Young Wyvern on Catching Her Dream
Katharine Gentry (Science, 2011)
Young Wyvern Katharine Gentry has dreamt of becoming a marine biologist since she was three years old. But after graduating with a Science degree in 2013, her dream took a detour when she became a teacher in the small wheatbelt town of Warracknabeal, in the North-West of Victoria.
Home to roughly 2,000 people—living and teaching in Warracknabeal was probably as far from the life of a marine biologist as one could imagine. And this career path was a surprise to Katharine herself, “I didn’t ever really want to be a teacher, but I was really, really passionate about Teach for Australia’s (TFA) mission which is about eliminating educational disadvantage”.
So after three years living at Queen’s she soon found herself teaching Science and Biology classes at Warracknabeal Secondary College from 2014 to 2015. Successful TFA applicants are placed in an educationally disadvantaged school for two years and teach an 80% workload while they complete their Master of Teaching degree on a scholarship. “It’s really, really tough, but it’s absolutely incredible and I learnt so much”, Katharine said.
“It’s awesome to be able to be in those schools where they can’t get teachers, or where kids really do need someone a bit different to come along and show a bit of a different perspective on the world—it’s a pretty powerful thing to do.”
After Katharine’s Teach for Australia experience had finished, it was time for a well-deserved gap year and travel in 2016. In 2017 her thoughts returned to her old dream of becoming a marine biologist. “I kind of thought it was like a child’s dream … And then I still wanted to be one at the end of TFA and I was like, this has been going on for twenty years now, let’s give it a go,” Katharine said.
She then enrolled in the Master of Science (Biosciences) course at the University of Melbourne to study aquaculture. As a vegetarian and someone passionate about environmental sustainability, her interest in aquaculture was piqued during an undergraduate lecture when she learned of its potential as an alternate protein source to that derived from agriculture. “If we could make aquaculture sustainable, it could be a really ethical way of feeding the world”, Katharine notes.
To that end, Katharine’s studies have taken her to Norway where she is on a two-month field trip trying to help find a solution to a massive problem in the salmon farming industry—sea lice. Norway, the biggest producer of salmon, has recently banned the expansion of salmon farms due to the problem of sea lice. What’s the problem? “They attach to the salmon, suck on their blood, and they can transmit diseases”, Katharine explains. With only two female sea lice permitted on a single salmon, the massive sea cages where salmon are farmed are, unfortunately, the perfect breeding grounds for sea lice.
So for the past eight weeks Katharine has been observing the salmon and sea lice within twelve commercial sea cages—“which are incredible … like a hundred metres in diameter, 100,000 fish in each sea cage”.
One way that the industry has been dealing with the sea lice problem has been by treating them with chemicals, however, this is an expensive process and is not great for the environment. “They’re shown to have pretty bad effects on other benthic crustaceans nearby … Another big problem is that the sea lice are becoming resistant to these chemical treatments the same way antibiotic resistance works”, Katharine said.
A new approach from the industry is to put cleaner fish in with the salmon to eat their sea lice. “So in the past five years salmon farms have gone from using something like 9 million cleaner fish off Norway, to last year they used 36 million”, Katharine said. Her project has, therefore, been investigating the cleaner fish within the sea cage environment—teleost vertebrates, that we know very little about. “We know every tiny little thing about salmon, we’re like crazy stalker people about salmon—but we no like nothing about these cleaner fish”, Katharine said.
Talking from her picturesque accommodation in Erøy—a quaint Norwegian fishing village hugging the meandering inlets of a bay, it’s horizon framed by dark diagonally etched mountains—Katharine explained specifically what she is trying to find out. “I’m investigating how are the cleaner fish going in these sea cages, how’s their welfare, what conditions in the sea cage affect their lice feeding efficiency—so what can we do to make them better feeders, what can we avoid to make them worse feeders—and mostly looking at their behaviour”, she said.
So what do you actually do as a biosciences researcher in Norway? “I just chop cleaner fish open and squeeze out their guts and see what’s in their tummies—it’s disgusting, but it’s also kind of fun”, she explains. But of course, that’s not the only job to do, besides riding around on boats to first get to the sea cages, there are also hours of recordings to do, which need to be reviewed back on dry land. “I have about twelve hours of behaviour footage to watch which will be really boring but will also be kind of interesting when something exciting happens”, Katharine says.
It’s this variety of work—time spent on the water and then back in the office writing and doing analysis—that Katharine really enjoys. But what’s the favourite part of her work? “I just love the field work I think, like yesterday and today, just being out on the sea cages all day, it was nice weather, and driving around on boats catching fish and recording fish.”
Another aspect of her project which Katharine has enjoyed has been the Norwegian culture and their keen interest in salmon. “I really, really like Norway and everyone here cares so much about salmon, it’s really funny, like when you talk to people in Australia about your project everyone sort of zones out a bit, but in Norway as soon as you say I’m here researching the salmon, they’re all like OH, REALLY? Katharine said.
So after spending another few weeks collecting data in Norway, Katharine will soon return to Melbourne and begin analysing her data and writing a paper that will hopefully be published in a journal.
And what’s on the horizon next after she completes her Masters at the end of next year? “I’d love to come do a Ph.D here in Norway—just trying to make aquaculture more sustainable … it’s a pretty cool area to be a part of and everyone in Norway is so bloody passionate about it … It’s exciting”, Katharine says.
And no doubt nearing the accomplishment of her long-held dream of becoming a marine biologist will be just as exciting.