Into The Industry: Antarctic Sampling

Rebecca Daniel

This week on Into The Industry we chatted to Alex Hickling, who works at the Western Australian Museum. Keep reading to hear about his recent voyage to the Antarctic and how he coped with such harsh conditions..

Photo: Alex Hickling

Photo: Alex Hickling

Hey Alex! Tell us a bit about yourself.

I’m 25 years old, and live in Perth, Australia. I graduated from Curtin University with a BSc in Coastal Zone Management and Environmental Biology. I have a background in aquaculture and have since worked in a variety of different roles at the Western Australian Museum, working on a sampling trip to the sub-Antarctic and conducting all genetic work on the specimens collected.

You’ve built your life around the ocean. What drew you to it in the first place?

Unfortunately no fairytale here. I grew up inland, about an hours drive from the ocean in Australia (which is far considering how close Australia’s population is to the coastline) so didn’t spend much of my youth at the beach, but found myself more interested during high school. I then wanted to go to university after having a pretty bleak gap year (working a few crappy jobs) and decided to go and study environmental biology. From there I was interested in marine science and continued this with a year of oyster research up in NW Australia, and from there my career has developed into what I’m doing now with the WA Museum.

So what does a day in your life at the Western Australian Museum look like?

Haha it can be anything really. When you’re in the field it means late nights and early starts.

On the Antarctic voyage we were trawling for a lot of our material, so we had to be ready to go at anytime, day or night, weather dependent. This meant having people wake up every hour or so to check with the bridge and chief scientist of when a good time to deploy is, and then working until all the material is sorted and collected. Getting a few hours rest and doing it all again. When you’re not trawling you’re entering data, making spreadsheets, putting IDs to specimens.

In Perth I do a lot of laboratory work, extracting DNA, running PCRs, looking at the DNA sequences of specimens and samples collected and donated, and all of this feeds into research projects. I’m also responsible for managing all of the specimens collected on the trip, organising data and spreadsheets, packing and sending loans to other researchers around the world who are working on Antarctic material.

Wow sounds like you've got a lot to keep you busy! How did you manage to land such a great job?

It was more opportunity than anything. If someone told me while I was still at uni that I would be on my first voyage to the Antarctic at this stage of my career I would have laughed. I made a lot of good contacts when I was at university and after I graduated, which I kept. I travelled around for work and kept in touch with people, gaining some industry experience and skills. I did a lot of volunteer work with the museum while I was still at uni, and treated these opportunities almost as job trials. That way when this opportunity came up I already knew the job I was applying for, the people I was working with, and I had gained enough experience to qualify for it.

Tell us about your experience on your Antarctic voyage.

It was truly amazing. This was my first experience on such a large ship with such a diverse research team on board. The amount of people that you meet and all of the knowledge that they have in their fields is amazing. We were pretty lucky with the weather throughout the whole trip but seeing some of the amazing sea creatures we collected and also being able to step foot and collect on some of the sub-Antarctic islands was truly something I’ll never forget.

Photo: Alex Hickling

Photo: Alex Hickling

Where there any problems you had to come whilst in harsh conditions, how did you solve them?

Weather is always the main concern. Also the difficulty of working with a crew that doesn’t speak English and having a lot of different projects on the boat with changing priorities hindered things a bit. You have to be flexible in these conditions, always being ready and keen to work at any time of the day or night, working with other people on projects to help each other out. Making the most of everything you collect.

What was the best marine species you saw whilst in the Antarctic?

We were targeting benthic marine invertebrates on the trip and we collected some really cool and interesting stuff including huge scale worms, Antarctic nudibranchs and crinoids just to name a few. It was also so amazing to see the huge colonies of penguins on South Georgia!

Photo: Alex Hickling

Photo: Alex Hickling

And which ocean species is on your bucket list to see?

There’s so many. I have a fascination for any and all species that use the ocean in some shape or form. I would love to see Orcas up close.

Whose work has influenced and inspired you?

David Attenborough was definitely my hero growing up. I watched a lot of his videos as a kid which motivated me to get into this industry. Right now I definitely look up to my boss (Nerida Wilson). The work she has done in her field is incredible.

And finally, what advice would you give to people who want to get into this career?

Make contacts and be passionate. It’s a hard industry to crack into. But opportunities will come up, so make yourself available and create a solid network and things will happen.

Into the Industry explores the lives and vocations of professionals, academics and those working in the marine biology world

If you’ve enjoyed this interview with Alex, follow him here @alexhickling and check out The Museum of Western Australia

Want to be interviewed for us? Check out our ‘Get Involved’ section