Jes Bartlett

Jes Bartlett

Jes Bartlett is a polar ecologist and PhD Researcher at the University of Birmingham, where she studies an invasive species of midge in Antarctica. Hear all about her research and her fieldwork in the polar regions in Episode 8 of Fieldwork Diaries, and read her biography below. Find her on Twitter at @JesamineCB and on Instagram at @jesaminebartlett.

 

I always admired explorers, and remember as a 4-year-old tying up my favourite My Little Pony and a biscuit into a towel and hooking them around a broom handle, just like the cartoon wanderers did in my books. I left the house whilst my mum was distracted and adventured down great valleys to reach a huge steep embankment … to the A30 dual carriageway that runs through Cornwall where I grew up. I sat down and watched the rivers of traffic, stumped by my inability to cross the road without my mum to hold my hand, until a lady on a moped picked me up and took me home to a bewildered and distressed mother. I never really cured my itchy ‘adventure’ feet, getting plucked off rock faces by the RNLI aged 9 and out galloping angry and armed farmers on my actual little pony aged 11 as I scoured their land for potential treasures. Biology was always close: I started conservation campaigns to save things that did not need saving, kept pet spiders in coke cans and personally named all the plants within a 100m radius of my house, usually something along the lines of Sheila Shrub. But the necessity of having to acquire material stuff, pay bills and become a career type seeped away a lot of my time and energy for such escapades as I became an adult, and I ended up working in finance. I read science in my spare time, stared out the window at the bank where I worked, ate my lunch on the pier steps with my toes in the sea. And that was what I thought my life would be forever more.

Signy Island research station, Antarctica about to snowed on even more!

Sometime later I had the opportunity and freedom of thought to really evaluate who I wanted to be. And what was stopping me from being that person. I’d never stopped reading popular science or books on heroic adventurers, but growing up where I did with the few role models that I did have, it did not occur to me that this was something I could do. Science and adventure was for other people ‘up country’ and for David Attenborough types on the telly. But one day I watched Frozen Planet, and realised that Antarctica was the most incredible place I had ever seen and that quite frankly, I had to go there. Why shouldn’t I?! Seeing his name in the credits, and having recognised it before from Blue Planet, I looked up Doug Allen online. I saw his career path and that he initially worked for the British Antarctic Survey. I looked them up. I was hooked. I made a plan: I needed to go to University. But first, I needed to get a qualification that would get me to university!

The view from base at night, just as night became a thing at the end of summer!

One Higher Certificate in Natural Sciences later, I entered life as a mature student at the University of Nottingham to study Zoology. I loved every second. I joined the mountaineering society and finally learned how to use ropes when climbing rock faces instead of just hoping the waves and/or the RNLI would catch you! The thing that really got me buzzing at university was the idea of the interconnectedness of everything: how links in the food chain can be disrupted, cascading effects out around them. So, when I had the opportunity to look at invertebrate communities in the root system of a common plant, and how they affected each other, I jumped in with both feet. I conducted my field research at home in Derbyshire in the winter of 2010. And when it snowed for weeks and temperatures dropped below -10°C and I was still finding bugs alive in the soil, my mind was blown!

Out for a hike, Signy Island, Antarctica.

On graduating I promptly decided I needed more field experience in order to be an ecologist and have any chance of going South. I volunteered for Moors for the Future in the Peak District and learned how it is not only animals that influence trophic cascades, but the landscape itself; how the organic matter in water is influenced by vegetation cover on the stream banks; how the success of wildlife depends on the chemistry of the soil in which the vegetation can grow. With my experience on the hills of the Peak District and South Pennines, I won an EU scholarship to work in Norway for a summer, for the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA). This was an incredible experience for me, being able to spend months in the mountains of Norway researching the ecosystem of the Arctic fox. I learned a lot about mountain craft and conducting research in remote areas in small teams. The next year they asked me back, but this time as the team leader. I eventually moved to Norway, but all the while the idea of insects being the drivers of so much activity in ecosystems never left me, and I really wanted to get to Antarctica!

Earlier, in 2012, I had contacted Scott Hayward at the University of Birmingham about a PhD, but I had no Master’s degree so this was a long shot. Scott specialised in cold-tolerance in bugs and had a close relationship with the British Antarctic Survey. But he took the time to guide me and having saved up some money working for Moors for the Future and the Norwegians, I was able to undertake a Master’s (at his strong encouragement for me to not spend it on travelling!) in Polar and Alpine Science at the University of Sheffield. I got to conduct my project in Svalbard of all places, which whilst not Antarctica, was pretty damn awesome! I specialised in glacial ecology, studying tardigrades that lived on the surface on the ice and how they influenced the carbon cycle. Scott was still in contact and served as my mentor for a total of 3 years before we finally got funding for my project. And a field season in Antarctica.

Me, boarding the RRS Ernest Shackleton in Port Stanley, Falklands.

So now I study an Antarctic insect and how it survives where it does, and what influence it has on the ecosystem it is part of. I got the project I wanted and after ten years of dreaming and striving, sailed to Signy Island, Antarctica as a fully endorsed part of the British Antarctic Survey in December 2016. A year on and I’m still reeling. Still hooked. And still have itchy feet. When I stepped onto Signy Island I cried. I’d made it. Science was for people in offices with big dreams after all. And I knew that this trip was really just the beginning… 😊

Sunset on an iceberg.
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