Graduate in Focus – Isla Hely

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.



Interested in our Masters programmes? Take a look at our website. 
Hear more from Isla in our previous blog! 

MSc Graduate In Focus: Catherine Hart

This year we are launching a new MSc in Marine Vertebrate Ecology and Conservation and applications are open now for 2020 start. We are looking back on some of our MSc graduates who have excelled in marine vertebrate ecology and conservation around the world since studying with us.

Today we meet Catherine Hart, MSc Conservation and Biodiversity graduate (2009) and now scientific director for the Red Tortguera (Sea Turtle Network) in Mexico!

Hi Catherine! First off, why don’t you tell us what you are up to now and how you got there?

I moved to Mexico when I was 19 after having been a volunteer on a sea turtle conservation project in Nayarit state and then undertaking an undergraduate degree there. It had always been my intention to go straight back after the master’s course. On arriving back, I began to run the field conservation work for a small NGO and then when it was low sea turtle season taught secondary school science and did a little gardening/child minding on the side. In 2010 I decided that a PhD would be beneficial and allow me to continue my sea turtle conservation and research activities. The PhD was with the Universidad de Guadalajara in Puerto Vallarta and was supported through a scholarship from the Mexican government. During that period, I increased the number of nesting beach conservation projects that I was managing from one to seven and co-founded an NGO “Red Tortuguera” (sea turtle network). After the PhD I was accepted into the Mexican Researchers System (Sistema Nacional de Investigadores) which allows me to continue my research while conducting sea turtle conservation activities.

What did you enjoy most about studying your MSc with us at the University of Exeter Cornwall Campus?

I loved being by the sea. I am from Northampton so that’s about as far from the ocean as you can get in the UK. I loved how dynamic the UK tides are and I even loved the seagulls (which are not that popular).

Everyone on the course were amazing and had all done different conservation and research activities either during their undergraduate degrees or as volunteers. It was a great opportunity to learn about different places and conservation issues. The researchers at the Centre for Ecology and Conservation are world class and very approachable. I always felt that I could ask questions and didn’t have to be embarrassed for having no idea about some things that others knew from their undergraduate degrees in the UK.

What skills and experiences from the MSc have been most useful in your career?

I would say everything I learnt at Exeter has been useful. Firstly, having studied at a university known for its research on sea turtles has opened many doors not to mention that my masters project was on Mexican sea turtles and I was put in contact with some of the top researchers worldwide for East Pacific green sea turtles who I may not have gotten to know so early in my career if it hadn’t been for the introductions made by the Exeter researchers. This is something I am very grateful for as not only has it been great for my research and conservation activities but also for the friendships I have made. On a more academic note the courses on statistics and mapping software have come in very useful! Perhaps the most important thing that I learnt at Exeter is to have the confidence in myself and the experience that I had gained from years of fieldwork in Mexico.

Finally, why did you choose your career path and do you have any advice for those looking to pursue something similar?

It’s great to be able to help study and protect sea turtles and other local wildlife where I live. I like to think that I am making a difference. I have been in the same place long enough to see some of the results of our conservation activities and that is very rewarding.

Never turn down an opportunity to tag along on research trips, learn a second language and perhaps take a course in marketing.

Any advice for anyone thinking of applying to the University of Exeter?

Just do it.

Thanks Catherine!!

If you want to find out more about any of our suite of #ExeterMarine Masters and Undergraduate courses use the links below!

Shark Awareness Day: Plastic pollution – problematic for sharks and rays.

For Shark Awareness Day 2019 we have been chatting to a few of our elasmobranch (that’s sharks, skates and rays) researchers here the the University of Exeter! In this blog we talk to Kristian Parton one of our Masters by Research students based at our Penryn Campus. He has recently published his first research paper giving a global overview of shark and ray entanglement. Below he tells us about his research and what he has found.

Words by Kristian Parton, Masters by Research Student at the University of Exeter, Penryn Campus

Numerous shark populations around the world are under-threat from a variety human impacts, the most notable of these being overexploitation and bycatch. Plastic pollution and marine debris is also an ever-growing threat to species inhabiting the marine environment, having direct impacts on fish, sea turtles and marine mammals. There is little existing scientific knowledge on the impacts of marine debris on shark and ray species. Over the last year, I led a team of researchers from the University of Exeter seeking to investigate the impacts of anthropogenic (human-made) marine debris on elasmobranch populations across the globe. Our literature review was published this week in Endangered Species Research, in which we used novel data collection from social media site “Twitter”, as well as pre-existing data in the scientific literature. We discovered that the threat of marine debris to sharks and rays is likely underreported and is without doubt of clear animal welfare concern, although it is unlikely to have wide-ranging detrimental population level effects.

We managed to identify that “ghost fishing gear” was the category of marine debris responsible for entangling the majority of elasmobranchs. Ghost fishing gear is fishing equipment that has been discarded or lost at sea, and is distributed by ocean currents and winds. Ghost gear indiscriminately catches and kills a host of marine life, including sharks and rays.  We also discovered the majority of entangled individuals were found in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, although recommend that more research should also be conducted in the Indian ocean – a known hotspot for elasmobranch biodiversity. In the scientific literature the most common entangled species were lesser spotted dogfish and spiny dogfish, two species regularly found off the coast of Cornwall. We highlight that sharks and rays who have specific habitat niches (e.g. those that inhabit the seafloor or species that occupy open ocean habitats), as well as those who display migratory movements may be at higher risk of entanglement in marine debris.

This Short-fin Mako Shark has been entangled in fishing rope which has caused scoliosis (deformation) of its spine. Image by Daniel Cartamil

By using a novel method of data collection via social media site “Twitter”, we were able to identify several different species of shark and ray that were a victim of entanglement, but weren’t found as entangled in the scientific literature. This included whale sharks, basking sharks and oceanic white-tip sharks. Twitter also highlighted additional entanglements hotspots that again weren’t displayed in the scientific literature.

Although not one of the major threats to sharks and rays, entanglement in marine debris still presents a risk to elasmobranchs, particularly from an animal welfare perspective. With further research on the topic, it could be revealed that this is occurring at far higher levels than we have reported. Social media has now become integrated into today’s society, so using it in a positive way to help reveal additional entanglement reports is a real bonus. With millions of users, the global reach of social media is unprecedented and scientists could now start to tap into the virtual databases that exist on the web.

From this research, we have set up an online entanglement report form in collaboration with the Shark Trust. This will allow citizen scientists across the globe to submit their shark and ray entanglement sightings, and will significantly help scientist further quantify this risk to ever declining elasmobranch populations.

Follow Kris on Twitter.

#ExeterMarine is an interdisciplinary group of marine related researchers with capabilities across the scientific, biological,  medical, engineering, humanities and social science fields.

Find us on: Facebook : Twitter : Instagram : LinkedIn  

If you are interested in working with our researchers or students, contact Michael Hanley or visit our website!

Scientists at Sea Podcast – The Stingray Episode: with Ethan Wrigglesworth and Molly Meadows

In this episode, we get to know our regular presenters a little better. Ethan and Molly talk to Ben, the producer, about the work they have been doing as Masters by Research students for the past two years. Under the supervision of Dr. Lucy Hawkes, Molly and Ethan have been working closely with Dr. Owen O’Shea at the Cape Eleuthera Insitute (CEI) in the Bahamas, to study the stingrays in the local waters.



Molly and Ethan worked with two data deficient species of stingray; the Southern Stingray, and the Caribbean Whiptail Ray  The main focus of the research was to investigate the rays’ diets. This involved two methods; stable isotopes analysis and stomach content analysis (you can learn more about them in the podcast).


Ray team just after having caught a southern stingray along a sandbar. (Ethan first on left, Molly, second from right).


Why does this matter?

Well, as Molly and Ethan put it:

Molly holding the tail of a Caribbean whiptail ray presenting the large venomous barb.




“To understand about the diet is actually to understand general ecology… within an ecosystem, what a predator feeds upon… has a great impact on the population sizes of the prey, and there’s a huge amount of energy moving up in that food chain”







How might such research be applied? Well, in the Bahamas there is no legislation for the protection of mangroves.


“In the Bahamas, there’s lots of these mangrove creeks, and plenty of fish use them as nursery habitats because they offer a lot of shelter within the roots… stingrays occupy these systems as well… they feed on worms, crabs and things within the sea floor, so they use the mangroves a lot to find (their) food.”


You can find out more about why mangroves are so important here.


“Beaches are very popular in terms of tourist economy, so (mangroves) get destroyed quite a lot”


While the stingrays rely on the mangroves for food, it seems they also offer plenty to the mangroves themselves. To find out exactly what they offer, take a listen to the episode.


A free diver going face to face with a large Caribbean Whiptail Ray




You can also find out about some skills you might not know existed, like stingray herding!









Highschool/Island school student Jake holding a southern stingray during sampling procedures


Getting Started with Marine Science

Molly and Ethan initially honed their marine biology skills and interests as undergraduates here at the University of Exeter’s Penryn Campus, studying Zoology and Conservation Biology and Ecology respectively. In their final year they undertook a field course to Eleuthera Island in the Bahamas, this sewed the seeds of their Masters by Research. Click the links to find out more.



Here is a bonus link mentioned during the episode, enjoy! Household items reviewed for science


Videos courtesy of CEIBahamas

Hosted by Ethan Wrigglesworth and Molly Meadows

Episode and show notes produced by Ben Toulson

#ExeterMarine is an interdisciplinary group of marine related researchers with capabilities across the scientific, medical, engineering, humanities and social science fields. If you are interested in working with our researchers or students, contact Michael Hanley or visit our website!