To celebrate UK Pride Month, the British Ecological Society journal blogs are posting a ‘Rainbow Research’ series, which aims to promote visibility of STEM researchers from the LGBTQ+ community. Each post will be connected to a theme represented by one of the colours shown in the Progress Pride flag. In this post, Danielle Orrell (Twitter @DaniOrrell Instagram: @bigfishmoves) a PhD student in the Hussey Lab at the University of Windsor discusses what the colour yellow on the progress pride flag and sunlight means to her and her research.

Progress Flag

Hi! My name is Danielle (she/her). While I was born in South West England, I have been fortunate to work in many places, including Scotland, The Bahamas, Croatia, eastern Africa, and the Arctic circle. I am many things: a sister, an aunt, an amateur climber, a SCUBA diver, a researcher and among these many labels, a cisgender bisexual woman. I currently live in southern Ontario, Canada, and I have a keen interest in unsuccessfully identifying local bees, birds, and wildlife.

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Danielle enjoying the sunshine during equipment retrieval. Credit: Kirsty Jones

Dani’s Research

I am in the 3rd year of my PhD in the Hussey Lab at the University of Windsor. I remember sitting in my informal supervisor introduction in The Bahamas in 2018. At this point, I had been eyeing up Overseas Universities and trying to find a good fit for my research aspirations. As I sat this introductory chat, the wind and rain shook the windows, and I worried the power could drop any minute. After this meeting, I set my mind on studying in Canada and applied for an international student scholarship called the Ontario Trillium Scholarship. Fast forward to six months later. I was off to the Arctic circle to track coastal arctic fishes, alongside my fellow lab mate Dr Harri Pettit-Wade, as well as Government researchers and local community members.

While my first experience in the Hussey Lab was studying arctic fishes, the focus of my PhD has involved testing ecological theory on a remote volcanic island. Ascension Island sits 7°56′ south of the Equator in the South Atlantic Ocean. Unlike other subtropical islands, it does not have mangroves or coral reefs. Instead, its coastline is punctuated by volcanic rock, a type of coralline algae called rhodolith, and expanses of sand. Unlike much of the world today, it remains virtually untouched from fishing pressure and offers a unique model system to study niche dynamics.

My PhD aims to understand how animals co-exist under the lens of niche theory, and I hope to understand the movements of two coastal fishes, the rock hind grouper (Epinephelus adscensionis) and the yellow-spotted moray (Gymnothorax moringa), using acoustic telemetry. To do this, I spent the last six months on Ascension Island deploying a network of listening receivers and tagging these fishes with acoustic transmitters. These transmitters emit a unique coded signal that the human ear cannot hear. When fish equipped with this transmitter are within range of a listening receiver, this signal is decoded and stored alongside a time of detection and the unique animal’s ID. This signal can be used to identify the unique fish in range and the date and time of its detection. Using these data, I hope to unravel the activity space, home range and diurnal movements of these two predatory fishes. 

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Tracking grouper and conger using acoustic telemetry. Credit: Jonathon Holt (Instagram: @jonathan_holt_photography)

In addition to tracking animal movement, I hope to recreate, in detail the Ascension Island nearshore food web using biological sampling. By collecting a small muscle sample (>2g just below the skin), and information including the animal’s size and weight, it is possible to piece together how these animals interact. These data can show us who eats who and what proportion of the diet is made up of certain prey. This is important in understanding how Ascension’s fish may respond to climate change and changes in the number and types of fish around the island. To contextualise these data, I conducted remote underwater video surveys to see if these species are feeding selectivity or simply eating what is available.

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Ascension’s panoramic underwater world. Credit: Danielle Orrell

The colour yellow

I asked to write for the yellow, or “sunlight,” section of the Progress Pride flag, as I feel empowered by my time on the sunny volcanic island of Ascension. I have always been apprehensive about disclosing my sexuality in an academic and work setting. My recent experience on Ascension was overwhelmingly positive. I felt accepted both among my colleagues and the local community. While I do not feel my sexuality has driven my research, accepting my sexuality was a key step in feeling self-confident, happy and productive. I have found that in an academic setting, having a solid foundation of self-confidence and self-worth has been vital in staying grounded even when targets are not met and experiments fail.

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Ascension Island above the water. Credit: Danielle Orrell

It should be noted that I am very fortunate to conduct my PhD research on a British Overseas Territory, where same-sex relationships are legal. This freedom is not the case for many countries where universities operate field courses or support field research. I would strongly recommend any university or PI unsure whether their field location is suitable (or even legal) for any LGBTQ2S+ student researcher to reconsider their field site location. Balancing the weight of missed field opportunities against the potential risk to personal safety is an unfair and unjust choice to ask early career researchers to make.

LGBTQ2S+ representation in STEM has a long way to go. Reflecting on my experience in an academic setting, I can count on one hand the number of openly queer scientists I have met, particularly at a senior level. I believe that improvements to the essential resources and support available for LGBTQ2S+ students, post-docs, and staff is a critical step in bridging this gap. An inclusive and safe academic environment is necessary to encourage questioning early career researchers to reach their potential without the added stress of concealing their authentic self.     

Danielle is supported by the Hussey Lab, and funded by the Ontario Trillium Scholarship, the Animal Behaviour Society and an NSERC Discovery grant. All work was conducted under permit