ҹѰ

ҹѰ Fellow elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society

Professor Lloyd Peck
16/05/2024

Professor Lloyd Peck, a polar marine biologist who has made his scientific career in the most extreme environment in the world, was elected today as a Fellow of the Royal Society—one of the most prestigious honours in science. 

Professor Lloyd Peck

“It’s a dichotomy of emotions,” says Lloyd. “I feel somewhere between massive elation and the thought of, ‘that’s not me, I’m not that.’ A small kid from the Black Country gets to sign a book that Charles Darwin has signed and be a Fellow of the Royal Society? I can’t believe that.” He laughs. “I guess I’m better at science than I thought I was!” 

Lloyd was born in the town of Walsall, in the heart of the UK’s Black Country, so called because of the abundance of coal in the region. “I could see five steel foundries and an aluminium foundry from my bedroom window.” Lloyd is clear that not only is his academic journey not the one he expected as a boy from Walsall, and also how much of where he is now can be credited to those who pushed him to try.

“I was the first kid in a decade to go from my primary school to a grammar school. I was naughty, a little bit dyslexic, I couldn’t sit still. But the headmaster said I was clever enough to pass the exam and my mum implied there would be strong repercussions if I didn’t get in. And then a teacher at the grammar school said I was clever enough to get in to Oxford or Cambridge and, again, my mum said you’re going. If it hadn’t had been for the teacher or my mum I wouldn’t have gone.”

Lloyd did his undergraduate degree at Jesus College in Cambridge, where he says, “I didn’t get a first, I didn’t excel – I was never going to fail but I was never at the top.” After Cambridge, and although a mentor urged him to apply for a PhD, Lloyd returned to Walsall, working in a steel foundry for a year, loading crank shafts into a heating furnace: mornings, afternoons, and nights. 

After half a year, Lloyd knew that this wasn’t the path he wanted to take. 

“I looked for a PhD where I thought academic excellence wasn’t that important, and I ended up doing one in aquaculture. I grew abalone snails. I learned how to grow them, how to breed them, and I got interested in what are the limits of what animals can do, and how the environment sets those limits.”

In 1984, a postdoc position came up at the . Thinking that the Antarctic—the coldest, windiest, driest, and most isolated place on earth—would be the perfect petri dish for testing where the limits exist, Lloyd applied. Since then, he has been to the Antarctic twenty times, most recently in February 2024, leading teams of polar biologists and investigating how life negotiates the boundaries of what we think is possible. 

And these questions, about limits, how to find them, how to test them, have gripped Lloyd for forty years. 

“Why are there giant sea spiders in the Antarctic? Why do all the fish have antifreeze? Why are there sixteen species of fish that don’t have red blood cells? These are all questions about how the environment influences the animals, and they’re great questions to ask in Antarctica. The thing that’s most exciting is when we do an experiment, and we plot the data, and the data comes out saying that things don’t match with what we thought should happen. And if we check it, and the way the animal is doing something is not in the way that we thought – that’s what I live for.”

Although Lloyd’s Fellowship from the Royal Society still has him in shock, he says it’s given him an opportunity to take a look at his contributions to science and assess what he’s done to shape his field of research. 

“I did a lot of work over many years showing that embryonic development in Antarctic marine animals is 5-10 times slower than it should be, even for the low temperature. It comes down to a problem in the animals of making proteins, and I’ve worked on that for twenty-five years, starting with the early development and the growth rate studies.”

Lloyd was also the first person to look at how icebergs kill life in the Antarctic and how quickly life regenerates on the seabed, and the first person to show that when big areas of ice disappear new masses of life begin to grow—a process called blue carbon. Polar blue carbon is one of the leading natural effects reducing carbon dioxide. 

Beyond contributions to science, Lloyd has made a dedicated effort to nurture the same impulse in other students that he credits his mother and teachers for helping him grow. He is a speaker for a programme called Speakers for Schools, which takes successful people from any walk of life and links them with schools in deprived areas. “I talk to the kids about my career and where I came from, and they put me in schools near areas where I was brought up.”

Alongside his work with younger kids, he has also supervised 53 PhD students during his career. “Lots of them are now doing science in my areas, and they’re having a way bigger effect on the world than I could ever have. And I get a glow thinking of that, a feeling of achievement.”

A Fellow at ҹѰ since 2018, Lloyd says that he gets the same energy engaging with the community of people that make up the College. 

“ҹѰ is the only College I could feel comfortable in as a Fellow. It’s more egalitarian, there’s no high table, everybody is mixed in with everybody else. I’ve seen most of the Colleges and ҹѰ has a very different atmosphere to all of them. I like the fact that, as a Fellow, I can sit down with students at lunch and talk to them about what they’re doing, and I can sit with people who work in the College and we can have great conversations. I find that really stimulating.”

And after forty years as a polar marine biologist, twenty trips to the Antarctic, and a lifetime of testing the limits, Lloyd still struggles with the idea that, with a Fellowship at the Royal Society, he’s gone beyond what he thought were his own.

“This is like being a footballer and you think, ‘oh, I’m a good footballer, I can play in the Premier League’ and suddenly you’re playing in the Champions League. I can’t see anything beyond that. Maybe I should retire now.”

But retirement isn’t quite on the cards yet, as Lloyd plans his next trip to the Antarctic in 2026, where he’ll once again look for the answers that challenge what we think about life, and about all the ways it can surprise us.

“Finding out the world is different to the way I thought it was. That’s the big buzz.”

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