Meet PLOS ONE’s new Biogeochemistry Section Editor, Professor Lee Cooper

Join us as we chat with our Editorial Board member and new Biogeochemistry Section Editor Dr. Lee Cooper. Here, he discusses his research in marine biogeochemistry, long-running field campaigns to the Arctic and his view on the importance of Open Science.

Lee Cooper is a Professor at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, a part of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences. His work in the Arctic is centered around understanding how the ecosystem and biogeochemical cycles are responding to climate changes such as the disappearance of seasonal sea ice, with approaches that include the use of stable isotope and other biogeochemical tracers.

Biogeochemistry spans a wide range of scientific disciplines – from soil science to oceanography to atmospheric science. Has serving on the PLOS ONE Editorial Board given you an opportunity to learn more about research outside of your own specific field?

LC: Oh, absolutely. Although as a biogeochemist, I work across many fields, I teach a stable isotope applications course for the University of Maryland, and one thing that is always a constant is how fast the field is changing, and how many new applications are published each year. Working with manuscripts that are applying modern biogeochemical tools can be very challenging because you have to know enough about the disciplinary topic, whether it is food web biomagnification or paleoclimate, or atmospheric chemistry, or whatever, that I think that the maxim that learning never ends really applies to handling manuscripts for PLOS.

What has been your favorite part of serving on the PLOS ONE Editorial Board?

LC:  One of the challenges of course is finding good reviewers who want to contribute to open access scientific publishing, and it is a common complaint among editors about how many potential reviewers will turn you down. I can appreciate that everyone’s time is limited, but on the other hand, if you publish in the peer-reviewed literature, you shouldn’t just have a reflex to turn down review requests because multiple people have taken turns reviewing and improving your manuscripts. But I like turning that whole problem around by searching out people who are underrepresented in the reviewer pool. Maybe they are from countries outside western Europe and North America, or they are early career researchers who names are not well-recognized yet. Identifying those individuals and learning about their research and how they might be in a position to contribute is a very satisfying part of being on the editorial board.

Tell us about your research interests. How does biogeochemistry play a role in your own work?

LC: I work in the Arctic, which of course is undergoing a lot of changes due to climate shifts and so we are seeing a lot of surprising things, fish not seen before coming north, sea ice disappearing and biogeochemical shifts in nutrient cycles too. My specialty is stable isotopes, but I also had the chance while working at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the 1990’s to contribute to the use of natural and anthropogenic radionuclides in understanding cycling of materials in the marine environment. Stable isotopes are a tool, and often need to be combined with other analyses in order to make sense of the biogeochemical processes at work. So, when we go to sea, I am also involved in collecting water samples for chlorophyll and nutrient measurements, and have interests in dissolved organic materials and the links to water masses in the Arctic and beyond. Oceanography is in the end a rather multidisciplinary research endeavor, so when you mix in biogeochemistry with oceanography, you have to know a bit about most everything.

PLOS recently published a curated collection of stable isotope research. Can you describe how you use stable isotopes in your own work? What new information about spatial and temporal changes can these measurements reveal?

LC: This is a fascinating collection of papers and shows the breadth of research published in PLOS. These are also very state of the art papers, and I highly recommend this special collection for anyone wanting to get up to speed on what is happening in stable isotope methodologies and applications. Clumped isotope analysis for example is a new branch of stable isotope geochemistry that is looking at minor heavy isotope distributions—whether they are random or not, and it turns out that diagnostic interpretations that can arise from non-random distributions are helping to fill in uncertainties in paleoclimate and atmospheric processes. I use stable isotopes in varied ways, including looking at biogeochemical cycles of carbon and nitrogen in sediments in the Arctic and understanding how oceanographic processes influence them. Another theme is to use the oxygen isotope composition of surface sea water to understand how melting sea is influencing ecosystems in the Arctic. Sea ice is isotopically distinct from rain and snow that we normally think of as freshwater, but melting sea ice is also primarily freshwater, so the oxygen isotope composition of that melted sea ice can be distinguished easily in Arctic marine systems.

For you, scientific research has been a family affair. You work closely with your wife, Professor Jacqueline Grebmeier and last year your daughter joined both of you on a research cruise to the Arctic. Do you think that long field campaigns in remote locations are easier when the whole family can be together?

LC: Well, the pandemic has been a challenge for everyone, particularly for anyone doing field research because of the requirements for quarantining ahead of time and making sure no one was bringing the virus aboard a shipboard platform. So, costs in funds and time have gone up significantly and we would see less of our family if we weren’t working together. I know with all the disruptions to field research schedules, that the long absences from families have been hard all around. It also helps even in “normal” times when we get back to them, that researcher couples or families who share complementary research interests and who find ways to work together on projects can accomplish a lot. It won’t work for every case and for everyone in this situation, but I feel that when we merge individual goals and take the “me” out of what we do, it seems like we can get more done and use more tools to arrive at more synergistic results.

You began your career as a researcher in Southern California – how did you transition to research in the Arctic?

LC: I grew up in a well-known southern California beach community and was always interested in plants, whether on land in the dry local chaparral, or in the ocean, but I settled on studying seagrasses, which I like to say are the whales of the plant kingdom, as they evolved on land in the pond weed family and went back to the ocean with an odd set of vascular plant characteristics, pollen, seeds, flowers relative to marine algae. Seagrasses have odd carbon isotope compositions, which probably has to do with their evolution on land and submerged photosynthesis, but I got interested in the ecophysiology that is behind the stable isotope ratios in the 1980’s when I was a graduate student, first at the University of Washington, and then at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Some of the same seagrass species that grow in southern California also grow in Alaska, so to me, it seemed natural to take advantage of that biological connection between Santa Monica Bay, and Izembek Lagoon on the Alaska Peninsula where my advisor, Peter McRoy had worked for many years. Of course, there isn’t chaparral in Fairbanks, but moving south to north, Sitka Spruce grows from northern California to Kodiak, and there are hints of dry chaparral on Vancouver Island with the beautiful madrone trees there, so for me it was an easy transition, and Arctic research has been central to my work ever since. I came back to UCLA for a postdoc with a great advisor, Michael DeNiro, and he helped fill in a lot of knowledge about stable isotope applications, so I feel a tremendous debt for his mentorship.

You are one of the Principal Investigators of the NOAA/NSF funded Distributed Biological Observatory, a long-running Arctic time series. Can you talk about some of the unique challenges of operating a time series? Especially one that involves researchers from numerous backgrounds and institutes?

LC: We started out with interesting scientific problems about how and why the shallow continental shelf of the northern Bering Sea and the Chukchi Sea is so productive but over time that morphed into studies of how the system was changing in response to climate change. So, like most people with time-series studies, I don’t think we envisioned a 30+ year time-series of biological and biogeochemical data when we started, but that is what we have ended up with through cooperation internationally with others working in the Bering Strait region. We can do more if we work with others and it has been to great satisfaction over the years to see what new insights arise from multiple, leveraged efforts we would never have accomplished just by ourselves.

In addition to open access research, people are now interested in ‘open data’. What do you think the benefits of open data are – and how does open data feature in your own research?

LC: One of the challenges is just getting the data out there for people to use and to make sure all the corrections are made and there is also a lot of work in fielding questions from people who send you emails.  So, I don’t think we have incorporated all the costs in open data access, especially for biological and biogeochemical data. Taxonomy changes, as does precision as instrumentation improves, and data entry errors all come back to bite, so to speak. But I absolutely support making data available at the earliest practical opportunity. This is now formally required in our US National Science Foundation grants, and beyond that it is the right thing to do so that we make the best use of data collected to help society in general or to understand and mitigate climate change in our case in the Arctic.

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An Interview with PLOS ONE Editorial Board Member, Professor Tara Mastren

As we launch our curated collection of Radiochemistry research we chat with Dr. Tara Mastren about her work in nuclear medicine, life as an Early Career Researcher, and Open Science.

Dr. Tara Mastren is an Assistant Professor in the Nuclear Engineering Program at the University of Utah. She obtained her PhD in Nuclear and Radiochemistry at Washington University in St. Louis in December 2014. She then worked in the Radiology Department at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School as a postdoctoral researcher. In May 2016 she joined Los Alamos National Laboratory, for her second postdoc, in their Isotope Production Program. Dr. Mastren’s interests are focused on the production and use of radionuclides for the targeted treatment of cancer and other diseases.

Radioisotopes are utilized in a vast array of research fields. Do you think the breadth of the applications affects advances/progress in analytical techniques using these elements? Is there opportunity for interdisciplinarity amongst the various radiochemistry-related fields? 

TM: Yes, I believe as the field of radiochemistry and its techniques become more well known more researchers will see the advantage of using radionuclides in their research. There is a lot of opportunity for interdisciplinary research amongst the various radiochemistry-related fields. For instance, radiochemical separations overlap a multitude of fields including medicine, forensics, and fuel reprocessing.

How did you become interested in nuclear and radiochemistry?  

TM: Like many I was not exposed to nuclear and radiochemistry in high school or during my undergraduate study. When I attended graduate school, my original plan was to study biochemistry.  One day, however, I attended a professor’s lecture on nuclear reactions in stars and I was intrigued. I went to speak to him about research and he discussed with me a possible opportunity to apply nuclear research to medicine and I got excited about it. I have been a radiochemist ever since.

For many researchers, the use of radionuclides, especially alpha-emitters, demands a high level of meticulous care. Does your field require this level of fastidiousness and what if any precautions do you take in working with these materials? 

TM: Yes, working with radioactivity is a huge responsibility. We undergo lots of training to work with these materials plus have the appropriate radiation detection and dosimetry in place to make sure we are working safely. Work with radionuclides is highly regulated, requires a lot of training, internal safety audits and regulation at the state and/or national level. 

Your own research focuses largely on the new and emerging field of Targeted Alpha Therapy. Can you explain what this is, how it utilizes radionuclides, and what potential it has as an effective cancer treatment? 

TM: Targeted alpha therapy (TAT) has been of interest to nuclear medicine for decades; however, its popularity has grown significantly in recent years as a methodology of interest for cancer therapy. In TAT a highly energized alpha particle emitted during decay is used to induce cell death in cancer cells. An alpha particle is a fully ionized helium atom that is emitted from the nucleus during decay. These alpha particles travel ~10 cell lengths; depositing their energy and destroying the cells throughout their path. The alpha emitting radionuclide can be attached to a biological molecule that acts as a mailman delivering the radioactivity directly to the cancer sites, which maximizes the dose to cancer cells while minimizing the impact to healthy tissues. TAT has shown great promise in cancer therapy – in a study by Kratochwil and colleagues in the Journal of Nuclear Medicine1 patients with stage 4 prostate cancer have gone into remission after several treatments with TAT. These results have caused a lot of excitement in the field and jumpstarted additional research for the use of TAT in other cancer types.

Can you tell us about any new and exciting projects you’re working on? What do you foresee as the next step in your research journey? 

TM: I am working on projects that involve using nanoparticles for the advancement of TAT. One project is aimed at containing the daughter radionuclides at the cancer site to increase cancer cell killing effectiveness. Several of the alpha emitting radionuclides of interest to nuclear medicine have a cascade of alpha emissions. Each alpha emission results in the formation of a new “daughter” radionuclide. As alpha decay is high in energy, the daughter recoils, traveling ~100nm. This can cause the daughter to be released from the cancer site, increasing the dose to healthy tissues. Encompassing the radionuclides in a nanoparticle can help to mitigate this issue. We have successfully made nanoparticles containing alpha emitting radionuclides, and our next step will be to study them in vitro for their stability and cancer killing abilities.

What are the biggest challenges you currently face as an Early Career Researcher? 

TM: One of my biggest challenges as an Early Career Researcher is learning time and management skills. We aren’t really taught to manage people during our education and becoming an Assistant Professor one of the biggest parts of your job is managing graduate students and postdocs. Additionally, you wear many hats; instructing classes, mentoring students on research, writing grants, creating and using budgets, internal and external service, and making sure all research is conducted safely. It’s a big job that no one prepared you for, but it is also so very rewarding when you observe the progress that is being made as you watch your students evolve into independent scientists.

What are your thoughts on Open Science, and in what ways has your research community embraced this philosophy? (e.g., publishing in open access journals, making data available in public repositories, etc.). 

TM: I think that Open Science is the future of publishing. It grants access to information to students and countries that otherwise would not have access. I believe that increasing access to science and research is important for the betterment of society. As a graduate student and post doc, my advisors embraced open access journals and several of my publications have been in these journals. I also see more and more of my colleagues publishing in these journals. I believe as these journals become more popular more scientists will feel comfortable publishing open access.

1Kratochwil et al., 225Ac-PSMA-617 for PSMA targeting alpha-radiation therapy of patients with metastatic castration-resistant prostate cancer, Journal of Nuclear Medicine, 2016.

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IsoBank – Stable Isotope Research + Open Data

The use of stable isotopes (the non-radioactive form of an element) has become increasingly prevalent in a wide variety of scientific research fields. The fact that many elements have stable isotopes, which exhibit unique properties, allows for their distribution and ratios in natural environments to be measured. These data can be used to shed insight on the history, fate and transport of elements in water, soil and even archeological specimens. Our curated collection of research using stable isotopes highlights the diversity of fields that utilize these invaluable measurements.

To meet the needs of this growing research community, and to facilitate accessibility and data sharing, the US National Science Foundation has funded the IsoBank project – a common repository for stable isotope data.

Here, we chat with some of the IsoBank organizers about the importance of the project, and how they use stable isotopes in their own research.

Jonathan Pauli is an Associate Professor in the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research explores the response of mammal populations and communities to human disturbance, particularly as it relates to developing effective conservation strategies. He works in diverse ecosystems and employs a variety of techniques, from traditional ones like live capture, radiotelemetry and observation to more advanced ones involving molecular markers, stable isotopes and population modeling to answer questions relating to mammalian ecology and conservation.

Gabriel Bowen is a Professor of Geology and Geophysics and member of the Global Change and Sustainability Center at the University of Utah, where he leads the Spatio-temporal Isotope Analytics Lab (SPATIAL) and serves as co-director of the SIRFER stable isotope facility. His research focuses on the use of spatial and temporally resolved geochemical data to study Earth system processes ranging from coupled carbon and water cycle change in geologic history to the movements of modern and near-modern humans. In addition to fundamental research, he has been active in developing cyberinformatics tools and training programs supporting the use of large-scale environmental geochemistry data across a broad range of scientific disciplines, including the and web sites and the Inter-University Training for Continental-scale Ecology training program.

Brian Hayden is an Assistant Professor in Food Web Ecology at the University of New Brunswick, Canada, where he leads the Stable Isotopes in Nature Laboratory. His research focuses on the trophic responses to environmental change, predominantly in aquatic systems — he considers himself extremely fortunate to collaborate with researchers around the globe addressing these issues.

Seth Newsome is an animal ecology and eco-physiologist whose research blends biochemical, morphometric, and phylogenetic analyses to provide a holistic understanding of the role of energy transport in the assembly and maintenance of biological communities. He is the Associate Director of the University of New Mexico (UNM) Center for Stable Isotopes and an Associate Professor in the UNM Biology Department. Besides science and fixing mass spectrometers, he enjoys mountain biking, rafting, and fly fishing.

Oliver Shipley is an applied ecologist at the University of New Mexico, with training in a suite of laboratory and field techniques. He is broadly interested in food-web dynamics and animal ecophysiology and employs a suite of chemical tracer and biotelemetry approaches to investigate these processes with a strong focus on marine ecosystems. His research can be defined by three interconnected themes 1) defining the drivers and food web implications of ecological niche variation at various levels of biological organization, 2) applying ecophysiological principles to predict the timing of important biological events, 3) investigating the fitness consequences of niche variation for food web and broader ecosystem dynamics.

Research using stable isotopes spans a wide array of fields, from the geosciences to ecology to archeology – has organizing the IsoBank group highlighted the different forms that isotopic research can take? Have there been any challenges in communication with scientists of such varied backgrounds?

BH: This is one of the main challenges we faced when developing IsoBank. Isotopes have huge a diversity of applications and researchers working in environmental, ecological, and archaeological isotope systems have developed metadata relevant to their specific discipline. Our goal was to build a single large database capable to serving all of these disciplines, which meant we needed to somehow combine all of the distinct metadata into a single framework. This can be challenging within a field; for example, most of my research involves freshwater fish but much the information I use to describe a datapoint, (e.g., habitat, organism size, tissue type) may or may not be relevant to ecologists studying birds, insects or plants. Working across disciplines exacerbates things considerably. For example, ‘date’ means very different things to ecologists, archaeologists, and paleoecologists, despite us all using the same techniques. We tried to address this by developing core metadata terms which are common to all disciplines and therefore required in order for a datapont to be uploaded to IsoBank, and discipline specific optional metadata terms which can be selected by the user.

JP: Indeed, one of the greatest assets of IsoBank is also one of its greatest challenges. Because isotopes span so many different disciplines – e.g., environmental, geological, archaeological, biomedical, ecological, physiological – there are a variety of discipline-specific metadata that are needed. To accommodate these different needs, we have convened a number of working group meetings to bring together experts within these disciplines to identify what metadata are necessary, and fold them into a single and operational framework. I’ve been impressed, though, that our discussions with scientists with such varied interests and backgrounds have been able to effectively communicate what is needed. I’d even offer that these discussions with other people, employing isotopes for different questions, has been a highlight of this project for me personally and has expanded my thinking and generated new ideas of application to my own work.

Tell us about how you use stable isotopes in your own research.

BH: I think I am drawn to isotopes because of the diversity of the applications of the techniques, it’s such a useful tool the only limit is our imagination. I am an aquatic ecologist at heart – my research focuses on understanding how aquatic ecosystems, especially food webs, respond to environmental change. Initially I used isotopes to improve our understanding of the trophic ecology of specific species, but over time this has changed to a community level perspective.

GB: Isotopes are incredibly powerful tracers of the flow of matter (including organisms!) through the environment. Many of the applications in my research group leverage this potential in one way or another. We use isotopes in water to understand hydrological connectivity – how rain falling in different seasons or weather systems contributes to water resources or plant water uptake and transpriation. We use isotope values of solutes to better understand biogeochemical cycles – sources of carbon stored in soils or how mineral weathering in different systems contributes to global geochemical cycling. We use isotope values measured in human and animal tissues to map the movement of individuals – migration pathways, sources of potentially poached game, or the childhood residence location of the victims of violent crime.

SN: As an animal ecologist and eco-physiologist, I’m interested in tracing the flow of energy within and among organisms, which is governed by species interactions and food web structure. To do so, I meld isotopic, morphometric, and phylogenetic analyses to provide a holistic understanding of the role of energy transport in the assembly and maintenance of ecological communities. I use lab-based feeding experiments in which the stable isotope composition and concentrations of dietary macromolecules are varied to understand how animals process dietary macromolecules to build and maintain tissues. I use this information to quantify niche breadth from individual to community-levels to better understand the energetic basis of community assembly and structure. Finally, I adopt a broad temporal perspective by comparing species interactions in modern versus ancient ecosystems, providing the full range of behavioral and ecological flexibility important for designing effective management strategies and assessing a species sensitivity to environmental change.

JP: I am a community ecologist and conservation biologist, and am interested in the biotic interplay between organisms that ultimately shape community structure and dynamics, and how we can predict these interactions into the future and within emerging novel environments. To that end, I use isotopes to understand animal foraging and trophic identities and combine these data with fieldwork studying animal behavior, movement and space use as well as species distributions and abundances. After developing a better understanding of contemporary community structure and interactions, I use this information to explore past communities and project what future communities will look like and how they will behave. 

You recently organized the IsoEcol workshop to provide researchers in the Ecology community with training on sharing their data through IsoBank. How has IsoBank allowed for better collaboration in the ecological sciences community? Are there any particular themes or questions that have arisen?

OS: We were extremely excited to host the first IsoBank workshop for the broader research community at this years IsoEcol – this was held in an online format through Zoom. The workshop provided participants with a brief history of IsoBank’s development but focused heavily on the metadata structure and data ingest process. Since the workshop we have received many new modern and historical datasets across terrestrial, freshwater and marine systems. As we continue to ingest a growing number of datasets, the collaborative potential of IsoBank becomes increasingly realized. This moves us closer to exciting questions that can be addressed using the big-data model IsoBank will soon support. At the last IsoBank workshop we identified several potential research priorities that can be addressed in the coming years, these include but are by no means limited to 1) the development of novel isoscapes (spatial interpolations of stable isotope data) and 2) broadscale patterns in animal trophic interactions and broader food-web dynamics.  

Oliver, for Early Career Researchers, being part of a robust and supportive research community can be instrumental to growth as a scientist and to career success. How has your involvement in the IsoBank project led to opportunities that you may not have otherwise had?

OS: As a postdoctoral research fellow, it has been an extremely rewarding experience serving as the project manager for IsoBank. One of the primary reasons I was excited to work on IsoBank, were the potential collaborative and networking opportunities facilitated by the projects diverse userbase. Since I began working with the IsoBank team, and extended userbase I have formed new collaborations with researchers across the US and Europe. For example, working closely with Drs Seth Newsome (University of New Mexico, USA) and Bailey McMeans (University of Toronto Mississauga, CA) we are using stable isotopes of individual amino acids to understand how energy flow mediates the nutritional condition in lake trout. Further, in collaboration with PhD student Lucien Besnard (University of Western Brittany, France) we are building mercury stable isotope clocks to quantifying the age at which scalloped hammerhead sharks migrate from inshore nurseries to offshore foraging grounds. These exciting opportunities have been possible through working with IsoBanks advisory committee and the repositories diverse userbase. 

Gabe, you were one of the first people to use the term “isoscape”, which has since become a hallmark of numerous scientific studies. What is an isoscape, and how do they feature in your research?

GB: Isoscapes are quantitative models representing spatiotemporal isotopic variation in any natural or anthropogenic system…they are isotopic maps. And I think they embody the biggest reason we need IsoBank. Isoscapes are useful because almost any isotopic measurement needs to be interpreted in the context of reference data. We can use isotope values of animal tissues to understand the individual’s diet, but only if we know the isotope values of the foods it might eat. We can use isotope values of groundwater to assess where and when recharge occurred, but only if we know the isotopic compositions of those potential sources. Isoscapes are generated by combining isotopic datasets with statistical or process models to predict the values we would expect for sources at different locations and times, and we can make isoscapes for different substrates. Whether they are used to support the development of isoscapes, or more directly as reference data for a local study, access to the vast wealth of isotopic data that our different communities have produced is a critical limitation for most isotopic studies.

In some environments, stable isotope ratios alone do not provide sufficiently detailed information. What combination of techniques or analytical methods do you use to yield more conclusive results and to elucidate unseen patterns or trends?

BH: As isotope ecologists, we are often drawn to using techniques which have worked well for us in the past, but it’s always important to remember that isotope analysis is just another tool in our kit. In my work, I typically use isotopes to understand trophic interactions. They can fill in a lot of the gaps other methods of diet analysis leave open, but they still just provide one piece of the puzzle. Isotopes are a really nice way of getting a broad idea of what a specific consumer is doing or what sources of primary production are most important to a food web, but for questions which require more detailed answer, such as whether consumers are feeding on specific species of prey, isotopes may be limited. We typically use isotopes in combination with diet analyses, fatty acid analysis or even mercury analysis to get a more complete understanding of the community we are interested in. Sometimes the best insights come when different techniques give contrasting results, that can really help us to understand the complexity of the ecological systems we are studying.

SN: Stable isotope analysis has become a standard tool in animal ecology because it can provide time-integrated measures of diet composition, albeit at a limited taxonomic resolution. As such, a new frontier is combining isotope analysis with proxies that can identify the taxonomic composition of animal diets, such as fecal DNA metabarcoding. The advantage of combining these two dietary proxies is that their respective strengths complement the weaknesses of the other. Specifically, fecal metabarcoding provides high-resolution taxonomic information for recently consumed (~24 hours) resources, but estimating the proportional consumption and assimilation of individual resources is confounded by assumptions about the relative digestibility of different foods. In contrast, isotope analysis provides a time-integrated measure of resource assimilation with low taxonomic resolution often only capable of discriminating between plant functional groups (e.g., C3 or C4) and providing an estimate of relative trophic level for consumers. Such multi-proxy metrics will transform how animal ecologists use diet composition data to understand foraging strategies, species interactions, and food web structure.

PLOS is dedicated to Open Science, which expands upon the notion of Open Access to include concepts such as Open Data. Do you envision IsoBank changing data sharing and transparency amongst the stable isotopes community? – And what impact will this have on scientific research?

BH: This was one of the driving force behind our desire to develop IsoBank. Jon Pauli, Seth Newsome, and another colleague, Dr. Shawn Stefan, wrote an opinion article in Bioscience in 2014 highlighting how isotope ecology was at a similar position to molecular ecology when GenBank was developed. We had all seen how crucial GenBank had become to molecular ecology by facilitating new science from old data and felt that IsoBank could have a similar effect on the ecological, geological, and anthropological sciences. So much of our work is still being done in relative isolation, the knowledge gained from our research is available through our papers; but unless the data are readily available in a usable and publicly accessible format, they will end up being stored in a hard drive on someone’s computer. This limits our ability to do large scale metanalysis or continental-global scale spatial studies using isotopes. Our hope is that IsoBank will allow us to generate new insights by combining many small datasets.

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From Collecting Sediment Cores in Iceland to Mentoring Students: The Busy Life of an Early Career Researcher

Have you ever wondered what life as an early career researcher entails?

From managing a lab group and mentoring PhD students, to applying for funding and leading intensive fieldwork campaigns, scientists in the early stages of their career do it all.

Here, we chat with Dr. Margit Simon from NORCE Climate and Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research and recent PLOS ONE author to find out more about her exciting work.

PLOS: Your recent work, published in PLOS ONE, investigated stable isotope data from a new marine core collected off of Iceland – how did using data with such a high temporal resolution (1-2 years) impact what we know about water mass changes?

MS: Marine sediment cores that have such high-resolution are still a quite rare finding globally. For that specific area, it was a new finding that the upper core section – the youngest sediment part – could resolve the historic time interval so well. Mostly, that is only possible with schlerochronological records, of which there are a few around Iceland actually. We found a good correspondence with the measured phosphate concentrations within the water column – a comparison only possible because we have such high temporal resolution. Stable carbon isotopes in planktonic foraminifera are influenced by a variety of factors and are normally not so easy to interpret. By constraining the influences on the carbon isotopes by comparing to modern measurements, we were able to detect an intermittent 30-year cycle over the entire time series length, that is likely reflecting the ocean response to atmospheric variability, presumably the East Atlantic Pattern. That was not known or found before in that area.

PLOS: Has your data highlighted changes in climate over the past 150 years? What impact have these changes had on ocean variability?

MS: What I was intrigued to see was the long-term trend in benthic δ18O, a proxy recording the water mass properties in the intermediate waters at that location. It suggests that Atlantic-derived waters are expanding their core within the water column, from the subsurface into deeper intermediate depths, towards the present day. That there is greater Atlantic-derived water mass influence in the surface waters offshore of NW Iceland over the past 150 years is well known by now. However, until now, we did not know that this process is also influencing the deeper realms in the water column contemporaneously. That was a new finding.

PLOS: What are some of the challenges of being an Early Career Researcher? Do you feel that these are mitigated by the specific opportunities for ECRs?

MS: Well, securing funding short-term and long-term for my position itself, but also for my research activities is challenging, as the field becomes more and more competitive. Basic research has to be very innovative and impactful to get funding these days. Hence, I am wondering how sustainable the system is over time. I would wish for some more basic funding security or baseline funding in the private research institute section in Norway.

Image credit: Margit Simon

PLOS: You’ve done fieldwork in a number of exciting locations – from Iceland all the way to Southern Africa. Do you have a favorite location? Were there any sampling campaigns that were particularly challenging?

MS: They were all very special and exciting. Despite the Greenland Ice sheet probably being the most ‘exotic’ one that I have been to, my favourite place remains Africa, or specifically South Africa. The most challenging sampling campaign was in Mozambique as part of a wider trip from Zambia to South Africa with the aim to collect modern day river sediments.

PLOS: Field work in many research areas has been delayed or postponed in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Were your fieldwork plans affected? And if so, how did you regroup?

MS: I was part of a marine sediment coring campaign offshore South Africa in the beginning of 2020 and retrospectively, I am very happy that we managed to do everything as planned. How little did we know then what was coming! Parallelly on land in South Africa, my project partners did field work, field experiments and excavated archaeological sites that had to be stopped due to COVID-19. This affected me in the sense that I could not get the samples I had hoped for, and we will need to postpone that to approximately Nov/Dec. of this year (2021). It is obviously still unclear if then we can operate again with a kind of normalcy.

PLOS: Now that you have PhD students of your own, is there a particular strategy you take in mentoring them? How do you prepare them for to be Early Career Researchers themselves?

MS: Well, I don’t have a rocket science strategy in place, but I think it is important to be there for them for questions, reviewing and to bounce ideas. I think nothing is worse than when you don´t have someone that you can frequently go to and ventilate ideas and perhaps also frustration. I think when you are in your PhD yourself you might underestimate the value of someone actually taking the time to read your work and give thoughtful feedback back. I think further down the line of your career path that becomes rarer and you think back on those times where your supervisor always gave comments.

PLOS: The University of Bergen and NORCE are hubs of scientific research – how has being in such a diverse group of expertise helped your own work? Do you find yourself collaborating with people in different fields from your own?

MS: Definitely. Before moving to Norway and becoming a part of the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research, I worked in smaller groups that are more specialised in one field. That is, of course for your own work, very beneficial. However, I recognised that the centre here and the diverse groups and topics really offer new opportunities to merge and reach out and broaden your topic. I have very much benefited and used that platform for my science ever since.

PLOS: What new projects do you have on the horizon?

MS: As much as I am fascinated by the ocean and reconstructing its past variability on various timescales, I am excited about my new project ideas that aim to reveal past climate information from land or specifically from South Africa itself. What is new is that I target specifically archaeological cave sites where we can extract environmental information from the same layer that the material culture information comes from. Key behavioural innovations emerged among Homo sapiens in South Africa around 120 ka ago and the drivers of this development remains debated. One hypothesis is centred around climate changes.

PLOS: As you know, PLOS ONE is an open access journal, and is devoted to promoting open science. We would be curious to know your thoughts and opinions on open access and/or open data and the importance of these concepts for researchers, particularly early career scientists.

MS: I think both are extremely important especially for ECRs, for different reasons.

It might be rather difficult if you are an “unknown scientist” to get access to data if that is not stored at an open access source. That might of course also cost you more time and delay the activity you are working on, while a more known scientist might have asked the same question and might have gotten the data already the next day. Especially currently, during COVID-19 times, universities are conducting more and more data synthesis projects as e.g., master’s projects for students since laboratories are closed. Hence, it is of vital importance to have access without barriers to this. I think data storage facilities like PANGEA are crucial and I think the movement in the community in the last years to use these platforms more and more is great and should be pursued. In this respect, I also appreciate and used recently myself the opportunity to publish data sets only in peer-reviewed journals. It ensures good quality control on the data published but does not force one to interpret the data. Still, one can gain credit for the work. Importantly, data such as this is also available to the community that otherwise might have been hidden in a drawer.

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