Hello folks! My name is Marie-Charlott and currently I am working on my master’s thesis in theoretical ecology. To be honest, I never expected to get this far in my scientific career and everyday when I get up in the morning (when coffee is involved) I am happy to contribute some knowledge to our scientific world.
What is your favourite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science in general?
Well, I have kind of a romanticised story of how I decided I want to be a scientist; when I was a child, I was obsessed with animal documentaries, atlases about animals and especially with dolphins. I had tons of books about the life of the ocean (spoiler alert: I changed to bears!) When I graduated high school, I did not really know what I wanted to do with my life or where I could see myself in the future. I decided to apply for all kinds of studies that I thought might be suitable for me at universities all around my hometown. Eventually I only got accepted at the University of Cologne for the bachelor’s program in biology. I had my very first big mind-blowing moment when I sat in a lecture of inorganic chemistry and the professor explained to us that all matter on our planet, as far as we are concerned, is made of the same quality: atoms. It is only the protons, neurons and electrons that make the difference. Only these three things determine how matter is and how it is able to react. At this very moment, I fell in love with science in general. I could not believe how great everything around us actually appears to be, how many fantastic secrets are out there to uncover. I decided I want to get to know and contribute AS MUCH AS I COULD. And since that moment, many more mind-blowing moments like this followed. And I undoubtedly believe this will never stop for the rest of my life.
Science also literally saved my life and gave me a place to belong to. Both of my parents passed away during my Bachelor’s studies and I was lost in this big world. I found support and passion in working for something bigger than me, something that is real and can be proven. It gave me stability.
What I truly love about science and the scientific community: No matter who you are, where you came from, who you love or who you decide to be: We all agree on the general principles of logic, causality and reproducibility. We all work for the same goal.
How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change, evolution, palaeontology, or to the betterment of society in general?
It is not a secret anymore that humanity contributed well to destroy its own home planet by climate change, globalisation, urbanisation, biodiversity- and ecosystem loss. There is undoubtedly an immense amount of work to do – and I started with my master thesis at a point where I try to understand what went wrong in our approach to maintain species diversity so far. Many biodiversity conservation programs were designed to reintroduce species into their natural habitat to maintain ecosystem workability when they disappeared. Unfortunately, many of them failed and the programs were not successful. But how do we investigate the reasons for a failed reintroduction? Interview the released animals one by one?
Scientists have found another, feasible solution to get to the bottom of the matter.
When we try to model an event or reproduce a mechanism on the computer in a simulation, preparation and evaluation is a dynamic process where we learn from what we model and try to improve this model to get as close as possible to the real event we try to simulate. In my master thesis, I created a simple model based on equations which solution represents the population density of different animal species. My model is not adapted to one species in particular but held general to investigate the event of what we call community closure: A ecosystem loses a species and begins to dynamically re-calibrate itself towards a new equilibrium. The interactions within the system change when one interaction partner just disappears; and this is where I start my investigation. I force one of the species which used to interact as a competitor or as a predator or prey into extinction and then try to reintroduce it back into the system when a new equilibrium is reached. When we find out more about the major forces that keep ecosystems closed, we might find a way to manage some of these factors and tackle the issue of failed reintroduction programs.
One of the biggest problems in nature is: We can only see the system in its status quo as it appears to us right now. Due to environmental uncertainty, it is often hard to approximate what happened in the past and what led to the state we observe right now. This is also what computational models are for: We can play around with our models and maybe are able to reveal completely new phenomena we might also find in nature when we know what to look for.
What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?
Never let anyone else tell you what you are able to do or not. Don’t be afraid to reach for the stars. My Mom used to say: It is always possible if you are willing to work hard, and I truly believe in that. There is nothing you can’t learn, even when you don’t feel apt or suitable for the task. Go for what you are passionate about in life and also learn from your mistakes. A bad grade or a rejected paper do not mean you suck as a scientist. Struggle means improvement and we are all in this together, so don’t worry about one thing in particular you haven’t been perfect at.