Faculty of Science - Leading creativity and innovation in the sciences

Take 10 with Julie Hope

Julie Hope
Julie Hope

Julie Hope is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Marine Science. She gives us 10 minutes of her time to discuss her research into the function and importance of microalgae and her love of being out in the field, collaborating with scientists from different departments and schools.  

1.     Describe your research

The role of benthic microalgae in coastal ecosystem functioning and services.

2.     Now describe it in layman’s terms!

My research over the next few years will focus on the role of microalgae in the functioning of NZ coastal soft sediment ecosystems. Microalgae are microscopic organisms that photosynthesise on the surface of coastal sediments and contribute up to 50% of marine primary production. They are an important component of shallow water and coastal ecosystems, yet their role as primary producers is often forgotten as they are not as visible like larger macroalgae. I will investigate the importance of the energy transfer from microalgae to bivalves and worms, and how this is effected by environmental stressors, such as increased nutrient and sediment load which is expected as a result of land use change and population increases/urbanisation.  These microalgae also produce sticky polymers that can bind and stick sediment particles together or attract and trap particles from the water column.  This can influence the coastlines resist erosion as well as the distribution of contaminants.  

3.     Describe some of your day-to-day research activities

At the moment I am carrying out field and lab work to investigate the transfer of fatty acids from microalgae to larger organisms and how this changes with environmental stressors.  I am also investigating the way in which microalgae affect the redistribution of microplastics.  This involves field surveys to collect and count microplastics and relate this to microalgae and other biochemical factors, as well as lab experiments where the relationship between microalgae and microplastics can be investigated further.

4.     What do you enjoy most about your research

I love being out in the field, and working towards protecting our beautiful coastline in the face of increasing environmental stress.  I am interested in the interactions between physical processes such as the hydrodynamics, and the biochemical and ecological aspects of these systems and love working across multiple disciplines with experts in various fields.

5.     Tell us something that has surprised you in the course of your research.

I am always surprised and encouraged when local people come to ask questions and show such a great interest in what we are doing and looking at in the harbours and estuaries.  I am also constantly surprised at the complexity of the system - when one questions is answered, three new questions arise.

6.     How have you approached any challenges you’ve faced in your research?

By working with and discussing different aspects with others, within and outwith my field.  These are dynamic systems and admitting you are not an expert in all aspects is fine, there are other people for example that are far more experience and knowledgeable on the physical processes in intertidal environments than me.  

7.     What questions have emerged as a result?

Various interdisciplinary questions arise which are focused around the interactions between the ecology of soft sediment systems (the microalgae and larger organisms) and physical processes such as sediment resuspension and transport.

8.     What kind of impact do you hope your research will have?

I hope that our research in the department will contribute to a better understanding of how humans are impacting these ecosystems which we rely upon for several goods and services.  In turn, I hope that this helps us as a society to appreciate these systems, and manage these areas appropriately to protect them for the future. 

9.     If you collaborate across the faculty or University, who do you work with and how does it benefit your research?

While I have only been in the university since March 2017, I have already forged very promising relationships between our marine department and others.  This includes Giovanni Coco (School of Environment), who is an expert in coastal oceanography and investigates the interactions between physical and biological processes, Luitgard Schwendenmann (School of Environment) who is an ecosystem ecologist and expert in the carbon cycle. I have also received help and advice and continue to work with Erica Zarate (School of Environment, mass spec laboratory) and Natalia Abrego (School of Environment) who are both very helpful and experienced laboratory technicians helping with several protocols that I will be carrying out including GC- mass spec analysis etc.

10.  What one piece of advice would you give your younger, less experienced research selves?

Don't be afraid to ask for help or admit that you don't know something and ask lots of questions.  The people around you and those more experienced than you usually want  to help where they can.  This continues throughout your research career and  it works both ways - help those around you to be better scientists and understand things that you perhaps know more about.

Read more about our research in the Take 10 with... series