Fanny de Busserolles is a sensory biologist working as a postdoctoral researcher in the Queensland Brain Institute at the University of Queensland.
She completed a PhD at the University of Western Australia, establishing her expertise in the visual systems of deep-sea fishes.
She has previously worked in world-renowned labs in the UK, France, and Saudi Arabia. Her current DECRA research project extends her interest in dim-light vision to include reef fishes.
I’m a sensory biologist. My research lies at the intersection of neuroscience, animal biology and marine ecology, with the aim of understanding how organisms acquire, process, and respond to information from their environment and particularly how marine creatures see and interact.
During the first two years of my undergraduate degree in France I studied general biology. I realised that I loved the sea and wanted to learn more about it. So in my third year I moved to the west coast of France to live near the sea and study marine biology. Soon I realised that if I wanted to continue in science I needed to speak English really well, so I decided to do a year’s exchange in England. That’s where I discovered and became fascinated by deep-sea biology.
I returned to France and did the second year of my Masters at the nation’s largest deep-sea research centre. I started working on hydrothermal vents, looking at the population structure and the feeding ecology of the animals living in these oases underneath the sea. I loved it and decided to continue as a PhD student. At that time there was no money for a PhD student in this field either in France or England, but I was determined to do a PhD in deep-sea biology or nothing else. So, I continued working as a volunteer at the research centre to publish my Masters work and then was employed as a research assistant for a year. During that time, I saw that Australia had just started a new deep-sea research program and were looking for PhD students. So, I applied and ended up moving to the other end of the world to study deep sea fish vision.
Even though I’d never studied neuroscience or any sensory system, I found this aspect of research so interesting. Not just observing but really understanding the animal itself. I never looked back! At the moment my research is focused on vision in conditions where there is very little light (deep-sea or nocturnal conditions).
Being in Australia, I also study the visual systems and the colour vision of coral reef fish. While humans can’t see colour in the dark, we are not yet sure what animals are capable of. I’m trying to push the field a little bit further to investigate if fish are able to see any kind of colour in dim light conditions.
Challenges and Highlights
I’m pretty early in my career so I’m still proud of my first research paper and submitting my PhD thesis, for example. More recently, getting the DECRA [ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Award] was a huge achievement for me because they are very competitive and really hard to get.
As a researcher it’s challenging to stay in academia and keep going, especially with the short contracts. My first post-doc in Saudi Arabia was really challenging, personally and professionally. It’s a completely different culture and religion and it’s very strict, especially for a woman. Then back in Australia, I went from short contract to short contract with visa insecurities on top of employment insecurities. I applied for a lot of fellowships, and I got lots of rejections. I have a pretty good track record, but some people publish a lot more than I do, and I like to publish comprehensive studies that take more time. With deep-sea work we never know what we will get, when we will get it, if we’re going to have replicates. So sometimes it takes a bit longer to put everything together.
I always had very supportive supervisors and collaborators, which was really helpful. You need people who believe in you, who say you are doing a good job and tell you to continue. There’s also the reward of people coming up to you at conferences and saying: ‘I love your papers.’ At a recent conference a young woman who’d just finished her PhD gave a fantastic talk. She approached me and told me that she was inspired to do her study by one of my papers. That’s a great feeling.
I’m also proud that I moved here from the other side of the world! I took a big risk because I’d never been to Australia, and it was a completely different field of research from what I already knew. But I took the chance and I was extremely lucky I ended up in a wonderful lab with very supportive supervisors and a field of research that I love.
So far, my research has had a lot more impact in the scientific community than outside, but in the future, I’m hoping my research will help to provide a better understanding of how some animals live in their environment and help uncover what we can do to protect them and their habitat.
I’m hoping we can inspire and attract more attention to the research and protection of the deep-sea and the Great Barrier Reef as both habitats are delicate and increasingly threatened by human activities.
I also hope I will be able to inspire more students to enter and continue in the fields of sensory biology and deep-sea biology.
Advice to Younger Researchers
It’s very important to love what you’re doing and to love your research. If you don’t have that drive then there’s probably no reason why you would stay in academia. It’s a hard job. There are many rewards, but it’s a lot of hard work, a lot of rejection, judgment, and lack of employment security.
Even the more senior researchers in Australia have to keep applying for money. So, my advice to young students would be to take your time before rushing into a PhD straight after your studies, especially if you are not 100 percent sure of what you would like to work on. Have a look around, try different fields, labs, countries even volunteer. Then once you find your passion, don’t give up as it is really worth it! Be open to opportunities and take chances!