Dr Cosima Porteus

Published on: 17 May 2017

Ocean Acidification researcher, Dr Porteus, is taking part in this year's Soapbox Science event.

Dr Cosima Porteus' research looks at how ocean acidification affects the behaviour and physiology of fish. 

Dr Cosima Porteus is Postdoctoral Fellow in the College of Life and Environmental Sciences.

What is your current research about?

I am currently studying how ocean acidification affects the behaviour and physiology of fish. Greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, are gasses in our atmosphere that trap the sun’s heat causing our planet to heat up. Since the industrial revolution there has been an increase in greenhouse gas emissions due to man-made causes. The oceans absorb over a quarter of the carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, which helps to slow down this increase in temperature, but also causes the ocean to become more acidic.

This process is known as ocean acidification. Ocean acidification has recently been shown to have dramatic effects on behaviours that are important to the survival of fish. This can effect not just on individual fish but also whole populations. For example, young fish become attracted to predator smells and can no longer detect safe nursery habitats. This can lead to fewer fish surviving to adulthood and therefore, a decrease in overall fish numbers. But until recently we didn’t know why this is happening.

Recently, I have found that ocean acidification worsens the sense of smell of European sea bass, an economically important species. This effect is likely to be happening on all marine fish, not just sea bass.

How can a member of the public understand the impact of this research?

Fish provide 20 per cent of the animal protein consumed by 3 billion people globally. This figure is even higher in some developing countries.

Fish numbers are already under threat due to overfishing. The additional negative effects of ocean acidification can lead to further decreases in fish numbers, further threatening this vital source of protein.

You can follow Dr Porteus on Twitter

Have you encountered any challenges, as a female academic?

Not many, but I did have an encounter recently that I would like to mention.

Since having my son, I returned to work part-time as it helps me balance family life with my career. Recently, I wanted to apply for a fellowship which would provide me with funds to continue my current research. However, my part-time work was not taken into account, meaning that the funding body said that I had more experience than I actually did and was unable to apply.

Women are two to three times more likely to be part-time than men and most funding agencies take part-time work into account when considering eligibility.

This made me take action to make sure other people working part-time - male or female - did not encounter such discrimination in the future. It also motivated me to apply for an even more prestigious fellowship.

The Soapbox Science event is an outreach platform for promoting women scientists; how do you think that more females can be encouraged to continue with STEM subjects?

I grew up with strong female role models. My grandmother and my aunt were both biochemistry professors and my mom is an engineer. I always looked up to them and never doubted that girls are just as good at maths and science as boys.

Girls need to know this at a very early age and be encouraged to explore the natural world and ask questions about it. Role models are an important part of this process. Soapbox science is a great way to showcase female role models in maths and science and get the public engaged about some of the amazing things we get to study.

What are your top tips for academics who want to communicate their research?

Keep it simple. What we do is not that complicated and can be easily explained to anyone, scientist or not, as long as we use everyday language.

Avoid using scientific jargon and if you can’t, explain it first. If you are new at this, take every opportunity you get to interact with members of the public, even if this feels unnatural at first. It will help you become more comfortable talking about your science and explaining it.

I find taking part in events such as Soapbox Science helps me keep in mind the bigger picture and reminds me why I love being a scientist.

Related links

» Dr Cosima Porteus
» Dr Rod Wilson
» Dr Stephen Simpson

» Soapbox Science

» Exeter Soapbox Science

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