A student with a passion for scuba diving and science has just started her dream PhD at the University of Portsmouth.
Laura Fantuzzi will spend the next three years analysing ocean pollution data collected by rowers during the GB Row Challenge, a 2,000-mile event that circumnavigates Great Britain’s coastline.
She said: “I’m excited to be part of such an exciting and unique collaboration, which pairs sport and science. Citizen science projects like this are so important because they show how scientists can work with members of the public to elicit real change.”
GB Row Challenge partnered with the University of Portsmouth last year with the long-term aim of collecting data on microplastics, temperature, noise pollution and biodiversity between 2022 and 2025.
Laura’s PhD will involve analysing this data, which is collected by rowing boats carrying specialist equipment.
Laura, who is originally from Belgium, has a lifelong love of the ocean. She said: “I was fascinated by dolphins from a young age and discovered scuba diving when I spent eight months in Malta learning English at the age of 18.
“I felt completely in my element when I was in the water and knew that I was destined to study marine biology at university, so I applied to do a Master’s in the subject in the UK.”
This grounding in marine biology led to an interest in microplastic pollution more generally and a holistic approach to the health of the environment, which set her on the path to a PhD opportunity she considers to be the perfect fit.
She added: “This PhD combines so many things that are important to me - ocean pollution, biodiversity, citizen science and sport. It’s the perfect fit for me and couldn’t have come at a better time.
“I knew I wanted to continue doing research into plastics pollution in particular because the scale of the problem is so alarming. Plastic pollution is everywhere - in the air, in lakes, rivers, the sea, the deep sea, in fish. It’s something we need to draw attention to and engage with if we want to solve the problem.
“What’s so exciting about this PhD is there is also the opportunity to study noise pollution, which is another major pollution problem in our oceans. I’ll be using analytical methods typically used for space science, which is very cool!”
Laura will also be reporting on biodiversity, creating a picture of what species are living in and around different areas of the coast and how these might be changing over time.
The results from last year’s challenge have already given an important contribution to the knowledge of UK seas. But Laura believes the strength of the project is how combining these datasets can be used in future.
“By gathering data each year, we can build a valuable picture that will help preserve marine environments and wildlife”, she explained. “I really hope this will serve as crucial baseline data, which can eventually be used by policymakers to tackle pollution.”
GB Row Challenge Founder William de Laszlo said: “The data collected last year has already demonstrated the power of a project like this. By combining ocean rowing with science, we’ve gained greater insight into the state of our waters, which is fundamental to ensuring we can ultimately protect them.”
Laura was also a keen rower at university, but thinks she’ll be too busy in the lab reporting on the science to embark on the world’s toughest rowing race.
Dr Fay Couceiro, Reader in Biogeochemistry and Environmental Pollution at the University of Portsmouth, is one of Laura’s PhD supervisors. She said: “Laura is an excellent addition to this exciting collaboration between the university and GB Row Challenge. We’re thrilled to have her on board.
“Now we need more rowers to join GB Row for the upcoming years, collecting data and information about what’s happening to our ocean, so we can have a clear picture of the environmental damage and long term impact of pollutants on our seas. If you’re interested in taking on an epic endurance challenge, please get in touch!”