Scuba diving, singing and seaweeds: Meet museum scientist Juliet Brodie | Big Seaweed Search

The film below gives you a glimpse into the working life of seaweed researcher Prof. Juliet Brodie. Juliet is the lead researcher on the Big Seaweed Search project and part of the team that created the beautiful new seaweed display in the Museum’s Hintze Hall.

You can meet Juliet and the team this Friday evening at the Museum’s free Science  Uncovered event, part of European Researchers’ Night, but in the meantime, I interviewed Juliet to find out more about what really makes her tick and what got her into studying seaweeds in the first place…

Hi Juliet. Thanks for letting me quiz you a bit about your work! I’ll start off with an easy one – how long have you worked at the Museum?

I’ve worked here for 14 years now.

How did you first get interested in marine research? 

I was curious about nature and the world around me from a very early age. I studied Botany and Zoology at University and my first job was surveying mountain vegetation above 2000ft in the north-west Pennines. Shortly after that I took up scuba diving (on the recommendation of a boyfriend – I ditched him but loved the diving!) and ended up working in a marine field centre when there was a need for scientific divers to do survey work in relation to setting up Marine Nature Reserves.

<blockquote>I took up scuba diving on the recommendation of a boyfriend – I ditched him but loved the diving!</blockquote>

There were very few people at the time with a knowledge of seaweeds and who could dive and I was asked whether I would survey them. Underwater the seaweeds looked amazing and I was instantly attracted to their colours and forms and the underwater habitats in which they lived. So I quickly learnt the seaweeds (I had a couple of great teachers). In the end I decided to study red seaweeds for my PhD and have been undertaking research in the seaweeds ever since.

What is it about seaweeds that interests you so much?

There are so many aspects that interest me. At first I was just curious about their diversity – what they were, where they lived etc, but as I began to learn more about them  I realised what a fascinating group of organisms they were on the planet. The red algae are believed to have a fossil record dating back to at least 1.2 billion years old and a paper out this year suggests that date should be pushed back to 1.6 billion years. They have survived the turbulent history of the earth.

I have also become fascinated by the whole concept of the interactions and relationships between seaweeds and a whole host of other organisms that live with them and shape their lives. Nothing functions in isolation.

Red, brown and green seaweeds covering rock.
Seaweeds on the shore at Wembury beach, Devon, including Irish moss (Chondrus crispus).

I am also interested in where they are distributed and how that is changing. It is clear that seaweeds are being affected by environmental change just as most other organisms on the planet.

Have you always studied seaweeds?

No, I only became interested in seaweeds when I took up diving. In fact as an undergraduate I had no real interest in them at all. On a field course to study seaweeds I was much more curious about the creatures that lived on the seaweeds or on the shore! I had always had an interest in terrestrial plants and had learnt the wayside species as a child. I spent a whole summer on Fair Isle for my undergraduate dissertation surveying the vegetation.

Part of me really wanted to be a singer and to go on the stage but… I also wanted to have adventures and go on expeditions.

Part of me really wanted to be a singer and to go on the stage but I felt that to be a professional musician would be a much more precarious career than science. I also wanted to have adventures and go on expeditions. My work in seaweeds has certainly enabled me to fulfil that dream.

I have been to many places in the world and to have some adventures such a working on a tiny Russian research vessel in the middle of the Caspian Sea, or surveying the whole coast of Iceland for seaweeds over three summers, or sampling both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts along the Straits of Magellan.

In the film we see you conducting a choir. Where did you find a song about seaweeds?

I had always wanted to set up a choir and conduct it. I had done a tiny bit over the years and occasionally took practices for the museum’s choir when the choirmaster could not make it. Then I was asked if I would take over the choir for the Christmas concert. It was a daunting task at first but I had an idea in my head of what I wanted to achieve and found my own style of conducing I suppose.

In the video I am conducting the Seaweed Song – it all started when I was on a fieldtrip with the algal curator collecting seaweeds in a remote part of the Scottish coast. She said that what we needed was a seaweed poem so I wrote one. And then one day I suddenly got the inspiration to set it to music and to try to capture the colours and nature of the seaweeds and of the environment in which they lived. The choir are very tolerant and I think they are wonderful for going along with my crazy ideas! I find nature very inspiring.

I also love writing and have had a go at writing a novel. There are several more inside me but I’m not sure when I will fit them in. I also enjoy just being with people, walking, conservation, art etc.

In the video we see you rockpooling in the sunshine but also on a boat in the pouring rain! Do you do much fieldwork in your job, and do you enjoy it?

I do quite a bit of fieldwork and it is something that I really enjoy. It’s great to be out on the shore or on a boat at sea. I don’t mind the weather provided I’m well dressed for it – at least two layers of everything in the cold, wet weather. Fieldwork can be inspiring and important to keep up identification skills and find new species. I’m due to go to the Falklands soon for fieldwork something I’ve wanted to do for many years, so I shall batten down and make the most of it.

What’s the worst thing about your job?

Mmmm. Doing administration using dubious online systems? Probably the commuting too!

What achievement in your working life are you most proud of?

I’ve never thought about this. I don’t know the answer. I’m not sure I know what proud means. I’m proud of some of the people who have trained with me. I’m very thrilled to have finally got the seaweed exhibit in the museum.

Photo showing the seaweed display close-up. A pressed, green seaweed dominates the upper right half of the image, with pressed, red seaweeds the lower diagonal.
Close-up of the new display in Hintze Hall

I suppose I’m proud of the body of work I have done over the years and to have been President of a number of societies. My philosophy has been to develop the science, get the seaweeds on the map, pass on the knowledge, produce tools to facilitate the work, etc. I’m passionate about what I do but I have never done my work for my ego (others may disagree!).

Thanks Juliet – its great to hear a bit more about you and your work!

One Reply to “Scuba diving, singing and seaweeds: Meet museum scientist Juliet Brodie | Big Seaweed Search”

  1. I would love to see a more in depth article about the actual process of making the exhibit so I could do something small scale. It looks to be ordinary laminate glass with the seaweed in between so I’m not sure that would be possible to do at home? Maybe similar results could be achieved using two layers of glass that are leaded together?

    Most definitely my favourite exhibit of the new hall!

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