James Bell

Wow thanks for the votes everybody - I hope you enjoyed chatting with all the other scis just as much

Favourite Thing: What I love most about being a scientist is just how many different things you get to do – it’s a really exciting job – I suppose currently what I most like doing is identifying species



University of Leeds (2013 to now); University of Southampton (2008-2012); Colchester Royal Grammar School (2001-2008)


Masters’ degree in Marine Biology, 5 A-levels, 12 GCSES

Work History:

University of Leeds, National Oceanography Centre (Southampton), Colchester Zoo

Current Job:

PhD Student & Deep Sea Biologist


Natural Environment Research Council, University of Leeds & Natural History Museum

Me and my work

I study how animals in the deep sea affect each other in lots of different environments

Hi, I’m James. I’m a PhD student (so pretty early on in my career). I’m 24, married and have a three-year old daughter (with another on the way eek!). I work at the University of Leeds and also sometimes at the Natural History Museum in London. I’d like to tell you a bit about how I decided I wanted to be a scientist but unfortunately for you, I can’t ever remember not wanting to be one. Even as a little boy I was always fascinated by the natural world, and particularly the deep sea. I studied Biology, Chemistry, Geography (and English Literature) when I did my a-levels, went to Southampton University to study Marine Biology and last september I started my work in Leeds.

Currently I’m working on a project that is looking at special areas of the deep sea that are really hot, in the ocean around Antarctica. Most of the deep sea is pretty cold (not much above freezing temperature) and all the animals ever get to eat is stuff that sinks down from near the sea surface (where plants are found) but the animals I’m studying right now live in places where special bacteria can make food from chemicals that come from under the seafloor in jets of hot water. These hot vents (and a few other ecosystems) are really amazing because they are the only places in the deep sea where food can be made from chemicals like carbon dioxide. This is similar to what plants do on land and in the sunlit areas of the oceans but, because there’s no light in the deep sea, there aren’t any plants. We couldn’t survive without plants because the energy we eat in our food ultimately comes from the sun (and we need plants to convert that energy into a form we can use) and it’s similar for these deep sea animals – they couldn’t survive without the bacteria. Lots of these places are the hot vents I’ve briefly described but these bacteria can also use other chemicals to make sugars, even the bones of whales that have sunk to the bottom of the sea!

The animals I study are mostly small worms and there are thousands of them in the mud at the bottom of the sea but each ecosystem often has a unique combination of these worms (and other animals too) and every time we look somewhere new, we find new animals and new combinations.

myimage1myimage2 Two different types of Polychaete (Poly-Keat) from the Southern Ocean, around Antarctica (credit Adrian Glover, Natural History Museum)

If you’d like to read more about hot vents (Hydrothermal vents to give them their proper name) here’s a couple of links you might want to look at (something I wrote)


My Typical Day

Identifying species, crushing them, reading, playing lego with my daughter

A big part of what I do is identifying species – this usually means looking down a microscope at the shapes of their bodies. Just as you might know from the shape and colour of the leaves on a tree, what type of tree it is, I work out what animals I’m looking at by the shapes of their heads or legs or even their jaws.

myimage3 The jaws of a species of Polychaete

Once I’ve identified an animal, sometimes what I’ll do it is crush it up and dry it out so I can measure the amounts of special chemicals in its body. These chemicals (they’re called isotopes if you want to read more) allow me to work out where in the food chain, or food web perhaps, each animal might have existed. In this way we can learn a lot about what the animals do, how they interact with other species and with their environment. Learning about what they eat can also tell us how important the special bacteria are to the animals.

A big part of my job is also reading. There are thousands of scientists all over the globe and loads of great work being done. As scientists we always want to publish our work so others can learn from it (and also so they can improve on it or help us to learn where we make mistakes). This does mean however that there’s always lots to read – but also that it’s very interesting!

Lego: well that speaks for itself – I love lego!

What I'd do with the money

Invite some students to come with me to the Natural History Museum for a day as a scientist and show them what it’s like to identify species

The Natural History Museum in London is amazing. I’m sure some of you will have been and seen the incredible collections of animals (and scientists) there. If I won the money, I’d like to run a competition to find a couple of students who’d like to maybe be scientists one day, take them to the museum and show them what it’s like. I could show you how we collect species, how to identify them or what happens to them once we’ve collected them and what we can learn about the world from them.

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Geeky, hard-working and dad-joke-funny

Who is your favourite singer or band?

Tough one, probably Placebo

What's your favourite food?

Either Pizza or Sticky Toffee Pudding

What is the most fun thing you've done?

SCUBA diving on coral reefs has to be up there, field work is always fun too!

What did you want to be after you left school?

A Scientist, either studying marine biology or fossils

Were you ever in trouble in at school?


What was your favourite subject at school?


What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

Been to New Zealand

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

Not sure, perhaps David Attenborough and the BBC Blue Planet Team

If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?

I honestly don’t know – maybe work in journalism

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

Happy, healthy family, lots of grant money for research and to always be excited about what I do

Tell us a joke.

I love any lame joke – especially if it’s about the sea: Ok here goes – What’s the strongest animal in the sea? A mussel

Other stuff

Work photos:


Some pictures of the deep sea floor – this time from the the Mid-Atlantic Ridge