Kelsey Archer Barnhill

Kelsey is a deep-sea ecologist currently completing her PhD at the School of Geosciences. Exploring the ocean and studying cold-water corals is her greatest passion. Over the past few years, she has been sailing on, and studying the oceans whilst sharing her discoveries, experience, and passion with others. 

portrait of Kelsey Archer Barnhill
Kelsey Archer Barnhill

Finding my passion

I’ve known since I was 18 that I wanted to do deep-sea science. I discovered it through an introductory oceanography course during my first degree at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I was inspired by a TED talk we watched in class one day by Dr Robert Ballard, a prominent oceanographer who discovered the wrecks of the Titanic and the Bismarck, as well as hydrothermal vents (which are like volcanos under water). I was surprised by how little we know about the deep sea and was shocked to hear that we have a much better map of Mars than we do for our oceans. Dr Ballard said that we need to inspire future generations to study the deep sea and become ocean explorers: that’s the moment I thought “Yes, I want to do that!” 

At that time, I was doing an international relations degree. Fortunately, I managed to switch my degree to geological and marine sciences. One of the reasons I was doing international relations was that I was never that good with maths or science at school, but I would pass language and history courses easily. It meant that I never wanted to do science, and I went down the social sciences route instead. I was only doing the introductory oceanography course because people said it was one of the easiest science courses to pass. I just wanted to get my science requirements out of the way: I didn’t know it would change my life! 

After switching degree, I was keen to start sailing and to get some experience out on the ocean, but there weren’t many opportunities available for someone of my age. Luckily, a professor alerted me to an internship with the Ocean Exploration Trust, and that felt like the beginning of my journey… 

Outreach experience

Since then, I’ve spent months on the sea, learning and doing research, as well as some ocean education outreach work. I think children are especially interested in the sea, but they don’t get enough information about it. I used to work with the Primary Science Teaching Trust, helping primary school kids learn about the ocean; they absolutely loved it. Now I even have some little pen pals who send me letters to ask about ocean exploration! 

I’ve also done outreach work for older students. Last summer, during the Covid-19 lockdown, I was on a cruise as a member of a science team but also as their on-board outreach liaison. Originally, the cruise had planned to train early career researchers from Brazil and South Africa on how to conduct research at sea, but travel restrictions prevented them from joining us. However, I wrote blog posts, created videos, and made social media content about how our crew does daily tasks, so that we could still provide them with a valuable learning experience. We reached out to the students who were meant to be on the cruise, as well as others in the deep-sea community from all over the world. Once a week, we would have an hour-long Zoom call, and it was nice to share my experiences with enthusiastic students in that way, despite the pandemic.   

Meeting my hero

Kelsey Barnhill with Robert Ballard
Kelsey with Dr Robert Ballard

One big highlight of my career so far was to have met the man who inspired me: Dr Robert Ballard. He was able to join us for a cruise that I was selected to be on during my first internship. I clearly remember standing on the side of the ship watching as he approached us on a small boat. The next morning, halfway through my 4-8 am watch, he joined us in the control room and sat right next to me. I could barely contain my excitement as he gave us all information about the area and pointed out potential paleoshorelines (historical shorelines). When I got a chance to speak to him, I told him that he was one of the main reasons I was doing deep-sea science, and that it was his speech that had inspired me to find the true passion of my life. It was a very cool full-circle moment. People often say you shouldn’t meet your hero, but that wasn’t the case for me. It was so amazing to talk to him and learn from him: I couldn’t believe that I went from being 18 and thinking “Wow! He is my hero”, to a few years later sailing with him and doing what I love.  

Edinburgh and me

My studies have taken me to many different places, including Spain, Norway, Hawaii and China. I visited Europe for the first time during my studies in Spain, and like a lot of Americans, I wanted to see everything over here. On one occasion I came to Edinburgh on a day trip, and I instantly fell in love with everything here: the views, the people, and the University – especially when I found out that they offered a good deep-sea degree. I decided that I wanted to do my PhD here, and I remember sending my family a postcard telling them that I would love to work as a professor here in the future. Unfortunately, the first time that I applied for my PhD at Edinburgh, the University didn’t take me in. I was let down, but I didn’t let go. I tried again, was accepted, and here I am, with a PhD and a scholarship. So, if it doesn’t work out the first time, always try again. I know it sounds cliché, but it is true, and it works!