Who I am
Having grown up in Malta, a tiny island in the middle of the Mediterranean, my heart is never far from the sea. I have been passionate about exploring other cultures for as long as I can remember, and have always sought opportunities to live, study and work somewhere new. Although I learnt to dive in Malta, it was while working as a scientific volunteer for Blue Ventures Madagascar that I met my first coral reef. I found the process of systematically collecting data for research purposes absolutely thrilling. Blue Ventures works very closely with the local fishing community and during the three months I spent with the organisation I learnt so much from the incredible Vezo people, a term that translates as the ‘people of the sea’. It was this experience that solidified my belief that I needed to be involved with remote coastal communities in the tropics in some way. I don’t know exactly when sharks and rays first got under my skin, but once they did, there was no turning back! While studying for my Bachelor’s degree at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, I used DNA to investigate whether porbeagle sharks were crossing the North Atlantic. While at James Cook University in Australia for my Master’s, I had the opportunity to conduct a paternity assessment of 25 narrow sawfish. Currently, for my PhD at the University of Southern Mississippi, my focus is on using environmental DNA (eDNA) to survey for Critically Endangered rhino rays. I find the allure of using genetic techniques to study shark and ray species irresistible. Not only are non-invasive eDNA techniques ideal for studying threatened species because mortality or handling of the organism is not required, but they are often the only survey tool sensitive enough to find species once they are locally so rare.
Where I work
I am based at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, USA, and this is the location where I carry out all eDNA tool development, and laboratory analysis of field samples. However, the sites where I conduct eDNA water surveys are in coastal West Africa (Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania and Senegal) and South-East Asia (Indonesia). These sites are often in extremely remote areas, may not have electricity and can require camping. Since DNA degrades rapidly, sea water is usually filtered in the field with the help of a powerful battery-operated pump. The filter (with the DNA) is then preserved for long-term storage. Usually, pumps would be recharged overnight at the end of every field day. Working in such remote environments, where even basic supplies like bleach or bottled water are not available, often requires very creative solutions to overcome these challenges.
What I do
My PhD at the University of Southern Mississippi focuses on developing highly sensitive molecular tools to look for the DNA of extremely rare species in environmental samples (like water, soil or snow). My species of interest are Critically Endangered sawfish, wedgefish and giant guitarfish. Very few recent records exist for these species, but we need to know where they still exist today to know how best to protect them from serious threats like fishing and habitat degradation. More specifically, I collect sea water from areas in West Africa and Indonesia where my target species are known to have occurred in the past. I then extract trace DNA from these water samples. My daily activities are very different depending on whether I am in the field or the lab, analysing data or writing up my results.