In our Graduate in Focus series we look at the achievements of our graduates who have excelled in marine science around the world since studying with us. Today we meet Isla Hely, Masters by Research graduate, who is now a junior researcher with the BBC working on Blue Planet 3.
Hi Isla, thanks for joining me! Can you start by giving us a bit of background about yourself?
Hey! I came to Exeter in 2015 for my undergraduate degree in Biological Sciences which was a four-year course (I spent my third year abroad in Denmark at Aarhus University). After my undergraduate degree I was ready to take my first step into the world of science communication and so applied for jobs in London. I was really keen to get to London, start working and earn some money! However, at the same time as being offered a job in medical sci comms, I was also offered a Master’s by Research with Professor Steve Simpson’s research group (who is now at the University of Bristol). Steve explained that this Master’s would involve studying reef fish in Mauritius, learning to scuba-dive and drive a boat. So really, it was a no brainer – I had to go for the adventure! So I chose the Master’s and, although I am replaying some hefty student loans, I can 100% say I’d make that choice again in a heartbeat!
So tell us some more about your experience of your Masters degree:
So I started my Master’s, went to Mauritius, started my literature review and was fully focused on my research. I was there for two months and then COVID hit. I had to be emergency repatriated back to the UK in February and for the next few months it was fairly stagnant, not knowing what was going on. It was clearly not possible to go back to Mauritius, so Steve and I thought, what can we do? We decided to change my project as Steve had collaborators in French Polynesia looking at clownfish and the effect of artificial light on clownfish. Whenever I went on dives, I was always, always drawn to clownfish, not just because of Nemo, but because they’re just the most charismatic creatures. When I was diving in Mauritius, the Mauritian endemic species would come right up to your mask and vocalise at you, whilst biting and pulling your hair. Even though they’re so small and you’re so big, they just don’t care. They’re really aggressive. So I thought absolutely, French Polynesia, let’s do this.
I managed to get out to Moorea in 2021 for three months and just had the most amazing time – It was a really, really cool project. I loved it and studied clownfish on the reef every day, 10 hours just in the field. Amazing. The scientist running the project and main collaborator, Dr. Suzanne Mills, was so such a laugh and the clownfish team were amazing. I really loved it! When I came back to the UK my supervisor had moved to Bristol University. I still had my masters at the University Exeter but I wanted a change of scene and had been in Exeter for so long that I decided to move to Bristol too. I became a visiting researcher at Bristol and finished my masters there and graduated from that last summer.
Amazing! What have you been doing since you graduated?
Now I’m working at the BBC on Blue Planet 3, which is kind of bonkers because it’s the reason I got into marine biology (as well as my hugely inspiring professor Steve!). Those are the two main reasons I wanted to do anything fishy! Wildlife documentary-making came about during my masters, as my supervisor Steve has a lot of connections with many production companies based in Bristol (Bristol is a huge hub for natural history documentary making!). Steve was doing some scientific advising for a few productions and one production was really interested in clownfish, so I ended up semi-scientific advising them along with Steve. From that I managed to get a gig in filming with the company on location, acting as a Researcher. I now had a taste for wildlife production and was desperate to find another job in the scene. This search led me to where I am now, having just started on Blue Planet 3 at the beginning of this year. So, I guess it was quite an organic, serendipitous way into wildlife filmmaking. I’ve now been at the BBC working on Blue Planet 3 for a month and I absolutely love the work (and the epic team)!
Obviously, you’ve not been in the role very long, but what do you do day-to-day and what do you enjoy most about it so far?
So I am a Junior Researcher, which is basically an entry level position in the team. I have Producers that I communicate with, and they’ll maybe direct me in certain directions to find stories. They might want to find something in a certain country, or they want a big spectacle of a certain animal and I have to go into Google Scholar, Web of Science, all the usual places that I was looking at for my thesis research and I’ll look into the scientific literature, trying to find behaviours. I also have to research on YouTube, Instagram, Vimeo etc., I honestly go down the most crazy black holes of random YouTube channels! I’m constantly looking for behaviours that haven’t been seen before that are really exciting, different, bizarre or weird or colourful or just gripping. Every day I’m on the hunt for epic stories for my Producers and this involves lots of calls with scientists, dive guides and underwater photographers. They spend so much time in the water and they know so much about so many different animals, they’re a great resource to tap into. On a day-to-day basis, I get to learn a whole lot about a vast array of different animals. Whereas I’ve come from a background where I focused on one animal, a clownfish, for so long, it’s so refreshing to be able to tap into the knowledge of all these incredible people and these incredible stories, and eventually be able to share this with the world.
Going back to your study at Exeter, what would you say you enjoyed most about your course and were there any highlights?
Yes. This is showing my true colours now, but the main reason I applied to the course was because of the coral reef field trip. That was a major draw because my family don’t really dive. They are all from a business background and I was always really curious about science and biology and specifically coral reefs. And so the opportunity to be able to go on a trip to the Bahamas with a whole team of students and professors and actually getting in the water to do some research was so exciting for me when I was 17. That was a major draw and it was a major highlight of my time at Exeter.
Initially I wasn’t going to do a study abroad, but then within one or two years, I had decided, actually, no, I want to do this. One of my best friends was Scandinavian and I was part of the Scandinavian society at Exeter (even playing for the girls 6 aside football team!) and I just love Scandinavian people and the Scandinavian culture in general. So I decided to go for a maybe not-so-obvious choice of Denmark. Everyone else was going to Australia or Canada or the US but I thought I wanted to stay in Europe and so, I did a year abroad in Aarhus, Denmark. It’s the second biggest city in Denmark and it was just phenomenal. We had so much hands on experience and because a lot of the courses that were taught in English were Masters level, I basically did a mini-masters within my undergraduate degree. It was a huge learning curve because it was quite intensive material and I had just moved to a completely new country by myself. But I just loved it, we got to go out on research vessels, do fish surveys, trawls and it was just amazing. So much hands on experience. Basically, if there was any point in my degree where I could go out and be in or on the ocean, that was my highlight.
What would you say are the skills or experiences you’ve gained from your course and which ones have been most useful to get you to where you are now?
I think definitely the dive training I had through my master’s project. Having never dived before, I started diving in November 2019 and achieved my PADI Rescue Diver in February 2020. I’ve now got approximately 70 dives, having been lucky enough to dive on so many amazing coral reefs in beautiful regions of the world. I don’t think I would have been able to have done that without the backing of Exeter, along with getting my power boat licence as well. All that kind of training was hugely beneficial, especially with my job now. I don’t think I would have achieved PADI Rescue Diver without the help of Exeter. In terms of skills, just knowing the scientific lingo and the way research works, as well as the hardships behind research as well is a massive bonus. It can be quite isolating and tough and there’s so many ups and downs within research. I think having gone through a masters, I appreciate the hardships of research a lot. Whenever I’m speaking to a scientist now in my new job I have a huge respect and understanding of what they’ve gone through and how important their research is to them. Just being able to speak using specific scientific words and ask the right questions is definitely a skill I obtained from my time at Exeter. In my job now I think being able to digest scientific literature on mass is a real skill – it’s definitely been drilled into me!
Is there any advice that you’d give to a current student who wants to pursue a similar career?
I would say don’t rush and don’t be too scared if you haven’t got every single thing planned out, because a lot of the time opportunities come up that you can never foresee. Sometimes doing it in an organic, slower way, you’ll actually get further. So don’t try and rush and just be true to who you are and that will shine through. Just follow what you love. That was something I worried about, thinking ‘everyone’s got a job, everyone’s doing a PhD, everyone’s got everything sorted’. I didn’t know what I was doing! But through not rushing, I gave time for opportunities to come up and to really research into them and really think is this what I want to do. Especially when I had that moment of ‘OK do I go to London, have a good salary and do medical science communication’ or ‘do I have more student debt and go down this life-changing path’. That crossroad was tough, but I just thought to myself: What are you following? What do you actually love? You love the ocean, you love coral reefs, you love science and you love communication. Be true to you and your passion and honesty will make you successful.
What are your plans for the future, if you have any?
I am still very new to this job but I’m already just loving it! The team is such a strong team and there are some really impressive female leads here as well. Both my series producer and episode producers are female and incredibly inspirational to me. I look at them and think, I would just love to reach that level of awesomeness and understanding of how to make really special and captivating wildlife documentary. I just want to learn and absorb as much as I can from everyone in the team and everyone I’m speaking to every day to see how I can get there and what I need to do to succeed. So, I guess my plan for the future is to be just like my Producers; strong, empowered, respected women, who have achieved so much. I would be so immensely proud to reach that point one day.