Spotlight: Irene Molto-Martin, PhD Research Assistant, University of Stirling and CEFAS



Tell us a fun fact about yourself.


I love reading fantasy novels, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, the name of the Wind etc. I also love scuba diving (especially at night) and sailing. But above all, I love to travel.


Tell us about your career journey so far.


I studied for a degree in Biology in Valencia, Spain, but I wanted to study Marine Biology in the Canary Islands. Unfortunately, my parents thought I was too young to be so far away from home. So, it was not until my last year at university that I applied to the Seneca exchange program between Spanish universities, and I went to Tenerife, where I finished my degree.


I fell in love with the people and the island. I did an MSc in Aquaculture in Valencia, where I developed an interest in fish pathology. Then I did a second MSc in Marine Biology in Tenerife, where I was involved in conservation projects of endangered marine species like the angel shark. I did several internships working in Aquariums and research centres where I worked with a wide range of marine species, developing my lab and analytical skills. I applied to several PhD and got recruited by the University of Stirling, Scotland, where I have been working for the last three years investigating disease in Norway lobsters.


What was your favourite subject in school and why?


My favourite subjects were biology and ecology; I always liked animals and wanted to understand the interactions between the different species. I grew up next to the sea, and I loved going snorkelling, so it is not surprising I developed a passion for marine science.


What subjects/qualifications/skills are useful for your role?


Chemistry is essential in my job, especially when making chemical reagents. You need to understand the chemistry of the reactions and take into account all the safety measures. I also use maths almost everyday to calculate volumes and dilutions when doing DNA extractions and setting up PCRs. Statistics are absolute unavoidable to plan an investigation and to analyse the data. Writing skills are beneficial for publishing articles and writing reports, and the ability to speak in public and communicate effectively is essential to present my data in academic forums.

What is your favourite thing about your job?


My favourite thing about my job is that it has allowed me to meet unique people from all over the world. Academia is a very international environment that broadens your mind beyond its limits. You have the most interesting conversations, and you get to share innovative ideas which may lead to collaborations and potentially publications. Additionally, you are taught the latest scientific techniques from the best in their fields; plus, you travel a lot and visit beautiful locations for free!


What is a normal day in your role like?


In my job, every day is different. That's what makes it so interesting. Usually, I like to work early in the lab before it gets busy. I have to organise my work every week, book the different labs I need, and coordinate with other colleagues. I have regular meetings with my project supervisor at the end of the week, where I provide updates on my thesis progress and discuss any issues. Daily I am in contact with other PhDs, postdocs, lecturers and university staff members, always accessible to assist you if you need help. Occasionally I work as a demonstrator teaching practicals to undergraduate and master students.


And what does your job title mean?


A PhD research assistant or PhD student is an early research scientist, someone relatively new to science. PhD students are in charge of a 3/4-year Project supervised by 2-4 senior scientists. The project consists of several experiments that will culminate in a thesis book. Training will be provided to PhD students in all the techniques and skills necessary to complete the project. It is expected from the PhD students to be capable of following protocols, working independently, train less experienced students and communicating with other colleagues. Students will learn how to analyse the data, write reports, present and transmit the importance of the research in scientific forums and publish the data in scientific journals. At the end of the PhD, the student will pass the viva examination and achieve the qualification of Doctor in Philosophy.


Can you suggest an activity that could be done at home that illustrates an aspect of your work?


In Aquaculture, we work with a lot of fish, and some fish have parasites. If you go to a fish market, you may find very fresh fish. You can look at the fish's anatomy, measure the fish's length, record the weight of the fish, and assess its freshness. If you are brave enough, you can do a complete dissection of the fish, look at the different organs, and find parasites like Anisakis.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gHG88TEaqb0

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xuSckL-IPhg

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_e5rkVnFIJo

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WqkhMh0Mxd4