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Speaker Spotlight: Prem Gill

Prem Gill is a PhD candidate leading the "Seals from Space: the study of Antarctic pack-ice seals by remote sensing" priority project with the University of Cambridge’s Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI), the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). He will be talking about his work in Cambridge Imagines on 10th April 2-3pm online. Cambridge Imagines is a series of short films with researchers at Cambridge who are imagining the future.

Cambridge Festival: How did you get involved in the study of seals?

PG: My interest in seals started during my undergraduate Marine Geography degree when I was lucky enough to encounter the world’s rarest seal in Samos, Greece. There were only around 400 mature individuals left and they were known to be very wary of humans, breeding in secluded coastal caves away from busy beaches. The last thing I expected was to find one lying on a sunbed surrounded by indifferent sunbathing tourists swigging beer and eating kebabs. I thought to myself if this is how easy it is to monitor the world’s rarest seal, I wonder how easy it is to study the most abundant seals.

Cambridge Festival: Why from space?

PG: As I study seals that live on sea ice, it’s exceptionally difficult to count all of them. Not only is it expensive and potentially dangerous to survey the sea ice that surrounds Antarctica - home to the largest seal populations - but it can cover an area that’s twice the size of Europe. This means that, even by plane or boat, it’s nearly impossible to survey all of their sea ice habitat. Satellite imagery provides a cost-effective way to not only count seals across the whole of Antarctica but also more frequently, which helps us better track potential changes in the population. The images have a very high resolution which means we can see seals, baby seals and even blood on the sea ice from where a seal has just given birth.

Cambridge Festival: What have been the main challenges of conducting your research?

PG: As silly as it sounds, one of the biggest challenges when it comes to studying seals from space is knowing whether the black blob you’re staring at in your satellite image is actually a seal or a rock. To help solve this, I travelled to Rothera Research Station in Antarctica to conduct surveys of Antarctic seals. Using a fancy bit of kit called a ‘field spectrometer’, we measured the light different seal species reflect in order to teach computers to tell the difference between seals and rocks through a seal’s spectral signature. Our sensor was attached to the end of a five-metre pole so we could hold it above the seals from a safe distance. It wasn’t unusual for people to start singing the Ghostbusters theme tune as we sprang into action and departed the base with our large backpacks and poles covered in zappy sensors.

I was in Antarctica for just two weeks and the pandemic was unfolding, giving us a limited and uncertain amount of time to frantically search for all the seal species. It was essentially Pokemon Go but with Antarctic seals and using our devices to capture the light they reflected! Despite the time pressure, we had to tread carefully as we carried the fragile equipment across some of the most extreme terrain on Earth, driving between icebergs or crossing over slippery rocks covered in penguin poo and slumbering fur seals. Given that fur seals can outrun a human across a rocky beach and have quite a bacteria-ridden bite, there was no room for wrong steps. Luckily, we managed to obtain the first spectral signatures of Antarctic ice seals and survey four of the six species!

Cambridge Festival: What have some of your main findings been so far?

PG: A large part of my research investigates the feasibility of using satellites and drones to study the characteristics of sea ice habitats. While it’s relatively straightforward to count seals in a satellite image (for example, the object is or is not a seal), mapping sea ice from satellite imagery requires a lot of time and effort as it’s so complex. Sea ice occurs in an endless variety of shapes, sizes and textures and can be classified into several types. There’s also simply just a lot of sea ice to map in each image! 

To deal with this, I’m running a Citizen Science project to see whether we can accurately map large areas of sea ice through the power of the crowd and I’ve also teamed up with data scientists at the Alan Turing Institute and the applied mathematics department to see whether we can use Artificial Intelligence to automatically map sea ice. Through this work, we’re creating some of the first very high-resolution datasets and tools for mapping sea ice which is crucial given its vital importance to a range of polar species, such as penguins, polar bears, whales and seals, and its predicted decline in the coming decades.

Cambridge Festival: You've worked with the BBC Natural History Unit and on an art installation. How important is it to get the kind of research you are doing over to a wider audience?

PG: I know from personal experience the power of culture and art in connecting audiences to polar regions and the research conducted there. One of the main inspirations that led me to polar science was watching the first Frozen Planet as an excited undergrad, and 10 years on, it’s gone full circle as I’ve ended up working on Frozen Planet II alongside the directors from the original due to my polar science expertise!

Given my own journey to polar science, it’s important I use my research to create art (such as ‘seal grime’ music made from the sounds of Antarctic seals) to transform the worldview of kids who feel disconnected from the polar regions or struggle to view themselves as polar scientists. Nothing hurts more than giving talks to schools and seeing children not ask how they can be polar scientists too despite their excitement and clever questions.

Cambridge Festival: What has been the feedback?

PG: Overwhelming! You’d be surprised by how many people I bump into who have heard of the Seals from Space or the seal grime music…it’s even ended up in children’s books and magazines. My email inbox is slightly busy and it’s a bit odd to walk into a high street bookstore and see a cartoon version of you and the seals you study staring back at you, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Cambridge Festival: What is Polar Impact and what does it do?

PG: Polar Impact is an inclusive network of racial and ethnic minorities and allies in the polar research community. Since 2019, we have helped change the face of polar research and exploration by providing opportunities that attract and retain talent from non-traditional backgrounds. Why? To ensure we develop robust and inclusive plans to adapt to climate change we need to have as many people involved in polar research as possible. It’s as simple as that.

Despite being led by a small group of volunteer students, we’re extremely proud of what we’ve managed to achieve, which includes creating a platform to highlight and support polar researchers and explorers from across the globe, running workshops that provide an entry route to polar science for students and connecting members to a variety of opportunities within academia and media, such as work with wildlife documentary producers for Netflix and National Geographic.