Self-Reflection in Cold Waters

By Natacha Leininger Severin
PhD student at the Department of Veterinary and Animal Science, University of Copenhagen.

Image generated by OpenAI’s DALL-E, used with permission.

Time as a PhD student is brief, and many of us spend too much of this time on worry and self-doubt instead of celebrating the victories that prove our inner critic wrong.

While temperatures skyrocketed in Europe, I spent the fall of 2023 far from the sun, afloat on a gigantic trawler and in the company of 25 hardened seafarers. I was in the first year of my PhD studies and in need of fish for my experiments. Not much is known about the syndrome I study in Greenland halibut, and prior to my trip, securing sample material for the project was a big concern of mine. Therefore, I decided to board Royal Greenland’s newest halibut vessel and go fishing with the big boys in the Baffin Bay.

My journey began in Nuuk. The first days were spent acquiring work clothes in women’s size small and annoying the shit out of the crew with my enthusiasm – but after that, it was smooth sailing! It took two days to arrive at the fishing grounds. Once the fishing started, the days blended; I would wake with the crew at 5 AM, eat and head below deck. Wrapped in layers of insulating protective gear, I would dig deep into the catches and sample all the flaccid flatfish I could get my slippery little gloves on. At 8 AM we had a coffee break on deck, watching the sunrise and waving at passing whales. Back below deck, the cutting and gutting resumed until lunch at 3 PM.

My off-duty time was spent napping, reading, Netflixin’ and hanging in the outdoor spa with the only other female aboard. When coverage allowed it, I would update my loved ones at home on everyday life aboard the floating man cave. A strange serenity filled the days at sea. Far away from civilization and institutional trivia, all there really is to worry about is sleep, work and eating. That allowed me to look upon my achievements in life and in the lab with a certain Zen. Admittedly, this calm state was well aided by the fact that within a week, I had managed to collect 400 kg worth of fish samples!

Time as a PhD student is brief, and many of us spend too much of this time on worry and self-doubt instead of celebrating the victories that prove our inner critic wrong. Granted, not all of us need to look to the bottom of the sea to find our trajectory through academia. But a change of perspective can be invigorating for our view on the work we do and how well we do it.

The experience at sea not only reassured me that I was fully capable of securing the right material to continue my academic pursuits; the hands-on work, the encouragement of the crew and the humbling hydrostatic pressure of le grand bleu enhanced my academic gusto and sense of PhD purpose.

Covered in halibut guts and seawater, hundreds of kilometres away from the nearest peer-reviewer, my confidence soared like the trail of greedy seagulls stalking the ship. I whispered, “Mirror mirror on the wall. Who is the baddest fishb*tch of them all?”
“You are”, the sea breathed.

Author Bio
Natacha is a Danish PhD student enrolled at UCPH. She currently uses her veterinary degree to study ‘Mushy Halibut Syndrome’ in Greenland halibut. Outside work hours, she likes to go on long walks, read very thick books, drink wine and watch The Lord of the Rings on repeat.