Hi all! My name is Werner de Gier, I’m a Dutch PhD candidate at the biggest natural history museum of the Netherlands, the Naturalis Biodiversity Center. My work focusses on the evolution of symbiotic crustaceans, specifically two families of crabs and shrimps. I did my Bachelor’s and Master’s degree at Leiden University, after which I got the opportunity to continue my work on crustaceans at the museum. Outside of research I’m a fan of taking pictures of everything nature brings together with my boyfriend: insects in the summer and spring, birds in the winter, mushrooms in the fall (and a bit of tide pooling all year though, of course). In addition, I enjoy making line-art illustrations of invertebrate animals, taking care of my many indoor plants, and helping people out validating observations on online nature platforms. So yes, I do take my work home, but I enjoy it!
I always have a hard time giving myself a label in science, but I do love the sound of a “carcinologist”, so someone who is studying crustaceans. However, I also check the boxes of a taxonomist, or evolutionary zoologist. My work focuses on the evolution of the adaptations of tiny symbiotic crabs and shrimps living in- and outside of various reef organisms. Think of bivalves, ascidians (sea squirts), but also on urchins, sea cucumbers, corals, etc.. Using specimens from Europe’s largest symbiotic crustacean collection at Naturalis, I study links between the ecology and the morphological adaptations of a group of species. Sometimes these adaptations are microscopic and I need to make illustrations or CT-scans in order to get all the details right. Combining newly constructed family trees with the morphological character states, I can place the host-choice and the linked adaptations of the studied shrimps or crabs in an evolutionary context.
I got into biology at a very young age, passively being taught quite a lot about nature by my parents. In my first year of my Bachelor’s, I fell in love with taxonomy, natural history, and invertebrates, namely snails, insects and crustaceans. Since Naturalis is well-known throughout the whole country, we as PhD candidates can get quite a lot of opportunities to showcase our research through the media, or in the museum itself. Although crustaceans are not as flashy as dinosaurs, or other charismatic megafauna, it’s still nice to tell the general public about marine biology, invertebrate research, and the diversity of so-called “cryptofauna” – hidden biodiversity. When I present my research, I’m always keen on showcasing a lot of tiny, beautiful and plain weird species of crustaceans, to inspire students, but also kids, to look more closely at nature around them. It helped me find my passion for science, so I hope I can help them as well.
Although my projects are now still stamped as “fundamental research”, I do believe taxonomy needs more attention due to its capability to show us there’s way more to discover in so-thought “well-studied” ecosystems. By studying the hidden biodiversity of coral reefs we can maybe even predict which species will adapt better to the changing climate and which species need to be protected. Symbiosis show us everything is connected, and how we are destroying this network between species. Without fundamental research we can’t properly understand which and how many species are playing their part in an ecosystem, so how can we protect them without that knowledge?
After my years at the museum, I think I can give out advice to all new students starting here. Mostly on writing tips, the peer-review process, and expectations management in science. But more important are the bigger live-lessons I learned: listen to your supervisors, but don’t let them tell you exactly what to do. I had some problems with focusing on just my research, by doing way too many side-projects in science communication. I listened to my supervisors, and now I’m not afraid to say “no” anymore. But this doesn’t mean I can’t do anything outside my own research. I still give lectures, do presentations at the museum, and work with people outside of my field of research. In addition, people kept telling me I should not bring my work back home, and you should never date someone who is also in science – but as long as it doesn’t feel like work but as a hobby, what’s there to worry about? My partner and I are both scientists, both really passionate about marine biology, and both massive nerds. We can talk about everything in and outside of science, creating a really nice environment without judgement.
You can follow Werner’s updates on Twitter or Instagram @Werner_degier