Crùbag collaborated with scientist Ruth Flora Paterson to create the Flora Collection. Ruth just finished her PhD at the Scottish Association for Marine Science in Oban, Scotland.
What got you interested and what keeps you interested in Harmful Algal Blooms?
I kind of fell into working with harmful algal blooms (HABs) by doing a summer project on toxic dinoflagellates (one-celled aquatic organisms living mostly as marine plankton) and their feeding behaviours during my undergraduate degree. I chose to do a PhD at SAMS looking at molecular monitoring of HAB species to protect consumers of local shellfish and maintain consumer confidence in our important local shellfish industries. I love how interdisciplinary my research is: I could be reading about water currents in the morning, measuring tiny amounts of DNA in the lab at midday and talking about life cycles of phytoplankton in the afternoon. It’s all very diverse so it never gets boring!
Tell us about one you’ve seen or smelled – what was it like?
The only HABs in Scotland that I’ve seen have been excessive Ulva (a type of green seaweed) growth on beaches, a classic sign of local eutrophication, or cyanobacterial blooms in freshwater lochs. Both can be smelly and both are green. But it’s the cyanobacteria which can kill dogs or give people skin rashes. Honestly, we’re pretty lucky in Scotland and don’t have that much trouble with HABs that are visible to the human eye. I’ve, thankfully, never been poisoned by a toxic shellfish (probably because we check our shellfish for them weekly!) but I hear it’s very unpleasant!
You study one organism in particular, Azadinium – what’s interesting to you about that and what have you learned?
Azadinium is really cool because nobody noticed it before 2009 – it was just too small (0.01mm!) and looked pretty similar to some other algae species which aren’t toxic. When you look down the microscope the cells are really cute swimming around in their characteristic patterns; it’s easy to forget that they produce a potentially deadly biotoxin! Because Azadinium are so small they are, understandably, pretty tricky to identify under the microscope so scientists have had to come up with a method of looking for their unique DNA signature instead. It turns out this is pretty effective and is the new horizon for HAB monitoring. For my PhD I’ve been developing this further and carried out the first survey of Azadinium distribution in Scotland ever conducted, so that’s pretty exciting!
What do you enjoy most about your research?
I enjoy writing stories. And science is about writing the ultimate story: how life works and why the world operates the way it does. When I sit down to bring all the pieces of research together it’s like untangling the biggest ball of string imaginable but the satisfaction of pulling out (even a little) extra understanding and adding my own brick to the existing knowledge castle is pretty special.
You were also a yoga teacher – does your yoga practice play any role in your work as a scientist?
Yoga plays an enormous role in my life and in my research. It gives me perspective; when my work isn’t going well (and that happens for long stretches of time when you’re a researcher) it gives me something to look forward to every day. I’m always learning a little bit more about myself on the mat, giving me more tools to respond to life’s events in a constructive way. Just the ability to breathe consciously feels so good and reduces the background chatter of my thoughts enough so I can just be in the moment and enjoy the simple joys of life. I transitioned into teaching in the 2nd year of my PhD. It was a welcome break from labwork and gave me a parallel thing to focus on which wasn’t related to my day job – something which I think is really healthy to have. I used to run two classes per week. The act of teaching has really opened me up as a person. I’m more confident and I feel I’m a better researcher because of it, I’ve even won two public speaking awards for my PhD research!
After completing her PhD and passing her ‘viva voce’, an oral examination of her PhD work, Ruth started working in environmental assessment for aquaculture. We wish you all the best Ruth!