Karl Attard is a marine scientist by training. He did his undergrad degree in Scotland, and his Masters and PhD in Denmark. Now he’s working as a postdoctoral researcher by universities in Denmark and Finland. So he’s being paid to study, and – essentially – do what he loves: learning about coastal marine environments.
“I never left university!” Attard tells Lovin Malta when we ask him how he got to where he is now. “After my PhD I lived and worked in Greenland, joined a scientific expedition on an icebreaker to the North Pole, and deployed instruments using a remotely operated vehicle to study coral reefs at several hundred metres water depth.”
So, quite different from the majority of us who just chill and ‘hope for the best’ after uni.
We ask Attard about his current project, which has seen him traipsing around the Baltic Sea, hoping to find answers to his research team’s marine-biodiversity questions.
“In 2016 I partnered up with a research group in Finland to investigate some of the aching questions that had arisen throughout my studies up till then, using the Baltic Sea as our testing ground. In this new project, we’re studying the links between the variety of life in the ocean, and the rates at which key ocean ecosystem processes, such as primary productivity and respiration, occur. We’re half-way through this project.”
Before this, Attard spent two months in Antarctica after his team’s Chilean colleagues invited them to join them on their summer field season to study the coastal areas around their research base located on the Antarctic Peninsula.
“I had never been to Antarctica and we had some good ideas for research to perform there, so we were happy to say yes!”
It seems pretty obvious why this job is awesome. Attard gets to travel around the globe discovering new things about the natural world, and meet all kinds of amazing people and animals. But we thought we’d ask anyway.
“I enjoy having a varied workload and I enjoy the research process: planning fieldwork, designing equipment for new scientific applications, collecting new data, figuring out how stuff works, writing and publishing papers. And seeing how my research is received by the scientific community. Science is a global language, and attracts some of the most interesting and inspiring people.”
So how does Attard feel about the research he’s been doing for all these years?
“There is value in knowing how our planet works. For instance, we know that the coasts are a major provider of goods and services – scientists and policymakers get this – but on a global scale, we lack quantitative understanding of some of the most fundamental processes occurring in our coastal waters.”
“This means we have to physically travel to the places of interest with the equipment to collect data over several weeks or seasons, often in remote parts of the world. It’s a long-term project, but it is a worthy investment.”
Growing up in Malta Karl was always been interested in all things marine. But he really found his feet in his line of study once he moved to Scotland and later Denmark. We asked him if he thinks his line of work is known to many people in Malta.
“I find there is great interest in maritime affairs amongst the Maltese, and people are familiar with some ecological concepts. I remember being taught at school about seagrass beds around Malta and about their importance for habitat provision and for oxygenating coastal waters.”
“But on the other hand, most are probably unfamiliar with the term ‘biogeochemistry’, used to describe the scientific discipline of my research. This topic is greatly underrepresented locally and regionally in the Mediterranean, so exposure like this is an opportunity to create awareness and generate interest in and demand for biogeochemical research in Malta.”
“I’m going to have to say visiting and conducting research in Antarctica,” Attard says after we coerced him into pinning down one favourite career moment. “That place is truly extraordinary! Getting there is an adventure in itself and once there we were immediately astonished and overwhelmed by the amount of life. We must have seen thousands of penguins and hundreds of humpback whales. We saw killer whales, various species of seals, sea lions, and seabirds.”
“And the seabed – amazing. We saw large colourful sponges, sea stars, kelps, sea spiders. It seemed remarkable to me that an ocean that is so cold and so seasonal can also be so productive. The water temperature ranges from -1.8°C in winter to just 3°C in summer, and yet the animals thrive there. They love it cold!”
We would be jealous of Attard’s research adventures if we weren’t so damn impressed. Our hat comes off to him for repping Malta, literally, from the top to the bottom of the world!