An Interview with WiseOceans… Chantel Elston, PhD student
This week we’re chatting with PhD student and Save our Seas Foundation Project Leader Chantel Elston. Chantel is busy researching stingrays a creature so little is known about and Chantel certainly never thought she’d have to learn to flush out the stomachs of stingrays! Along the way Chantel has learnt many other things including how important hard work, skill development, and networking are in marine conservation.
Name: Chantel Elston
Job Title: PhD student
Organisation: Rhodes University, Save Our Seas Foundation
- What inspired you to pursue a career in marine conservation?
Most likely countless days spent on the beach in my childhood peering into rock pools and wondering what else lay beneath the waves of the ocean. I’ve always loved the ocean and have had the privilege of pursuing that love in my university studies.
- What steps did you take/are you taking to achieve your career goals?
Three things have helped me along my way – hard work, skill development, and networking. Any scientific career requires a lot of hard work, and marine conservation is no exception! In addition, a variety of skills are needed to become successful, and a lot of the time you will have to teach yourself these skills. I figured out what skills I needed for my particular field and I taught myself the skills necessary for my fieldwork, lab work, and data analysis. Finally, I networked! I always make a point of personally introducing myself to people, whether it be a university lecturer or a fellow researcher at a conference. You never know where you might find an open door!
- How did you land your current job/position?
I expressed an interest in pursuing my postgraduate studies on stingrays to one of my supervisors during my Honours year of studying. He put me in contact with a researcher from another university who was planning on conducting research on stingrays. We had a bit of an interview, I became his student and together we put together a project that has morphed into both my MSc and PhD theses. For me it was about consistency – I consistently showed my supervisor at the time that I was hard working and passionate, and in return he recommended me for the stingray project. Without this personal recommendation, I would not have received this opportunity.
- Which part of your job do you enjoy the most?
Definitely the fieldwork! Being out in the ocean and interacting with the animals that fascinate me so. Fieldwork also provides unique challenges, and I love figuring out plans to overcome those challenges. Although, I have to admit I also love analysing data because this is where you really start to figure out the answers to the questions that you are asking.
- Are there aspects of your position which make you feel that you are really ‘making a difference’?
Definitely! The reason I love working with stingrays is that there is so little known about them, and as such all the research I have conducted has yielded information that was yet unknown. This information has appeared on the IUCN red list for the species I work on, which shows that this information gathered has a practical purpose in conservation.
- What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were starting out?
I wish I knew how important statistics was and had paid more attention to that part of my studies!
- Are there any skills you never thought you would need but did?
Knowing how to flush out the stomachs of stingrays to collect their stomach contents! The thing about marine conservation is that you will continuously be learning new (and sometimes random skills) as you progress through your career.
- What advice would you give to budding marine conservationists?
Make sure to keep the passion alive – because sometimes that is all that keeps you going! This job can be hard – the long hours, the physically and mentally draining tasks, and working against the tide of humanity to protect rather than destroy our beautiful oceans. So always remember why you started your career in this field, keep the passion alive, and keep hoping that things will get better!
- What is your favourite marine creature and why?
That’s such a tough question! All animals in the ocean inspire me in some way or the other, but I have a soft spot for the flat sharks, specifically manta rays and porcupine rays. Their grace and (slightly comedic) personalities, respectively, always bring a smile to my face.
- What is your most unforgettable moment in the sea?
I will never forget my all time favourite experience with a manta ray. I was snorkelling in water that was about 12m deep, we had dropped in amongst a few manta rays to attempt to get a photograph of their bellies for the identification of individuals. I spotted one swimming below me, took a deep breath, and dove down to try get closer to the individual. I levelled off at about 5m in the water column and started to swim above it. All of a sudden, this graceful creature flipped over in the water and started to swim with its stomach facing up (instead of down), watching me swim on top of it. We swam like this, almost in a dance, for a couple of seconds before I had to surface for air. That experience really opened my eyes to the intelligence and curiosity of these amazing animals.
Thanks Chantel, great advice and we couldn’t agree more about manta rays, incredible creatures.
Chantel has a great YouTube channel “Telly’s Marine Tales” so if you love the ocean and are interested in marine biology this is a great channel for you. Look out for the videos on what its like to be a marine biologist and Chantel’s handy tips on being a marine biologist
Don’t forget to sign up to our weekly job alert emails and keep an eye on our Wise Work pages so you don’t miss your dream opportunity in more marine conservation.