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Home > News and views > Where could the ESU take you?

Where could the ESU take you?

We catch up with scientist and photographer, Vivien Cumming, whose ESU research scholarship took her to the edges of the world and the beginnings of evolution 

Vivien Cumming is a scientist, photographer and writer who travels the world in the pursuit of new adventures and discoveries. She has journeyed to some of the world’s most inhospitable places (as her beautiful photographs on these pages show) and thrives in environments where few others have ventured.

Starting out with a degree in Natural Sciences, she went on to do a PhD, followed by postdoctoral research at Harvard University as part of her ESU Lindemann Scholarship. Just back from Myanmar, where she joined scientists from Cambridge University researching carbon cycling in rivers running from the Himalayas, we caught up with her to find out more about her research and what she most enjoys about visiting such remote regions…

I honestly didn’t think I’d get an interview for the Lindemann scholarship, so I booked a trekking holiday to Nepal that fell over the interview dates. Then, just before I left, I received an email saying the panel did want to meet me. I arranged to do it via Skype and frantically started trying to find out if any places on my trek had internet access, and the one place that had was a little mountain hut just below Everest Base Camp, so I went ahead and did the interview from there. It was pretty hilarious. I had quite bad altitude sickness and it was freezing cold – I had so many layers on and hoods up that they could barely see my face. The internet cut out a few times, and at one point I just couldn’t hear what the panel were saying, but I must have done ok because I got the scholarship.

My scholarship took me to Harvard where I did my postdoctoral research on early life and evolution in the Earth Sciences Department. We took rocks and dissolved them – looking at all the different elements to try and understand a bit about the climate and the state of the oceans at the time when life was first evolving. One of the most significant things I found out is that there’s so much we still don’t know! Just being at Harvard is a pretty amazing experience in itself because you’re surrounded by people who have done some remarkable things. Being able to attend their talks and lectures was an incredible privilege. I went to Baffin Island to continue the research that I was doing in the lab.

We flew to a place called Pond Inlet, an Inuit town on the north coast of Baffin Island, and from there we took a helicopter out to a remote area where we set up camp. The weather was beautiful for the first few days but the day before we were due to leave it started snowing, and it didn’t stop for five days. It wasn’t safe for the helicopter to fly so we had to shelter and be on polar bear watch the whole time. The trouble is that when there’s a blizzard outside it’s tough to see a white bear, so we were all terrified that one would creep up on us!

I love being somewhere where you’re totally at the mercy of the elements; where you have no access to outside communication and you really are living in the wilderness. It gives you a sense of perspective about the planet, nature, and its power.

Part of the way I spread this message is by speaking in schools about what I’ve done, and what I’m doing. A child will often come up to me and say ‘I want to do this, or go there, or “can you help me with this?”’ and that means a lot to me.

I love being able to show people different places and the way that the world works. I think it’s very important to share these experiences with people. Nowadays I think people are pretty cut off from how important nature is to human survival, and we are turning a blind eye to what’s going on in the natural world. The biodiversity in nature is something that is essential to human existence – I’d like to help people to understand that vital link and to appreciate the natural world.

Each year, the English-Speaking Union offers fellowships for postdoctoral scientists to carry out research at a host institution in the USA. Applications are now open, find out more here.

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