I’m a comparative physiologist interested in how animals cope with extreme environments. I have always been interested in how animals - including humans - and plants deal with environmental challenges. In particular I am interested in how stress affects energy balance regulation. This field of research has important cross-overs with obesity and diabetes research in humans.
I’m the project leader for the PHATS team, which is an international group of scientists working together to understand more about the impact of pollution on seals. We've shown that some pollutants called PCBs, can ralter blubber function in sucklign seal pups and that may impact on their ability to get fat enough. This research may contribute to our undertsanding of how environmental contaminants can affect human health by contributing to the development of obesity.
I graduated from St Andrews with a first-class honours degree in Biology and won the D'Arcy Thompson Prize before completing my PhD at the Sea Mammal Research Unit on energetics in seal pups and the consequences for their diving behaviour.
I joined Abertay in 2015 from Plymouth University, where I was a lecturer in Marine Biology. Previously, I held a post-doctoral research associate position at the University of Dundee,where I worked on a project using molecular methods to better undertsand the regulation of genes involved in glucose production by non-liver tissues. I was also the McCain fellow at Mount Allison University in Canada from 2009-2011, where I worked on heat shock proteins and leptin in seals with Dr Suzie Currie and in collaboration with Dr Mike Hammill from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans .
My work spans the molecular and cell biology of humans and seals up to whole animal diving and fasting physiology, which means during my career I've worked with wild grey and harbour seals in Scotland and Canada, and with southern elephant seals in the sub-Antarctic, as well as doing lab based research.
Internal teaching at Abertay:
I teach physiology related content on the Biomedical Sciences, Forensic Sciences and Environmental Science and Technology degrees.
I am a member of the module team for LSC101, a first year module exploring the principles of biology and ecology. My contribution includes cell biology, physiology and the processes of selection and drift. In LSC102, human physiology, we explore sensory, cardiovascular and muscle physiology
I teach on the second year module, medical physiology (LSC204), where I focus on enzymology and bioenergetics. I contribute to LSC404, a final year module on advanced pathophysiology exploring issues related to etiology, research into and treatments for diabetes and obesity and related comorbidities at the cell and molecular level. In my section of this module, students get the chance to evaluate the evidence for the obesogen hypothesis in journal clubs.
I lead LSC406, Global Perspectives on public health, where we explore the World Health Organisation's top ten challenges to public health from a policy and epidemiological point of view, uncoverign bias, inequity and barriers to health care. We use systematic review and meta analysis, and mock select commitee call for evidence in our assessments.
I supervise honours student projects in physiology and biomedical science related topics, including diving physiology, energetics and molecular biology and physiology.
I often co-supervise Masters students jointly with colleagues at SMRU at The University of St Andrews.
I am interested in how students learn about experimental design and statistical testing using informal and formal reasoning approaches. I am also keen to explore how students value and use feedback in different formats and from different sources
Biological responses to stress are energetically costly. Stress can be either positive (eustress), if it makes individuals more resilient, or negative (distress), if it overwhelms organisms' natural defences, and produces detrimental conditions. By diverting resources into the stress response, organisms shift their priorities for energy allocation, which can impact on fitness and survival, such that stress provides a strong selective pressure.
Seals, stress and energy balance
Seals are interesting and informative model animals for the study of the stress, and its impact on energy balance. They routinely experience physiological stress as part of their daily and seasonal activities. Seals are air breathing mammals that make a living under water in the cold, deep dark ocean, but need to come to the surface to breathe, and to come ashore to rest, breed and moult.
On a dive by dive basis they are exposed to a barrage of potentially damaging conditions. Diving on a single breath hold means they need to conserve oxygen and they restrict blood flow largely to the heart and brain. Other tissues experience repeated ischaemia reperfusion, and the resulting sporadic and repeated hypoxia that can result in free radical damage. High levels of dissolved nitrogen in the blood stream, as a result of repeated diving, and their rapid rate of ascent at the end of a dive means they need to have mechanisms in place to avoid the bends and shallow water black out. All this is in the face of the high thermal conductivity of the water, which adds the risk of hypothermia if an animal has an insufficient amount of insulation. To avoid this problem seals have thick blubber, which then creates added energetic costs of overcoming buoyancy during diving. Along with colleagues at the Sea Mammal Research Unit, we've been working to understand how seals manage blood distribution and oxygenation using Near Infra Red Spectroscopy. We've also used the technique to better understand physiological responses to sensory stimulation and anaesthesia.
While they are on land seals face the possibility of overheating as a result of thick blubber. They are also away from their food source, and so they need to fast. While fasting they are often engaged in highly metabolically costly activities such as regenerating hair, lactating, defending pups or territory, or just undergoing rapid development. Particularly during the breeding season, tension runs high on close packed breeding colonies and animals experience considerable aggression with the risk of injury and infection. Even if they find a quiet corner, it is possible that they experience oxidative damage or dehydration leading to proteotoxic stress.
Seals are apex predators. Their individual and population level health can act as an indicator of the health of the ecosystem. However in addition to their ‘lifestyle stressors’, they face anthropogenic stress from direct or indirect competition from humans and other predators for access to fish; disturbance on haul out or displacement from foraging grounds as a result of human activity; and the accumulation of lipophilic contaminants in their blubber layer, which acts as a metabolic fuel source while they are fasting as well as insulation while at sea. Being fat is very important for seals: in their first year, the survival of seal pups depends on how fat they are. Clearly, if stress has a negative impact on energy balance in these animals, it will have a detrimental effect by reducing recruitment into the breeding population.
Seals, obesity and diabetes
Seals have a high fat diet, high body fat content and high levels of circulating glucose, all of which are reminiscent of the diabetic and obese condition in humans. Diabetes and obesity lead to complications that stem from local inflammation in humans, but there is no evidence that seals experience similar problems. The differences between seals and humans in regulation of fat stores and glucose could give considerable insight into the management of diabetes and obesity.
I am interested in how these animals regulate storage and use of metabolic fuel sources, and the similarities and differences between seals and the development of obesity and diabetes in humans. I am also interested in how they withstand the natural (fasting, pressure change, hypoxia etc) and man-made (pollutants, disturbance etc) stressors that they encounter on a dive –by dive, daily or seasonal basis, and the links between susceptibility/ resilience and body condition. Our recent NERC funded grant to explore the impact of pollutants on fat tissue function in seals showed that PCBs can alter blubber function in suckling pups, with potential consequenes for their survival.
This research involved scientists based at Abertay, and at the Sea Mammal Research Unit (http://www.smru.st-andrews.ac.uk/) in St Andrews, scientists in Belgium at the Universite de Liege and the Universite Catholique de Louvain. We use an approach that allows us to expose small pieces of blubber (explants) to man-made environmental pollutants in the lab and then find out whether they respond differently to hormones that are important in regulating fat tissue function. We have measured the metabolic responses of the explants and extent to which different genes and signalling pathways are switched on or off; the ability of the cells to accumulate or mobilise fat; the production of cellular stress markers; and the release of important chemical signals from the fat. This work helps us understand the whether exposure to anthropogenic chemicals alters energy balance amd has negative ecological consequences in seals, and predict the negative effects these chemicals may have on people in terms of obesity and weight management.
I supervised Holly Armstrong on her PhD investigating eustress and distress in grey seals. Her project aimsed to describe the changes in cellular defence genes with natural and anthropogenic stressors, and to explore trade off in their expression different key tissue types. She also has some experimental data from the explant work investigating effects of PCB exposure on fat tissue. She worked as a post doc in my lab analysing blood and tissue culture media samples to better understand the effects of hormones and POPs on fat cell function.
Laura Oller Lopez, joined us in 2017 for her PhD project on oxygenation, vascaulrity and inflammation in blubber tissue. Her work involves analysiing data from the whole animal (body fatness from photogrammetry), tissue level in vivo (using near infra red spectroscopy and oxygen probes to look at oxygen delivery in blubber), histology (fat tissue structure) and at the molecular level (gene expression of fat tissue during development and under experimental hypoxia). Her first first authorship showing the pO2 in blubber of grey seals and how it changes with fatness came out in summer 2021.
Seals as vectors and reservoirs of antimicrobial resistance genes
Myself and colleague, Scott Cameron, are working on a project together with Debbie Russell at SMRU, to better understand the prevalence of antimicrobial resistance in the seal population in the UK. PhD student Lauren Arkoosh is working with us to better characterise and map antimicrobial resistance genes in seal faeces from arond the UK. We are also working on samples provided by colleagues at CEH Edinburgh from the birds on the Isle of May to look at cross over between the seal and bird resistome profiles.
Recently I worked with the marine vertebrate research group at Plymouth University, where I was previously based, on other projects too. We worked together on a project investigating the effects of shipping noise on seals in highly stratified waters, which meant collaborating with acousticians and oceanographers. I also work with scientists in Exeter and at Plymouth Marine Laboratory on the links between diet and microplastic exposure in seals.
I co-supervised Matt Carter, a PhD student with Clare Embling (https://www.plymouth.ac.uk/staff/clare-embling), Debbie Russell (http://www.smru.st-andrews.ac.uk/staffProfile.aspx?sunID=dr60) and Phil Hosegood (https://www.plymouth.ac.uk/staff/philip-hosegood). Matt's project uncovered details of the development of foraging behaviour in grey seal pups and is part funded by NERC and the School of Marine Science and Engieering at Plymouth. He has gone on to do postdoctoral work at the Sea Mammal Research Unit.
I am also working on a project with Sean Twiss at Durham University on metabolic rate, breathing and heart rate control in grey seal pups to better understand how they develop diving skills early in life.
Research grants and awards
March initiative (collaborator): Impact of plasticisers on blubber function in seals: Private donor funded project to University of St Andrews. March 2020-Sept 2021.
R-LINCS studentship (second supervisor): Seals as sentinels of antimicrobial resistance: mapping antimicrobial resistance genes in UK waters. Feb 2019 - Jan 2023.
R-LINCS studentship (lead supervisor): Characterising fat tissue structure and function in an animal model of obesity: using novel in vivo and in vitro approaches to explore the role of hypoxia and ROS signalling in seal blubber. Oct 2017- June 2022.
NERC New Investigator standard grant: (lead applicant) £1.1 million requested in total; Obesogens in an obese animal: an experimental approach to assess the impact of marine pollutants on fat tissue function in seals. August 2015-Feb 2019.
HEAR project (sole applicant) £500: Developing a histology method to investigate adipose tissue structure in seals. Abertay University 2016
Physiological Society travel grant (sole applicant) £700; to attend SMM conference in San Francisco, Dec 2015
Physiological Society summer studentship (supervisor) ; subsistence and travel costs for second year student, Sebastian Millward, to undertake a project on changes in 11β- HSD1 expression in seal blubber in response to high metabolite and cortisol concentrations. June-July 2015
School of Marine Science and Engineering, Plymouth University Small Grant: (co-applicant); Seals, stratification and shipping noise: seasonal changes in shipping noise exposure experienced by diving seals. Jan 2014-Jan 2015
Plymouth University Teaching Fellowship: (sole applicant) Evaluation of two approaches to essay writing support: incorporating writing workshops and formative peer review into the curriculum in marine biology. Mar 2014 – Sept 2015.
SoMSE teaching grant (lead applicant) Just the bare bones: experiential and enquiry-based learning of comparative marine mammal anatomy and evolution April 2013 - Mar 2014.
Royal Society Early Careers Grant: (sole applicant) ; Causes and consequences of heat shock protein and antioxidant expression in white blood cells and blubber of grey seals. Dec 2012- Nov 2013
School of Marine Science and Engineering Plymouth Unviersity Small Grant: (lead applicant) ; Developing the molecular tools to explore cellular stress responses in marine mammals. Mar 2012 - Feb 2013
Presidents Research and Creative Activities Fund: (sole applicant); Mount Allison University. Investigating leptin during fasting in grey seals. Nov 2009 – Oct 2010
Royal Society exchange: (named post doc with SMRU) Ocean Research Institute, University of Tokyo, Japan, March 2008
SCOS panel member: 2019-2023
Invited talk: 'Persistent organic pollutants in grey seals in the Forth: decadal changes and impacts on energy balance.' Estuarine and Coastal Science Association: Forth and Tay Focus group meeting. Heriot Watt University, Edinburgh, UK, May 2019
Invited talk: 'Fat metabolism and endocrinology in marine mammals: regulating fatness in animals that are naturally 'obese'' Marine Mammal Masters programme, St Andrews University. September 2018.
Invited talk: Obesogens in seals. Special Commitee on Seals Science Day, August 2018
Invited talk: Obesogens in the ocean: evidence of lipid disruption by persistent organic pollutants in seals. Biology department. Durham University, December 2018
Invited plenary: Comparative physiology in biodiscovery: what can we learn from natural experts in breath hold diving and fat metabolism? World Biodiscovery Congress, Dundee, UK. July 2018.
External examiner for PhD: Laureline Chaise; Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle, Paris, France. December 2017.
External examiner for PhD: Julia Castrillon Posada; Griffiths University, Australia. May 2017 - April 2019.
Guest speaker: Seals as models for obesity: insights and challenges from champions of fat deposition. UKIRSC, Plymouth, UK. January 2017
Sponsored talk: Understanding stress in the wild. Association for Science Education annual conference, Reading, UK. Sponsored by the Physiological Society. January 2017
Member of Awards and Scholarship Committee of the Society for Marine Mammalogy 2016-2019.
Invited talk: 2nd International Conference on Clinical Sciences and Drug Discovery. University of Dundee. July 2016
Guest seminar: Seals as models for obesity: insights and challenges from the champions of fat deposition. Division of Molecular and Clinical Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Dundee. April 2016
Guest seminar: Fat tissue function in seals: moving from whole animal to in vitro approaches in a model of rapid fat deposition and mobilisation. Faculty of Bioscience Engineering (AGRO Louvain) & Institute of Life Sciences (ISV), Université Catholique de Louvain, Belgium. Dec 2015
Negotiation workshop. Women in STEM symposium; Plymouth University, UK, March 2015
Guest seminar: Life in the fast lane: fat and physiological stress in grey seals. Biology Department, Durham University, UK, Feb 2014
Guest seminar: Fasting, feeding and phocid seals. Biology Department, Dalhousie University, Halifax, NS, Canada, April 2010
Ocean Science Classroom: Seals: our ocean explorers, May 2020
Probus club, Broughty Ferry: Seals as sentinels of Ocean Health, Dec 2019
Probus Club Carnoustie: The stressful life of seals: exploring the extraordinary feats of fasting and diving that seals achieve, and how humans make their lives more difficult. Nov 2019
Fintry primary (Dundee primary schools science week): Behind the scenes of seal research. October 2019
Family fun day, Isle of May NNR: One fish, two fish, red fish, polluted fish. July 2019
Edinburgh science festival, Scottish Parliament: one fish, two fish, red fish, polluted fish. April 2019
Strathkinness primary school: Marine pollution: POPs. March 2019
British Science Association: Tayside and Fife branch. Seals as sentinels of ocean health: understanding the harmful effects of plastic, POPs and pills. January 2019.
Probus club, Monifieth: Obesogens in the ocean: how pollutants can affect body fatness in seals, and why that matters for humans too. October 2018.
BioSphere magazine. From pup to ocean predator. Carter MID & Bennett KA (2018) Issue 30 pp 35-47.
BBC news: seal pups at risk from toxic chemicals in contaminated water. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-46553454 Dec 2018
Voyage into the Unknown: Dundee Science Festival. Dundee Science Centre October 2018.
Science in the Cinema, Abertay University: There’s something in the water: marine pollution from plastic, POPs and pills. March 2018
Perth Natural History Society Curious Minds series: The remarkable physiology of the seal. AK Bell Library, Perth. October 2017
The female scientist: How do seals regulate their fat stores? https://thefemalescientist.com/research/kimberley-bennett/1477/how-do-seals-regulate-their-fat-stores/
Autumnwatch blog: Grey seal pups are having to deal with chemicals produced as a result of industry. http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/natureuk/entries/4399bf8f-85d9-4424-921f-aefa531c9723
Cafe Science, Dundee: How are pollutants affecting Scottish seals? Avery and Co., Dundee. October 2017
Dundee University Museums Collection public talk series: Fitness and fatness in Seals and Humans. D'Arcy Thompson Zoology Museum, Dundee, UK, Dec 2016
How do seal pups stay warm? part 1 https://isleofmaynnr.wordpress.com/2016/11/24/how-do-seal-pups-stay-warm/
How do seal pups stay warm? part 2 https://isleofmaynnr.wordpress.com/2016/11/25/how-do-seal-pups-stay-warm-part-2/
Scottish Natural Heritage 'seals weekend', Isle of May, Firth of Forth, UK, October 2016 -2019
Careers in science. Bishop Cornish Junior School, Saltash, Plymouth, UK, July 2014
Lunch and Learn: Fat but fit, what can we learn from a natural obese diabetic animal? Moncton Public Library, Canada, March 2011
Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths open days, Sensation Science Centre, Dundee, UK, March 2009
Science Roadshow and Science in Schools with Abertay University, Dundee, UK, Aug 2005-April 2006
‘What Ahab Never Saw’ SMRU Royal Society exhibit co-ordinator; Various locations, July-Sept 2005
Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, Team member representing SMRU, London, July 2005