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Meet the Rough Scientists

Interview: Vanessa Griffiths



Vanessa Griffiths

What kind of scientist are you?
I'm a marine biologist. I teach ecology for The Field Studies Council at Orielton Field Centre in Pembrokeshire. That involves being out on the beach most days with students who go there on field trips.

How did you get to where you are today?
I did science A-levels and then went to Liverpool University to do a degree in Marine Biology. The best bit was a year spent at the marine station on the Isle of Man. I went on to do a Masters degree and then a Certificate in Education.

Who and/or what were some of the influences on you when you were at school/university?
I loved David Attenborough. I was transfixed by wildlife programmes. I then got interested in marine biology and wanted to be Jacques Cousteau! I joined the sub-aqua club as soon as I went to university and was away diving nearly every weekend.

Why did you choose to study science?
Science seemed more relevant than the other things I studied in school. I loved all the practical work, and hated lessons where you had to sit down and listen.

What other interests do you have outside science?
I still go diving a lot. It's exciting but also very peaceful and relaxing underwater. I take my mask and fins wherever I go. My dog, Dylan, loves the sea too so I always seem to be at the beach!

What do you consider to be the greatest scientific achievements of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries?
Exploration was the big thing in the 18th century. Between 1768 and 1771 Joseph Banks, an English naturalist, accompanied Cook on his first voyage of circumnavigation aboard 'The Endeavour'. He made many other voyages during his life, cataloguing all the plants and animals discovered on the expeditions. In 1778 he was made president of The Royal Society, a post he held for forty years.

Darwin's 'On the Origin of Species' was published in November 1859. Another major achievement of the 19th century was by Gregor Mendel, an Austrian monk and mathematician, who in 1866 deduced the basic laws of inheritance. Although working without detailed knowledge of cell structure, his suggestions have since been proven and form the basis of all modern genetics.

In 1972 James Lovelock first proposed his startling Gaia hypothesis; the idea that we inhabit a living planet. Our activities threaten to disrupt and exhaust Earth's life support systems. The theory could not be more relevant in our current efforts to achieve balance and sustainability on our planet into the next century.

What answers would you like Science to provide in the next 10 years?
An economically viable and environmentally friendly fuel that could meet all our demands.

Which scientist impresses you most?
I suppose my idol would be Hans Hass, the Austrian zoologist and first underwater film-maker (1939). He brought marine biology into our living rooms and was also the first person to dive in the Red Sea and on Australia's Great Barrier Reef using scuba gear.

What advice would you give to someone embarking on a career in science?
It's such a big subject, there are as many careers in science as you can possibly imagine. My advice would be to study the things that really interest you.

What’s your recollection of your first involvement in science?
I did a project for a newspaper competition when I was nine or ten. It involved identifying and researching photographs of natural objects. I didn't win the trip to Jersey to Gerald Durrell's zoo, but I was hooked. After that, every time we went for a walk I would be scouting around for interesting stuff.

What do you hope to have achieved by contributing to the ‘Rough Science’ TV series?
When I was asked to contribute, my first thought was that I'd probably make a fool of myself. Science invariably involves getting it wrong before you get it right. However, it was a fantastic opportunity to introduce real scientists from different fields and I hope we have illustrated how experimental and collaborative science is.

What would you like to be doing in ten years time?
I would like to have ditched my drysuit and be exploring some of the world's more exotic marine habitats — unless, of course, I get a chance to dive under the Antarctic ice, which is something I've always wanted to do.

What was your most memorable experience while filming ‘Rough Science’?
Laughing a lot, getting up early, the beauty of the island, the warm Mediterranean, having to work hard – I thought it would be more glamorous! I suppose the one thing I'll never forget is the taste of my seaweed jelly. I wouldn't recommend it.

At parties, how do you explain to people what you do for a living?
I tell people I teach ecology at a field centre. They say, 'What do you do in the winter?'. I say, 'I get cold and wet'.

Why do you think science has sometimes had such a bad press?
Scientists are just people; some are boring, some are mad, some are eccentric. We don't have all the answers and aren't always right. Some discoveries are scary, some are unpopular, most take a long time. The media do not always handle science well.

Which aspect(s) of science frightens you most?
Our changing climate.