Sophie McEwen

Sophie McEwen completed her Nuffield Research Placement in 2016 at the University of Brighton. She went on to present her work at The Big Bang Competition and was a runner up in the Future Water Association Young Water Dragon Prize

Why did you apply for a Nuffield Research Placement?

I really wanted to get some hands-on experience in the field of marine biology as it is what I want to study at university. I was also keen to find some work experience that would really boost my UCAS application and personal statement.

What was your project about and did you know anything about the area before you started the placement?

Ecosystems in the freshwater environment are as complex and varied as those on land. Those on land are influenced by three main factors – climate, soil, and the activities of humans, whereas in freshwater, of course, water largely replaces soil and atmosphere, and has a smaller temperature range than the atmosphere, so climate is less important. But the influence of humans is just as pervasive in the water as on land, this now means that unpolluted fresh water is one of the most endangered habitats in Britain and north-western Europe.

The focus for this project was the impact of watercress farming on chalk rivers and the invertebrate populations within them. Watercress farming is a huge industry in England and many of the potential impacts are either unknown or there is little research being done investigating them. Whilst the specific cause of any impacts on invertebrate populations remains unknown for this project, the aim was to find out the scale and type of impacts on invertebrates.

For the project, invertebrates were collected from four sites along the Bourne Rivulet, Hampshire. Some of the sites may have been impacted by effluent from the watercress farm discharges – to identify which of the sites these were, the invertebrates collected were identified down to Order and Family level; where possible; using dichotomous keys and then sorted into the correct taxonomic groups and counted. Using the assemblages from each site, various analysis was done, including the use of the Whalley, Hawkes, Paisley, Trigg (WHPT) classification system and Simpson’s Index.

The lab that I worked in was in Hastings and I am quite familiar with the area which made it a nice place to work everyday.

Was the placement what you expected it to be?

It was a fantastic experience for me and it was a lot more hands than I expected too as you get to take part in current research. I enjoyed the full-time nature of it and I looked forward to working in the lab every day. I also got the chance to take part in some other students’ projects as well which involved ecological field work including crabbing and collecting mussels.

Not only that, but I have been able to stay in contact with my supervisors which has led to further field work including electrofishing. It also offers many exciting opportunities for the future.

Has your experience helped you to decide on a career path?

Yes! I am so keen to start at university now – I have a place at the University of Southampton for Marine biology with oceanography. It has also opened my eyes to the field of freshwater ecology and I now have an interest in marine invertebrates. The placement is a great way of getting a feel of what university study will be like. I would now like to gain a PhD in the future and carry out my own research.

What advice would you give to students applying for a Nuffield Research Placement?

Be passionate about science/your subject! It will show in your personal statement. I would also say that you need to be prepared to put in a lot of hard work but it will be worth it and lead on to great things.

What was it like presenting your work at The Big Bang Competition?

I entered my project into Big Bang and got to present at the NEC to over 70,000 visitors over three days. As a solo competitor, it was quite nerve-wracking to be up against the other 200 competitors but you soon get settled in and I really enjoyed being able to tell people about my research and see so many people interested in what you have to say. I was a runner up in the Future Water Association Young Water Dragon Prize and I am now entered into the UK Junior Water Prize at Cranfield University. When you are at the Big Bang Fair, you are amongst your peers so it is a great opportunity to talk to like-minded people who are just as passionate about science/maths. However, you are also presenting alongside companies such as BAE Systems, Siemens and Rolls Royce so you have a good chance to make some contacts and put yourself out there. I also spoke to the CEO of Nuffield, Tim Gardam – I loved being able to tell him about my project and what I had achieved due to Nuffield.