A distinguished scientist, who has carried out pioneering research into the role of seabirds in marine ecosystems for the past 40 years, has been named as one of the 2018 Outstanding Women of Scotland.
Professor Sarah Wanless, a Fellow of the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH), investigates the impacts of climate change and other human-driven factors, such as fishing, pollution and more recently offshore wind farms, on marine ecosystem structure and function.
This has included developing methods to monitor numbers of seabirds, their breeding success and diet, with much of the vertebrate ecologist’s research carried out as part of CEH’s long-term studies on the Isle of May in the Firth of Forth.
Naming Professor Wanless as one of 10 of its Outstanding Women of Scotland for 2018, the Saltire Society described her as a “highly regarded scientist with international recognition whose work has been essential to the conservation of marine ecosystems”.
The society recognises women from the fields of science, arts, culture, politics and activism each year, and Professor Wanless and other nine new ‘inductees’ into the Outstanding Women of Scotland community were honoured at an event in Glasgow this month. Recipients in previous years have included JK Rowling, Nicola Sturgeon and Annie Lennox.
Professor Wanless said: “I am honoured and overwhelmed to receive this accolade.
“There has been an amazing transformation in the prominence of women in science since I started my career in the 1970s. Then, women were in the minority in terms of speakers at conferences but that is no longer the case, due to more women coming into marine ecology and they have greater confidence.”
She added she had been delighted by the success of female marine ecologists in recent years, including her former PhD students, but stressed that she hoped both men and women would take an interest in marine ecology.
Professor Wanless explained her own interest in her research field was inspired by a tutorial on gannets while a student at the University of Aberdeen in the 1970s. She started working on a short-term contract basis for the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology, a forerunner of the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, in the early 1980s before becoming a full-time member of staff in 1998. Based at CEH’s former site in Banchory, near Aberdeen, she led our long-term studies on the Isle of May from 1998-2007.
Average temperatures in the North Sea have increased as a result of climate change, and her team’s research into the role of industrial sandeel fisheries and oceanographic change in the decline of North Sea kittiwake populations was a key part of the evidence that led to a ban on sandeel fishing down the east coast of Scotland and northern England.
While much of her research has been in the UK and in particular the North Sea, Professor Wanless has also carried out studies abroad and was the British Antarctic Survey’s first female visiting scientist at Bird Island, South Georgia, where she spent two southern summers studying the diving behaviour of South Georgia shags.
Although Professor Wanless retired in 2016, she is still an active researcher for CEH, carrying out seabird observations all-year round, contributing to papers and supervising PhD students.
To date, she has published more than 200 papers. In addition to her work for CEH, Professor Wanless is an honorary professor at Aberdeen and Glasgow universities. She is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and received a number of accolades, including lifetime achievement awards from the UK Seabird Group and the Pacific Seabird Group.
She said one of the most notable changes during her career had been the rapid advance in technology that now enables us to follow seabirds throughout the year when they may be hundreds of miles away from land.
Professor Wanless, who carried out some of the first radio-tracking studies of northern hemisphere seabirds in the late 1980s, explained: “When I started in ecological research all I had was a notebook and a pair of binoculars. Today’s PhD students are able to take advantage of a huge range of devices such as GPS loggers, time-depth recorders, geolocators and even miniaturised bird-borne cameras to collect data 24/7, 365 days a year.”