My time in SEGUL as a Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellow

By Alice Carravieri

Puffin ringing on the Isle of May with UKCEH

I was lucky enough to be part of SEGUL for two years as a Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellow working on the interactive effects of chemical contaminants and parasites on seabirds (ECOSEA project). Specifically I received a Standard European fellowship, which enables early-career researchers to integrate in a research group in a different European country from the one they were working in (in my case France, where I did my PhD and first Postdoc).

ECOSEA was a multidisciplinary project marrying the fields of ecotoxicology, feeding ecology, parasitology, as well as biologging science, and involved three main partners: the Seabird Ecology Group at the University of Liverpool, UKCEH in Edinburgh and Lancaster.

The aim of this project was to study the levels and effects of natural (metals) and man-made (perfluorinated substances, PFAS) chemical contaminants in the European shag. The study site was the Isle of May, Scotland, an environment which has received a plethora of contaminants over 200 years of intense industrial and urban activities. Mercury (a heavy metal) and perfluorinated substances are particularly important to study because they have long residence time in the environment, and in animal and human bodies, with known negative impacts on them. In particular, they can impair the immune system, and thus disrupt the response to disease and parasites. Isle of May shags have been monitored for more than 30 years by UKCEH Edinburgh, and are subject to infections of the gastro-intestinal parasite Contracaecum rudolphii, which negatively affect adults and chicks. This is therefore an excellent study system to investigate the interactive effects of contaminants and parasites.

Setting off for an early morning European shag sampling session

Thanks to the freedom and trust provided by my Marie Curie advisor, Jon Green, during the two very intense years of my fellowship I had a taste of what it means to be an independent researcher. In addition to the usual data analyses and grant and paper writing, I spent a considerable amount of time managing the collaborations and financial resources of the project, as well as planning and carrying out laboratory experiments and field work. I was able to get further funding and set a new collaboration with the Liverpool Isotope Facility for Environmental Research (LIFER) laboratory at the University of Liverpool, in order to apply the compound-specific nitrogen stable isotope analyses of amino acids to study European shags feeding ecology. This enabled me to enlarge the breadth of the original Marie Curie project and improve my skills in stable isotope analysis.

Freshly collected and centrifuged European shag blood showing plasma and red blood cells separated for chemical contaminant and stable isotope analyses

During this fellowship, I had the privilege to carry out two fieldwork seasons on the legendary Isle of May and be part of the amazing Team Shag. During these field seasons we performed data collection for my Marie Curie project, but I also got the opportunity to help UKCEH for other ongoing projects. The quality and quantity of sampling going on each year on many seabird species is impressive, and so is the organisation and functioning of the field station. My time on the Isle of May was also an invaluable opportunity to enrich my English vocabulary with new sophisticated, old-fashioned, and sometimes questionable, words.

Equipping an Isle of May shag with Axytrek data loggers (Technosmart) with Yoshinari Yonehara

Being part of SEGUL was an amazing experience from all points of view. The group is scientifically very strong, dynamic and open, and encourages students and early-career researchers to attend workshops and conferences, and to take leading administrative roles within the University. In addition, the group is incredibly welcoming and supportive, and concerned by the mental health and well-being of its members. During my fellowship I unfortunately experienced some health issues, but SEGUL was very supportive and understanding, which made the difficulties easier to overcome. The result was that the issues did not impact the success of my project, and most importantly my well-being. Finally I enjoyed a lot living in Liverpool and experiencing the British (and Scouse) culture. All in all, it was not easy to leave SEGUL, and I hope our collaboration will continue long into the future.

A highlight of my fellowship: participating in long term Isle of May seabird fieldwork

Thanks to the European Union H2020 research and innovation programme for funding, to Scottish Natural Heritage for allowing us to work on the Isle of May, and to all collaborators who made ECOSEA possible and successful, namely Jon Green, Camille de la Vega, Rachel Jeffreys (University of Liverpool), Sarah Burthe, Francis Daunt, and Mark Newell (UKCEH Edinburgh), Gloria Pereira and Richard Shore (UKCEH Lancaster), Yoshinari Yonehara (University of Tokyo), as well as all SEGUL members, in particular Ruth Dunn, Olivia Hicks and Samantha Patrick.

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