Danijela Dimitrijević, Paleobiologist

Figure 1. The happiness of discovering a fish fossil form the Upper Jurassic in the Wattendorf quarry, Germany.

Hi! I’m Danijela, a first year PhD student at FAU University Erlangen-Nürnberg in Germany. I am from Serbia, but I have been living in Germany since 2018 when I started a master’s degree in Paleobiology at FAU. 

What kind of scientist are you and what do you do? My research is all about corals and reefs through time. I study the evolution of scleractinian corals also known as stony corals, from the time when they first appeared in the mid Triassic, around 250 million years ago until today. I am so happy to be working on these super organisms because everything about them is fascinating – their biology, ecology, and geology. They build coral reefs in shallow tropical seas which harbour the highest diversity of organisms in the ocean. They also live in a mutually beneficial relationship with tiny algae which perform photosymbiosis while living within the coral’s soft tissue and provide corals with 90% of necessary nutrients. Corals are also hunters at night, and some of them can live at depths of thousands of meters. Unfortunately, their future fate and the fate of many organisms that live on reefs and depend on them are also affected by the climate change and other anthropogenic disturbances such as pollution and overfishing. I could talk for hours about how cool are corals and reefs they form, and how we need to do everything we can to keep them from disappearing, so I have been lucky that this semester I have been given the opportunity to teach the course on geobiology of reefs to our Master students (in English of course!). 

Figure 2 Filming a video as a part of the Science communication class. You can watch the video here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yLXlfYpRxaY

For my research, I am particularly interested in how their morphological characters changed through time and if their extinction risk was related to changes in their traits. For example, in my Master thesis I looked at changes in corallite diameter through time. Corallite is a skeletal cup in which the coral polyp sits. The size of the corallite could be related to their efficacy of obtaining nutrients and I was interested to see if this change was related to major warming events or reef crises in Earth’s history. This would help us predict their future fates under global warming scenarios. For this kind of research, we used datasets such as the one we created by collecting data from the literature into the database called ART which stands for Ancient Reef Traits. This database has been built for the past two years by the team of scientists at Paleo group at FAU and soon will become available to everyone. 

Figure 3 Doing field work on Silurian reefs of Gotland Island, Sweden. I am the very concentrated person on the left 🙂

How did you become a palaeontologist? Unlike many paleo people, my story of getting into the paleo world is untraditional one. I wasn’t into dinosaurs when I was little, and I didn’t even know much about palaeontology until a few years ago. However, I always loved nature and all its wonders, and have been fascinated by both the biology and Earth’s history. In high school I was also interested in social sciences and languages so choosing a bachelor’s degree was very difficult for me. It was one of the hardest decisions I had to make because at the time I believed that I would have to be forever stuck in the chosen field. But I actually switched fields several times. I started by studying a bachelor’s degree in environmental science at University of Belgrade in Serbia. Then, I did a master’s degree in applied ecology (IMAE) which was funded by the Erasmus Mundus scholarship program, and it meant that I had to change universities during the two years. It was one of the best experiences of my life – not only did I get the opportunity to study at Universities in France and Portugal, but I have also met many amazing people and made friends for life. Within this program we got to go on a month-long field trip in Ecuador and experience and study different ecosystems. From hiking at 4000 meters in the Paramo ecosystems in the Andean mountains, over living in the heart of the Amazonian rainforest, to swimming with hammerhead sharks in the Galapagos Islands. After all these experiences I was sure I wanted to be a scientist. My master thesis was about the diet of Antarctic penguins (no, I didn’t get to go there) and at the time I was in search of a PhD program where I could get the opportunity to go to the Antarctic and study penguins. However, during that search I also stumbled upon several palaeontology projects, and I was simply drawn to it. Palaeontology as a field offered so much more than contemporary ecology – it was the intersection of ecology, biology and geology and many other fields and it felt just right for me. Since I didn’t have any formal education in palaeontology, I wanted to learn more about it. So, to the shock of many I decided not to do a PhD, but to do another master’s degree in Paleobiology. It was maybe one of the hardest decisions I made and it set back my scientific career by a few years, but it was definitely the right one! I am now grateful to myself that I was brave enough over the course of years to follow my heart and change fields! 

Figure 4 Exploring the Galapagos Islands was so much fun!

What advice do you have for up and coming scientists? My message to young prospective scientists is that it’s never too late for anything in life and especially not for pursuing your passion. I still believe that having to choose a career path when you are 19 years old (or even a bit older) is way too early. So, give yourself a time if you need to explore your interests. Most importantly, don’t allow yourself to be stuck in a box – being interdisciplinary and having many different skills are the great advantages for a scientist. So, believe in yourself and just follow your own path, because doing what you love is the greatest reward of all.

Figure 5. Example of a corallite skeleton within coral colony. Photo accessed from https://www.istockphoto.com/de/foto/coral-struktur-gm950047064-259317766

Follow Danijela’s updates on Twitter, Research gate, and her website.

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