The Harold Hyam Wingate Foundation
Go Back

Doctor Elizabeth Cruwys

Nationality: United Kingdom

Year: 1993

Subject Area: Science and Engineering

In 1993, I was awarded a Wingate Scholarship, which allowed me to spend a year at the Scott Polar Research Institute investigating heavy metal concentrations in the teeth of seals. I worked with colleagues from the British Antarctic Survey (also in Cambridge), using their scanning electron microscope fitted with an energy-dispersive x-ray analyser to develop a technique for looking at the uptake of these toxins in annual dental growth rings. Seals teeth are incremental, in that new tissue is laid down each year, and in this new tissue are a variety of contaminants, such as lead, cadmium and mercury.

The research allowed me to do two things. First, to develop the actual technique with the British Antarctic Survey technician. He has since applied this to other materials, such as shellfish. Secondly, it allowed me to assess the levels of contaminants in fur seals from the Antarctic. We were able to show that although the levels were not a cause for concern, they were still present in detectable amounts, suggesting that even the 'pristine' areas of the world are not as safe from anthropogenic pollution as we would like to think. I wrote and published two papers outlining the results.

I continued the research for another five years, but funding for these projects is not easy, and eventually, I turned to writing full-time fiction (under the pseudonyms, Susanna Gregory and Simon Beaufort). Although my career is rather different from how I had envisioned it in 1993, I very much appreciate the opportunity the Wingate Foundation gave me by sponsoring me for a year. The technique I helped to refine has been used by other researchers, and so I feel the grant allowed me to make a contribution to the field.

I have not completely abandoned the polar regions, though. Every year I travel to the Antarctic on cruise ships, and I give a series of lectures designed to help passengers understand what they are seeing. I always talk about my Wingate-funded research, and I hope these tourists will go home with the knowledge that humans are having an impact on these wildernesses, and that we all need to think carefully about the way in which are own lives are having an impact on the global environment.

I shall always be grateful to the Foundation for giving me such a tremendous opportunity.