My first guest in this series is Virginia Schutte. Virginia completed her PhD in ecology from the University of Georgia in 2014. Later, she transitioned into science communication, and now works as a Science Media Officer at Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON). You can follow her activities on Twitter or her website.
Minu: You worked on mangrove forests for your thesis research work. How did you get interested in this topic?
Virginia: I’ve always loved ecosystems built by living things. “Foundation species” are species that grow habitat just by growing themselves. For example, trees make a forest and corals make a reef. Anything that affects these foundation species ultimately impacts the entire ecosystem, which I find fascinating. I studied corals when I was an undergraduate, so I entered graduate school very familiar with and intrigued by tropical coastal environments. Mangrove forests are less studied than coral reefs so there’s more room for a graduate student to contribute to their science.
Minu: What are these ‘underwater mangrove forests’ exactly?
Virginia: Mangroves are trees that live at the edge of the ocean. They are adapted to actually live with their roots in the saltwater. In the Caribbean, where tides are small, there are places where roots hang into the water and are permanently submerged. In these areas, the roots can be covered in corals, sponges, clams, algae, and the other organisms typically seen on coral reefs. So imagine snorkeling through a coral reef, brushing aside roots covered in reef organisms. Not all mangrove forests have roots like that, but that’s where I worked.
Minu: Did you work involve a lot of traveling? Which places did you visit for your work?
Virginia: Yes. I worked in the Florida Keys, Puerto Rico, Panama, and Taiwan for my dissertation. The projects in Panama and Puerto Rico required repeated visits over the course of several years.
Minu: So did your work involve collecting samples from underwater? Could you briefly describe this process (For e.g. any required pre-preparation, time duration of collection process, type and time of analysis, etc)
Virginia: Only the projects in Puerto Rico and Taiwan required collecting many samples. In Puerto Rico, I collected tree root, leaf, and soil samples, put them into plastic bags, froze them, shipped them to the US, dried them in a freeze drier, and then analyzed then for nutrient content. This means grinding them up using ball bearings in a special machine, then putting a tiny amount of the resulting powder through a machine that burns those samples and measures the smoke. I used the same analyses to measure plants and small marsh animals, like crabs and snails, from my Taiwan project.
Minu: How often did you need to travel to collect data?
Virginia: I got my funding all at once, so my travel was concentrated after I received multiple grants. The most travel-heavy period was 6 months in a row that I spent away from home with only a 10-day break in the middle.
Minu: What are the best and worst parts of field research?
Virginia: The best part is exploring: being outside and getting to know the most interesting parts of a place. The worst part is being away from family and friends, though I made new friends wherever I went.
Minu: Is the issue of mangrove forest conservation now being dealt with actively? Are there any organizations working towards this goal?
Virginia: Yes and yes. We humans are the biggest threat to mangroves; we want their space for shrimp farms and tourist developments. This also means that we humans are the solution. We can have a future including healthy mangrove forests if we can figure out how to live sustainably with them. In the Caribbean, at least, conservation organizations are local and small, so it depends on where you are for who to talk to about conservation.
Minu: Do you miss traveling as a science communicator now?
Virginia: Ha, I’m writing to you from the galley of a boat right now because I’m the media person for a deep sea research cruise in the Gulf of Mexico. This is something that I never thought I’d do as a mangrove forest researcher. I’m not in charge of my own travel as much now, but I expect I’ll still be in the field a fair amount now that I’m working for LUMCON.