July 25, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Huw Griffiths: Marine Biogeographer: British Antarctic Survey

Dr Huw Griffiths divides his time between his office and a research vessel in Antarctica, where he works on a project to map biodiversity on the Antarctic seafloor. Huw’s focus has been on molluscs, moss animals and sea spiders as model groups to investigate trends at high southern latitudes.

The frozen Antarctic can be a challenging place to work but the excitement of discovery as well encounters with whales, penguins and seals more than make up for the extreme cold.

Have you always been interested in science?
I guess that I have always been interested in science, growing up in west Wales next to the beach I spent most of my spare time as a child exploring rock pools looking for animals. These days I do the same thing as a job; it’s just that the rock pools have expanded into a whole ocean and now I need a ship to do my exploring.

What does a typical day in your working life consist of?
Every couple of years I will spend two or three months sailing around the Antarctic sampling seafloor life to analyse the biodiversity and genetic patterns. This means working outside on deck in temperatures as low as -20°c, deploying fishing nets and sorting the catch when it comes back up. It’s a very physical job and due to the unpredictable nature of the Antarctic environment the hours that you work are largely determined by the weather and ice conditions.

What excites you the most about your job?
Working in the Antarctic is definitely my favourite part of the job and discovering new species is always exciting. This year I had a species of sea cucumber named after me by an expert because we collected it on one of our voyages.

How does your work impact on people’s daily lives?
Southern Ocean is at the centre of the global ocean circulation system and the nutrient rich waters of the Antarctic support many species which are commercially important to people and feed other species such as whales, penguins and albatross which people value. Studying the seas around Antarctica allows us to understand the delicate balance in the ecosystem and helps us to predict how it will be affected by pressures such as climate change or overfishing.

What excites you about the future of your work?
What excites me about the future of my work is that Antarctica is still a place where the age of discovery is not over and that the frozen ocean still holds plenty of secrets just waiting to be revealed.

How do you see your work as being different from stereotypes of science?
Working at sea couldn’t be more different to the stereotypical image of a scientist. A lab coat wouldn’t be enough to keep you warm in the sub-zero temperatures. The work is very physical and your whole world is moving up, down and side to side with every wave. The view from your “lab” window is definitely a bonus and can include icebergs, whales, seals and penguins!

Visit the British Antarctic Survey website for more information.

This is one of a series of interviews conducted by the British Science Association for National Science & Engineering Week 2011 and published here with thanks.

The British Science Association is the UK’s nationwide, open membership organisation that exists to advance the public understanding, accessibility and accountability of the sciences and engineering. Established in 1831, the British Science Association organises major initiatives across the UK, including National Science and Engineering Week, the annual British Science Festival, programmes of regional and local events, and an extensive programme for young people in schools and colleges. The Association also organises specific activities for the science communication community in the UK through its Science in Society programme. For more information, please visit the British Science Association website.