Inspiring People: Laura La Beur

With International Women’s Day last week, I decided I wanted to interview a women in science that has inspired me, so I interviewed Laura La Beur. I have never met anyone quite like her and I love her for that. Laura is full of passion, opinionated and kind. She openly advocates body positivity, LGBTQIA rights, reducing plastic waste, being more environmentally friendly with her consumer choices and just being 100% YOU to name a few. I remember when I first met Laura I felt slightly intimidated by her confidence and big personality as I am probably the complete opposite – shy and quiet. But we quickly got to know each other, working in the Changing Oceans Lab at Edinburgh University together for our MSc projects and I now consider her a good friend that I will have for life. She always inspired me with her positivity and determination and was the best lab buddy I could have asked for.

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Laura grew up in Florida gaining a Biological Science degree and has since worked as Field Inspector for Florida Keys Mosquito Control and an Environmental Educator before heading to chilly Edinburgh to complete her MSc in Marine Systems and Policies. She now works with the Coral Restoration Foundation back in the Florida Keys and is looking to go into either education and outreach or continue her research as she has just published her first paper! I’ll let her tell you more about that though!

First of all, congrats on your paper! So exciting! Can you describe what you did and what you found?

“Just briefly, for my dissertation I looked way more into the policy than what got published. I was looking at the Marine Strategy Framework Directive for the EU and how Descriptor 10, which is for marine litter, deals with deep sea debris and it doesn’t which is something that I found. So moving from that we looked at what’s in the deep sea so we can set a baseline assessment. So is there trash or debris? If there is, what kind is it, how much is there and using the targets and indicators established by the Marine Strategy Framework Directive to establish good environmental standing. So how we say if an area is healthy or not based on what’s there. Every area is different, it could be zero, if you have any plastic it’s not healthy, or maybe you have a certain amount but up to that threshold is okay, it’s not really affecting the ecosystem functioning, but just moving forward and creating those targets and indicators with regard to deep sea habitats.

“So then what I did is work with the Changing Oceans Lab at the University of Edinburgh, specifically with Lea-Anne Henry, Murray Roberts and Sebastian Hennige. I pulled all of the data from the Mingulay Marine Protected Area. It’s a 150m Marine Protected Area off the western coast of Scotland and they have been researching and going out to this area since 2003 which is really interesting as we have backlogged data so we can create a really good baseline. So I looked through all of the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) footage to see if there had been any visible debris and I looked through cruise reports to see if any debris had been recorded or reported. But up until now there’s no standardised way and it’s not something that they were out there looking for or researching so it’s just sort of anecdotally oh we found plastic or we found lobster pot rope or whatever.

“And I also did my dissections. I looked at some of the creatures that have been brought back from those expeditions and I put them in a nice little acid enzyme and tried digesting them but it didn’t work they way we thought it would, so I ended up using the enzyme to assist in the dissections. I looked at those three things, I looked at the video footage and whether any litter was reflected in the cruise reports […] There was one case where they pulled up a lobster pot and it had entangled around the ROV and broke a bunch of stuff. They had to ground the ROV on the boat and do a bunch of fixes because it got tangled around the cables!

“So what I did was recorded it,[microplastics] tried to identify it in terms of what category it fit in by looking at the UNEP litter classifications and I used those litter classifications to record and report the litter from 2009-2012. Then I went in and did my dissections of my wee beasties and looked for microplastics of which I did find some. Mingulay has this really interesting downwelling, so water from surface layers is pulled down to the corals that live at 250m which is typically how those organisms get food by plankton being pulled down but because we have so much debris they’re getting microplastics pulled down too so we thought that there could be microplastics in the organisms. I did 111 dissections and 9/10 had microplastics from 200m down. So plastics are everywhere now”.

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Laura and me at our Edinburgh graduation last year

Can you tell me what you’re doing now then?

“I am working as a coral conservation and reef restoration intern with Coral Restoration Foundation™, (CRF™ ) down in Florida Keys working on the Florida Reef Tract, the only barrier reef in the continental United States and what I’m doing is restoring a couple different coral species. Primarily, Staghorn and Elkhorn coral and what we do is grow them in the nursery and then outplant them to the reefs”.

What’s a typical day for you then?

“We dive as much as possible, weather dependent but if we’re on land I do a lot of education programmes and administrative tasks and work with the communications department. The nursery is in the ocean, an in situ nursery with “trees” that CRF™ designed. We hang coral fragments from the “trees” and they grow there but we have to go in and clean the “trees” because of biofouling. When we do out-planting we take corals from the “trees” to the reefs and use 2 part marine epoxy to glue them to the reef and they grow. We go back and monitor them after a month, 6 months a year etc. We’re trying to restore the resilience and bring back the reef!”

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Laura hanging corals

Has it been successful?

“Yes! If you go to the website, you can find out more about our numbers and our annual report with all our corals that got out planted but its upwards of 75% survival rate, so it’s definitely working! I love the diving and if you’re interested in internships we have interns every semester which is also on our website!”

What made you decide to follow this career path? Why marine biology?

“I didn’t want to be in the north for another winter! (i.e. Scotland!) I’m getting to be in Florida where the coldest it’s been is maybe 50F, very warm, and I wanted to get SCUBA diving experience which has been really rewarding and just sort of sit on my publication and now that is out I will hopefully be more competitive when applying for career opportunities.

“[…] I have a bachelors in biological science with environmental science certificate and all my electives were marine. I’ve always enjoyed learning about it [marine biology] and its fascinating to me and I’ve always been engaged in it. In certain science aspects, I just shut down, you know it’s not cool, it’s not fun and I’ve just been sort of drawn to marine science and I feel like it just comes naturally to me! So I thought oh I’ll take marine biology in high school because how hard can it be and then I was like wow I really like this, it’s awesome there’s so many cool things to know and so many facets. I never thought I’d be into deep sea research and here I am having a publication in deep water coral! It’s just been something that I couldn’t ever see any other career path and now I’m getting into the education side of things and I really enjoy that, you know teaching other people how cool the ocean is! I would love to be a marine biology teacher.

Laura snorkelling in the Maldives

Is there a specific person that you think has influenced you to go into marine biology?  

“Yeah actually, probably my dad. He was a fisherman and used to drag my sister and me on boat trips whether we wanted to or not and we would just sit there and hang out and spend quality time. I think, you know, just having that experience and interaction and he’s fishing but we thought fishing was boring so we used to just go and play in the mud and discover things and hang out and I think that was really important to me developing. I mean there’s pictures of me when I was a kid holding fish that are bigger than I am out on the boat with my giraffe life vest! I’m really grateful for that”.

Laura on a fishing trip when she was little

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

“I can’t think of anything very specific but for me personally, it’s okay if people don’t like you! That’s not very poignant or whatever, but I used to struggle as a young person trying to fit my personality into everyone’s boxes. Especially since its very big and strong and opinionated! I think it’s just okay you don’t have to necessarily be friends with everybody.

What’s a surprising lesson that you’ve learned along the way?

“Oh! You don’t always have to be right! Sometimes it’s better just to say nothing and that’s okay!”

Do you have any specific goals for this year, what’s next for you?

“I think having my paper accomplished in the first three months of 2019 is a pretty good way to start, I’m really super pleased with that. Just getting my research out to the public is super rewarding and letting people know that this is an issue that needs to be addressed I think just moving forward with that.

“Personal goals I think I would just really like to get an opportunity that I’m really excited and engaged about and I feel like I’m part of a team but I would really like to be closer to my partner. I think personal relationships are just as important as professional ones and I have spent a lot of time in the last year working on my professional and I think 2019 is a good opportunity to work on my personal self. He’s in Portland, Oregon so I’ll just see how things go and see how I do!”

After we just finished our MSc! 

Huge thanks to Laura for taking the time to answer my questions I can’t wait to see where Laura’s love of the ocean takes her and I’m sure she’ll continue to inspire along the way! You can follow Laura on instagram: @sunlashine  and find her on Linkedin


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