Alex Klotz, Physicist

Photo by Sean DuFrene

I am a physics professor at California State University, Long Beach. My specialty is biophysics, which as the name suggests is at the interface of physics and biology, and I’m interested in using materials from the natural world to answer fundamental physics questions. Evolution has had billions of years of practice to engineer neat materials, while we have only been doing it for a few thousand. I spent a few years looking at knots in DNA to understand how entanglements between in and between molecules affect the mechanical properties of things made out of molecules. Now I study DNA structures called kinetoplasts, which are basically sheets of chainmail made of thousands of linked DNA loops. They look like tiny jellyfish and are found in the mitochondria of certain parasites. Among other things, I’m trying to use them to answer questions about the physics of 2D materials that are important for bringing materials like graphene (single-layer carbon) to actual technological use. Totally unrelated to my work with DNA, I also wrote a paper calculating how long it would take to fall through a tunnel through the center of the Earth (38 minutes), which was all over the news for a few days back in 2015.

I also dabble in outreach; I kept a blog about my various science thoughts and adventures for a few year and volunteer for programs like NetPals and Skype-a-Scientist. I’m hoping to start a similar program here in Long Beach. Right now the most outreachy thing I do is make dumb science jokes on twitter, which mainly reach other scientists.

My favorite part of being a scientist is figuring something out that nobody has figured out before, it is an amazing feeling. I remember the first “discovery” I made during my senior thesis in college and the few that I made over the next few years. Now I’m lucky enough that I get to discover new things a few times a year. I’m training several students in my lab and I hope they get to feel that as well.

A kinetoplast, which is a network of about 5000 linked DNA rings, is seen here under a microscope moving along with a flowing liquid. Its shape changes from a folded taco to a flat frisbee as it moves. Scale bar is 5 microns, about one-tenth the diameter of a human hair.

My main hobby the last few years has been road biking, which I like as a way to experience the outdoors, meet people while not having to talk non-stop, and stay fit and active. It was a pretty good hobby to have during the pandemic when there was nothing else to do. I used to play ultimate frisbee, but I’ve been injured for a few years. I like animals although I don’t currently have any pets. Another pandemic hobby I picked up was walking around the neighborhood every morning and meeting all the outdoor cats. I just moved a month ago so I have to meet all the new cats.

I won’t say too much about the path I took and how you should follow it, because it involves a good deal of privilege and luck. My advice to graduate students is to attend as many seminars as you can, not just in your own sub-sub-sub-field of research. You learn a lot about your discipline that will come in handy later, you can make good contacts, and you can get ideas that you may be able to apply to your work.

Rachel Roday, Graduate Student and Marine Scientist

Rachel transporting a sedated sandbar shark to a respirometer to understand shark metabolism.

My favorite activities are ones that help me connect to nature, such as SCUBA diving, kayaking, and painting landscapes. Even as a child, I spent all of my free time at the beach or obsessing over turtles, so it was no surprise when I decided to pursue marine science as a profession. I obtained my Bachelors of Science in marine science and biological sciences from the University of Delaware where I conducted research on shark respiration and zooplankton behavior. I also completed an internship at Mote Marine Laboratories in Sarasota, Florida examining red tide toxins from Florida beaches.

Currently, I am a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin Marine Science Institute. Though I have yet to begin my thesis, my research will focus on understanding the role of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in marine fishes. PFAS are a group of approximately 4500 manmade chemicals that are water, heat, and oil resistant. They have been found in non-stick pans, fire-fighting foams, stain resistant carpets, and many other common use items and are known carcinogens in humans. Little is known about the impact of these chemicals on marine fishes, so I hope to fill some of this knowledge gap by determining the toxicity of lesser known PFAS compounds and how they might be transferred from parent to offspring. As a scientist, I aim to understand the extent of human impact on biology within the marine ecosystem. In the future, I hope to influence the regulation, product development, and disposal techniques of manmade chemicals such as PFAS, insecticides, sunscreens, and pharmaceuticals in order to protect the environment and ultimately, us humans.

Rachel on a dive in the Florida Keys during her internship at Mote Marine Laboratories

It took me four years of undergraduate classes, several internships, and two wildly different research projects to figure out the specific area that I wanted to focus on in graduate school. In other words, I got really good at figuring out what I didn’t want to pursue. This would be my greatest piece of advice to someone looking to find their way in science or any profession: try out lots of things, as many as you can! Not only does a range in experience bring about a unique perspective, but you never know what one door might open for you later on down the road.

I also suggest that people learn about the science that interests them in their backyard or community. As a Long Island native, this was easy for me because growing up, I was surrounded by beaches. But even learning about the local plant life or stargazing at night can help curate your specific scientific interests. I believe that having a personal and maybe even emotional relationship with nature and science can instill passion that propels you through all of the more tedious and challenging parts of life. Overall, even if science is just a hobby and not a career end-goal, I think it’s important to find ways to make it accessible at home and never be afraid to ask questions!

Rachel aboard a Norwegian research vessel in the Arctic Ocean during the polar night, researching the photobehavior of copepods, a small crustacean.

Understanding the origins of primates with new fossil evidence

Earliest Palaeocene purgatoriids and the initial radiation of stem primates

Gregory P. Wilson Mantilla, Stephen G. B. Chester, William A. Clemens, Jason R. Moore, Courtney J. Sprain, Brody T. Hovatter, William S. Mitchell, Wade W. Mans, Roland Mundil, and Paul R. Renne

Summarized by Conlan Hale, who is currently a senior at USF planning to graduate in summer 2021 with a B.S. in Geology and B.A. in Mathematics. He plans on becoming a math or science teacher after graduation, and enjoys watching Rays baseball, listening to music, and playing video games when he isn’t finding something new to learn about.

What data were used? Teeth of a new species of purgatoriid mammal (early ancestors of primates) were found in Montana, USA, as well as teeth from other purgatoriid species. The new species signals an earlier date for the spread of the ancestors of primates than originally thought.

Methods: Authors collected tooth and jaw fragments from quarries and the surrounding areas, then analyzed the shapes of the teeth based on 3D model scans.

Results: The researchers discovered several new dental and jaw fragments of Paleocene age (~66 – 56 million years old) leading them to name a new species: Purgatorius mckeeveri (after Frank McKeever, one of the first to sponsor field work in the area where the fossils were found). Based on tooth shape of other specimens from the early Paleocene, researchers were able to classify this new species within the larger family, called the Purgatoriidae. Tooth shape can also be studied to learn about an animal’s diet, and the tooth shape of P. mckeeveri is different from all other purgatoriids in having lower molars with more inflated cusps and rounded crests, as well as having slightly larger molar dimensions than other known species (among other differences). This indicates that this species’ diet was more varied and omnivorous, closer to the early ungulates (ancestors of hoofed mammals) that Purgatorius lived alongside and further from later ancestors of primates, whose diets were primarily fruit, similar to modern lemurs. 

Graph comparing the shapes of molars of Late Cretaceous to Early Paleogene mammals, with P. mckeeveri included. Notice how the Purgatorius species (yellow stars) are closer in diet to the early ungulates (green plus signs) than later plesiadapiforms (other stars).

Why is this study important? This new species pushes back the date of evolution for the ancestors of primates, and they appear from as little as 105 to 139 thousand years after the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction (~66 million years ago). This means that Purgatorius (and, in turn, other proto-primates) began to thrive across the globe sooner than originally thought. This study also shows how helpful looking at teeth can be as a tool for understanding how and when prehistoric animals lived.

The big picture: These findings show how the ancestors of modern-day primates (and in turn, us humans) adapted and thrived the early Paleogene environment after the loss of the non-avian dinosaurs and many other species. This helps us to further understand both our origins as a species and how speciation as a process works through small changes over time, like the shape of some teeth changing to allow an animal to take advantage of a new food source.

Citation: Wilson Mantilla, Gregory P. et al, 2021, Earliest Palaeocene purgatoriids and the initial radiation of stem primates: Royal Society Open Science 8: 210050.

Student Veterans Research Network (SVRN)

Meet the organizers!

Logan Pearce (founder and co-organizer) is a PhD student at the University of Arizona studying the formation and evolution of planetary systems using a direct imaging technique with Dr. Jared Males. Logan is a US Navy veteran and specialized in nuclear power during her 5 years in the military.

Patty Standring (co-organizer) is a PhD student at the University of Texas at Austin studying the paleoceanography of the southern Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean using stable isotopes from benthic foraminifera. She is co-advised by Dr. Chris Lowery and Dr. Rowan Martindale. Patty is a US Air Force veteran and was a Dari Linguist during her 10 years in the military.

Rebecca Larson (co-organizer) is a PhD candidate at the University of Texas at Austin studying the formation and evolution of the universe’s first galaxies and is advised by Dr. Steve Finkelstein. Rebecca is a US Air Force veteran and was an Arabic Linguist during her 6 years in the military.

What is SVRN?

We want SVRN to be an informal peer mentorship community for veterans who are working in research or are interested in working in research. We would like it to be an inclusive environment where researchers from different disciplines can network with one another and help each other navigate higher education and establish research careers.

Why did you start the SVRN?

We started this network to aid veterans transitioning from their military career to one involving research and/or higher education. While there is some support for veterans transitioning from military to civilian life, and organizations focused on helping veterans get into higher education, there is a greater emphasis on resources to help veterans get jobs or start businesses. When we leave the military there is not a lot of information provided to us on how to go to graduate school, apply for grants, and get involved in undergraduate research. We wanted to establish a community where individuals from different STEM and non-STEM disciplines around the country can meet, connect, and give each other advice or recommendations on how to go about establishing their post-military careers. Transitioning from the military can be very challenging, especially the longer you served, so we want to present options for veterans that will help them be successful establishing their new career paths and support each other along the way.

What do you expect other student veterans to get out of participating in the SVRN?

We hope that SVRN can be a place of peer mentorship for student veterans to come to ask questions and get advice on how to establish successful research careers. Things like how to get involved in undergraduate research and apply to graduate school, how to build a CV versus writing a resume, best ways to promote their own accomplishments to advance their career goals, how their military skills translate to a research environment, and how to attend conferences to talk about their research. It is also designed to be a community of folks with similar backgrounds and goals, another professional network for making connections across institutions and disciplines. These are all things that you might be able to get from a really good mentor, but because it is coming from a veteran, they understand your past experiences better than a civilian would.

Many veterans join the military so that they can afford to go to college, especially if they are the first person in their family to go into higher education. They are already at a disadvantage because they may not know what types of resources are out there to support them in their journey; things like grants and fellowships that will cover the cost of a graduate education. We also don’t see this as a stagnate peer mentorship network. We would like to see it grow into what it needs to be for student veterans to succeed in research careers.

How can veterans get involved in the network?

Please go to where you can sign up as a member and agree to our code of conduct. After that you will be invited to a Slack workspace where you can introduce yourself and meet other veterans in the network. In addition to that, members that agree will provide their contact information for veterans to reach out to them directly regarding a grant application or applying to a specific institution. Veterans can choose their level of involvement in the organization, but the more we are able to connect with each other, the stronger the network will be for everyone.

You can also follow SVRN on Twitter @SVRN_vets!

Late Cretaceous Aged Sharks Teeth in Iron Age (8th-9th century BCE) Stratigraphic Layers

Strontium and Oxygen Isotope Analysis Reveal Late Cretaceous Sharks Teeth in Iron Age Strata in Southern Levant

Thomas Tütken, Michael Weber, Irit Zohar, Hassan Helmy, Nicolas Bourgon, Omri Lernau, Klaus Peter Jochum and Guy Sisma-Ventura

Summarized by Colton Carrier, who is a senior at University of South Florida studying for his Bachelor of Science in geology.

What data were used: Fossil teeth were found in the City of David, Jerusalem (Figure 1) from two different categories of oceanic fish: bony fish and cartilaginous fish (sharks). The bony fish included Conger conger, a fish residing in deep water at approximately 1000 feet, and Sparus aurata, a coastal water fish. Both fish are extant and currently live in the Mediterranean. What researchers found in another site in Gilead and from City of David, Jerusalem was six Sparus aurata teeth. Researchers also found 10 shark teeth in City of David: teeth of Centrophorus granulosis, a deep-sea shark from the Mediterranean, and Carcharhinus plumbeus, a neustonic (living at the water surface) shark from Red Sea. Because teeth preserve different isotope levels, the extant fish and shark teeth were sampled to construct a database of the strontium and oxygen isotope levels. This data was collected because the shark teeth and other teeth in sediments from the Southern Levant (which is an area of Palestine/Israel) are of different ages and the isotopes preserved can inform us of their true ages. To complement their dataset, they also used a dataset of strontium and oxygen isotope values derived from modern fish: Centophorus granulosis, a deep-sea filter feeding shark, and modern Conger conger, to use as a reference to the shark teeth found.

Methods: First, the researchers identified the teeth and then did isotope analysis on the dental tissue, where they measured the amount of strontium and oxygen isotopes. They then did a screening for diagenetic alteration, or how the teeth were changed through the fossilization process, which consisted of X-ray diffraction, total organic carbon content determination, and LA-ICP-MS which is spectrometry (or shooting lasers at an object and seeing what rebounds back). Using LA-ICP-MS, they were able to perform the isotope analyses. Following this, they did a linear discriminant analysis to match the found fossil teeth to the teeth in the dataset in order to effectively determine the ages of the teeth. 

(A) Potential fish habitats and main bodies of water. (B) Location of Rock Cut Pool, where the fossil teeth were uncovered. (C) Location of fossils discovered in Rock Cut Pool.


Results: The results determined the age of the shark teeth found in the City of David to be of Late Cretaceous (100mya-65mya). They found the bony fish (Sparus aurata) had a lower apatite crystallinity than the shark teeth samples, meaning they were younger. Fluorapatite was the primary phase of mineral, this indicates diagenetic uptake into tooth tissue, which means the shark teeth had a longer burial time/older age. Total Organic Carbon (TOC) content of the shark teeth is 40 times lower than other pelagic sharks like the Great White Shark, and 8 times lower than the bony fish teeth found, meaning the shark teeth have been decaying longer, also lending evidence for the age of the fossil teeth. Trace elements found using spectrometry analysis were uranium and neodymium, which are typical of fossilized shark teeth. With all of the data, the shark teeth were estimated to be approximately 86.5 to 76.3 million years in age. The S. aurata teeth were similar to modern fish.

Why is this study important: Late Cretaceous shark teeth were found in Iron Age layer, 8th-9th century BCE. There is no clear answer as to how the shark teeth got there, so this raises interesting questions as to how humans may have interacted from fossils during this time. 

The big picture: Other animals can interwork fossils into new sediments, just as the authors scientifically assume that humans did to these teeth in the Iron Age. This should be a bias that should be considered in future investigations. This study is also an important interdisciplinary analysis of archaeology and paleontology that may help us begin to learn more about how humans viewed fossils and if they were moved or collected frequently in the past. 

Citation: Tütken, T., Weber, M., Zohar, I., Helmy, H., Bourgon, N., Lernau, O., Jochum, K.P., and Sisma-Ventura, G., 2020, Strontium and Oxygen Isotope Analyses Reveal Late Cretaceous Shark Teeth in Iron Age Strata in the Southern Levant: Frontiers, 

Iris Arndt, Geoscientist

Tell us a bit about yourself
Hi everyone, my name is Iris. Besides science, I enjoy spending time outdoors. I love hiking and (relaxing) bike rides (preferably combined with a bit of regional geology). I also enjoy playing board games and pen and paper role-playing games with friends. It is important to me to volunteer and get involved in my surrounding, such as in early career networks and university boards.

What kind of scientist are you, and what do you do?
I am a PhD student in geosciences working on geochemical analysis of tropical bivalve shells. I analyze geochemical parameters (element ratios e.g. Mg/Ca, Sr/Ca, Ba/Ca and stable isotopes δ18O and δ13C) recorded during growth within the shell, with the goal of reconstructing the paleoenvironmental conditions (such as temperature, salinity, and primary productivity) that prevailed in the reef where the organism grew. I also look at more recent shells to evaluate the structure and geochemistry of shells grown under known environmental conditions.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science?
I think I was always a curious person. As a child I loved going to natural history and science museums, especially those with interactive elements. My grandfather encouraged my scientific interest a lot and provided me with toys like crystal growing sets and chemistry kits. Ironically, I was particularly interested in extraterrestrial topics. I started studying geosciences because it seemed like an interesting field that combined chemistry, physics, and biology, and because I thought it would be really cool to go on field trips. My enthusiasm for geosciences grew over the course of the first semester, and after my first field trip, I was absolutely certain that geoscience was what I wanted to do. With paleoclimate reconstruction, I found a field that I personally think is important to advance and interesting to work in.

For me, the best thing about being a (geo)scientist is that you get to work on something you really care about and that you have the opportunity to contribute to the understanding of some of the important processes that shape this wonderful planet we live on. I also appreciate being able to work creatively and come up with new ideas and approaches, building on decades of remarkable research. Plus, it’s fantastic to be surrounded by so many cool, open-minded, talented, and nerdy people to share and discuss exciting new findings and approaches with.

How does your work contribute to the betterment of society in general?
The Earth is a very complex system, and modelers are making remarkable progress in predicting its response to climate change. Models are often tested against paleoclimate data and are not (yet) always able to reproduce the parameters identified in paleoclimate studies. Providing paleoclimate data and understanding how Earth’s climate has changed in the past can help to better predict future changes. My work focuses on obtaining high-resolution (up to daily) paleoenvironmental data from shells. These high-resolution climate snapshots can provide insights into short-term climate aspects such as seasonality and frequency of extreme weather events. I believe that climate-related changes in seasonality and extreme weather events are more tangible than, for example, long-term changes in average temperature over decades. Therefore, I hope that continued research in the field of high-resolution paleoclimate reconstruction will provide a basis for making the relevance and effects of upcoming climate change in daily life more apparent to everyone.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?
Don’t be afraid to ask questions; the more you ask, the more you learn.

Dare to find your own interpretations and discuss your ideas with colleagues, even if they seem crazy. Maybe you missed something, in which case your interpretation can be adjusted, or maybe you found something super cool that others overlooked.

Stay curious and adventurous. Don’t get discouraged if things don’t turn out as planned. Unexpected results can lead you into the unknown, where new findings are waiting to be discovered.

Using Female Antlers to Understand Caribou Landscape Use

Historical Landscape Use of Migratory Caribou: New Insights From Old Antlers

Joshua H. Miller, Brooke E. Crowley, Clément P. Bataille, Eric J. Wald, Abigail Kelly, Madison Gaetano, Volker Bahn, and Patrick Druckenmille

Summarized by Claudia Johnson, who is a geology major at the University of South Florida. She is currently a senior who will be graduating in Fall 2021. She is interested in environmental geology and may like to work in the National Park Service after graduation. In her free time, she enjoys biking and reading.

What data were used? Caribou are a type of deer where both the males and females shed their antlers, contrary to most other deer where only males exhibit this behavior. The female caribou typically shed their antlers after they calve (i.e., give birth). Due to this timing, these antlers can give insight about the seasonal travels of the caribou. These herds have been living on this land for over 700 years but have only recently started being studied. By analyzing past antlers shed, a fuller picture of their history can be put together. This study looked at two herds in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge of Alaska: the Central Arctic Herd on the Western Coastal Plain, and the Porcupine Caribou Herd on the Central and Eastern Coastal Plains. Their seasonal ranges are shown in Figure 1.

Methods: These antlers were collected from Alaska and analyzed for a number of variables. First, each antler was categorized based on degree of physical weathering by observing how much of the original bone texture was preserved. The antlers were separated into either recent (post-1980) or historical (pre-1980). Next, rubidium–strontium dating, a type of radiometric dating was performed. When a particular isotope of rubidium decays, it slowly decays into stable (i.e., non-decaying) strontium at an extremely consistent rate. So, by measuring the amount of strontium (⁸⁷Sr/⁸⁶Sr) in the bone, they will be able to determine the age of the antler. This analysis was also used to try to determine differences in herds and location by comparing it to available ⁸⁷Sr/⁸⁶Sr in the environment.

Results: A question posed by the researchers was whether the ⁸⁷Sr/⁸⁶Sr of the antlers would be enough to differentiate the two herds from each other in both recent and historical times. This study was able to do so. Comparing the recent and historic female antlers, no difference was found in the ⁸⁷Sr/⁸⁶Sr of the Porcupine Caribou Herd. However, the Central Arctic Herd had many differences, including an increase in variation and ⁸⁷Sr/⁸⁶Sr from historical to recent antlers. These differences in ⁸⁷Sr/⁸⁶Sr are used to understand landscape use, and these findings coincide with existing biomonitoring records, meaning that this is an accurate way to realize historic landscape use. 

Why is this study important? This study was able to provide data on caribou patterns further into history than had been done before in this area. By being able to analyze antlers hundreds of years old, as well as present-day age, the caribou’s response to environmental changes is clear. This study was able to occur because the Arctic provides excellent conditions for the preservation of antlers. The Arctic also provides a valuable setting to study the effects of climate change due to the acute effects of it that occur there. Only the Central Arctic Herd changed landscape use during the interval of change studied here, which researchers concluded was likely due to development for oil exploration, including roads and pipelines that became intrusive to the herd’s ranges in the 1970s.

The big picture: The Central Arctic Herd’s landscape use was shown to be affected by human influence. This solidifies the knowledge that human alteration of land does indeed affect organisms living in the area. In the ranges of this herd specifically, development for oil exploration has been occurring since the 1960s. It was around this time that the pregnant females had to change their old routes to avoid this infrastructure. These principals can be applied to animals elsewhere to better recognize how infrastructural development is affecting the way they live and could be harming them because they must seek out new places to live. 

Citation: Miller, Joshua H., et al. “Historical Landscape Use of Migratory Caribou: New Insights From Old Antlers.” Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, vol. 8, 22 Jan. 2021, doi:10.3389/fevo.2020.590837.

Mahmoud El-Saadi, M.Sc Candidate, Environmental Physiologist

Hello! My name is Mahmoud, a master’s student at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. After completing my undergrad at Carleton, I stayed to pursue an M.Sc in Biology in Dr. Heath MacMillan’s lab.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general?
I would say my favorite part of being a scientist is the constant excitement of asking questions and having the freedom to try things out. In a constantly changing world, new evidence is always popping up which can occasionally change the way we look at pre-existing theories and data. I really enjoy meeting other scientists and bouncing ideas off of them, as well as communicating science to people.   

As for my interest in insects, it started with an upper-year biology course on insects which involved going out and collecting different species of insects. I was hooked after the course, in large part due to simply appreciating how diverse these animals are in their biology. The world of insects is massive!

What is your research about?
My research is currently looking at how insects are injured by low temperatures, and if there is any connection to their gut. The majority of insects, such as flies, locusts, crickets, and bees to name a few, do not do very well at low temperatures, and this can result in them becoming injured or dying. The exact driving forces behind these injuries are not exactly known, but they are thought to be driven by water and ion balance becoming dysregulated due to the insect’s gut losing most of its ability to control water and ion flow between the inside and outside of the gut. However, similar to us, insects also have a diverse community of bacteria in their gut! This leads me to my main question: if insects suffer injuries at low temperatures, is that partly because gut bacteria are finding their way outside and into tissues? If that is the case, then the resulting infection could be another factor behind the tissue damage which would provide better insight as to why most insects cannot handle the cold very well.

What are your data, and how do you obtain them?
To see if low temperatures lead to bacterial leak from the gut, I am feeding a fluorescent strain of E. coli bacteria to locusts, my model insect of choice. After they eat the bacteria, I expose them to a low temperature and extract a sample of their hemolymph, or “blood”. I then place the hemolymph in agar gel plates that allow any bacteria to grow overnight. I would then confirm the presence of the fluorescent bacteria by shining a UV lamp on the plates, which would show a strong yellow fluorescence. If bacteria are finding their way out of the gut, then I would see the fluorescent bacteria in the plates.

A unique strain of bacteria that emits a yellow glow under an ultraviolet lamp.

How does your research contribute to the bigger picture?
When it comes to the spread of insects across the globe, their ability to handle low temperatures is a very strong predictor for their survival and distribution. In other words, insects that are better able to survive cold environments are more likely to spread further than insects that are less able to survive the cold. This is particularly important when it comes to the issue of climate change, as greater and more frequent extremes in temperatures can expose many insect species to a different environment than what they are normally used to. In the context of pests that may damage agricultural crops, trees in forests, and pose a risk to our health, knowing how insects are physiologically affected by the cold can provide valuable information that we can use to predict their movement and future distribution. I would say that my work is just a small piece of the much grander puzzle of why insects do not like the cold!

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?
The advice I always give aspiring scientists is to never be afraid to ask questions. In a way, asking questions is what defines us! If you are an undergraduate student in STEM who is interested in research, try to take the first step to email a professor if you are interested in their work, because that first step can definitely go a long way. No matter your research background or experience, there is a field out there for everyone. Embrace your passion for science and go forth!

Ymke Temmerman, Ing. Water manager/ Aquatic ecotechnologist and MSc student Aquaculture and Marine Resources Management.

Ymke during a field trip to Texel where she just did some field work at The Slutter

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general?
From a young age, I was always very curious, wanting to learn as much as possible about everything related to the ocean. I always tried to learn more and continue to look for new things to discover. I grew up close to the coast in the Netherlands and till this very day, I still enjoy the nature there and it always feels like coming home. Part of the reason I got so interested in the ocean is the mystery that is part of it, the fact that on the beaches and along the coast, we only see a glimpse of the life beneath the surface. So when the time came to make a decision about what I wanted to study, the choice for water management/aquatic ecotechnology at a university located close to the coast was one that was directly related to my passion for the coasts. During my studies, the passion and enthusiasm for science only grew. The contrast between theory, lab work and boots in the mud is something I enjoyed and still do. During my first internships at the research institutes NIOZ (Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research) and Wageningen Marine Research, I really got to experience doing research. These were amazing experiences, with fieldwork, experiments and a lot of new knowledge which ranged from small worms at the bottom of the North Sea to invasive species in industrial harbors. During these periods, I learned that the part I love about science is the continuous exploration of what seems like endless topics. And that with doing research, you contribute to knowledge. Because science to me is exploring new things of which the stories should be shared not only among scientist but with as many people as possible, especially the next generations that will need it to do better.

Ymke on a mudflat on Texel taking samples during an excursion

What do you do?
At the moment, I am finishing up my Masters in Aquaculture and Marine Resources Management. Within this program I am focusing on ecology and marine resources. The marine resources part is mainly about the services provided to us by the ocean (e.g. fish, coastal protection) and how to use these services in a sustainable way. For example, how fishing could be sustainable or how oyster reefs can be used for coastal protection. The ecological aspect is more about how these coastal and marine systems work and how different species contribute to keeping them healthy. Before my adventure at the university started, I did a Bachelors in Water Management in the middle of the Southwestern Delta of the Netherlands. During this study, I focused on ecology from rivers to oceans, learning about how to work together with nature to protect us against flooding. Other topics included climate change and the importance of water, where some countries have too much, others don’t have enough.

In addition to my studies, I am also active as an ambassador for the Dutch Wavemakers. This organization aims to educate the next generation worldwide about sufficient and clean water but also about water safety. We want to achieve this by collaborating with water athletes and students, hoping to make young people enthusiastic about water sports and water studies.  Next to this, we also hope to motivate the young generation to take action and be the change they like to see.

Ymke in Shanghai on a trip for the Dutch Wavemakers to participate in the Wetskills challenge 2019

What are your data and how do you obtain them?
We, as Dutch Wavemakers, communicate these important topics of water safety and scarcity with a positive attitude. We are convinced that it is not fruitful to keep pointing fingers at each other, since solutions are not often born from conflict. Instead we have a solution oriented approach in which we, of course, also talk about the problems but instead of focusing on doom scenarios we try to set out a positive future perspective. From experience, I know that this is way more effective in the long run when it comes to activating people. If they see the type of positive impact they can have as an individual, and if they spread the word with the same positivity as we do, this small action might become a big movement, leading to a real change in mindset.

How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change, and the betterment of society in general?
As a Dutch Wavemaker, but also as someone with passion for the ocean, I hope to contribute to a positive change in which we start to see the ocean as a companion instead of an enemy or endless resource. As an ambassador I am involved in multiple projects that aim to create awareness for problems like plastic pollution, changing ecosystems and of course, the effects of climate change on our oceans and coastal zones. One of them is the SDG 14 alliance, which focuses on achieving the United Nations’ sustainable development goal 14: Life below water. Here we hope to create more awareness about pollution, sustainable fisheries, increasing biodiversity and protection of the oceans, with the focus on the younger generations. Next to these projects, we also visit all different types of events where we teach the younger generations about the impacts of too much water, but also about the importance of having enough water. We do this with the help of fun little activities in which the children can participate. In this way, children learn about large scale problems like too much water in cities because of the lack of green spaces.

Measuring temperature for an experiment during Ymke’s Bachelors thesis

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?
Stay curious! As long as you remain curious and eager to learn new things, there is always a way for you to get there. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, there are always people in your surroundings that would be happy to answer them for you. Especially if it is something that you are really passionate about! And remember you will never be too old to learn new things, because a world without new things to discover would be a bit boring, if you ask me!

Marie-Charlott Petersdorf, Biology Master’s Student

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.