STEM careers: What does a conservation biologist do and how can I become one?

Jason Deans
·4-min read
Nick Dunn is a conservation biologist investigating the habits of sharks and rays (Nick Dunn)
Nick Dunn is a conservation biologist investigating the habits of sharks and rays (Nick Dunn)

Nick Dunn, 26, is studying for a PhD in Zoology/Animal Biology at Imperial College London’s Grantham Institute, which provides research and education on climate change and the environment; and the Institute of Zoology, the research arm of the Zoologicial Society of London, the conservation charity that runs London Zoo.

He took biology, chemistry and maths at A-level, then a BSc in Zoology at Imperial College, followed by a Masters of Research in Ecology, Evolution and Conservation.

For his PhD Nick is researching the development of environmental DNA (eDNA) methods to detect and learn more about the habits of sharks and rays.

Your research on sharks and rays sounds fascinating – can you tell us more about it?

“Sharks and rays are really important in ocean food webs. They’re apex predators, also mid-level predators, really important for keeping fish populations regulated. But they’re hard to find as they tend to stay away from humans – and that makes them difficult to survey.

“When a shark or a ray swims it releases bits of skin or faeces into the water behind it. These contain bits of DNA. Environmental DNA Is exactly that: it’s genetic material, DNA, that has been shed by an organism as it moves through the environment.

“I can come along and take a sample of water, filter it, and the filter catches bits of DNA. By looking at the DNA sequences taken off the filter I can identify which species are present in that area of the sea.

Why is it important to know which sharks and rays are present?

“We can use this information to conserve and protect those species, because sharks in particular and some of the bigger rays, such as Manta rays, are really under threat from human activities. They get caught up in fishing nets and sharks are also targeted for their fins, which are considered a food delicacy in some parts of the world.”

Where do you collect these eDNA samples to study?

“I’m working on a couple of research programmes, the main one is the Bertarelli Programme in Marine Science. This is a really large collaboration of researchers from across the world trying to understand how best to protect our oceans. We do a lot of our research in the Chagos Archipelago, a group of islands in the Indian Ocean.

“I’ll spend three or four weeks every year out on a boat in the Chagos Archipelago. There’s a team of 20 to 25 researchers on these expeditions. There are groups researching coral, others looking at invertebrates or fish [including sharks and rays] .

“We’ll get into our wet suits and scuba gear and go for a dive. I’m normally helping someone out on a dive to get their work done and then we’ll come back to the surface and I’ll take a sample of water.

“Every day I’ll take a five litre sample of water. I’ll filter the samples, extract the DNA, and take it back to the lab in the UK to study.”

Your chosen field of study provides other opportunities to travel – can you tell us more about other places you’ve visited?

“I was lucky enough after my Masters to spend a year travelling and helping out on different research projects. I spent three months in the Galapagos Islands, researching plastic pollution in the ocean there. Then I was even luckier to spend some time at James Cook University in Australia, where I worked with a pre-eminent shark researcher and some of his students, who were looking at this idea of using eDNA to detect sharks.”

How did you become interested in biology, zoology and conservation?

“It’s always been an interest in my family. When I was a child, we used to go rock pooling on holiday in Devon and that really piqued my interest in marine animals. Then you’d put a snorkel on and see fish under water – that was an amazing moment for me, to see that there’s this whole other world underneath the surface of the sea.

“A personal hero of mine was Nick Baker from The Really Wild Show. I used to love watching Big Cat Diary, that sort of stuff, as well. That really started to inspire me, looking at nature, looking at wild places.”

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