By Anna Pfoertner, 4th Year, BSc (Hons) Marine Science, SAMS UHI
I applied to SAMS not really seeing myself as a scientist, I wasn’t a diver or even good swimmer and couldn’t imagine myself ever working in a lab or sitting in an office crunching numbers, making complicated plots, and presenting these results confidently.
What I did have was a passion for the ocean, particularly its protection.
For years, I glanced at a few marine biology courses, but several misconceptions stopped me from considering it properly. In school, my strengths were languages and social sciences and although I enjoyed biology, I felt easily overwhelmed by physics and chemistry. (I very much did not consider myself a science-orientated/scientific person) but here I am, the first person in my family to choose a scientific career. You do not need to be a science nerd to apply for this course because you will be taught the fundamentals of all sciences when you get here, in a fun and easy-going way. I can’t count how many times I have surprised myself during these years!
Although I appreciated the small class sizes at SAMS, I worried that this would put me on the spot, especially in the latter years when our year group would be much more divided between our module choices. I lacked confidence speaking up in class or presenting in front of others but again, this slowly disappeared over time. A variety of different talks over the years, both formal and informal, and the wonderful support of my peers and module leaders helped me lose some of that anxiety. Against my own expectations, I am now a student ambassador, speaking confidently with groups of young people about marine science and the importance of our oceans.
One module that particularly worried me was Statistics and Experimental Design because my IT knowledge was minimal anyway and I couldn’t imagine learning a new programme (R). Honestly, the sessions were tough, but I got through it with persistence and help from others. I actually ended up plotting my dissertation data using R and it was one of my proudest moments writing that code myself given how much I had struggled with it previously. Having a real-life larger data set to work with, I suddenly saw the advantages for the first time. I have not become a pro, but I am now comfortable using it for the basics and you will be too.
As a shy and quiet person, I was also worried about making new friends, especially since I was one of the few people not looking to go out for a drink in the pub after classes. However, Fresher’s week and first week field work were an excellent opportunity to start talking to people. SAMS and UHI clubs were another. Oban is no Glasgow, but this also means that pretty much everybody is within walking distance! Evenings at my place with my friends, cooking dinner, watching TV, and eating plenty of sweets were common and just as much fun (or more) than going to the pub. And don’t let the West Coast weather put you off from going to the beach together or similar.
And finally, I was convinced that to study marine science, you need to be a great swimmer and diver. Wrong, you don’t need to get into the water at all if you don’t feel like it but there is the opportunity to do a dive course here during your studies or simply jump into the bay out front during your lunch break. I also hadn’t been out on the water before and worried particularly about seasickness. But your field trips will focus on very sheltered waters and if you’re still worried, then anti-sickness tablets are your best friend! From never having spent time on a boat before, I went to having spent almost a week on the boat with the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust this year. Again, it’s not a prerequisite for applying! The same goes for any other experience you may think you need, such as internships or similar – I had nothing. There will be plenty of time left for internships during your summers or helping researchers during your spare time for some extra networking and experience. All you need is an enthusiasm to learn more about the ocean and a willingness to persist and work hard, as well as knowing when to ask for help. Student support, your Personal Academic Tutor (PAT), module leaders and peers are always there to help when you’re stuck!
I am still not a diver, an expert lab technician or a programmer. But SAMS has taught me skills that mean I am now comfortable in a basic lab environment; I am able to manipulate and plot data sets using other programmes than Excel and I have developed a scientific mindset that is represented in my assignments. I have gained immense confidence from my studies and although I did not become in expert in chemistry, I have developed an appreciation for understanding how all sciences are interconnected in shaping ocean processes.
Furthermore, my passion for ocean conservation and marine mammals has only deepened over the years and I believe that the skills I have learned here will be of great benefit when applying for jobs related to these.