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Dr Emily Humble on wildlife conservation and genetics

Using genetic analysis to aid in conservation management around the world, studying populations of manta rays, and polar adventures.

Emily humble underwater with a jellyfish

Dr Emily Humble is a conservation geneticist who specialises in using genomics as a tool for wildlife conservation. In this interview, she talks about her work in supporting conservation efforts of manta rays, oryx, and sharks through the use of genetic data, her fieldwork experiences, and tea with inspiring women.

Could you tell me a bit about your background and your work?

I first found out about conservation genetics while doing my bachelor's degree in biology. I realised it might be a way to combine work on marine species, which I was interested in, with genetics, which I was good at. So I went on to do a master's in biodiversity informatics and genomics and a PhD in the evolutionary genetics of Antarctic fur seals.

In my role at Roslin and the Vet School my research is more applied. I use genetic analysis to inform the conservation management of threatened and endangered species, from manta rays in the Indian Ocean to scimitar-horned oryx in Chad. I'm interested in understanding how populations of species are related, how much genetic variation they have, and how this relates to past and present population size changes. This can be used to inform conservation policies at national and international levels.

I am also passionate about making DNA sequencing technology available to all. Our planet's biodiversity is often concentrated in parts of the world with little capacity for genetic analysis. For example, Sri Lanka is one of the world's top shark fishing nations, endangered species are landed in fish markets every day, but there is little capability for monitoring the genetics of these species. I am working to build capacity at a remote field station on the Sri Lankan east coast to carry out routine species identification tests.  It's been amazing to see the lab develop from an empty room where I slept on the floor three years ago on fieldwork, into an almost up and running laboratory.

What inspired you to do a PhD on Antarctic fur seals?

I've always been interested in the underwater world. When I saw this PhD position advertised, I thought it was an opportunity that I couldn't turn down. There was also a field trip to the Antarctic as part of that, so it was a no-brainer.

Could you tell me about your experience in the Antarctic?

It was amazing, probably the best field work I've done in my life. It was all organised through the British Antarctic survey and was like waking up into a David Attenborough TV documentary every day.

I stayed on a small island on the tip of South Georgia called Bird Island, to collect information from all the seal pups that were born on a particular beach, which has been monitored for over 30 years. We’re talking several hundred pups so it was hard work, messy at times, but very rewarding.

The island was always loud with the sea and the seals packed on the beach – it was the breeding season so there was a lot going on. The penguin colonies were full of parents feeding their chicks. The albatross colonies were also pretty busy, with birds overhead and downy chicks waiting patiently for food. There was so much activity throughout the whole period, there was always something to watch.

What does a typical workday look like for you?

Most of my time is spent at my computer, doing data analysis or writing. I also supervise PhD students and masters students, which often entails being in the lab, and I teach on a few postgraduate programmes. Previously I did a lot more fieldwork but that’s less prominent these days.

Do you have a favourite project that you’ve worked on?

I’ve worked on manta rays on and off for over 10 years now since setting up a genetics project. Back then we knew next to nothing about these species. Nobody had done genetic studies. Hardly any genetic samples had been collected. So I started to change that and I'm now doing a big population genomic study of manta rays, using samples from all over the world and working with lots of collaborators.

What are some of the challenges you face as a scientist?

One big challenge is getting access to samples. Unlike a lot of the species worked on in Roslin, wild species are a lot more difficult to get samples from, whether that's coordinating logistics of samples around the world, or trying to get DNA out of them.

Often, sample quality is pretty terrible. They might come from fish markets where we don’t know how long they've been there, or from body parts that have been highly processed. One of my students is just trying to get DNA out of dried gill plates, which is what the mantas use to feed, and it’s a big challenge.

Another challenge for me is working on a number of very different projects, and having to context-switch between them, juggling things. I’m getting better at it. I think the solution is to mainly work on one thing at a time!

Can others study a subject such as yours here at Easter Bush Campus?

I think that Roslin and the Vet School are associated with small animals, livestock, aquaculture, and so on, but it is worth remembering there are lots of other things going on at the Roslin Institute. Our group is a mixture of geneticists and vets, so we've got people working from both perspectives. It's an interesting combination and we work on species like golden eagles, red squirrels, and pangolins. Our group run the MVetSci in Conservation Medicine and the MSc in Applied Conservation Genetics with Wildlife Forensics programmes offered by the Vet School. It’s also possible for Dick Vet undergraduate students to carry out small research projects with our group.

If you could have tea with anyone alive or dead, who would it be?

I've always been interested in Joan Procter. She was a zoologist in the early 1900s and the first female curator of reptiles at ZSL London Zoo. She had a creative side too and designed both the aquarium and the reptile house at ZSL. She sadly lived a very short life but I'm pretty sure there would be lots to talk about over tea.

Otherwise, I would love to have had hot tea from a flask up on the cold Cairngorm plateau with writer and poet Nan Shepherd. Failing that, a cuppa with the musician Kate Bush would be wonderful.

If you weren't a scientist, what would you like to be doing?

I like to knit, and often think about setting up a yarn shop in Edinburgh full of natural yarns from local flocks and rare breeds of sheep. Maybe one day.