Into The Industry: PhD Researcher

Rebecca Daniel

This week we caught up with Eva Fernandez, who is conducting her PhD research on a climate regulating gas called DMSP, and has travelled to Antarctica to study its production by diatoms. Keep reading to discover more about her project, and what it's like to pursue a career in research.

Hey Eva! Tell us a bit about yourself.

Photo: Eva Fernandez

Photo: Eva Fernandez

After completing my bachelor´s and master’s degrees in chemistry, I left Spain to research while traveling. My first destination was the Azores islands, where I researched the feasibility of using nematodes to remove chemical pesticides from agricultural land. After that, I moved to the tiny island country of Malta where I used barnacles to test the effect on the environment of new eco-friendly boat paints. Finally, I landed in Australia and joined the Climate Change Cluster (C3) within University of Technology Sydney (UTS) to pursue my PhD.

You’ve built your life around the ocean, what drew you to it in the first place?

I think I always had a natural connection with the ocean but I hadn't been aware of until recently. I have always lived close to the ocean, and going for a walk or ‘just to see it´ has been always one of my favourite routine-break activities. It gives me peace, calms my nerves down and makes me feel happy. It is my escape from this man-made world we live in.

Tell me a little bit about your PhD research

Project Background:

Dimethylsulphoniopropionate (DMSP) is a key sulphur compound in the marine environments, which satisfies 95% of the sulphur and 15% of the carbon demands of marine microbes. 

DMSP is also the precursor of the climatically active gas dimethylsulfide (DMS), which is well recognised as the main natural source of reduced sulphur to the global troposphere and to the atmospheric sulphur burden. Once in the atmosphere, DMS can increase cloud formation and light scattering, which results in a decrease in sea surface temperature and solar radiation. Therefore, DMS has the potential to regulate local climate and counteract some of the effects of climate change.

Phytoplankton are the major producers of DMSP, and together with heterotrophic bacteria perform DMSP cycling and transformation. Phytoplankton and bacteria can take up DMSP, and incorporate it into their biomass, or convert it to DMS. However, the preferred conditions for each pathway to take place are still unknown.

Project Aims:

My project aims to cover two different aspects of the role of DMSP in phytoplankton physiology. 

1.    On the community level:

  • How is DMSP distributed throughout marine microbial communities?

  • How much DMSP is retained in the marine food web i.e. diverted from atmospheric fluxes? 

2.    At cellular level:

  • Do phytoplankton use DMSP to overcome different stressors? Which stressors?

  • In which processes is DMSP involved under these stressors?

Research Impact:

On completion, my research will reveal the specific role of DMSP in cell functioning and it will determine whether or not DMSP plays a direct role in phytoplankton adaptive capacity and resilience, and how wide spread its utility and influence is throughout the non-producing community.

What was the purpose of your voyage to Antartica?

I collected water samples to study the uptake of DMSP by Antarctic microbes. Antarctica is a hotspot for DMSP production and Antarctic diatoms are the only diatoms that produce DMSP.

Photo: Eva Fernandez

Photo: Eva Fernandez

Tell us about your experience on the trip.

The best day of my life was the day I left for Antarctica. First, we had to take a plane from Hobart, in Tasmania, to Antarctica. Then, we flew across Antarctica in a US Air Force plane. It looked like we were in a movie, all seated on the sides of the plane, with our backs against the walls and facing towards the center, where all the lab equipment and luggage was piled up. And after that, we took an helicopter to reach Davis station. Once in the station, we had to work hard as we didn’t have much time there. Sometimes skipping meals or working all night till the morning. We saw many Adelie penguins and elephant seals as there was a colony very close to the station.

What most surprised me about living in Antarctica was how easy it was. We had plenty of food (all you can eat cookies and chocolate) and every meal was a buffet with at least 3 choices. They also cooked meals for vegetarians, vegans, gluten free or any requirement. We had hot showers and everywhere was heated, so you felt very comfortable indoors. The community of people was very nice, there was a brewery and we had parties, movie nights, and art contests!

Where there any problems you had to overcome in harsh conditions, how did you solve them?

We were pretty lucky with the weather. We had a few days in which we could not go sampling but in the end we got everything that we had planned done. My team, that is much more knowledgeable and experienced than me, was always ready to go. Our experiments had been planned before departing to Antarctica, and the plans checked and double checked, so we all knew what we had to do and worked efficiently.

What was the best marine species you saw whilst in the Antarctic?

Even if I work with microbes and they have many different forms and shapes I have to admit that I fall in love with a leopard seal I saw relaxing on the ice, not caring about us at all. It looked so calm and harmless and had all these spots on its fur that made it looked friendly and funny at the same time.

What advice would you give to people who want to do a PhD or go into research?

A PhD is hard work but if you do it for the right reason it is worth it. So, I would tell them to look for opportunities that catch their eye, be patient, it doesn't matter if you don't find one you like at the first attempt, just keep looking and it will come.

Into the Industry explores the lives and vocations of professionals, academics and those working in the marine biology world

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