this will benefit not just the growing community of scientists but also science itself!

For anyone aspiring for a career in natural sciences, Dina reminds us that science is a possibility for everyone – and sharing your unique journey and experiences can inspire others to explore this pathway and protect our natural world.

Another big barrier to careers in science is underfunding and limited resource availability. Dina highlights the disparity in funding and support among PhD students. She explains that while she benefits from a fully funded Doctoral Training Program that covers her salary, research expenses, and tuition, she recognizes that this is not the norm for everyone. Many students struggle with minimal funding and support, which can significantly impact their academic and personal lives. By engaging in conversations with peers across different institutions and industries, students can better understand what constitutes adequate support and advocate for better conditions.

WORK-LIFE BALANCE IN ACADEMIA

Balancing a PhD with science communication and personal life requires a strong work-life balance. Dina maintains a strict schedule, incorporating exercise and relaxation to keep her mental and physical health in check. From her experience, she has found overworking to be counterproductive on the whole; knowing when to stop is crucial for sustaining high-quality research and skirting periods of burnout.

To avoid burnout, Dina stresses the importance of balancing work and personal life. It’s crucial to manage time effectively, set boundaries, and ensure that passion for the subject remains undiminished by administrative tasks and long hours. A sustainable approach to work helps maintain curiosity and drive throughout the PhD journey.

TOP TIPS FOR A CAREER IN MARINE SCIENCE

From Dina’s experience, she shares her top tips for pursuing a successful and sustainable career in academia and marine biology.

Exploring Diverse Opportunities

Dina advises aspiring marine biologists to explore a wide range of topics and opportunities within the field. Marine biology is incredibly diverse, encompassing everything from tiny plankton to large marine mammals and various ecosystems. By experiencing different aspects of the field, students can discover their true passion and avoid limiting themselves to preconceived notions of what marine biology entails. This approach helps in making informed decisions about one’s career path.

Building a Strong Peer Network

Maintaining a robust peer network is essential for sustaining motivation and navigating the challenges of a PhD program. Dina emphasizes the importance of having supportive colleagues who can provide guidance, share experiences, and collaborate on problem-solving. This sense of community is vital for combating feelings of isolation and imposter syndrome, which are common in academia.

Navigating Unpaid Opportunities

Dina also addresses the prevalence of unpaid volunteer work in marine biology, particularly for early-career professionals. She urges students to be discerning about such opportunities and recognize their value. Volunteering can provide valuable experience, but it should not come at the cost of financial stability or self-worth. Calling out and challenging the expectation of unpaid labor is essential for creating a more inclusive and accessible field.

Maintaining Authenticity and Open Communication

Throughout her journey, Dina has found empowerment in being authentic and open about her experiences and challenges. She encourages others to do the same, fostering an environment where issues can be discussed freely without fear of judgment. This openness not only builds stronger support networks but also contributes to a healthier academic culture.

Staying Inspired and Motivated

Finally, Dina advises aspiring biologists to keep the bigger picture in mind and stay connected to the passion that led them to pursue marine biology in the first place. By engaging in meaningful conversations with peers and mentors, students can stay motivated and inspired, even when facing difficult times.

KEEP IN TOUCH

Want to hear more from Dina? Tune into the podcast or follow her adventures on social media – @no_ordinary_biologist on Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and LinkedIn or visit her website here. What do you think? why not let us know or follow along for the adventure!

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