Paula Hynes is a Phytoplankton Analyst at the Marine Institute, monitoring the presence and impact of harmful phytoplankton species year round. Paula says she always enjoyed learning science at school which led her to study biology at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT). “While I was studying, I discovered I could do a certificate in aquaculture. I didn’t realise the career opportunities that the aquaculture and marine industry offered, until I was at college and speaking with my lecturers,” Paula said.
After completing a course in Applied Aquatic Sciences at GMIT, she studied an honours degree in Marine and Freshwater Biology at Napier University in Edinburgh. She returned to Ireland and worked in quality control at a meat processing factory, which provided Paula with essential experience working in a laboratory. Her experience enabled her to secure a role as a Laboratory Analyst at the Marine Institute.
Working in the Phytoplankton Unit, Paula analyses samples of seawater for toxic and harmful phytoplankton species.
“Phytoplankton are microscopic plants, they serve as the base of the aquatic food web and are eaten by shellfish. Shellfish filter water to collect their food, phytoplankton are non- toxic to shellfish, but some phytoplankton can be toxic for human consumption,” Paula said. “Analysing phytoplankton is important for the livelihood of our shellfish farmers and our seafood industry, to help ensure Irish shellfish are safe for consumption. If we weren’t looking at samples, we wouldn’t be able to provide warnings, or understand how toxic blooms occurred.”
The Marine Institute monitors phytoplankton under a national programme, which has been in place since the 1980s. The team analyse more than 3,600 seawater samples for toxic and harmful phytoplankton each year.
“The team are examining samples every day and each time I look down the microscope, the sample could be different in some way. A few years ago, I noticed a species in one of the samples that I hadn’t seen before. It turns out it was a tropical phytoplankton species, and since then we have been seeing slightly more of these warmer water species in some of the samples,” Paula said. Paula has worked at the Marine Institute for the past 11 years, and says that as a scientist she is constantly learning, whether on a research vessel or working in the lab. “In this job I’m always learning, because I never know what will be in a sample, and sometimes I may see a species that I haven’t seen before. When on the research vessels, I’m looking through the microscope at ‘live’ phytoplankton rather than at preserved samples, and they can often look very different,” Paula said. As Paula is working in the laboratory every day, she says knowledge of the equipment and safety in the laboratory is essential.
“It’s important to have experience working in a laboratory, to learn how to use the equipment, as well as how to work safely in a laboratory environment. If you are interested in marine science, talk to people who are working in the industry and find out about their career paths,” Paula said.
Paula says phytoplankton are possibly the most important organisms on the planet.
“Phytoplankton generate most of the oxygen that we breathe. Most of our marine life depend on phytoplankton as a primary source of food. I think it’s important for all of us to understand how and what we do affects our oceans. We need to look after the ocean – it really is the essence of life.”