Derby British Science Association

Science and Engineering in Derby and Derbyshire

Interview: Phil Carey

Phil Carey is a lecturer and researcher at the University of Derby, where he leads the Zoology programme. He is the world expert on the taxonomy of marine interstitial ciliates, which is the science of identifying very very tiny animals living between the grains on wet sandy shores.
He talked to the Derby Scienceblog about his research and career…

On working with the ciliates…
It’s particularly difficult, not because we’re miles from the sea, but because they are extremely fragile. They die about twenty seconds after they’ve been taken out of the sea. So, to work with them you have to get them very quickly onto a microscope slide and then film them. When you get back to the lab you have to go through that film frame by frame to see what it is that you had. I did that for nearly ten years at the Natural History Museum, where for a long time we had the luxury of enjoying the research with no targets, but I left when there started to be heavy pressure to get results.

On moving back to amoeba…
I decided, getting towards the end of my career to get back to the thing I started with in my PhD, which was small amoebae. They’re a group which has often been ignored as they’re quite difficult to identify.People often think amoebae are just amoebae, but on the contrary there are at least 20 different morphological types that you can recognise very quickly. You can’t pinpoint an exact species at the moment though, we need genetic bar-coding to be fully developed to do that. That’s not going to stop my work though, because having worked with ecologists I’ve realised you don’t have to identify everything as long as you recognise difference. Knowing they are different is enough information to tell you how diverse the population of an area is.
Recently I have been working on amoebae living on the leaves of posidonia seagrass in the mediterranean, taking samples from Menorca. People have worked on amoebae on seaweed before, but not seagrass. So I used the same techniques from seaweed studies, and applied them to seagrass. Whilst people have found up to 20 amoeba per cm squared on seaweed leaves, I found up to 60,000 per cm squared on seagrass. This big difference is likely to be due to a mixture of reasons. Partly the fact that seaweed releases less Carbon, so provides less nutrition than seagrass. Also seaweed leaves are rubbery so not very hospitable!

On the study he thinks really needs doing…
I had planned the zenith of my research to be work on the open ocean, as much of our data comes from coastal areas. There has been one study done so far, but it didn’t seem quite right. Unfortunately its very expensive to hire research vessels, so instead I completed a study based on an island in The Maldives with no coastal zone. I took a boat out into the ocean to collect samples and then rushed them home. Ideally it would be something done over several months.

On how he plans to spend his retirement…
I have priced up for minimal equipment, and two microscopes comes to less than the cost of a family car, so for a hobby I can continue my current research on cave lagoons and extreme environments. It takes about 2 to 3 hours to get to the Mediterranean, so I could take day trips to collect samples, say in the Venetian cave lagoons, within fourteen days you would be able to calculate how diverse an area is. This is something I can carry on with after I have retired.

On being passionate about what you study…
I estimate that less than five people work in this area, so I’m really hoping that my work will be a springboard for people with more resources than I have. Early work seemed to suggest that amoebae weren’t that important, but that isn’t the case. The data I have from The Maldives is really exciting, and I’d like for it to stir people up, and make them angry that for all these years they’ve missed out!
I came out of my first degree in Zoology with certain interests but I didn’t quite know where to focus, but protozoa filled that gap. I see a lot of my students get to the end of their degree and find that they have developed a passion for say entomology, which leaves me cold, anything with that many legs leaves me cold, but they have a passion. You know you have a passion for something when you can sit down and read a book, cover to cover in one sitting.

Thanks to Dr Carey!

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About Lotte

Likes making a mess and arguing.

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