A University of St Andrews student has been awarded a postgraduate prize for her lively, honest and insightful account of dolphin conservation research.
Sonja Heinrich has won this year’s Gray Prize which originates from an endowment provided by Dr John Gray of Paddington, London in 1808. The prize is awarded annually in each of the Colleges of the University, with the winner receiving £200.
Sonja, who is a postgraduate within the Sea Mammal Research Unit, wrote the paper, ‘When pursuit of a degree becomes passion for a cause: Conservation ecology of dolphins in southern Chile’. It was based on the trials and tribulations of one of her six month research trips to Isla Chiloe where, based in a ‘damp, drafty and flea-infested shack’ and armed with ‘a bit of common sense, an insightful supervisor, a rather light-weight budget and a supersized mountain of gear’, she studied the locations, populations and behaviours of Chilean and Peale’s dolphins, which remain largely un- studied species.
Fighting against severe weather, illness, technical and language difficulties, and working with camera and boat-shy species, she explored the potential threats to dolphins’ survival and the measures and considerations which may be required for an effective management strategy in their rapidly changing coastal habitat.
As if that wasn’t enough, Sonja and her team were burgled – “The loss of equipment and the blow to the morale of our team were substantial. The worst was the loss of a month of photo- identification data in the form of still undeveloped slide films”.
Summing up, Sonja’s paper outlines the achievements of her six month field work trip, one of four conducted during her four year research.
She said, “Our team has developed an educational programme for children using the dolphins as flagship species for a healthy marine environment. To date, we have visited 10 rural schools, given presentations and played a specially developed game based on the local food web and biodiversity. Over 90 children and 10 teachers have participated in these activities”.
The educational visits and Sonja’s dolphin project are being continued and Sonja hopes to submit her thesis in the new year.
“On a very small, but not unimportant scale, it has opened the door for science-based conservation actions carried forth now by capable young Chilean scientists. I consider this my legacy, my biggest achievement to date. Plans are already being hatched to return to this rapidly changing but amazingly beautiful island, its intriguing people and diversity of marine life beckoning closer attention. I look forward to being cold and wet and miserable again, drifting in a small boat amidst a group of elusive little dolphins”.
This year’s Gray Prize runner-ups are Elizabeth Wright and Torsten Michel who both receive £50. Elizabeth wrote a paper on Virginia Woolf as part of her PhD in the School of English while Torsten, a PhD candidate in the School of International Relations, made his case for ‘The need for a re-conceptualisation of security in post-modernity’.
Gray Prize candidates are invited to submit a paper on their research, or an aspect of their research. As well as providing evidence of the quality of the research, the essays should give an idea of the motivations, methods and intended ends of the research, and be accessible to a non-specialist.
NOTE TO EDITORS – Jpeg images of dolphins studied available from the University of St Andrews Press Office – contact details below. Sonja is available for interview today (Monday 5 Dec) on telephone 01334 467203.
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For more information, please contact Claire Grainger, Press Officer – 01334 462530, 07730 415 015 or firstname.lastname@example.org;
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