Staff Spotlight: Dr Lauren Biermann – Marine Remote Sensing Scientist
26 May 2023
Dr Lauren Biermann is a Marine Remote Sensing Scientist with a varied research background that includes biological oceanography, biogeochemistry, cellular and molecular biology, and ichthyology. She joined Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML) back in 2018, and during this time, she has become well known for her work using satellite data to detect marine plastic pollution floating on the sea surface.
Lauren kindly took some time to tell us a little more about how she came to join the Earth Observation Science and Observations (EOSA) team, some exciting projects she’s working on, plus what she gets up to outside of work.
We first asked Lauren about her background in remote sensing and how she came to join PML.
“It took me a while to find my niche in science, so I tried a few fields before 'discovering’ marine remote sensing. My undergraduate degree is in microbiology and ichthyology, I did an Honours degree in molecular and cellular biology, my M.Sc. is in biological oceanography, and my PhD covered climate change, phytoplankton physiology, tagged marine predators, marine remote sensing, and even animal behaviour.”
“Shubha and Trevor [Platt]* are the reason I discovered an abiding love for marine remote sensing. In the first year of my PhD, I attended the GreenSeas summer school they were running in Cape Town, and I was hooked from that point on.”
*Please see the Trevor Platt Science Foundation for more information. The organisation is dedicated to capacity building in science, research, and education related to our environment, especially our oceans, working towards stewardship of our planet for future generations.
“While writing up a monster of a thesis for my PhD, I accepted a full-time position with Cefas [UK government marine agency] and a secondment to Defra [Government Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs], where I contributed earth observation data to a range of ongoing activities, led my own projects, and coordinated high-level adoption of satellite data into policy. It was a lot to juggle! After graduating, I applied for a one-year contract at PML starting in May 2018, and was delighted when this turned into a permanent position.”
Five years on, Lauren has already accomplished so much! She was the lead author of the first successful study to detect marine plastic pollution using satellites, which became the third most downloaded earth science publication by Nature Scientific Reports that year.
She commented at the time: “This will hopefully provide a stepping stone for satellites and drones to be used to tackle the marine plastics problem at the end of the product lifecycle. However, we will only ever make meaningful progress if we also tackle the source and reduce the amount of plastics produced”.
She won multiple awards for the study, and her interest in satellite detection led to other exciting projects, Lauren continues:
“When I returned from maternity leave in October last year , I spun up a little project to demonstrate that we could detect invasive Sargassum patches using radar data collected by Sentinel-1.”
What is Sargassum?
Sargassum is a genus of large brown seaweed that floats in island-like masses (though never attaches to the seafloor). Sometimes these patches can stretch for miles across the ocean.
“Invasive species - and non-indigenous seaweeds like Sargassum - that occupy new ecosystems are one of the major threats to biodiversity and resilience of coastal and marine habitats.”
“The project started out as a small case study off Barbados showing that (1) radar is a useful tool for the job, (2) the SARgassum index I developed could feed into Dr Andrey Kurekin’s existing vessel detection algorithm, and (3) our process fits into standard processing chains for Sentinel-1.”
“The work was really fun though, so we also developed a neat way of tracking incoming Sargassum invasions to assess how much warning could be given to island communities. Additionally, Dr Thomas Jackson and I ran a quick but fierce competition, pitting detection outputs from machine learning against the SARgassum index. Although it was an even draw off Barbados, we'll keep adding to the training data, and progress our work in new areas using machine learning. Win-win!”
We next asked Lauren what she especially enjoys about her job in remote sensing, and whether there were any highlights or special moments she would like to share.
“I enjoy the day-to-day diversity of my work, being part of the NEODAAS team, supervising my students, and sharing knowledge through teaching. The people at PML are brilliant, and I am always excited by opportunities to collaborate.”
[Lauren actually has an outreach event coming up very soon! She will be speaking at SoapBox Science in Exeter on the 10th June 2023. Find out more >>]
“A few years ago, I led publication of what I thought was quite a dry technical paper demonstrating that marine plastics could be detected in Sentinel-2 data. I was not prepared for the attention that followed, but having our work recognised with an Ocean Award from BLUE Marine was a true career highlight. The following year, I was also invited to present on the links between plastics and climate change at COP26, which was an incredible experience.”
We then asked Lauren whether she felt women are underrepresented in her field of science, and what advice she would give to women considering a career in earth observation.
“Absolutely, but our Earth Observation Science and Observations group at PML is relatively progressive, in that 35% of our group (7 of 25 people) identify as women. I am also treated as a respected peer and equal at work, so the uneven gender split only feels obvious when I end up being the only woman in a meeting or on a new project.”
“However, one downside of having few women in this field means I’ve seen or been on the receiving end of terrible behaviour outside of my EOSA ‘bubble’, and not had networks of other women to draw on for advice or support. Recently, I’ve started connecting with women scientists blazing trails in other fields, which has been a positive, validating experience. This is also my advice for women considering EO – it is a brilliant career that is rapidly attracting more women, but if you don’t find an extensive support system in your immediate field, build one outside of it. I’m happy to mentor people through this process!”
We finished our questions to ask Lauren what she enjoyed getting up to outside of work.
“I mostly spend my ‘free’ time renovating our home (I learned how to gut our kitchen on TikTok) and hanging out with our whirlwind of a daughter, so I have fewer opportunities for sport and travel these days. I still make time for reading, baking, and gardening, and I’m looking forward to scuba diving and sea swimming this summer."
Biermann, L., Clewley, D., Martinez-Vicente, V. et al. Finding Plastic Patches in Coastal Waters using Optical Satellite Data. Sci Rep 10, 5364 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-62298-z