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  • Sophie Arthur

Life Sciences Awardee 2020: Professor Samantha ‘Mandy’ Joye

“Most people love to go swimming and such but I always loved stinky water”

Professor Samantha ‘Mandy’ Joye is an internationally recognised oceanographer and marine scientist. Her research aims to identify links between environmental variables, the microbial community in oceans and coastal areas and their activity. These microorganisms are responsible for filtering nutrients, cleansing the water, providing food for fish and producing half the oxygen that is in the atmosphere. Joye’s research is therefore critical when building models that can better predict how the Earth will react to changing conditions, such as a rise in temperature.

In addition to her exploration of the seas, Joye has sought out opportunities to share the stories of science. From being a lead scientist on the BBC television documentary series, Blue Planet II, to responding to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Joye has passionately conveyed her work to the public. Joye is the recipient of this year’s communication award in the Life Sciences branch because of this commitment to engagement.

Joye’s first love is caring for the Earth, a value instilled in her from a young age. “Neither of my parents were scientists, but my father was a farmer, which is really a de facto scientist. They have to understand how soil works, how you keep it healthy and appreciate the Earth. Even though he wasn’t a scientist, he had a scientific approach to things. When I asked a question, he would never tell me the answer. He would shoot back another question like ‘what do you think?’, ‘why do you think that is?' or ‘what would you need to figure that out?’ which pushed me to think about things and ask questions.”

But it wasn’t just the Earth that captured Joye’s imagination. “I’ve always been drawn to water. Most people love to go swimming and such but I always loved stinky water. I would collect water from the creeks and ponds with algal blooms and put it in the sun to see what colour it turned. I didn’t know anything about phytoplankton, or bacteria, but I knew that if you got different water from different sources it would turn different colours. My mom then got me a microscope when I was about 9 years old and all of a sudden I could see these little things that were causing the colour change. I was hooked on learning about all things microbial.”

“The ocean has always had my heart”

After completing her undergraduate degree in biology, Joye narrowed in on marine science. “The ocean has always had my heart. The thing I love the most about the ocean is just the rhythm. It always brings you back to this very calm place of constant soothing movement combined with the sounds of the wind and the bubbles bursting in the sea foam. One of my favourite things to do is go somewhere remote and be on the beach by myself and just listen and feel it.”

As part of her research, Joye has been able to explore the depths of her beloved ocean during numerous visits to the sea floor. “My first time in a submarine was literally a life changing experience. It is really hard to convey the sense of wonder and amazement that you feel when those lights come on. You look out of the view port and you see this world that you didn’t know existed. It seems so bizarre and magnificent all at the same time.

“When you’re out on an expedition, you will often see something that no human has ever seen before. There aren’t many jobs in the world where you can do something like that, and be the first person to witness something, or the first to describe a species.”

For Joye, the experience provides more than just the sight of a 20-foot shark, it also coaxes out her creativity. “I’ve had so many Nature paper ideas on a submarine because it helps you to think about things in a way you never would before. It’s a phenomenal experience, and I wish everyone could do it because the way we see the world will change. I can’t wait to be able to take my daughters down there one day and experience that with them.”

“For those who can commit to becoming science ambassadors, we need you!”

Alongside her scientific research, Joye has become a staunch communicator of her work. She is particularly well-known for her response to the Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon oil spill. “I have worked in the Gulf of Mexico since 1994, and it is a system that has taught me a great deal. When the oil spill happened I wanted to help. I became involved in the response early on, and my work touched on a number of important themes - including the discovery of the deepwater oil plumes, contributing to the discovery of sedimented oil, and assessing the impacts of response measures (chemical dispersants) on microbial activity.

“During the oil spill, some reporters only wanted a catchy headline. They seemed less interested in the truth. A lot of other scientists warned me not to engage with the media but the public had so many questions and I felt like I could provide some honest answers. I realised that I could be a science advocate - someone who interprets scientific data to advocate for the public good - without jeopardising my scientific integrity. Stick to the facts, tell the story, engage people and help them understand what is going on. Despite my best efforts, a lot of other scientists criticised me for doing this, and questioned my motivations. On more than one occasion, someone accused me of using the oil spill to get famous. I know what my motives were and they were pure. I wanted to help and I did.”

More than ever, Joye remains committed to public outreach, and is encouraging of others to follow suit. “I have always been a story teller and tried to communicate my work to the public in ways that promote and advance science and environmental literacy. It takes time, and it takes a lot of commitment, but the reward is worth it. Not everyone is well suited to engage with the media or with the public - for some people this is outside their comfort zone - but for those who can commit to becoming science ambassadors, we need you!”

“Our voices can help make the world a better place”

Throughout her career as a science ambassador and researcher, Joye has found that balancing these commitments with raising a family was a constant struggle. But navigating her work-life balance and overcoming the criticisms that she has faced, has only inspired Joye to try and make a positive change for others.

“Women need to stand up and speak loudly to support each other, and to support others from under represented groups in STEM. Everyone with a voice, everyone in a position of influence - we all need to take action to advance diversity, inclusion and equity initiatives. Broadening participation will give rise to insight, innovation, and scientific transformation. I want to inspire women and help them find their passion and their voice. Our voices can help make the world a better place. One step at a time, moving forward collectively, we have the power in our hands to promote significant and impactful change.”

Professor Joye was nominated by the 2018 Life Sciences awardee Susan M. Gaines. You can see the lineage of this and other awards within the Life Sciences branch here, and meet the other 2020 Life Sciences awardees here.

The Suffrage Science award schemes celebrates women in science for their scientific achievements and for their ability to inspire others. Each recipient nominates the next recipient of their award, creating a network of inspiring and supportive women.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2020 Life Sciences awards event will now take place virtually alongside the 2020 Maths and Computing awards event later this year. More details to follow.

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