The importance of keeping a close eye on the Arctic

Margaret McCaul is a researcher in DCU whose work often takes her out to sea

This time of year, a lot of children are thinking about the North Pole. You are carrying out some science in the Arctic, can you tell us what you are doing there and why?

"I am working in Dublin City University as part of a big European FP7 project called Commonsense, where we are developing cost-effective sensors that can monitor the environment in situ and pick up signs of pollution. We are particularly interested in measuring factors such as nutrients in seawater, which will help us better understand how the marine environment functions.

"One of our test sites for the sensors is the Arctic, which is an extreme and important environment, and as part of the project I travelled to Ny-Ålesund in Svalbard (Norway) with colleagues from the National Research Council, Italy, to the Italian Arctic Research Base to fieldtest the sensors that we developed at DCU."

What kinds of wildlife did you see there?

“We saw minke whales, beluga whales, reindeer, Arctic foxes, geese and Arctic terns. We also had to undergo training to know what to do in case we encountered polar bears, but we didn’t see any. We saw footprints so they had been around recently, but we didn’t have to put our training into use.”

We have heard a lot in recent weeks about thinning ice in the Arctic – how will your research be able to tell us more about changes in the region?

“The ecosystem in the Arctic is extremely vulnerable to slight changes in the environment. We are developing cost-effective sensors that can be deployed there for up to a month, continuously collecting data on nutrient levels every hour. The idea is that if we can drive down the cost of these sensors we can monitor changes to the environment in these remote regions.”


Where else are you looking at pollution?

“We are also looking to use monitoring sensors in the Mediterranean Sea and in environments a bit closer to home in Kinvara and in Dublin Bay.”

Describe the most extreme situation you have encountered in work.

“That would have to be when we were out kayaking in Arctic waters to collect the samples and a minke whale surfaced beside the kayak. That was a really memorable moment!”

How did you become interested in science and engineering?

“Science was the subject I really enjoyed at school because of its applied nature. I had a great science teacher too. I studied science at college and worked in industry before I started working as a researcher with Prof Dermot Diamond in DCU.”

What do you enjoy most about your job?

“I really like the challenging nature of the work, and no two days are the same. I get to work with wonderful people and travel to amazing places. As part of the Commonsense project, we did a two-week voyage in the Mediterranean Sea where we cruised past Mount Etna two days before it erupted.”

When you are not thinking about sensors or going into the field to test them, what do you do with your spare time?

“I don’t have a lot of spare time, but when it’s available I try to get to as many music gigs as possible.”

What would you like to be if you hadn’t become a scientist?

“I think I would be a geography or art teacher, as I have an interest in both subjects.”

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times who writes about health, science and innovation