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.
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, and better predict how environmental contaminants can affect human health by contributing to 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.
I joined Abertay in 2015 from Plymouth University, where I was a lecturer in Marine Biology. Previously, I held Post-Doctoral research positions at the University of Dundee – where I worked on a project related to sudden infant death in humans - and at Mount Allison University in Canada, where I worked with Dr Suzie Currie on heat shock proteins in seals.
I’ve had some tremendous experiences during my career to date, including working with wild grey and harbour seal populations in Scotland, tagging southern elephant seals in the sub-Antarctic and working in Canada with grey seals in collaboration with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
Internal teaching at Abertay:
I teach physiology related content on the Biomedical Sciences, Forensic Sciences and Environmental Science and Technology degrees.
I am module tutor for ENV100, a first year module exploring the principles of biology and ecology. My section of this module is shared with LSC101. My contribution to these modules includes cell biology, physiology and the processes of selection and drift.
I am module leader for ENV221, which focussses on environmental physiology and wildlife disease. I contribute to ENV205 in which we explore human environment interactions. My contribution here focusses on epidemiology, toxicology and physiology and monitoring and mitigation of chemical pollution. In ENV306, a module about environmental monitoring and pollution, I teach a section on marine pollution. l run ENV316, a module about environmental science in the field and laboratory, which involves lots of practical hands on experience for the students, from landscape processes, such as geomorphology and hydrology, to macro ecology and down to the microbiological and molecular levels. I also 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 level.
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.
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. I currently have a NERC funded grant to explore the impact of pollutants on fat tissue function in seals and I work with scientists at the Sea Mammal Research Unit in St Andrews to understand blubber and brain blood flow during diving.
My current research is exploring the role of contaminants in inducing cellular stress and disrupting energy balance in grey seals. This research is NERC funded. My team is called the PHATS team (Pollutants, Hormones and Adipose Tissue in Seals). We are a group of scientists based at Abertay, Plymouth University (https://www.plymouth.ac.uk/staff/holly-armstrong) and at the Sea Mammal Research Unit (http://www.smru.st-andrews.ac.uk/) in St Andrews. We also collaborate with scientists in Belgium at the Universite de Liege and the Universite Catholique de Louvain. We are using an approach that allows us to expose small pieces of blubber 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 are measuring the extent to which different genes 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 will help 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.
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 supervised Holly Armstrong, who recently defended her thesis on eustress and distress in grey seals. Her project aims 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 is currently working 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.
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.
Laura Oller Lopez, joined us in 2017 for her PhD project on the effects of redox signalling on blubber tissue structure and function. 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).
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.
Seals as vectors and reservoirs of antimicrobial resistance genes
Myself and colleague, Scott Cameron, are working on a project together with SMRU, to better understand the prevalence of antimicrobial resistance in the seal population in the UK. We have recently recruited PhD student Lauren Arkoosh to work with us to better characterise and map antimicrobial resistance genes in seal faeces from arond the UK.
Conference and workshop presentations:
Society for Experimental Biology (Florence, Italy, 2018)
Royal Society of Chemistry - Environmental Analytical Chemistry Symposium (Dundee, UK, 2016)
Pecha Kucha: Society for Experimental Biology main meeting (Brighton, UK, 2016);
Vice Chancellor’s Teaching and Learning Conference (Plymouth University, UK, 2015);
Peninsula Medical School Education Conference (St Mellion, UK 2015);
Stress Physiology and Behaviour workshop (invited speaker; Glasgow, UK 2015);
Society for Experimental Biology conference (Manchester, UK, 2014);
MERIFIC workshop (Le Conquet, France 2012);
Biennial conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals (Tampa, Florida, 2011; Cape Town, SA, 2007; San Diego, USA, 2005; Greensboro, USA, 2003);
Annual Atlantic Regional Comparative Physiology Workshop (St Andrews –by -the Sea, Canada, 2010);
Physiological Society Main Meeting (Cambridge, UK, 2008);
Marine Mammal Postgraduate workshop (Cromarty, UK, 2004; St. Andrews, UK, 2001-2003);
Scottish Conference on Animal Behaviour (St Andrews, UK, 2003).
SETAC (Rome, Italy, 2018)
Biennial conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals (Halifax, NS, Canada);
Society for Experimental Biology main meeting (Brighton, UK, 2016);
Biennial conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals (San Francisco, US, 2015; Quebec, Canada, 2009);
Society for Experimental Biology conference (Prague, Czech Republic, 2015);
Obesity: a physiological perspective (Newcastle, UK, 2014);
European Cetacean Society conference (Liège, Belgium, 2014);
Annual meeting of the Canadian Society of Zoologists (Ottawa, Canada, 2011);
International Congress on Respiratory Biology (Bonn, Germany, 2006).
Research grants and awards
R-LINCS studentship (second suprvisor): Seals as sentinels of antimicrobial resistance: mapping antimicrobial resistance genes in UK waters. Oct 2018- Jan 2022.
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- Jan 2021.
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-July 2018.
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: 2019-2021
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
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.
Voyage into the Unknown: Dundee Science Festival. Dundee Science Centre October 2018.
Perth Natural History Society Curious Minds series: The remarkable physiology of the seal. AK Bell Library, Perth. October 2017
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
Scottish Natural Heritage 'seals weekend', Isle of May, Firth of Forth, UK, October 2016 -2018
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